Doug Segal: Reading minds and influencing people at the Fringe
By Chris Cooke | Published on Wednesday 25 July 2012
Given the increasing number of popular magic and mind reading shows at the Fringe in recent years, when a new name from that genre stands out, you know they must be doing something right.
And at Fringe 2011 that name was Doug Segal, who is busy taking the whole mind reading thing in a new direction. Having filled his Free Festival room to breaking point last year, he returns with a new show at the Gilded Balloon. ThreeWeeks caught up with Doug to find out what he’s got in store, and how a former life in advertising will help.
CC: So, from advertising to reading minds, how did you start out performing?
DS: I studied psychology at university, and realised that I could use some of the principles I was being taught there to do sort of ‘party pieces’ to, well, if I’m completely honest, to win drinks and impress girls. It all started there really. Later I moved into advertising where I expanded my skillset and started doing more sophisticated party pieces to liven up dull client lunches.
Eventually a major client, no names, but a major German car manufacture, essentially bullied me into doing a show at their sales conference in Munich. I look back on it now and cringe, but it went well so, filled with a mixture of stupidity and hubris, I booked myself a two week run at The Baron’s Court Theatre in London.
Incredibly I sold that out, a BBC producer came to see one of the shows and gave me two spots on the BBC One New Year’s Eve show, either side of the midnight chimes, and after that I started to realise that, while I’d never make the sort of money I was then making as a director at a big ad agency, I could start performing professionally, have some fun, and reclaim a small portion of my shrivelled soul!
CC: You’ve said that your career in advertising as well as your academic background in psychology has helped you create your show. How did that work?
DS: There’s nothing spooky or psychic about what I’m doing in my show. I am just using one or more of the following skills from my background in psychology and advertising: statistics, persuasion, techniques. Sometimes I’m closely observing minute body language cues and tells, sometimes I’m using subliminal influence, and merging that with two core advertising skills … cheating and lying … to create the illusion of mind reading and mind control.
CC: You do a lot of ‘corporate gigs’, how does staging your own show at Edinburgh compare?
DS: It’s a completely different focus. At corporate gigs I’m often playing for 500-1000 people, and the ‘after dinner show’ is effectively just a barrier between them, a free bar and the opportunity to cop off with the person they’ve fancied in accounts all year. I have to hit them fast and hard to keep them focused on me. At a public show I’m often playing for no more than 150 people, but because they are there to see MY SHOW, I can do more spectacular things and be much more engaged with them.
CC: Last year you performed in the Free Festival, is transferring to a venue like the Gilded Balloon a big step?
DS: Huge. It’s real Cinderella stuff. From standing on a carpet-covered wooden pallet, in front of 50 mismatched seats and another 30 people standing, in a room above a pub, to the beautiful, raked, 120-seater Gilded Balloon Dining Room in one step! I sometimes have to pinch myself. I’m incredibly grateful to [promoter] Mick Perrin and his team for the faith they’ve put in me and the amazing support they’ve given me. That said, I’d also like to thank Alex Petty and The Free Festival for giving me the chance to showcase myself last year. The Free Festival and Free Fringe are frankly brilliant, and Alex and [Free Fringe founder] Peter [Buckley Hill] are great guys for creating that opportunity.
CC: Magic at the Fringe has grown in recent years, and seems to be ever popular. Do you consider yourself part of that ‘scene’?
DS: Not remotely. I don’t think of myself as a magician. I don’t hang out with magicians. I have huge respect for them, but what I do is different. I’m really proud that critics tell me I’ve succeeded in my goal of creating a broad appeal show. If you like comedy … you’ll like my show. If you like magic shows … you’ll like my show. If you like learning stuff … you’ll like my show. Basically I want to give people something interactive that’s lots of fun and has a wow factor. That’s why the focus is on showing the audience how it’s done.
CC: More specifically, mind reading has become very popular again in recent years – the Derren Brown effect presumably. How do you feel being compared to Derren?
DS: Hugely flattered, but it’s not really a very realistic comparison is it? Derren is the pre-eminent performer in the broad genre I work in, and has been for a decade. What I’m proud of is that I’ve worked very hard to take my act in a very different direction to Derren.
CC: How do you go about creating your show, do the tricks and routines require a lot of planning to conceive and develop?
DS: I generally start with “what would I like to do?” and then work backwards to figure out a way to do it! A case in point would be that, in addition to the show this year, I am sealing a prediction for which three countries will win the most medals (and how many each) at the Olympics into a box in front of the media and hanging it in the Gilded Balloon from the start of the Fringe until after the Olympic closing ceremony, where it’ll opened live in the BBC Potterrow tent.
This started as a “wouldn’t it be cool to predict the Olympics” thing last August. It then took me three months to work out how to do, and that has led me into the world of measure-theoretic probability theory, convergence of random variables and distributed computing. I found a Ukrainian computer scientist who, although he refuses to be publicly identified, has helped me to create an incredibly complex algorithm into which, over the last four months, we have fed over 20,000 different pieces of data. And that is now currently running clandestinely on over 630,000 PCs, using downtime we’ve “borrowed”.
It’s so complex I won’t have the answers myself until about an hour before I seal them in the box. I hope it’s right!
CC: Do the tricks come first or the comedy?
DS: The entertainment. I have a rule in the show. Something amazing or funny must happen at least every 60 seconds or less. Expect a minimum of 60 laughs or gasps in the show.
CC: How does the new show compare to last year?
DS: This year’s show is the show I would have liked last year’s show to be, if I’d had the budget, the space and the equipment. If I was a band, last year was the demo I made in my bedroom, this is the first studio album. The really popular bits of last year are still there (although everything has been given a makeover), and there are some incredible new things. Plus there’s video, interactive screens and a live cameraman. Oh and a brand new give away trick.
CC: I know you said you don’t feel part of the ‘magic scene’ at the Fringe, but are there any other magic or mind reading acts you particularly rate?
DS: I think Barry & Stuart, Piff The Magic Dragon and Pete Firman are probably the three best comedy magic acts in the country. Wonderful, wonderful acts.
CC: You tweet quite prolifically about your Edinburgh experience … the planning, the worries, how things are going. Does your audience follow this and, if so, does it change your relationship with audience members at the show?
DS: I really hope so. I think this is a point of difference between my show and many magic shows. My show is all about sharing with the audience, rather than simply “how great I am”. I’ve always really liked that ‘breaking down the barriers’ ethic that The Libertines had. I guess I’m trying to do that. But without the burglary and self destruction.
CC: What is planned post Edinburgh this year?
DS: Immediately after Edinburgh I am playing two nights at The Freedom Festival in Hull, I’m planning yet another tour, and I’ll start working in earnest on 2013’s Edinburgh show. I’ve already got the title and concept. It’ll be picking up where this year’s show leaves off. It’s called: ‘I Can Make You A Mentalist’. I’m excited!
Doug Segal performed ‘How to Read Minds And Influence People’ at Gilded Balloon Teviot at Fringe 2012.
Photo: Giada Garofalo