The Psychic Project - A Mind-reading Show Based on a True Story

David Narayan attempts the CIA's psychic spy experiments with a live audience. Magic & mind-reading.
The Old Fire Station, Fri 26 - Sat 27 January 2018

January 29, 2018
Buzzing wasps and shards of glass

In 1975, the Cold War took an unusual turn when the CIA learned that the USSR was experimenting with mind-control research and supposedly achieving some remarkable results. In best "never knowingly left behind" fashion, US scientists, notably at Stanford University, began a secret - now de-classified - programme to train civilians as psychic spies: stealing secrets, manipulating memories and finding out if thoughts can kill.

David Narayan's blurb told us he "attempts to reproduce their experiments" on stage, "drawing on 100,000 pages of declassified documents" [he can't have scanned every single one of them, surely?]. As Friday's full house audience took their seats, I was wondering how seriously this CIA/Cold War angle was going to be taken by Narayan who describes himself as a magician and mind-reader. At the end of this brief show, the question remained hanging in the air, both for me and other audience members whom I consulted. Certainly Narayan made great play of the details of the background line to which he was pegging his show – screen-projected portentous quotes, dates, SMERSH-sounding names and the like – though paradoxically he also seemed to be distancing himself from endorsing the credibility of this Psychic Project, not least by his attractively self-deprecating stage persona.

We began with a bare stage housing just a deal table, a single lantern swinging spookily somewhere in the dark and a goldfish-type bowl half full of notes in which half of the arriving audience had confided their worst fear. Our host, in white shirt, plain jacket, jeans and flashing smile ran through a summary of the Cold War project, then went into his first trick: inviting Danni, from the audience, to pick out a series of symbolic cards from a pack, the identity of which he then guessed (correctly). So far, so conventional. Next we had Simon picking a place from Collins World Atlas which was more or less correctly guessed, then Nicola had to secretly draw a scene on paper which our host proceeded to guess (with moderate success).

The modus operandi was by now established; we were to be drawn into mind-reading feats, given the connection to the Psychic Project, and invited to admire the magician's skill. But already doubt was beginning to stir within me: wasn't the build-up to the tricks a little overlong and laboured for the slightly muted revelation they created? Wasn't each trick a variation on much the same thing, and what was the history of the Project adding to the experience?

The best moment came when one "greatest fear" note was fished out of the goldfish bowl, the audience was eliminated all the way down to one last man left standing, and our magician correctly surmised that his fear was of wasps and their nests. This was a buzzing triumph. There followed a complicated, rather underwhelming trick involving taking someone's pulse, then the finale had Narayan filling a paper bag with a fierce shard of glass, surrounding it with identical bags but no glass, and then avoiding punching the fateful one. It seemed to go on for so long that the danger had somehow contrived to dribble away and anti-climax hovered in the air.

The end came after an hour and five minutes: five minutes less than the billed time, and really I think on the verge of stinginess. The show had been slick, with decent light and sound effects, but I found my feeling that its content had been quite thin was shared by others, and there was a feeling that the Psychic Project amounted to not a lot more than a gimmick. Yet overall there was a positive vibe around as the audience streamed out. I put down much of that to our man's personality: patently a nice guy, trying to earn a living in an unconventional way. With stronger material he might just find his niche on the magic roundabout.

January 30, 2017
The Story of the CIA Magicians

The Old Fire Station, Fri 27 January 2017

The Psychic Project is an illusion show with a difference; one where the bread-and-butter is really a documentary-style history lesson, and the tricks provide the examples or evidence, as opposed to being the basis the show. This format makes sense - the history lesson, which is about the CIA's exploration of paranormal means of spying during the Cold War, is engaging and interesting, and the tricks put it into context, helping the audience to appreciate the compelling nature of paranormality first-hand.

In the early 70s, the CIA started to receive intelligence about Soviet investment in 'paranormal' research. They were worried that the Russians were militarising psychic powers, and therefore started to develop their own techniques in the same domain. In The Psychic Project, David Narayan presents this story with intrigue and suspense, using snippets of interviews with researchers and specialists from the time in question, images and his own word, as well as a spooky, pared-back set (complete with lone exposed light bulb). His prose is engaging and his delivery compelling.

The first tricks Narayan used to show how phenomena can appear to be paranormal worked well, for example, he got a woman onstage and had her choose a sequence of symbols, seemingly of her own accord, while he did the same. Of course, once revealed, his own sequence was exactly the same as hers. It was impressive and inexplicable. As the show went on, Narayan did experiments more closely related to those developed by the CIA, with varying degrees of success. They continued to be impressive, especially when they worked, but I wasn't exactly sure what his point was - it was never explicit whether he wanted us to see the influence of the experimenter in the supposed 'paranormality', or whether he wanted us to realise for sure that psychic powers do exist, or indeed whether he wanted us to leave none the wiser, but with a fence on which we could sit in a less ignorant state. I feel a more explicit conclusion to the piece would improve it; I came away feeling slightly unfulfilled.

In any case, it was an interesting evening's entertainment, and the hybrid history/illusion genre is one which certainly warrants further attention: with further development, it could certainly be a winning combo.

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