Tag Archives: performance

The magic suit

21 Jul

Here is a question for you: when was the last time you thought about magic and who did you think of? Harry Houdini locking himself in a milk can full of water? Gentle Doug Henning’s colourful clothing and wild Styx hair? Perhaps the handsome David Copperfield making large objects disappear?

I happen to have met a couple of real life magicians recently and found myself fascinated by their craft and curious that I could apply image principles to what they do and what they wear for their jobs. For the next two weeks, I will be discussing modern magic in ways that you didn’t expect, in ways to delight and amaze you, and before your very eyes, dear reader, I will draw parallels between what a magician does and what I do as an image consultant, for we both work magic!

James Alan, Magician

James Alan, Magician

Magic and the performance of magic is older than we commonly think it is. Although its roots go back thousands of years to shamanistic practices, what we currently think of as a “magic show” dates back at least to the 1800s, and has gone through many incarnations. Today, there are illusionists, mentalists, sleight-of-hand entertainers, and impossibilists, but a few are true to the original tradition and uphold the practice of old-fashioned magic. Toronto-based  James Alan is one of these magicians. He practices old school magic, modernizing timeless classic tricks for current audiences, and pays homage to the respectful dress of the magician and the magician’s tools.

I met James at a Pride party last month and he wowed all of us with card and coin tricks. I don’t like to be fooled but there was something so astounding about what he was doing that I was floored – i.e. I was told to pick a card from the deck, shuffle it back in, and then found the same card tucked into a book of matches James had given me several minutes before I had chosen the card. Other party-goers were also in awe except for Jonathan who needed further proof.

“You want to impress me?” he leaned in to ask, “Pull the 10 of hearts out of my underwear.”

“Stand up,” James responded confidently (much to Jonathan’s delight).

Laughing, Jonathan obeyed.

“Unzip your fly,” James commanded (much to Jonathan’s delight).

“He showed me both hands which were empty, and then he “went to work” on my fly. Out came his hand, and folded up in his hand was the 10 of Hearts!” Jonathan explained, “Hilarious!”

When wardrobe is part of the show

A magic show is very theatrical and requires special garments and props to do it properly. To illustrate the importance of functionality in a magician’s wardrobe, James told me about being a guest performer at a Victorian séance in St. Cameron, Ontario at the end of  this month, where he will carry 4 lemons and a bottle of champagne on his person without looking stuffed or fat and make it look natural. The magician is much like an actor this way, integrating his wardrobe/costume (with all of the props stuffed in) into his stage act and make like nothing about him is different. Imagine how much you would have to be aware of to pull that off.

James believes in the self-fulfilling prophecy in his dress and chooses to dress like a gentleman in fine Hugo Boss suits and quality Allen Edmonds shoes, dressing at a level just above what his audience is wearing in an effort to show respect to his audience, his craft, and also to draw respect from the crowd.


His wardrobe must be about fashion and function, and the more pieces he’s got on, the more magic he can perform. Adding a third piece to a suit raises not only James’ confidence but the magic bar: with more places to stash props, James can perform longer with more tricks. Also, he has some pocket modifications done on his new suits and has a secret extra pocket sewn in somewhere to contain extra magic wonders.

“Part of being a magician means having what you need at your fingertips,” James explains, “so I try not to work with bags or cases when I perform – everything I work with is on me, waiting to be used in my show. That’s where the functional advantage of wearing a suit really comes in.”

James also believes that wearing a proper suit gives a better show. I agree with this because I know what wearing a suit can do to boost a guy’s confidence. Also, The Temptations and all of your favourite Motown acts agree that “you play better in your suit – neat, dignified.” (Shout out to Roddy Doyle for this Joey “The Lips” Fagan line in The Commitments.)

Business casual

James sees dressing at a level just above his audience as advantageous, making him stand apart and look more professional. I know that in the business world, we’re quickly moving from formal wardrobes to business casual dressing which has its good and bad points, but there is no doubt that spiffing up draws good attention and makes an excellent impression on people. (I always feel nice around well dressed people, don’t you?)

Even though we’ve been moving into the casual-for-business realm for going on 20 years, I think that many men are still confused by the “business casual” concept and some tell me that they long for the ease of a stylish suit. A casual wardrobe also impacts James, making his magic shows shorter because when he loses pieces, he loses pockets, and the fewer pockets, the fewer magical hiding places, dig?

Prop substance

James is not only dressing well for what he’s doing, but uses unusual and substantial props in his act (what I think of as wardrobe accessories). He showed me the coins he uses in his act – real silver dollars from the 1870s, silk hankies, lengths of soft Italian rope, and decorative silver cups. James pulled a heavy and elegant platinum and resin pen from his inside pocket, explaining that accessories were just as important as the clothing they’re worn with.

And with that, I have a confession. James whipped out his gorgeous writing instrument while I sat sweating in the heavy heat of July, scribbling notes with a plastic mechanical pencil that I’ve had since university. The contrast shouted at me and I knew that my cheap pencil could be considered an “image breaker”, but I knew it and owned it. I like writing with a pencil and I like writing with that pencil, so I write with it, speaking of self-fulfilling prophecy.

