TWO Problems with Stage Hypnosis

1. ‘Street’ Hypnosis

I have always believed that entertainment hypnosis should be like caviar – special, rare and not to be spread around like jam. This is one of the problems with street hypnosis – it makes it commonplace – it makes it so un-special you wouldn’t want to pay to see it live, because street hypnosis does not show hypnotists at their best – in the street, the hypnotist is a one trick pony.

In the UK, the 1952 Hypnotism Act requires any public performance of hypnosis (including street hypnosis, which by its very nature is public) to be licenced. The penalty for hypnotising anyone in public without a licence is a fine of up to £2,000 and/or up to 6 months in prison. This may sound draconian to our American cousins, but the the 1952 Act, with all its rules and regulations, is designed to protect the hypnotist and the public.

It is unlikely local authorities will grant a licence for street hypnosis because it it impossible to monitor and insurance policies exclude it, despite what some UK hypnotists might claim. This is because the hypnotism licence is an addendum to a venue’s existing entertainment licence which prohibits performances or demonstrations of hypnotism – so no venue, no licence.

The hypnotism licence demands a reasonable level of public liability insurance. Most local authorities insist on £5million cover. An insurance policy costing £300 ($400) isn’t worth the paper it’s written on because massive penalties are payable on claims.

In the UK, the hypnotist is required to stay at a venue for 30 minutes after the show is over in the event subjects might need aftercare. So how many street hypnotists would be willing to stay with someone they had hypnotised in the street for 30 minutes?

From what I’ve seen on YouTube (and I admit I haven’t seen them all) no one seems to check if potential volunteers have any health issues which would prevent them being hypnotised. Are they pregnant, under medical supervision, on anti-depressants; do they suffer from epilepsy or psychotic episodes? In the heat of the moment, volunteers don’t always remember to mention these things. In the eyes of the Home Office, street hypnosis represents an unacceptable level of risk. What if a subject starts to abreact in a public place?? The street is not a theatre or a bar… before long there will be a crowd… and an ambulance and very likely police.

Dustin Reichert summed it up perfectly in a comment on 22 June 2019: “Well my style was like this, bring the camera crew and just walk up to people… it was hard many times and many didn’t want to. But so many were more than willing and those tended to drop down the best.” So just like stage hypnosis.

If you have a camera crew present (the bigger the the crew, the better) the camera lends credibility and a sense of security for the volunteer. Try going up to a complete stranger on your own and asking them would they like to be hypnotised! I guarantee you would get a different reaction than a street magician offering to show a magic trick. In the UK they would likely think you were some kind of pervert.

A quick trawl of some of the scores of videos on YouTube show that street hypnosis volunteers tend to be young. As with stage hypnosis, younger people are more willing to be hypnotised.

US hypnotist Zach Princince says: “I will say though from my experience with street hypnosis thus far, the younger people tend to be much more open and curious in general and I’ve found that the older people are, the less likely they are to agree to being hypnotized spontaneously on the street so most of my videos end up being the younger ones who were willing to give it a go in the first place.”

Unless you’re confident enough to get your subjects into hypnosis while they are standing, most people don’t want to lie on the ground – also an obstacle to cooperation.

I am familiar with the argument that street hypnosis is good practice and improves your skills. But it won’t improve your skills as a therapist getting to know your client, and there is no evidence it will develop or sharpen your induction skills. Yes, it is possible to be hypnotised in an environment with noise and other distractions, but that ability is the subject’s, not the hypnotist’s, which makes the exercise a bit pointless. There are better ways to practice, as I will explain later.

The opinionated and never wrong Justin Tranz – always ready to argue a point if he feels threatened – says TV producers will be more likely to book you if they see you doing street hypnosis on YouTube. So show me one TV producer who booked a hypnotist on the strength of a YouTube street hypnosis demo. Anyway, there are so many would-be hypnotists doing it that any perceived value is watered down.

Although not unknown, few hypnotists get bookings from hypnotising people on the street, but even then those bookings a small money gigs. Even so, the impact is negligible because one person being hypnotised on the street is nowhere near as impressive as a proper live show.

As hard as I try, I see no evidence street hypnosis is useful ‘exposure.’ On YouTube, I see that only close friends of the volunteer stick around to watch – others may pause and watch for a few seconds, but they soon wander off. This is a very different reaction than to street magic which seems to be more exciting. I have watched these clips carefully and I’m forced to the conclusion that it’s because street hypnosis is, well… a bit boring. People are not as fascinated by it as you might think. It seems to me that the person most impressed is usually the hypnotist!

Given the very small numbers of onlookers street hypnosis attracts, it’s an ineffective and ridiculously time consuming way of getting people to a show.

There are more effective ways of attracting people to a show, especially in these days of social media. From the early 20th century, hypnotists would perform stunts for the local press – hypnotising a willing volunteer to sleep in a shop window was always popular! I’ve done a few stunts myself when touring New Zealand. If you can persuade the local radio station to lend you a member of staff, you can take them from shop to shop while they attempt to buy a can of elbow grease or striped paint! Carefully managed, you’ll get much more exposure.

What does street hypnosis achieve, apart from providing an opportunity for Justin Trans to show off?

French hypnotist Chris Seyner says: “Personally, I never did street hypnosis and neither will do. I don’t think that’s a waste of time, I think it can actually help you to improve some skills, yes, but surely not the best way to do it. In France, we have a TON of “hypnotists” doing street and it doesn’t help to get bookings, or at least not why I call “bookings”. Sure, if you want to have a 100€ gig you can try to do some street, but that’s not the gig which I have interested with. Also in my opinion if you are a pro, why do you need to go in the street? That’s being said I actually prefer to have only professional videos of my YT channel, because, well, I am a professional so it should reflect that. Actually in France, street hypnotists destroy the business. 

