Meet the Magician Who Can and Will Read Your Mind
With your permission, Mark Toland would like to tinker around in your head. The affable, bespectacled performer has been entertaining and confounding Chicago audiences on TV and onstage with his light-hearted take on the mind-reader magic show for years. Loath to reveal his secrets, Toland is mum on precisely what audiences can expect out of his newest showcase, “Mind Reader,” at The Greenhouse Theatre Center, but he was happy to talk shop with TodayTix about his craft, the magic community, and one particularly memorable bike ride.
Mentalism sounds a little different than other types of live performance art like, say, parlor or close-up magic. What’s your definition of the form?
I think of mentalism as “magic with thoughts.” It’s about the audience’s thoughts and ideas. As a mind reader, I do two things: tell people what they’re thinking or put a thought into their minds. That’s it! My whole show is built off of those two skills. Mentalism is pretty much a spoken art form. You’re interacting with people, improvising, and creating as you go.
One of the taglines you use in promotional materials is “your mind is my stage,” which sounds sort of petrifying out of context.
It’s not that scary! It just means that what I do happens in the minds of the audience. I think of the audience as the cast of the show — their thoughts as my props, and their minds as my stage. If I do a good job I hope to leave them with an indelible memory.
Even in a city as large as Chicago, most actors, comedians, and musicians seem to know one another. Are you friends with other illusionists/mentalists/magicians in town?
There is a pretty large community of magicians and mentalists in Chicago, and we all know each other, help with ideas, attend each other’s shows. Magic is a strange art form because you want help from other people but you also have to preserve the mystery. So it takes time to find people you trust with your ideas that will give you good feedback without plagiarizing your creation. I work with a friend out of Texas named Frank Fogg who is a terrific magician. His style is completely opposite of mine. He does close-up, I do stage. He does private parties, and I work a lot of corporate events. Thanks to our different approaches we’re able to collaborate and work together. We dream up new ideas, write scripts, and test them out independently. Some of the best moments in the show are thanks to my work with Frank.
Tell us about your experience with The Magic Penthouse.
The Magic Penthouse is a monthly event that happens in River North. Four performers (three magicians and a mind reader) mingle with guests for the night to show them amazing miracles up close. The night ends with a big show onstage. The event itself started with a small group of attendees in the loop and has grown to a fast sell-out each month. It’s a classy, exclusive, unforgettable evening.
Has there been an uptick in the interest in magic in the last few years, or has it always been popular?
I really think it’s the latter. There’s just a little more visibility for magic shows in the city now, but the truth is the top magicians and mentalists in Chicago have been doing their shows here for years. I moved to Chicago in 2011 and have produced a different theatrical mind-reading show every year since. My current show, “Mind Reader,” is the eighth show I’ve done here and my favorite yet. So yes, it’s very visible in the city now, but we’ve always been here doing our shows with amazing audiences every chance we get!
In those first few seconds of starting your show, when you’re meeting your audience, what are you looking for? What differentiates a good crowd from one you’re going to have to work a bit harder to entertain?
All I want from an audience is their attention. Give me a few moments of your time to show you I’m not your typical magic act. My show is something different — it’s mysterious, but it doesn’t take itself too seriously.
Talk a bit about the differences between performing for 6,500 people versus a room of 40. What’s unique about TV spots, small rooms, street magic, and crowds?
I love doing big rooms. Some of my favorite memories are from large-scale college and corporate events with thousands of people. However, when you do those big rooms, you have to stay completely on track. For instance, people in the balcony can’t hear what people up front are saying. So you can’t start ad-libbing with every single thing people call out. I think of it as being on auto-pilot. I’m still in the moment and aware of my surroundings, but I’m very focused on staying on track so everyone in the room has an incredible experience.
That being said, I think a small room is even better. Everyone gets to be part of the show, and it can lead to really unforgettable moments. For small rooms, I encourage banter with the audience. I can respond to audience members with something funny, and it really creates a memorable experience. Everyone knows that it doesn’t always happen this way so you really are getting to see a one-of-a-kind show. That’s what “Mind Reader” is like— it’s an intimate group of 30-40 people each week, so every show is different because everyone is involved.
You biked through Chicago traffic completely blindfolded and lived to talk about it. Tell us about that.
It was wild! I did a 10-part web series with WGN and the blindfold bike ride was the final episode.
We made it as Chicago-ish as possible, so I rented a Divvy Bike, started at Tribune Tower, and went out into traffic on Michigan Avenue. The whole time I was completely blindfolded and couldn’t see a thing. We had GoPros and some cameramen to make sure we got all the angles. It was a big project.
Obviously, I can’t ride a bike onstage, but I do recreate part of the stunt during my show each week in Lincoln Park. It’s always good to show people that I can actually do those things I do on video and that it wasn’t some sort of camera trick.