By BRUCE DENNILL
English mentalist Chris Cox is a supremely confident performer, much of whose appeal, ironically, lies in massive self-deprecation – he pitches himself as a “mindreader who can’t read minds”. That’s a very British approach, appreciated by fans of everyone from Monty Python to Hugh Grant.
Does that play equally well in the many countries that Cox travels to when on tour?
“So far, it’s played everywhere,” says Cox, “but I never really know until my first performance in a new place, when I’m always making decisions on stage, and adapting to audiences as I go.
“As an attitude, that self-deprecation is just who I am. It becomes interesting in a context like The Illusionists show, where it’s billed as ‘the greatest show ever, with the most amazing performers.’
“I like to keep it simpler. When I get to a new country, I try out some jokes on my taxi drivers – poor guys – and ask them what the local versions of certain jokes are, and if they work well.”
Cox also takes a cheekily British approach to using his name to keep his marketable persona front and centre – his Twitter handle is @bigcox, for instance.
“It’s my name! My thinking is: do the obvious jokes before others do. And it can be like a joke in the pantomime tradition, which is still a big thing in England, which works on more than one level. I don’t go that route at shows, though – there’s no potentially rude merchandise or anything like that.”
The science – or trickery – of mentalism aside, how much of a challenge is it for Cox to come up with the scenarios and set-ups that create the drama and entertainment value in his act? Sets, costumes and props all play a useful role, as does his extensive network of friendly celebrities.
“Mine is the kind of gig that suffers from the law of diminishing returns,” Cox concedes. “I’m very jealous of my musician friends who can go out and play their greatest hits every time. The greatest challenge for me is to use the same ingredients in a new way. I do that by asking what interests me – and there, I might take my cues from films or theatre or whatever.
“There’s a bit I do in The Illusionists, for instance, that’s been in my head for about 12 years, and the joy of a show like this is that I can tweak and make small changes every night and make it as strong as possible. When I’m working on TV, there’s always strict time pressure and it’s a different kind of headspace. I sometimes see YouTube clips and I genuinely can’t remember how I did the trick, while in live performances I can work on nuances as I go.”
All of that said, there must be a finite number of options that can be included in a show?
“Part of going to a new place like South Africa is that I can do my best or favourite bits knowing that most of the audience won’t have seen them,” Cox notes.
“In the UK, I may have to only do certain bits because of the size of the room or the audience’s familiarity with me. Each show is a bit like meeting a person. You begin with small talk, and then, once you’re more comfortable with each other, you take it a bit further. In The Illusionists, it’s big high after big high as each act ends and you have to make people believe that you’re meant to be there. Part of making that work is knowing that there are folks in the building who are just like me – a bit geeky, a bit quirky. My audience, my people.”
Cox has a huge workload, being either currently or recently involved in a BBC television show, a West End theatre show, touring shows like The Illusionist and performing at festivals and more in between. That sort of capacity has to come with the territory, but it’s clearly not all glamour and groupies…
“In being on tour, there is an element of being on holiday, and when I travel, I try to embed myself in the local culture,” says Cox.
“With a long run of shows, I need to keep my energy up – it’s always at the back of my mind that there’s a show tonight. I like to get to the theatre early, to sit on the state and look out and then to go and sit somewhere in the theatre to see what the audience sees and get myself mentally ready, with all my energy focused on what I’m doing.
“I do have some little rituals. I always find a Lucozade or some sort of energy drink before a show, and it must always be the blue one. I like to stand side-stage for the two acts before me and watch the audience. And I always put my left shoe on first. I don’t think I’m at all superstitious, actually – it’s just the sort of thing that centres me and helps me to remember where I am in the show when I’m on stage.”
Distractions must be easier to come by when there are new cities to explore.
“They are,” agrees Cox, “but you can manage that. I always make sure I’m back at the hotel on time, to rest and prepare. I also know I need to turn my phone off sometimes. Checking Twitter just before I go on won’t do anything for my concentration. There’s also the task of keeping my diary full at home while I’m disconnected from my normal routine – I don’t want to get back from tour and have no work to do.
“When I’m in a new place, I try to only do two or three things a week. I’m a big restaurant fan, so I’ll always ask around and see where the good places are to eat out.”
Multi-performer shows like The Illusionists are – it stands to reason – different challenges to solo outings. With, among other things, multiple egos involved, how are the various relationships managed?
“The world of magic is very small,” says Cox. “You’ve probably seen or met most of the people you’re going to perform with at some point. I think we all come at it from the point of view of working to make our own sets as good as possible and respecting the effort each of us puts in and the different ways each of us like to do things. For instance, I like to chat to other people backstage before I go on because that relaxes me. But others don’t, and that’s ok – we avoid each other at that time.
“Offstage, we all stay at the same hotel when we’re on tour, which is all a bit like Big Brother sometimes. But we do get to meet for drink from time to time. Being a magician is generally a solitary pursuit, so when we find ourselves in a social situation, it’s an opportunity to exchange ideas, which is always interesting.”
Ensemble shows also need their audiences to be amazed and enthused throughout. Is there some sort of quality audit that takes place behind the scenes as the tour progresses or do the performers’ egos and passion for their craft ensire that the performers continuously give their best?
“This kind of group show is only as good as all of us together, and we all share that mentality,” notes Cox. “I feel like the luckiest person in the world to be doing this, so I want to give my best. I feel that the audience has paid good money for their tickets, and it might be someone’s birthday or another special occasion. As performers, we all have our memories of moments of wonder for us when we went to a show like this, so we need to make sure we don’t get sloppy or lazy and ruin that for someone else. We also have an associate director, Holly, who’s with us every day and gives us notes – which I love, as I can constantly refine my process.”
The Illusionists Direct From Broadway, featuring Harrison Greenbaum, Darcy Oake, Krendl, Ben Blaque, Mark Kalin and Jinger Leigh, Den Den and Chris Cox runs at GrandWest Casino in Cape Town from 7 to 11 February and at the Teatro at Montecasino in Johannesburg from 14 February to 11 March. Book at Computicket.