A hypnotist’s show is sui generis because of the degree and nature of audience participation. All but one of the people onstage are audience members who agree to be put into an altered state of consciousness for our amusement, and who thus evoke a level of empathy unlike that experienced in any other kind of live performance. Those of us who don’t have the guts to go up on the stage spend the entire time wondering, “What does that feel like?” — it’s impossible to watch a hypnotist’s show without imagining yourself onstage.
Other kinds of shows involve audience participation. In a magic act, volunteers might go onstage, but only as close-up observers of the action; we’re meant to focus on what they’re seeing, not what they’re experiencing. In the autoteatro works of Ant Hampton (whose Fringe Festival offering Extra People I’ll be seeing/participating in next week), all members of the audience, not just some, participate, and their movements are carefully choreographed, with the specifics clearly communicated to them.
We’ve all been there
Local hypnotist Frank Perri begins his Fringe show Reimagine Your Reality by talking about hypnosis as a state of mind similar to one we all experience regularly, as when we space out while performing mundane tasks. He runs a quick exercise for the whole audience, then invites anyone who wants to to take one of the 15 seats lined up across the stage. When they’re filled by a group reflecting a mix of ages, races, and genders, Perri provides a quick, reassuring explanation of what he’s going to do and then puts the entire group under hypnosis.
Once they’re under, he undertakes a mix of what we in improv would call “group games” — everyone participates in the same activity (playing imaginary instruments, smelling yucky odors) — along with individual suggestions — one woman is given a whistle and told to yell at the audience when we laugh (which she does, periodically, for the rest of the show) and a high-school kid “loses” the number four.
As the group onstage gets smaller (subjects who can’t enter or remain in the desired hypnotic state are excused with a handshake), the hijinks get more extreme: At one point, four or five people are on the floor writhing around imitating sperm cells in search of an egg.
Straddling an emotional line
Watching people under hypnosis engage in behaviors they otherwise wouldn’t keeps the audience straddling the uncomfortable line between amusement and empathy. The participants clearly experience no embarrassment, but does their lack of embarrassment — of, literally, self-consciousness — give us permission to laugh? We are taught young that it’s unkind to laugh at someone, but is it possible to laugh with someone who’s not aware of what he or she is doing?
The issue of “self-will” is slippery in this context — the participants have chosen to put themselves in the situation and therefore implicitly agree to be embarrassed. (But not too embarrassed — Perri remains completely aware of and responsive to all of the people onstage at all times. When one woman began to exhibit signs of distress, he talked to her one-on-one and, with her still under hypnosis, removed the instruction she’d been given. She was able to continue in the show.)
Actually, my own issue isn’t embarrassment per se — as an improv performer, I can, in fact, quite easily imagine myself writhing around on the floor imitating an ambitious sperm cell. What would it be like to do so, however, if I were only to find out later that that’s what I’d done? As an intellectual with serious control-freak proclivities, it is almost literally unimaginable to me that I would hand over the reins to another in such a public way. Could Perri, or any other competent hypnotist, put me under to such a degree, or would my control-freak intellectualism make me one of the participants dismissed with a handshake?
Alas, there’s no way to answer these questions without my joining the volunteers onstage. Maybe next time.