Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Fedex and the magic of Inattentional Blindness

As a former columnist for The Magic Circular, the house organ of the prestigious Magic Circle in London, England, I wrote a bi-monthly column for five years titled "Escape Velocity." This column talked about my adventures as a full time professional escape artist and related some of the unusual experiences and challenges I have faced over the years. In some articles, I imparted knowledge about picking locks and crafting an escape act, others were strictly about my tales in the performing arena. If you're interested you can download some of these articles by going to: thomassolomon.com/fans and clicking on the Escape Velocity link.

In one of these articles, I talked about the phenomenon of "Inattentional Blindness", the notion that often times, though we may be looking at something, we do not see it. I related an experience in Chicago in which one night, performing my handcuff escape act, I inadvertently and unknowingly tapped into the Inattentional Blindness of the audience, which brought my act to a successful conclusion. This was not planned. I had no idea this even existed. Later, I reflected on what happened. I had convinced the audience I escaped all of the restraints. In reality, I escaped all but one. Again, to read further details about this escape please locate the article through the URL above.

Now . . . you might be wondering. What does any of this have to do with FEDEX? Years ago, I discovered a real-world example of Inattentional Blindness within the logo design of FEDEX. I was reminded of this the other day as I walked up Lexington Avenue in New York City. Among the lunchtime crowds and traffic gridlock were several parked FEDEX trucks. Look carefully at the logo in the photo above. Do you see the white arrow?
OK. Now look at the close-up photo to the right. Do you see it now? If you still don't see it, here's a hint. Between the red capital "E" and the small "x" is a geometrically correct right pointing arrow. It is formed by the precision joining of both the "E" and the "X". The beauty of this is that once you see it, you'll always see it. Now, go back to the photo at the top of this posting with the FEDEX truck in the distance. Easy to see now isn't it? Cool . . . right?
This is "Inattentional Blindness in the real world. Sobering to think of the many other things that are there, under our noses, just waiting to be "seen."

Monday, April 14, 2008

Zen . . . and the art of playing dead.

My last post talked exclusively about my Off-Broadway show, "Theatre of the Macabre" which played for three years in New York City. While I don't plan to talk anymore about this show, the thought occurred to me that you might want to know about one of the more unusual publicity stunts I did to generate buzz for this show. I make reference in the title to Zen . . . as I think that what I did, had a certain amount of Zen to it.

First, a little history. My co-writer Robin Reseen had an interesting publicity idea for Theatre of the Macabre. He wanted to have a dead women lying in a bathtub filled with blood in the lobby of the theatre (as a reference to one of our characters). We looked at different old bathtubs with which we could purchase cheaply. I looked at how much 'blood' would be needed and how long it could last. We toyed with the idea of hiring an actress or placing a fake body in the tub. Eventually the mechanics of having a tub full of 'blood' in the lobby of a theatre became a logistical nightmare. Robin and I talked about other publicity ideas which included outdoor underwater handcuff escapes. One night in Robin's apartment, we were throwing back and forth silly ideas when we came upon the 'corpse' stunt. It went like this: We would have a corpse on the street with a knife piercing a flyer for the show through the corpse's back. At first, it seemed ridiculous, but the more we talked about it, the better it seemed. Robin thought we should hire an actor to be the 'corpse' and we ran several ads but nobody we found, when they were told what they were to do, had the necessary courage. And so, we put the idea on hold.

A month later "Theatre of the Macabre" opened at the 13th Street Theatre on 6th Avenue in Manhattan. I spent an inordinate amount of time handing out flyers (see left) to the show and would stand on street corners in the East and West Village for hours several days of the week trying to drum up interest in the show. One time, I even worked the line at TKTS handing out my flyers to that evening's performance. We gave out half-price tickets, free tickets, I had posters stuck with wheat paste placed on poster boards throughout the city and I ran display ads in the Village Voice--all to get people to come to the show. Still, handing out flyers as I did night after night was exhausting. As any New Yorker knows, it is extremely difficult to hand out anything paper on the street. People are inundated with requests and most are savvy enough not to take them or if they do take them they usually end up as litter a block away. You must be very clever to reach a jaded New Yorker, with the old rule being that if you want someone to take your notice, your coupon, your announcement, your half-off ticket . . . you better include something to eat with it.

