By Bridgette M. Redman
How long does it take to get to know someone in an authentic way? How about if it is in front of a room full of strangers and the getting-to-know-you period will end with one person shooting another?
These were some of the ideas that Rob Drummond, a Scottish actor and magician, was playing with when he created his show “Bullet Catch.” He also had a story to tell, the story of a magician who performed the trick many times and died on stage during a performance of the trick.
“Bullet Catch” is coming to Ann Arbor’s Arthur Miller Theatre, courtesy of the University Musical Society, Jan. 7-12. Opening night will include a post-show question and answer period.
The bullet trick is when someone fires a loaded gun at a magician and he catches the bullet – usually in his teeth. William Henderson died in 1912 while performing the trick. Much mystery surrounded the death, as it may have been intentional – a planned suicide on the part of Henderson, or possibly even a murder on the part of the spectator who was called upon to perform the trick.
“I’d been doing some reading about bullet catchers who did the trick,” Drummond said. “There was one case of a magician who had died live on stage in London. Rumor was he had planned an elaborate suicide, and the audience member he chose was an unwitting volunteer in his death. The volunteer thought it was a magic trick and ended up killing him. It’s never been proven, and is quite dubious. It is the starting point for the story that I’m telling.”
Like all good stories, though, the plot is merely the means to an end: It is the way that Drummond explores his theme.
“Just like any other play, you need to set up the context in the first act,” Drummond said. “There is a small section where I do a very brief history of bullet catchers who died. It’s not really about the history of the bullet catch. It is more about that one person and examines the human connection and how he could do that – use someone in the audience in that way. It uses the bullet catch to deliver a story about humanity.”
And in so doing, he re-enacts the theme of the story with an assistant he chooses from the audience. That assistant helps him perform magic tricks throughout the show, starting with mind-reading tricks that lets Drummond connect to his assistant and the audience get to know that person.
“The reason the show exists, other than to satisfy my desire to be a magician, is just to test this idea that I had in the beginning about whether or not it is possible to meet a stranger on stage and get to know them in one hour in front of an audience and for it to not be artificial.”
To do this, he said he had to get away from some of the styles that other magicians have. He wanted to make sure he was genuinely connecting with his assistant so that they could share a unique experience with the audience.
“(Some other magicians) treat them like a prop, make fun of them and make jokes at their expense,” Drummond said of the volunteers who are pulled up from the audience in other shows. “There is a cheapness in that. I want to genuinely get to know them on stage. The audience feels like they all know each other.”
It takes a certain instinct to pick a volunteer from the audience. He starts by filtering out people who have been drinking, are under 18, and who are shy about talking about themselves in front of others. He also tries to avoid those who are too eager to be the volunteer and who might try to steal the show.
The assistant then joins him in several tricks, from simple “mind-reading” ones to those that start to build trust between them and increase the risk of harm to the magician. In the end, the gun comes out and the volunteer must decide whether he or she is willing to pull the trigger.
“The audience member I take up on stage, they kind of have an inkling. I do a lot of other tricks and slowly build up to the finale,” Drummond said. “Everyone knows it is going to happen, but no one really believes until it does. It’s the elephant in the room.”
He said the reaction varies. There are those who will point blank refuse to go through it and he will either try to persuade them to do it or substitute someone else to do it. He said there was only one show in which there was not a bullet catch at the end. Audience members have been known to boo the person who refuses to go through with it.
In those instances, Drummond has told the audience, “All they’ve done is choose not to shoot me. It’s kind of a bizarre thing to be booing.”
He also said there are those who grab the gun with a twinkle in their eye and have absolutely no difficulty going through with it.
“It makes for a chilling ending when they don’t hesitate,” Drummond said. “I don’t think anyone thinks it is going to end in a death, but they want to flirt with that danger.”
Up to that point, he provides the assistant with plenty of moments to reveal personal information.
“I don’t push for that, but sometimes they feel comfortable enough to do it,” Drummond said. “We’ve had some quite lovely moments – when they’ve met their partner – or moments of pure joy. Or they would reveal horrific things. It seems exploitative, and I feel like a bit of a bastard. I guide them and hold them by the hand, and if they want to say it they can.”
The result, he said, is that people get up there and relax enough to tell wonderful stories.
“The success, among all the fakery, is we have something real there. We’re talking to a person openly and honestly.”
University Musical Society at the Arthur Miller Theatre, 1226 Murfin Ave., Ann Arbor. 7:30 p.m. Jan. 7-9, 8 p.m. Jan. 10-11, & 2 p.m. Jan. 11-12. Approximately 1 hour, 15 minutes; no intermission. Tickets begin at $40. 734-763-3333 http://www.ums.org.