I NEEDED to know how this was done. Standing up before an audience at the University of Johannesburg Arts Centre, mentalist Michael Abrahamson wore a sober black suit, teamed it with a green shirt, his favourite colour, as it was his birthday, and proceeded to dazzle us with card tricks, predictions, mind-reading and mathematical wizardry.
Some years ago I saw an American mentalist, Marc Salem, in action, so I knew what to expect. Abrahamson admits he has learned a great from Salem – although the two have a different style in terms of presentation. What Salem lacks in stature he more than makes up for in terms of presence and loud American accent, while local Abrahamson is more low-key and understated. The show lasts just under 90 minutes. He warms up with a little mathematical game. An audience member calls out the number 87, and he fills a 16 square board with numbers that add up to 87, whether you read them horizontally or vertically. There’s a colour game, with all of us being given a grid of colours and he mentally pushes us towards choosing one particular colour – and yes, it’s green, the colour of his shirt.
There’s plenty of audience participation, and he effortlessly remembers the row of people called up from the audience. He locks a prediction in a box and assures us all will be revealed at the end of the show. And there’s more: there’s “mind-reading” when he asks an audience member to think of a name of a male close to her and he then proceeds to “guess” or “read” the name she’s thinking of. There’s a delighted expression in her eyes when he correctly spells out the name. There’s puzzlement in our own eyes. How does he do it?
When I meet him a week after the show, he is keen to stress that mentalism is not magic. ”I try to steer away from trick methods,” he says.
A mentalist is not reliant on elaborate props, as a magician is, but uses simple everyday objects such as pens and pieces of paper as props within the shows. There are word games and feats of memory.
Abrahamson admits that part of the show includes prediction, and making things happen, and much is geared toward that purpose. For instance, we chose the colour green on the night in question – and wearing a green shirt was part of that pushing us towards choosing that colour.
“But it can be difficult,” says Abrahamson, “and it’s okay to fail, and if you do it gives the show credibility. I play the odds in my favour. On the last night I performed the show, black was the colour I wanted the audience to pick. So I wore black, pointed repeatedly to a black cloth, for instance, mentioned the word black often, brought in the colour now and again.”
Can it be as simple as that? How does he “read” the name of someone when he asks them to think of a name? Again, the answer seems deceptively easy: “I read body language,” he says. “If a body is straight, they’re thinking of a ‘straight’ letter, rounded shoulders indicate they are thinking of a ‘curved’ letter such as C.” Simple, and yet it works, it appears.
Abrahamson also runs a number of memory and mind power courses and is adamant that anyone can learn to remember reams of names, facts and other information needed, especially when studying for exams, for instance. These are techniques that can be taken out of a show situation and applied to everyday life. I’m keen to learn how to remember a range of names – I’m introduced to so many people at times, names blur and sometimes just vanish.
“When you are introduced try and find a word that is similar. Let’s look at a name …”“Sipho …” I suggest …
“OK, Sipho,” he ponders for a spilt second, “think of it as a ‘see porridge’ …” I will now forever associate the name with seeing a bowl of porridge – but I concede this is a way of sticking names firmly in your mind.
But I have more questions for him. How would he teach me, a mathematically-challenged person, to remember a string of numbers for example? “If you’re more artistically inclined, I would get you to see things as pictures rather than as figures, to get you to relate to terms that are more familiar to you.” I have a final question about lying, and how it might be possible to tell if someone is fibbing. “Anything unnatural could indicate lying,” says Abrahamson.
“If someone stares fixedly while talking, well that’s unnatural. Or they could unconsciously give themselves away, they might unconsciously block their mouth as they talk. Or look away constantly, that’s unnatural. Look for hesitation in speech.
Practise this with a friend: ask three questions, tell them to lie in one. In the lie the person will be thinking up an answer, instead of it coming naturally, look at the eyes, are they consistent with their body language?” It seems the answers lie in subtly reading people, in practising, in in looking and listening beyond the obvious.