Keith Barry on his sinning ways
Master mentalist Keith Barry is back with what has now become an annual summer residency at Dublin’s Olympia Theatre.
Last year he invited audiences into The Asylum. This year we’re being taken on a tour of the eight deadly sins – that’s the conventional seven plus one of Keith’s own.
Having been assured that the eighth sin that he’ll be demonstrating on stage has nothing to do with masturbation, we caught up with Keith to ask him about the new show, upsetting religious types, getting hypnotised himself and his ‘American’ accent.
JOE: Another year and another run of shows at the Olympia. Can we expect a fair few new tricks this time around?
Keith Barry: It’s completely different. For instance, unlike in The Asylum, the show I did last year, there’s very little hypnosis in 8 Deadly Sins. In The Asylum a full half of the show was based on hypnosis.
I always come up with the name of the show first and then backtrack. Last year I came up with the title The Asylum and then did crazy research into what happened in asylums in the past. With this show I did masses of research into the seven deadly sins. There will be an eighth deadly sin revealed in the Olympia, and all of the routines are designed to slot in to the seven, or rather eight, deadly sins.
For instance, I’m getting a confession box made where people from the audience will come up and mentally confess imaginary sins.
Keith: Yeah, I learnt the hard way that people weren’t buying tickets for a while because they were thinking that I might reveal that they’re cheating on their wife or that they robbed a house last week, so we’re getting people to come up with imaginary sins. If they can’t think of one, there’ll be a ‘sin wall’ with about 400 funny sins posted on it that they can choose from.
There’s escapology in this show. I’ve been getting my head wrapped in clingfilm every second or third night. If you’ve never had your head wrapped in clingfilm before, I can tell you it’s an unnerving experience. It’s way worse than putting your head in a plastic bag – something that I hope nobody reading this has done, but which I’ve done many times as research.
I try to make every show that I come up with different in terms of content and different visually. I’ve had two 11-foot coffins made for this new show...
JOE: Are you expecting bizarrely tall people to turn up and volunteering to get involved in your antics?
Keith: No, just to make sure that nobody injures themselves when they fall into the coffins – and someone from the audience will fall into a coffin every single night.
Everything is designed to bring people into a fantasy world where they’ll laugh until their faces hurt, and hopefully be amazed as well.
JOE: I’ve heard that you plan to hypnotise the whole audience. What if people turn up who just want to pay their money and observe rather than actively be involved in the show – can they do that?
Keith: Eh, yes and no. I’ve never had a problem getting people to take part. Last time I had people running in order to get on the stage to take part. I had to turn people away.
You can just go and be an observer... for the most part. Every single person in the audience will be involved in two of the things I’m doing. People will have no option but to go home with a semi-permanent reminder of the Eight Deadly Sins that’ll be with them for around a week...
If you want to come along but really don’t want to come on stage, then I’m not going to force someone to do so. With all my shows, I think people are healthily nervous of coming up on stage.
People are nervous because they don’t fully understand what I do or how I do it. They don’t fully understand how I can read body language or hypnotise people or how I do what I do.
I think this will be the most visual show I’ve put together. Mentalism can sometimes be visually boring – there’s not a lot to look at – but with this show there definitely is. It’s a visual feast.
JOE: So will you be taking 8 Deadly Sins on tour after the Olympia run, as you have with previous shows?
Keith: Not straight away. I’ve decided not to tour at all this year. We’re using big props, there’s a big stage set – it’s not something that will easily tour so we’ll have to look at how we can adapt the show to take it on the road.
JOE: Keith, you seem to enjoy being the one in control of proceedings when you’re up on stage, but have you ever been hypnotised yourself? Have you ever been the one in the chair being told to close your eyes and go into a deep sleep?
Keith: Yes I have.
Keith: No, not recently. The only time I was hypnotised was when I was 14 or 15 and that was by a man called Paul Golden, who a lot of people will remember.
Paul was the foremost hypnotist in Ireland in the 70s, 80s and 90s. He was my idol and inspiration and I went to see him putting on a show in my hometown of Waterford. He hypnotised a whole bunch of people on stage, gradually whittling it down until there were only four or five of us left – meaning that I was one of the best subjects.
I remember that at one point I was doing a sort of striptease routine, at another point I was singing like Elvis and that by the end of the show I was running around after leprechauns.
Paul has passed away now, but I got to know him before he died. He and his wife Helen were very generous to me. He shared a lot of information with me that he hadn’t shared with people previously.
I’ve not really spoken about this before in an interview, but they were in a car crash on the way back from Waterford to Dublin after hypnotising me and Paul never performed another stage show again, making me one of the last five or so people to ever be hypnotised by him.
JOE: So did your idol ever get to see his young protégé perform?
Keith: He got to see me once or twice before he passed away.
I found out early in my career that I didn’t want to work with animals or kids, which is why it’s an ‘over 16s’ show. Back in those days it was fine to hypnotise someone aged 14 or 15, but with my show I make sure that they’re over 18.
JOE: Given the dark nature of the shows you do, and the shock factor, have you ever fallen foul of any religious groups?
Keith: No I’ve never been at the receiving end of the wrath of any religious group of any kind. No religious movement has ever said that they’ve anything against me. What I do is entertainment. I try to push the envelope. I don’t necessarily go for the shock factor, I just push myself and I want to push people as far as they’ll go. In other words, I want to push people over that cliff edge and take them on a rollercoaster right that’s a real adrenalin rush.
I don’t want people to just turn up to my show and watch a man going through a load of tricks. I want them to go through an emotional rollercoaster where they laugh for a while, then go serious and almost have people crying.
So I haven’t had any problems yet, but I suppose with a show called 8 Deadly Sins I could be inviting trouble – even though the show’s got nothing to do with religion, some people might take offence at the name. If they do, they do... but I’m not going to worry too much about them.
JOE: You're just going to get on with doing your new show, right? Does it get harder to come up with new stuff year after year?
Keith: I get bored. I get pissed off with seeing comedians or singers doing the same set for nine or ten years. You can’t enjoy doing the same stuff for ten years. It gets stale and you get to the point where you’ve got to fake your enthusiasm.
Some manage to fake it very well, but I don’t want to do that. I want to continue to grow and I want to continue to enjoy what I do, and the only way to do that is if I change the show every year. It gets more difficult, which is why I think some people don’t bother changing their act, but the day I stop changing what I do is the day I’ll stop touring.
JOE: One last thing, Keith. We’ve had a look at an episode from the latest series you’ve done for the Discovery Channel in the States...
JOE: ... and we’ve noticed you’ve developed this mid-Atlantic Irish-American twang. Have we imagined it or do you change your accent when you’re working over there?
Keith: I do. As you say, you can hear it on my Discovery Channel show. I have to slow down and give my voice an American twang. Sometimes I get a lot of stick over here for doing it, but people don’t realise that I have to give a bit of American lingo and twang to endear myself to the people over there.
I don’t like doing it, and sometimes I find myself developing an American twang, and when that happens I can’t wait to get back to Ireland, where I’ll very quickly get my proper Irish accent back.
8 Deadly Sins opens at the Olympia Theatre, Dublin on 13 July. Tickets are available from www.ticketmaster.ie