Bullet Catch is not your typical magic show. Yes, there are card tricks and levitating tables and plenty of other illusions that will leave you wondering what just happened. But at its heart, Rob Drummond's Bullet Catch is an exploration of free will. And at no point in the show is this explored more than in Drummond's final trick: the bullet catch itself. Over the course of the performance, Drummond, as the character William Wonder, tells the history of this supremely dangerous trick, how it is done, and the lives that it has claimed. After having done this, Wonder performs the bullet catch with a member of the audience holding the gun. Will the audience member go through with the trick, knowing full well that they may kill Wonder, and do they even have a choice in the matter? Recently, we had a chance to talk to Drummond about his show, the lies we tell ourselves, and the one time the bullet catch didn't go as planned.
City Paper: We've heard that you offer audience members a chance to leave the show before you perform the bullet catch trick. Why? And what does it tell you about audiences that they leave knowing full well that the trick is a trick?
Rob Drummond: Is it a trick? It's more accurately a stunt. I think it's more interesting that people stay. If everyone left then there would be absolutely no chance of anyone being injured or killed or mentally scarred because the show would stop. However controlled the stunt is, there's always the chance it will go wrong and the people who leave do so because their conscience tells them this is not something they should be party to.
CP: In an essay not too long ago, Teller of Penn and Teller fame wrote about the seven principles magicians use to manipulate audiences: 1. Exploit pattern recognition. 2. Make the secret a lot more trouble than the trick seems worth. 3. It's hard to think critically if you're laughing. 4. Keep the trickery outside the frame. 5. To fool the mind, combine at least two tricks. 6. Nothing fools you better than the lie you tell yourself. 7. If you are given a choice, you believe you have acted freely. Do you agree with Teller?
RD: Exploiting pattern recognition is something I do every time I write a play. It's not just confined to magic. You take the audience on a journey and use their existing preconceptions about that journey to trick them before revealing something unexpected. That's drama. There's also plenty of humor in Bullet Catch, and I constantly offer the assistant choices as the show goes on. In fact, one of the things I am investigating in the show is free will and if it is even possible. Most people haven't even questioned this and believe in free will almost blindly. But in my show I explain how this is just an illusion.
CP: How important is the lie you tell yourself in Bullet Catch and in the type of magic you do?
RD: Again, this is important to all types of art, not just magic. If you're watching a play and you think, "Oh, he's not really the prince of Denmark, he's just an actor," then it's going to be difficult to get lost in it. Similarly, in Bullet Catch if you step back and look at the show hyper-critically and cynically, then you won't get the same enjoyment as someone who just goes along with it and allows themselves to believe — if only for an hour.
CP: Why does the bullet catch still captivate us today even though we know that it's an illusion?
RD: On a purely evolutionary basis, people like the bullet catch because it's a misfiring of the impulse to train for dangerous situations. That's why we have an impulse to rubberneck at car crashes and partake in dangerous sports — we like the feeling of adrenaline because it's historically been useful to our very distant ancestors' survival and it's hung around even though we don't need it in exactly the same way anymore.
CP: Spoleto audiences are going to want to know this: Are they or you at any time actually in danger during the show?
RD: Them, no. Me, yes.
CP: How did you stumble upon the idea to have an audience member come on stage and fire the bullet and not an assistant? Why is this a particularly effective component to the bullet catch?
RD: I've always been interested in the relationship between the performer and the audience and have often used audience members in my shows. But not in a mean way. I never make fun of them or use them in a way that will cause them emotional harm. I was interested to see if you could actually ask someone to shoot you and what that would mean about the trust you had built up with them during the show. What you see in Bullet Catch is a real live relationship-building between two people. I've only got an hour to get to know them and they can drop out at any time. In this sense the show is real. I'm not faking this relationship.
CP: I've read that there is a sense of foreboding and dread that builds throughout the show. If so, what steps did you take to make this happen and why was it important to do so?
RD: Show me a drama that doesn't have some sort of emotional build which climaxes in the final act and I'll show you a bad drama. The tricks become more and more dangerous as the show goes on, and it's my job to keep the assistant feeling safe and comfortable. That's where the tension lies in the show — between my care and attention to the assistant and the growing sense that things are not as much in our control as we think they are.
CP: What are some of the common reactions from the audience member chosen to come on stage? What are some of the more extreme reactions that you've seen?
RD: Some of them are calm, almost blasé about the whole thing, but more often than not they are a little nervous and hesitant when the finale comes. We have only had one show where no Bullet Catch happened — the assistant simply point blank refused. This seemed a dramatic enough ending, and so I wrapped up the show there. What was interesting was that the audience wasn't happy. They wanted to see me shot, so the ending became a kind of challenge to the audience of 'Why do you want so badly to see her point a gun at me and pull the trigger? Can't you be happy that she likes me enough not to risk it?" Once an audience member chose to tell me she had dyspraxia (a difficulty judging space, distance, and direction) right at the moment she was about to pull the trigger. That was interesting. We've had pensioners, disabled people, an usher, my mother, an epileptic, and a millionaire theater producer take part. It's never dull.