Complex simplicity

“What is simple to an audience is complex to me,” James says.

When we talked about his suits, I delighted to know that he works this idea into his wardrobe by wearing tone-on-tone striped suits “for the sake of irony,” he calls it, “what appears simple is actually complicated.”

Sounds familiar.

In my business, what might seem like an easy change on the outside has a lot of very complex preparation behind it. I take time to learn about my client and put into practice the principles of dressing, balance, proportion, and colour, influenced by the client’s lifestyle and personality (the research) before we shop and tailor (the transformation). (The research paper comes a little later in the form of personalized image/dressing notes.)

James and I know about the power of clothing and work suitable and workable wardrobes that reflect the occasion or the task at hand into our acts, so we’re both practical this way. We work behind the scenes and we’re technical, we understand that the parts of the performance and the parts of the image are equally important and all work together to dazzle and amaze!

So what I want you to understand is that behind all magic is a whole lot of work. The trick is making it look effortless.

Naked, in disguise

9 Jun

Bowden as the Nike streaker in 2007. Click the image to watch the ad.

When people think of Mark Bowden, they might think of his 2010 book, Winning Body Language or see his techniques and coaching used by Stephen Harper in the 2011 election debates, or perhaps they think of his high-level training for high-level politicians and business leaders. But do people think of Mark beyond these terms?

I can’t speak for anyone else, but I do. When I met with Mark recently, we talked about things other than the obvious business stuff, things like clothing and theatre and how they have affected him in different stages and incarnations of his life.

Respectful dress

When I met him, we wore a navy pinstripe Etro jacket with a fabulous patterned lining. His garb was simple and elegant with minimal but bold accessories. He likes Paul Smith and Ozwald Boateng of Savile Row for suits and sides with me on the importance of tailoring.

Mark is deliberate and likes to draw attention to small but substantial details in his dress because besides being stylish, these details can actually serve a purpose. He likes weighty French cuffs that are visible under his jacket sleeves to draw the eye to his hands (he works with them, you know), and he loves to wear red socks and red cotton shoe laces to go with his handmade Jeffery West red-lined shoes from Jermyn Street in London – the bright socks keep people interested and visually engaged during long presentations, you see.

We agree that looking one’s best is not only a positive reflection of ourselves but it is an act of respect for others.

“I care for my audience so I make an effort,” as Mark puts it.

We have other commonalities. For instance, Mark and I actually come from the same place, the theatre, but I studied design and he studied performance. Though the disciplines might be different, we both understand that theatre is about illusion and potential (i.e. not what it is, but what it could be), and we both use these theatrical concepts in our work.


Knowing about Mark’s performance training really adds a fascinating dimension to his professional body language and presentation services and I can appreciate the complex emotional power behind his work.

Mark studied performing arts at Middlesex University, London, under one of Europe’s leading practitioners of mask theatre, John Wright. As a performer, he describes his training as “liberating, using the mask as a tool to disguise yourself from the audience and subsequently feel more free to give deeper emotions and dramas to them.”

The actor uses the mask to acquire a deep connection to the character, a concept with very primal roots, back to the age of hunters who wore the heads of the animals hunted to absorb the spirit of the animal and as a disguise to trick the spirits.

While at Middlesex, John sent Mark to Philippe Gaulier, a performance master who impressed Mark with Melodrama, or “cheers and tears” as Mark described it.

This theatrical genre can give an audience clarity and perspective, causing people to “gain consciousness in the horror of their real lives,” he says. It also has the capacity to quickly change the way an entire audience feels with its pathos and big, passionate emotions. Mark learned how to master his emotions and the emotion of breath patterns to influence and interact with his audiences, so not only is he affecting the way people feel, but the potential for them to feel.

3 Roles, 3 Costumes

As an actor, Mark must incorporate costumes into his character as if he (as the character) really owns the clothes or as though he really is the embodiment of the creature he is dressed as and make it seem natural.

I wanted to know about his favourite roles and the costumes he wore for each to illustrate how powerful the costume can be not only to the actor but also to the audience. It so happens that his physical comedic roles are the stand-outs. Mark explained that comedy is about contrast, building tension, and then breaking the tension, and the costumes for these roles provided hilarious visuals.

The False Corpse: An ironic one-man comedy. His character in this play is a comedian who is going to commit suicide while on stage. For this role, Mark put together a jumble of iconic comedic costume pieces: large clownish collars, tights instead of trousers (to show the movement of the legs and their “speech”), and a proper gentleman’s tail coat as a topping contradiction.

Hamlet: Mark played a gravedigger, comic relief to the heavy play. His costume was another jumble of pieces, but this time of Viking armour! He said he put on anything he could get his hands on including breast plates, horned helmets, and several swords in an effort for the character to take on a “god-like soldier guise to give the mortals in the play a hand”.

