The following interview was originally posted on Ginger Goat’s blog.
Caitlynn Belle is a transgendered hypnotist, “mind reader,” and community organizer for larp and indie gaming in Savannah, Georgia. She graciously agreed to let me interview her about her upcoming show, especially about how she connects hypnosis and storytelling.
I understand that you have an upcoming show that includes hypnosis. Where will you be giving it?
And the subject of the presentation is finding drama in hypnosis? What does that mean?
I’m performing in my hometown of Savannah, GA, at a place called the Guild Hall, which is like a creative hang-out spot / performance venue. The show is called “Rainbow,” and runs about two hours, during which I’ll be hypnotizing some people, as well as doing what looks a lot like mind reading, but really isn’t.
The main theme of the show is all the little quirks of our brain: how it operates, all its strangeness. Part of that is an experiment in hypnosis, which is already quite strange, but dealing with a particular set of events carried out in the 40s and 50s that I try to recreate on stage with a random audience member.
As visually interesting as the show may be, there has to be a dramatic element to it, some sort of narrative. You’ve probably seen a hypnotist on TV doing his thing, and while it may be impressive or curious to watch, there’s almost certainly no sense of cohesive narrative or character arc. Which, you know that’s not really why they’re there – it’s just sort of a, Wow, look at this thing, isn’t it neat? I’m much more interested in how we can use that skill to involve unprepared people and make them actors in a kind of “freeform story,” and to use their real talents and personality as the basis for a dramatic character.
Let’s back up a step for a moment, if you don’t mind. What would you say are the fundamentals of hypnosis?
Hypnosis relies a lot on rapport and how you present yourself. You’ve got to be able to connect with people, to be able to improvise, and to be clear and direct with your words. There’s no time or space for mis-communication. You also need to inspire trust (and of course actually be trustworthy) when you’re fiddling with people psychologically. It’s 99% communication, though, so you really need to be able to hold peoples’ attention and be comfortable doing so.
What typically happens during a hypnosis session (and of course this will vary depending on what you want to achieve) is that you and your subject come to an agreement on what’s going to go down, then you’ll begin some imagination exercises and relaxation techniques, then you’ll start to introduce them to the mechanics of what you’re going to do and what hypnosis will be like. Then you can finally take the plunge and go under, do whatever it is you are planning to do, then bring them back out of it safely.
So when we see hypnosis on a TV show or a movie, are they giving us a fair idea of what it looks like?
You get a more dramatic version of it, the same way action movies blow the action way over the top. It’s an involved process. You can’t just go up to someone and snap your fingers and make them your puppet: what you see in movies and TV are the exciting bits, edited together.
In reality, there’s a lot of trust and conversation, some warm-ups and imagination exercises, and a build-up to the main action. There’s many different forms of hypnosis, and they all carry their particulars. When you’re performing hypnosis – at least in an entertainment setting – you learn to find out who will make a good subject, how to approach them and what to do to get them integrated with the whole thing. Rarely is there a single thing that works for everyone. In a show, however, you don’t have the luxury of spending a lot of time getting to know a crowd of people, so you have to come up with a plan of attack that will work against most people, then just weed out certain subjects.
But I’d say it’s totally fair, because no one wants to see the boring bits, just like with most activities. The basic idea is there: I as a hypnotist get you as a volunteer to do something strange or curious. That’s what people want to see.
Getting back to your presentation, how can we find drama in hypnosis?
There’s a random person you pull from the audience, and there’s a script you’re following. You try to apply the person to the script and, if you’ve done it right, they should follow along and the script goes according to plan. Or maybe they’ll deviate terribly, if you don’t script too tightly – maybe they surprise you. There’s a sense of vulnerability, where you are agreeing to be “mind controlled” and made to do something special in front of everyone. First: will it work? Is this a thing that can even happen? Second: if I can make you do whatever I want or say whatever I want (which is a little exaggerated, but for purpose of discussion), what will come of it? What will you actually reveal about yourself? What will you learn from this? It’s almost like The Truman Show, where there is a big script going on around you, but ultimately you’re creating your own content and this can go off in all kinds of wild directions.
