BWW Interview: Beyond Mental Borders' Armand Antony & Alexandra Brynn Are Redefining Mentalism In Toronto
As they near the end of their first year, Beyond Mental Borders-comprised of Armand Antony and Alexandra Brynn-has seen their act go farther than they could have anticipated. Their live show CONNECTION, held twice monthly at The Rec Room, has become an incredibly popular event that's sold out it's last few shows with no sign of slowing down.
On a cool autumn morning, Antony and Brynn were already tucked away in a cozy corner of a downtown Toronto café when I arrived. They're young, friendly, have great chemistry (based on how often they could finish each other's sentences), and don't subscribe to the stereotypes other magicians and mentalists often fall into-making our conversation about their whirlwind of a year all the more interesting.
Let's start at the beginning; how did you both get into mentalism?
Antony: I started off with card tricks just to mess around with people at work, and eventually learned how to flip that around into the concept of mind reading, and realized just how much more of a reaction I got from that. I got to see a couple different mentalists and see their performances, and there's something just way more intriguing about someone who can influence an audience in that way, so I started learning, trying to figure out what could be done and what was possible.
Brynn: I'm an actor, so I had a weird introduction-magic and I came together without me really knowing it. Back in the UK I was performing in a Hollywood Special Effects show produced by the company that does Champions of Magic; I was around all this magic so it kind of rubbed off on me. Fast forward to this year, Armand was looking for a partner to develop the act, so we just came together and it all sort of worked out.
What was that act that you were working on?
Antony: The act originally started with myself and a friend of mine, because I was petrified of doing a variety show slot I was offered alone; I had never done anything like it before. And my friend had done some assisting before, but I decided I didn't really want to do the cliché magician-assistant thing. When Alexandra came on, it started off as the two of us trying things out, and it just worked out for us.
Brynn: We had our first meeting in here, at that table over there!
Antony: Basically when we met, we had three weeks before our very first show. So that was fun!
Brynn: It was a lot of reading, a lot of rehearsing, but you're a fun person to work with.
You both seem to have a great connection (pardon the pun), so I'm curious-what was the dynamic like when you first started working together?
Brynn: One of the first things when I came into it, I hadn't seen his show previously, but was I saying that especially in this day and age, the whole girl coming onstage with a Vegas showgirl attitude and assisting or being sawed in half was not for me. There are a few jokes in the show about it, and how that's not our deal. We were coming at it from an equal partnership, and having a strong female character onstage is really important to what we do and in making our audience comfortable.
Antony: I think also-Alexandra's said this, too-you can probably count the number of female magicians in Toronto or in Canada on one hand, which sucks, and I'm glad that we have a...
Brynn: Yeah, a platform to try and promote females in magic or mentalism. I forget what show it was, but there were these two little girls off to the side of the stage who were bouncing around and dancing throughout the whole thing, and after they came up to me and gave me a big hug and said "That was so cool, we wanna do that!" which was so nice because in the past magic or mentalism was more of a thing that boys did with a deck of cards.
My main thing was I wanted to make our show accessible. When I was younger and thought about magic shows I'd think about David Copperfield or older men doing this big thing-and David Copperfield is amazing, I'm not saying he's not-but I wanted to make our show a thing where people could come and see it even if they didn't know anything about magic or mentalism. And it's not a guy in a suit and a woman in a sparkly dress; it's more like jeans and a leather jacket, and just being cool instead of stuffy.
Now for anyone reading who might not understand mentalism, what would you say is the best way to describe it?
Antony: My favourite way of describing it is, where magic is sleight of hand, mentalism is sleight of mind. Our goal is to create the perception of mind reading, and mind reading isn't real. For us it's just using a variety of different skill sets, so it's using body language, micro expressions, psychology, it's a lot of reading that goes into just trying to look at a concentrated thought and peel that apart, and reveal it to yourself or the audience or whoever.
Brynn: We say right at the beginning of the show, you know we're not psychics, we're not mediums, we're not fortune tellers. We don't claim to do any of that stuff. All the stuff that we're doing is just studying who comes into the room. It's a lot of people watching and trying to gleam what we can, or using psychology and some of those mental tricks to try and influence what choices people might make. It's pairing (the science) with what goes into making a show, and what goes into theatre.