The Hobbit: Mark played one of the trolls in London’s West End in the J.R.R. Tolkien story. The three trolls wore large, heavy, difficult costumes, built on football player shoulder pads that had to be lowered over the head (not unlike those animal heads that the hunters wore for disguise, I imagine). The second tricky piece of troll costume was the footwear: Cothurni. Cothurni are elevated boots originally worn by Greek actors to increase their height and visibility to theatre audiences.

So Mark and the other trolls lumbered around on the raised platform Cothurni, arguing over whether they should roast, mince, boil, or squash the freshly-caught dwarves into jelly, using large body movements, having fun with each other and knocking each other around. Often, the plat-formed trolls would fall over and the smaller dwarves would have to help them to their feet. The costumes here brought out a “playfulness and cheekiness” in the characters that I’m sure absolutely delighted the audiences.

 Less is more 

Having explained all that, sometimes Mark doesn’t wear any clothes at all. In 2007, he was hired for a Nike commercial to streak through an English football match wearing nothing but a scarf and Nike Shox shoes; “a celebration of being free,” as he put it. For those of you who have been to a nude beach, you’ll understand this concept of freedom and having done so myself, I can tell you that communal nudity is amazingly liberating.

But I digress.

Clothing, or costume, is powerful. It creates different feelings within us and without us, and the people who see us will interpret our visuals and treat us accordingly.

“People make judgements based on what they see, and we have a limited time to make a good first impression,” Mark tells me.

Whether our wardrobe is for business or pleasure, or to create emotion in our audiences, we have the choice in the visual messages we send, and this is a powerful opportunity that should really be taken seriously; it is another tool of influence.

 You cannot climb the ladder of success dressed in the costume of failure.

-Zig Ziglar, American author and motivational speaker

What are your hands doing?

23 Dec

If you don’t know by now, I have a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in Theatre Design with a specialization in costume. In Theatre school, we learned from all different areas so that we could understand and appreciate all of the jobs that make up a working theatre – stage management, lighting and sound, scenic painting, stage carpentry, and acting, for example.

While in my performance class, I developed an appreciation of acting and how difficult it is. One of the most challenging parts of acting for me at least, was to sync up the movements – genuine movements – to the genuinely delivered but memorized words – it’s all so fabricated that only great actors can do this well. (Next time you’re watching TV or a film, watch the hands of the actor – if he / she is focused, their hands will be one with their emotions and words.)

Throughout the class, we worked on monologues and performed our speeches to the whole department at the end of the semester. I chose a piece from a Eugene O’Neill play, A Touch of the Poet.

I was prepared, I researched the play and my character, I memorized and internalized the work, I knew all of my lines cold. The night came. It was my turn. I walked into the center of the floor in the studio theatre and began my monologue. I delivered my lines flawlessly. Then, while reaching out in gesture as I continued, I was so focused on getting the words right, that my hands froze in mid-air until my brain realized that there was absolutely no connection between my outstretched hands and the words I was speaking.

From this experience, I learned many things. I realized how important and how strong the connection between the mind and the body is, and I realized how out of touch we are with ourselves when we are not conscious of our physical body.

I know from acting studies that our hands give much away about our emotional state and when I’m working with my clients, I like to draw their attention to this idea. I like to take them through a mental journey of their own bodies when we do body work. This helps them to become aware of their bodies, how they hold themselves,  their posture, and their movements because not only does it feel good to be alive, our physical presence sends messages to the people around us to be interpreted accordingly.

Hand movements and gestures can speak at high volumes and can punctuate our words and give away our state of mind, even if we’re not conscious of it, so being able to identify what our bodies or hands are doing is a great way to learn to be in control of oneself.

If you read my Multi-tasking blog post from earlier this year, I discussed the difficulty men often have with doing more than one task at a time due to the amount of testosterone in their bodies which likes to focus on one thing at a time. The challenge for the fellas is becoming aware of the body and its parts at any given time while remaining present in the current situation. If you are up to it gents, try the following experiment.


At different points during your day, try asking yourself, what are my hands doing? to become more conscious of your appendages while your brain concentrates on other things. You may be surprised to find that your hands are the physical manifestation of what you’re thinking about / feeling / in the midst of.

Try this experiment if you’re interested and ask yourself what your hands are doing when you are in different situations:

  • If you’re relaxed, your hands may be hanging relaxed at your sides
  • If you’re speaking to someone who is giving you information that you don’t like, ask what your hands are doing and you may find that your fists are clenched
  • If you’re bored or in a situation that makes you nervous, you may become aware that your hands are fidgeting in some way or have gone to your mouth

These are simple examples that most people can read. The trick is to make yourself conscious of them so that you can control yourself, if you so choose. I believe this knowledge will help you if you don’t want everyone to know how you are feeling at that particular moment.  So when you’re in a meeting and not agreeing with what is being discussed and you notice that you’re roughly rubbing your hands, take a breath, realize that other people can see and read you, then consciously relax your hands. Undoubtedly you’ll feel better and being controlled / conscious, you may be in a better position than if people read you as an aggressive member at the table.