Anyways, we had a difficult time handing out flyers so Robin and I decided to make our 'corpse' stunt a reality. Since we could not find any actors with enough courage to undertake this, I decided to do it. The time frame from when Robin and I first talked about the corpse until its final execution (pun intended) was about two months. Here's how it would appear: You and your friends would be walking down a busy street in New York City on a Friday or Saturday night or Sunday afternoon. This could be West Fourth Street, Broadway, Houston or Astor Place. Suddenly, usually at a corner you would come upon a body on the sidewalk with a sword in its back. After your initial shock, one of three people would quickly hand you a flyer to the show and you took it, because you were curious.

This stunt got our flyers into the hands of thousands of people who in a different scenario would not have taken them. It worked better than anything we did to shock the jaded New Yorker with the end result being that every show was either sold-out or close to it. Below is a picture of me lying on the very busy corner of Houston and Broadway on a Friday night in the SoHo District of Manhattan.

The 'look' and mechanics were carefully crafted. I wore black pants, comfortable black boots and a blue, sometimes red sweatshirt. The back of the sweatshirt had a small hole cut in the center. Under the sweatshirt, strapped with Velcro to my body was a large iron plate. Welded to the plate was a half cut sword sticking upward perpendicular to the plate. The handle came off of the blade so that once the plate was strapped to my chest and the blade was fed through the hole in my sweatshirt, the handle could be placed on. I also carried a very small pillow that my girlfriend at the time had made for me. It was about three inches by three inches and was packed tightly with foam. I would place this under my head on the street and it would be concealed in my long hair which fell around the sides of it.

I had three people watching over me. My girlfriend, Francesca, her friend, Craig and our stage manager, John Graffeo. You are very vulnerable when you lay on the street and I depended wholeheartedly on these three individuals to prevent people from stepping on me, shining light into my eyes, pulling my hair, kicking me, trying to grab the sword, etc., etc. In fact, if you look at the above picture closely, you will see I have curled my fingers under my hand. I did this after having them intentionally stepped on so many times before. As for Francesca, Craig and John Graffeo, I could NOT have done this without them. They were the ones who did the real work while I just laid there . . . usually for 90 minutes while the three of them 'watched my back' and gave out thousands of flyers.

To do this effectively, I entered a Zen-like mediation concentrating on only this moment in time. Since I am not that good at complete meditation, I could hear and was aware of the boisterous reactions of people on the street who encountered my 'lifeless' body. Occasionally, people got down on the ground at eye level with me to try and make me blink. My modus operandi was to blink when others were not looking at my face. When people were staring at me, I stopped blinking. With my side view of the street I saw their footsteps inches from my face. I learned to recognize the shoes of my helpers and it gave me great comfort to see those shoes near me as I knew they were watching over me. I remember one girl getting down on the pavement next to me and putting her face so close to mine, I could feel her breath. She wanted to see if I was real. I did not blink and kept my eyes wide open until she gave in and stood up.

I had people trying to step on me and grab the sword. Most of this I was unaware until told about it later. Sometimes I would hear Craig or Francesca or John arguing with people who were trying to touch me. It was quite a surreal scene and I would have loved to have been a fly on the wall of the Crate and Barrel on the corner observing. One time, as I was lying there, I heard a police siren. Francesca ran out into the street to talk to the police. Apparently they had asked her "if I was all right." She informed them that it was a publicity stunt and they laughed and let it go. This was Houston and Broadway in SoHo. Our dealings with the NYPD in Times Square however would not be so friendly.