Does your expertise in mentalism have any effect your relationships outside of work?
Antony: I'd say anytime I have something I'm working on, I take it to my dad. The atmosphere changes from 'we're having a good time,' to just 'no, no, no, no,' (laughs) because while he finds it fun, he has to walk away for five minutes to try and process it and he's always like "I can't figure it out."
Brynn: My family lives in BC, but even my mom who's a huge magic skeptic, looks at what we do and thinks it's interesting because of the psychology behind it. She finds it really cool to see how the mind works.
And outside of family-is it something you always have running in the back of your mind, or can you shut it down pretty easily?
Antony: I personally don't look around the room and study people. I will say there are certain components that you start to learn over time, there's a fun little routine where you try to determine what someone's tells are when they're lying. Even being on a date I've found my mind could be going through a million things and I have to step back and say, I need to turn this off right now because I'm just not paying attention to what I'm supposed to be.
Brynn: One of the funniest things happened on a walk-around at an event. There was this big group of guys and we were messing with their heads a little bit, and this one came up and was like "Oh man, I don't know if I'd want to date you because you'd totally get in my head, you know what I'm thinking right now!" So it is funny, and you learn to anticipate what people are going to think or say, but I'm not sitting here watching you and going like, she's going to do this when she gets home later, and she's going to take the TTC (which, for the record, I did do) but you definitely do get more aware of people's emotions or reactions to things.
Let's talk a bit more about CONNECTION. You mentioned you tend to alter the act on a month-to-month basis-could you walk me through that development process?
Brynn: I think it changes, so sometimes one of us will come into the room and go "Hey, wouldn't it be really cool if we did this thing, but we did it completely different in this way?" Then we workshop things, try to figure them out, but it is very hard with the nature of what we do for us to be in a room working together without people to test things out on-so we use some of the other shows we do around the city to test those things out, workshop them, and then bring something into CONNECTION when we feel confident with it.
Antony: We've been looking into 2020, and there's been a lot of us saying "Wouldn't it be cool if we did this, this, this and this?" But there's no method-
Brynn: No, we're not looking through a handbook of how things are done, it's more like "This would be a cool idea, why don't we figure something out with this?"
Antony: And then we have three months to figure out exactly how we're going to do it.
Brynn: It's not like we're writing a story; we have to figure out how it's going to be done, how it's going to look to the audience, will these steps make sense to them-because the audience needs to understand what we're doing in real time. We've had times where we've tried to do something and explained it to a person and they go "Wait, that step is confusing, and that step is confusing," and we have to take a step back and realize that we need to explain more, or in a different way.
I guess directing audience members and having them involved has resulted in some tests not working out exactly as planned?
Antony: Oh, what an interesting time to ask that question!
Brynn: First of all we have people on stage, and these people-all the venues that we perform in are venues where alcohol is supplied-and you never really know who's been drinking. And we never say, you know, if you've had more than five drinks don't put up your hand. So, there is that aspect when people come onstage, you never really know what they're going to say or what's going to happen, or if they're going to drop something. But because our show is real and it's done in real time, some things are going to be different. Sometimes things go wrong, and when they do we have to rely on our connection-no pun intended-and our style as performers to carry it through and just say, you know, this stuff is not science, it's an art form-things go wrong, but that's often when things are the funniest, I think, and when the audience has the most fun because they see us poking fun at ourselves.
Antony: I think it also makes us, the whole performance, a little bit more human. We say right from the beginning that mentalism isn't about illusions, or us making something disappear-this is us using a variety of skills to try and figure out what people are thinking. And believe me, if we could do that at 100% accuracy, we'd be in a great place! Not just in this act, but in life in general! So, I mean, sometimes it's just as honest as saying "Okay, cool, we didn't get that right and that's totally okay, but we also have another 59 minutes of the show where everything has gone right."
Antony: I think it doesn't really ruin any credibility, but if we were missing everything it'd be a different story!
You can see Beyond Mental Borders monthly at The Rec Room, 255 Bremner Blvd., Toronto, ON.
For more information or to purchase tickets, visit https://www.beyondmentalborders.com/tickets
Photo courtesy of Beyond Mental Borders
This interview has been edited and condensed.