“The deeper you go, the higher you’re feeling. The deeper you go, the higher you’re feeling.”
Last month, an hour before midnight on the Improv Asylum’s basement theater in Chelsea, a hypnotist made a surprise drop-in at a comedy show and growlingly repeated this phrase time and again, casting a spell on 20 strangers.
Asad Mecci, a broad-shouldered charmer in black jeans, trained his unblinking stare on two rows of seated volunteers — heads slumped, bodies relaxed, eyes closed — and told them that they had lost their belly buttons. Then he snapped his fingers and his limp subjects snapped upright, looking around, peeking underneath chairs, searching. The audience erupted in laughter. Then Mecci, 47, asked one frantic man what he was doing. “I do know I had my belly button once I came,” the person said, flabbergasted. It killed.
In the favored consciousness, hypnotism is the stuff of vampires, side shows and watch-waving therapists. But can it’s the constructing block of a recent comedic art?
That’s the ambition of the makers of “Hyprov,” a wedding of improv comedy and hypnotism that was workshopped here this summer upfront of its Latest York premiere on the Daryl Roth Theater on Aug. 12. “We’re attempting to heighten hypnosis from a vaudevillian show into the theatrical level,” Mecci said within the Times Square office of his producer, a day after the performance I attended. Sitting next to him was his co-star and co-creator, Colin Mochrie, a star of “Whose Line Is It Anyway?,” the tv show that introduced many to improv comedy.
“In each of our careers, we now have gotten ‘Those persons are plants,’” Mochrie, 64, said, explaining the skepticism these performers face. “Nobody desires to consider the thing we’re doing, the thing we trained our lives to do, is something we’re actually doing.”
Mochrie conceded that he had at first been skeptical of hypnosis, but after bringing “Hyprov” on tour to greater than 50 cities in North America together with London and the Edinburgh Fringe, he now speaks with the zeal of a convert. He pointed to an improvised sketch from the previous night’s show, built from audience suggestions: Hypnotized novices were encouraged to play a scene at a wake for a half-penguin, half-beaver creature, and so they responded with performances filled with wailing and even real tears. When Mochrie mentioned that this animal was the product of two different ones, one woman didn’t pause before adopting a morally outraged posture. “It’s unnatural!” she shouted.
Mochrie wondered if knowledgeable comic would have made such a robust alternative. It isn’t just the standard of the road, however the speed and intensity of the delivery that matters. “Improvisers don’t at all times have emotional content, but when she said, ‘It’s unnatural,’ it felt like something against the core of her being,” he said. He added that while recent improvisers take a second to take into consideration what to do, hypnotized performers just react, because they’ve “the a part of their brain that deals with self-criticism cleaned.”
It’s true that the show I saw featured performers as committed as any improv comic I had seen. At no point did anyone appear near breaking. To make certain, though, there was something uncanny — even just a little creepy — about these performers who moved just a little sluggishly, their eyes drooped.
If this feels like comedy from a zombified future, Mecci was quick to indicate that the largest misconception about hypnosis is that individuals have lost control. “I could make you do things onstage that you simply normally wouldn’t do, but I can’t make you do anything you don’t wish to do,” he said, drawing a distinction that may seem blurry. He said that nobody had ever expressed regrets about participating in one in all his shows — but, after all, they’re told that the deeper they go, the higher they are going to feel.
Asked what was happening contained in the heads of those in search of their belly buttons, Mecci said some would later say they were hallucinating, and others that they were just compelled to look. One woman I interviewed after the show said that while hypnotized, she heard all the pieces and knew what she was doing.
There may be disagreement amongst hypnotists over whether or not they are putting subjects in a hypnotic state, or if the topics are acting consequently of suggestibility. Mecci, who has studied stage hypnosis and is a member of the National Guild of Hypnotists, knowledgeable organization that certifies practitioners, is careful not to decide on a side. But his tendency is to demystify, likening hypnosis to mundane moments of utmost focus, like watching a horror movie or daydreaming.
When he fixes his probing gaze on you, it may well be disorienting. Mecci speaks in a gradual pace and with authority, but in case you listen closely to him while he’s working, you would possibly notice that he prefers statements that don’t entirely cohere. “As you wonder about what you’re wondering about, you’ll be able to begin to know many things, can’t you?” he says so quickly that you would be able to barely register it.
“Vague and ambiguous language causes hypnotic trance states,” he said, some extent which may help explain some political slogans and mission statements.
The genesis of “Hyprov” goes back to a 2015 class Mecci took on the Second City in Toronto to assist along with his stage act. He had been doing hypnosis shows on cruises, along with working with people on reducing stress, shedding pounds and different kinds of therapy. (Rufus Wainwright composed music for “Hyprov” after Mecci helped his husband quit smoking through hypnosis, Mecci said.)
In Second City’s introductory courses, “a whole lot of their exercises engage and confuse the conscious mind,” he said. “They’re getting to a degree where the improviser doesn’t get a probability to think, where it becomes automatic and unconscious.” A typical note was “get out of your head,” but Mecci thought he could achieve similar results through hypnosis.
So he asked Mochrie for help. Mochrie was looking forward to a challenge, even when he nervous that the laughs would come from making audiences cluck like chickens. And while he conceded that the gang might at first laugh on the hypnotized improvisers, they soon lose themselves within the scene and laugh with them.
“This art form is about acceptance,” Mochrie said of the comedy that is legendary for utilizing the concept of “Yes, and” to construct scenes. “Our very first thing as humans is to go, ‘No, I actually have a greater idea.’ The fantastic thing about hypnosis is: That’s gone. We now have pure improvisers.”
The technique of hypnosis takes several minutes, after Mecci first brings 20 people onstage, runs through exercises, then picks five of probably the most suggestible. He looks for “physiological tells” and expressionless faces. He tells his volunteers to breathe, loosen up and shut their eyes as his voice shifts from a light-weight baritone into the range of the narrator of movie trailers.
In touring the show, Mecci and Mochrie discovered that hypnosis wouldn’t work as well for more complex scenes. The very best moments result from easy and direct objectives that could be delivered concisely. They usually make some extent of reassuring audience members that they are going to not do anything they don’t wish to do.
Mecci has ambitions to create a Blue Man Group-like franchise, but he also said hypnosis could unlock other creative pursuits, like stand-up or theater. After I asked Mecci if hypnosis could help me finish this text, Mochrie whispered in his ear: “Do it! Do it!”
Making direct eye contact, Mecci calmly explained how hypnosis could help me imagine hitting my deadline and writing the proper piece. His voice was regular, his gaze fixed. And if he did hypnotize me, I asked, could he influence the story I used to be going to write down? The deeper I went, the more awkward I felt.
“I’m unsure,” he said, with a look piercing enough that made me, for an fast, turn away.