One time, I decided to perform the 'corpse' as we later called it on Astor Place. The only person working with me this night was my stage manager, John Graffeo. I laid down on the corner at Astor Place and Lafayette and left it up to John to hand out flyers and keep people from touching me. Well, that proved extremely difficult. John had to protect every side of me and it was a daunting job. I remember a group of kids riding their skateboards very close to me trying to run over my hands. John would shoo them away and they would come back with more friends on skateboards. Some kids even showed up on bikes. Pretty soon, they started jumping over me. I could hear the wheels on the pavement and feel the wind as they moved over me. It was the longest 90 minutes of my life and was probably the same for John.

In Times Square, things were considerably different. On one 'corpse' night I was laying there when a police officer walked over and kicked me. Francesca and Craig who were working with me this night screamed at the officer. He kicked me again and then I moved. This time, the NYPD did not take kindly to the stunt. After all, tourists were there and 'what would they think of a dead body lying in the street, with a knife in its back' no less. This was the new Times Square, the amusement park Times Square. Didn't want to scare the tourists.

So, we abandoned the 'corpse' stunt for the short run we had in Times Square, but brought it back when we moved back down to SoHo and the Village. All told, over the three year run, excepting the seven months we were on 48th Street in Times Square, I performed the 'corpse' stunt more than a hundred times and due to the excellent work of Francesca, Craig and John Graffeo, I can fondly remember this difficult event enough . . . to recall it here.

Friday, April 04, 2008

Heath Ledger was right . . . sort of . . .

Recently, I was reading one of the last interviews with Heath Ledger where he talks about his role of the 'Joker' in the upcoming "Dark Knight", Batman film. He described the Joker as a 'disturbed, murderous character with zero empathy' and further states how it became a difficult role to shake off once filming wrapped. According to Ledger, the persona of the 'Joker' remained with him and, as of the date of this interview, contributed to his inability to concentrate and sleep. His subsequent death weeks later, his autopsy and later toxicology analysis revealed that he had died of a mixture of otherwise harmless medications. Sad to say, this guy was on pills to relax, to give him energy, to keep him awake, and help him fall asleep. The deadly mix is what got him and its kind of troubling to see a young person, movie star no less, that feels he needs pills to get through daily life. But aside from that, I do believe Heath Ledger was accurate about being troubled over the character of the Joker. I too, experienced the same thing.

In 1995, I starred in an Off-Broadway show, titled "Theatre of the Macabre". See the picture below taken during the show.

I co-wrote this show with a partner of mine, Robin Reseen. Furthermore, I designed and engineered all of the magic and escapes within the context of the show. Theatre of the Macabre was conceived as a very dark show revisiting the lives and deeds of some of history's worst killers, and extracting what little dark humor we could from those stories. There were elements of Grand Guignol Theatre within the context of it. It was a bloody show, but alot of fun to do. It ran for three years playing three times a week (at one point four) at the 13th Street Repertory Theatre, the Kraine Theatre in the East Village, the Trilogy in Times Square and the Wings Theatre off Greenwich Street in the West Village, respectively. Three quarters of the shows in the three year long run were sold-out in advance. Two actresses, one with a speaking part and the other without, joined me in the show. Over the course of three years we had maybe a dozen or so actresses. All were very good in their own way and lent their unique personalities to their roles in the show. Theatre of the Macabre played at midnight with a matinee on Sunday at 3pm and get this, the ticket price was only ten dollars!