It’s very tightly wound around you as a character. I think it’s exciting that, if I got two different people on stage and had them tell a story, we’d get two wildly different things. It’s a special thing, this connection between us and the impromptu show our volunteer is putting on. It’s something we won’t see again, and it’s something the next night’s audience won’t see, either. It’s like a documentary played out on stage.
Is there a standard format for a hypnosis routine? How do you develop a routine and how can you turn it into something with a narrative to it?
There’s as many different ways to approach it as there are people doing it. When I do my routines, I’m looking to convey some sort of story. There’s a philosophy about magicians that suggests they make for terrible dramatic characters. A magician is a god-like entity: he snaps his fingers and a card appears at the top of the deck. He waves his hand and a coin appears. He touches a glass bottle and it begins to bend. It’s all quite visually exciting, but it’s damned boring from a narrative perspective: this character has no flaws, has no chance of failure, and can just will things to be how he wants. There is no fight, no conflict.
So, when I’m trying to add a narrative to what I do, I try to show the process. I try to show that this isn’t me waving a magic wand and everything is perfect: I want you to see that it’s a skill and that we’re trying to accomplish something together. You get to see what might not work, what doesn’t work, and what excels beyond our imagining. There’s a real journey there.
I look at what I want to convey, and then I figure out what I can do to make that visual. In my current show, one routine is talking about the prefrontal lobotomies of the 1940s and 50s, and how gruesome they were. It’s a really fascinating subject, what they considered to be just a regular office procedure. They’d take what was basically an ice pick and slide it past your eye socket and then root around in there, doing what they did. So there’s a lot of bits about controlling the body, altering what your body is capable of, as well as authority – someone in a lab coat dictating what you should be doing, what state your mind is in, what will happen to you, and so on.
When I’ve got an idea, I start just adding as much as I can to demonstrate what I’m talking about, and it’s really interactive theater: people who come on stage are a part of the narrative. They’re playing a very controlled part, but they are a part of it. I look for what conveys the central theme of the routine, edit and refine, then I go grab my favorite test subjects and run through the routine forever and ever until I think I’ve made it as brief and to-the-point as possible.
As far as what I want to tell, really I’m just looking for what interests me. The lobotomy thing is one. There’s another thing I’m working on that, very ambitiously, tries to make the volunteer believe they are in some sort of enchanted, otherworldly kingdom, and give them a series of choices and seeing how they choose to interact with this new world, something born of me wondering just what trends exist in human behavior in this day and age, and will someone surprise you with what they think is right.
What’s a technique that other kinds of storytellers can borrow from dramatic hypnotists?
You can do so much with suggestion. You can imply and infer things, you can put that notion of something happening into someone else’s head, and let them make it strong. Say I put some coins out on a table, and have someone pick one up, then cause them to believe the coin is white hot and burning their hand, leading up to them actually feeling it – what will that imply about the other coins on the table? What will that imply about metal, or your touch? What can you communicate without communicating it? If you can put the audience in the story, make them a part of it, and have them fill in the blanks, you’ve increased investment and made a stronger narrative. It’s no longer a thing you’re saying to people, and now a thing we’re living in, touching and feeling and breathing.
There’s a sense of being involved in the story that I just adore. I can’t do a hypnosis routine without the audience. They have to physically be part of it, they can’t just sit and be a watchful crowd. There needs to be movement, action, decision – it’s like a very dangerous improv, in a way.
Is there anything you’d like to plug?
My show in July! If anyone’s near Savannah, GA, please stop by, it’ll be super great. You can find out more information as the date approaches at my website, caitlynnbelle.com
I also run Savannah Story Games, which meets twice a month to play and shine light on the indie gaming scene. Again, if you’re in the area, look us up at savannahstorygames.com