But [Zach Princince’s] is an interesting video since it shows how failure can happen so often, that’s being said I am not actually surprised. Don’t know in other countries, but in France, people are very tired of artists or people in the street asking them to do stuff. Most of them just want to be [left] alone.”

This is very true. You don’t see America’s top hypnotists begging on the street like hobos. Same goes for the UK where street hypnosis is considered cheap and nasty. And the main problem with street hypnosis is that there’s no money in it.

Joel Harrison asked: ” How Would You recommend A Person With no “professional” gigs booked right now be active, learning, growing, and advertising?”

My answer was this: Do what I did… hire a small venue, invite loads of people, promise them a free drink and have a go! If you’re human enough, they’ll forgive your mistakes, and enjoy themselves. Sure it’ll cost a few dollars, but it’s a much better environment and you’ll have your own captive audience! More important, you’ll learn more in one evening than you would in days of fucking about on the street.

If you would like to add anything constructive, please email any comments to me on newtonhypnosis@gmail.com 

2. Stage Hypnosis and Political Correctness

In the US and UK, colleges and universities are imposing draconian restrictions on what we can and can’t say. What was funny five years ago can now be considered offensive. Comedians and academics are ‘no-platformed’ if subject matter offends the inflexible dogma of the liberal Left. We are intimidated by ‘safe space monitors’ with very different ideas of what’s acceptable, and the snowflakes are starting to cry ‘exploitation!’

At a recent student lecture, I called a male student ‘sir’ …how was I to know he was ‘transitioning?’ For that cardinal sin, I was booed. At another, I referred to a colleague as ‘she.’ To escape the baying hounds of the thought police, I had to apologise, even though my colleague wasn’t at all offended.

Years ago, at the Bristol Hippodrome Theatre, two women were wearing identical outfits so I stood them next to each other – the crowd roared with laughter! At the Liverpool Empire Theatre a subject was lying on the stage so I lifted his foot to show the audience how relaxed he was. But his artificial lower leg came off in my hand. The audience shrieked with laughter at MY embarrassment. At Manchester’s Apollo Theatre a girl’s blonde wig slid off, exposing her dark hair – the audience laughed. If any of that happened today I would be accused of humiliating them!

We have sleepwalked into an Orwellian world of newspeak and thought crime. But we CAN adapt and beat the PC Stasi at their own game! Instead of ‘ladies and gentlemen [outdated and clumsy anyway] “Hi everyone” is good. Instead of ‘zhe’ or ‘zher’ or other such bollocks, I remember the subjects’ names! It tests the short term memory, but it’s respectful and it humanises them and me.

Many of the traditional popular skits are no longer acceptable. A couple of years ago, it was OK for subjects to cuddle up on stage, but this skit is now on the taboo list – as is finding someone of the opposite sex attractive, or the X-ray glasses, or anything vaguely sexist, homophobic, or God forbid, transphobic! I keep three or four extras on stage “to watch carefully everything I do & make sure I’m not cheating.” Actually I’m making sure there will be no allegations of you-know-what! We tiptoe where angels fear to tread. The slightest mistake, and they’re onto you like a pack of hyenas.

The traditional objection to stage hypnosis in the UK has always been one of ritual humiliation, but no one took much notice – market forces decided. But that was before internet warriors searched for things to be offended by on behalf of others. The liberal Left loves comedy… as long as it ridicules the Right (the more vitriolic, the better – ref. SNL and most everything on the BBC.) If the self-appointed guardians of public morality latch onto stage hypnosis, it won’t matter how strong our argument that volunteers are creative & enjoy it as much as everyone else, we’ll find ourselves with a huge problem. All it takes is a few ‘activists’ to start posting on Facebook…

As hypnotists, we should understand the Madness of Crowds! Social media can spawn a lynch mob overnight. Yes, most people will see stage hypnosis as harmless fun, but will they be allowed to see it? Bookers and venue managers will be as terrified of #stop-hypno-hate-shows as corporations are of accusations of racism.

In the UK, this nightmare scenario actually happened… 1994 saw a media feeding frenzy of unprecedented proportions when a woman died after being hypnotised on stage. A Campaign Against Stage Hypnosis was launched and every week some new horror story emerged. Within 12 months, most UK hypnotists were out of business. [Luckily, my work in New Zealand, Australia & S. Africa was unaffected.] Paul McKenna won a case brought to the High Court by a subject who claimed he had caused his schizophrenia, but it was the final nail in the coffin. The public perception of hypnosis suffered a mortal blow from which it still hasn’t recovered!

The number of [UK] theatres unwilling to hire to stage hypnotists now outnumber those that do. [Few refused before 1994.] Mainly they hide behind the cowardly excuse “it doesn’t fit with our programming,” which means sensitive luvvies are now making the decisions. The UK Home Office has plans to extend licensing restrictions, impose time limits on stage hypnosis ‘sessions’ and put a complaints procedure in place. It is being advised by eight psychologists and academics, two neurologists and only one hypnotist.

In the last 30 years, on both sides of the Atlantic, the number of stage hypnotists has boomed. Most treat stage hypnosis like a McDonalds franchise, serving up the same jokes and sketches with little variation. Stage Hypnosis needs a new strategy and a dramatic image makeover – we need to reinvent our approach and rethink material and the way we present it. We need to get ahead of the game and inject an originality which chimes with the new world order.

Comments welcome: newtonhypnosis@gmail.com

Copyright Andrew Newton 2020. All rights reserved.

About Andrew Newton

Andrew Newton has an international reputation as a leading authority on hypnosis. 

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