The initial conception of and subsequent writing of the show took more than a year. Before any writing, there was the months and months of research. Every afternoon, I would sit in the reading room of the New York Public Library on 5th Avenue with books spread out before me on those large oak tables and yellow legal pads filled with notes from materials that could not be removed from the library. It was here in the quiet, away from the noise of the street, I studied and read about history's greatest crimes and criminals. I made much use of the copier services and reference center and took alot of notes (all before the internet made researching at home in your pajamas a reality). From 10am--3:15pm, when I headed off to my night job, I studied the lives of some really terrible people; despots, sadistic rulers, all to find a base of characters for the show. Ted Bundy, Henry Lee Lucas, John List, the Hillside Stranglers, the Zodiac Killer, John Wayne Gacy, Peter Sutcliffe, Caryl Chessman, Gary Gilmore, and Richard Speck. On microfilm, I read the newspaper accounts of Albert Fish, the serial killer of the 1930s who ate the children he murdered, Albert DeSalvo, the "Boston Strangler" who gained admittance to women's apartments by saying he was an electrical repairman, and Ed Gein, the lonely "momma's boy" who made soup bowls out of the skull's of his female victims and on whom was based Hitchcock's thriller "Psycho." Elizabeth Short the victim known as "The Black Dahlia", Leopold and Loeb, the two rich kids who, in the 1920s killed a classmate 'just to see what it would be like' and Dr. Sam Shepherd who horribly murdered his wife in the 1950s became characters in the first draft of the show. Political criminals; Heinrich Himmler, Robespiere, Vladimir Lenin, Pol Pot and much later, the unknown person with the moniker of Jack The Ripper all were considered.

Meanwhile, on the other side of town, Robin was doing his own research. We would then write seperately away from one another's influence. Once we completed our scene's we would meet up and read to each other what we had. Often times, Robin would suggest an element to my scene that I had not thought of and vice verse. To this day, I still feel it was the best way to collaborate--it brought out the best in both of us.

Later, we completed the first manuscript on a Remington electric typewriter in Robin's 54th Street studio apartment sometimes re-typing an entire page to make one sentence change.

Most of the characters in the show; Elizabeth Bathory, the queen who bathed in the blood of murdered girls, Vlad the Impaler, the Romanian Prince who impaled his enemies, and in some cases, his friends on wooden stakes, then ate at a banquet in front of them; Lewis Payne, one of those who conspired to kill President Lincoln; Peter Kurten, the "Dusseldorf Ripper" who sadistically murdered young girls, King Louis XVI and his wife Marie Antoinette, who lived well but died horribly; Anne Boelyn who suffered and was later beheaded in a gruesome fashion by her husband; Dr. Ignatius Guillotin, inventor of the Guillotine who eventually lost his head in his own invention. Dick Turpin, the dashing seventeenth century English highwayman who danced with women along the road before he robbed them of their jewels . . . were real people whose lives and deeds we dramatised and added dark humor too.

Other characters were created by us such as Guy Keltick, the incompetent hangman of Hyde Park who ended up torturing his victims because he couldn't learn the proper mechanics of hanging; the Duval Bros, consisting of Claude, imprisoned for counterfeiting, Francois, for forgery, and Alain, for anarchy all who escaped the medieval dungeon they were chained into; Mr and Mrs. Samuel Walcott, whose bodies were consumed by the roots of an overzealous apple tree; Ellen Davenport, the master poisoner who, after killing each husband, had them buried in the fireplace in her home, were characters we had entirely made up based on amalgamations and dramatizations of real-life occurences.

Each story was concluded through magic illusion or escapes. The setting was the drawing room of a mansion where skulls exploded, pictures moved and the slitting of my assistants throat took place as she sat in a chair. I, was the lonely, duplicitious, unctuous, trecherous, evil host who made these things happen all while I told the stories of others. I brandished a sword and was not above slicing my assistant if I felt like it. I wore alot of make-up and concoted this role of a dark, sadistic, trecherous character. I laughed at the pain of others and glorified in the most depraved and sadistic of their deeds because . . . that was my role and I played it convincingly. I worked on the presentation. Costumes and make-up were designed to help me get into the role. 2000 performances over the course of three years were done and like Heath Ledger, I had a hard time shaking the persona. Many people have wondered why a show that was repeatedly sold-out is not still playing. Well, that was one of the reasons. I felt the role slowly changing my life, I was becoming this person.

When I performed other shows I found it hard to step out of the role. Even without the clothes or the make-up, I could still feel that voice coming back. It was tough . . . and I know completely what he meant.

There is truth to the fact that roles can overtake you. Even still, I think trying to conquer this problem by mixing and matching medications is not the answer.