Ben Dali is back at the Fringe, & each year he just gets better & better. The Mumble managed a wee blether with the boy wonder
Hello Ben, so where ya from & where ya at, geographically speaking?
Ben: I’m from North London 11 months of the year and Edinburgh the other twelfth.
When did you first realise you were, well, magical?
Ben: My grandpa used to show me magic tricks when I was a kid but it was shortly after uni I realised I was special – that I could really work out how people were thinking and what tactics they were computing, then exploit that for magical purposes. A few years later I discovered I could influence behaviour as well as predict it and things snowballed from there.
How did you get into performing your mystical skills live?
Ben: Working as an entertainer in the tourism industry carries a lot of public relations duty so I did vast amounts of close-up magic and mind reading then. After a few years with ample stage experience I learnt hypnosis and put a show together then started driving around entertainment venues, phoning and emailing social clubs and pubs to put my show on and taking any performance opportunities I could find to hone my craft.
What are the key ingredients to your magical style?
Ben: Hypnosis and Mind Reading can only work if you have a deep understanding of behavioural psychology and individual differences – how people think, adapt, and act in the specific environment you create at the exact time they find themselves in it. On top of that you need to be able to deliver your material so that the participants and audience are engaged and enthralled throughout. So I’ve crafted a unique stage persona in which I’m basically running two shows simultaneously – one for the volunteers and one for the unhypnotised audience. I try to be as entertaining, funny, educational and charismatic as possible to give as many people as possible some personal memories.
This will be your 4th Fringe. How have you evolved as a performer in that time?
Ben: Well my work ethic and place within the Fringe have certainly evolved over the years. My first time round in 2015 I didn’t know anyone, and was blagging my way through the month. My show was great but I’d been touring and adapting it for 4 years and nobody in Edinburgh had seen it before, but apart from that I was just taking on 100+ guest spots and trying to meet people. After that I started running my own cabaret shows, getting to know the cabaret and comedy scenes pretty well, working on new material and solidifying my place as the festival’s go-to hypnotist for the generation. I’ve also learnt to manage my time better and not burn out during the run. This year I’m even taking 2 days off which is a first!
What have you got for us this year?
Ben: So Trance Of A Lifetime is all new, with some exciting new sketches exclusive for Edinburgh, including tragedy on the Antique’s Roadshow, simulated nudity and the world’s first 5D cinema experience. As always nobody is picked on but invited to volunteer from the audience, and given happiness and confidence boosts to help them enjoy the rest of the festival. It’s going to be quite the extravaganza, with the biggest change being my timeslot – up til now it’s been 13:30 but now at 22:00 I can do more adult things that wouldn’t have worked before (but still no humiliation). With my variety show the Not So Secret Society we’re also in a new timezone at 18:30 so this is family friendly, all suitable for 8+ audiences with some really huge names across the festival which can be viewed on facebook.com/NotSoSecretEd. There’s a couple of special adult one-offs for people who miss the ol’ burlesque and x-rated comedy sets of years gone by.
What does Ben Dali like to do when he’s not being, well, magical?
Ben: In general I’m also a pub quizmaster, and have spent the last year working as a teaching assistant in a year 3 class in North London primary school ahead of September when I start training to teach my own class for next year. While teacher training won’t leave me with much free time, I love appearing on TV game shows (most notably Countdown, The Chase and Take Me Out), movies, music and catching live comedy and cabaret.
You’ve got three famous figures from history coming round for dinner. Who would they be & what would you cook; starter, mains & dessert?
Ben: Well we’d have to start with Franz Mesmer the Austrian inventor of hypnosis as an artform. I’d love to find out how he realised he had his powers without having 2 centuries of inspiration before him like I did, and how he harnessed those powers for the purpose of entertainment. Then I’d like to show him how things have evolved since the 1770s. Alfred Hitchcock would need to be there, he’s a massive hero and influence – not just the quality of his films but the methods he used to create suspense and climaxes which I always think about carefully when designing new skits, trying to use the peaks and troughs in my pieces like a Hitch film. Finally my greatest hero of all time and the biggest influence on my public persona in the early years of performance was Richard Whiteley. I watched him constantly as a child then met him when I appeared on Countdown at 19. He was a beautiful man who mastered his craft as best befitted his personality and capabilities, was universally lovable and controlled that studio like it was his own living room in which his contestants, audience and viewers at home were utterly welcome. He seemed to genuinely like me in our short time together and I’ve often channeled my inner Richard while hosting gameshows and stepping on stage. For food, I don’t want to spend a moment away from my guests so we’d Uber in some gourmet Pot Noodles.
You know a good show when its happened, what are the special ingredients?
Ben: For a hypnosis show the key element in a good show is good volunteers. With most live entertainment there’s a strong correlation between the quality of the performer and quality of the audience, feeding off each other’s energy and propelling the show along. With hypnosis – sure, I can have a good day or bad day, the audience can be good or bad but everything pivots on how good the best subjects are at interpreting my suggestions. A show with 2 great volunteers and an audience who aren’t that into it with me on a rare day underperforming is still more special than a show with 5-10 volunteers who achieve mild trance and aren’t responsive even if the audience is enthusiastic and I’m at the top of my game. Of course, if all 3 of us are on form then that presents the kind of show that people will hold dear as their most memorable Edinburgh Fringe moment and that’s what I’m trying to achieve – so that when the punters tell their friends, family and colleagues what they did over summer, they’re telling people about my show. Trance Of A Lifetime does what it says on the tin.
At the 2016 Fringe you started running your own cabaret night, the Not So Secret Society, which has grown from strength to strength in both Edinburgh & London. Can you tell us about the idea?
Ben: Sure thing Mumble. So the Not So Secret Society was set up a few years ago in Glasgow by my producer Frodo Allan, who also ran the legendary Bongo Club Cabaret that introduced the concept of the variety show to Edinburgh. We started working together in 2016 and I was running another variety show, so he asked if I’d like to open a London branch of Not So Secret running monthly year round, which I did. When Ed17 rolled around we brought in a NSSS branch, and I scouted out some top acts from across the festival. I’ve done another year of the London shows and pulled in some really big names, so our database of acts is getting quite spectacular and that really shows in our lineups for this year.
Who have you got for us this year?
Ben: There’ll be about 80 different performers putting in appearances this summer and every one of them is immensely talented. The biggest names we’ve got are Rory Bremner and Jan Ravens, Stuart Goldsmith, Grammy winner Lady Rizo, Sweden’s Got Talent winner and Edinburgh’s undisputed best magician Charlie Caper, Best Newcomer 2017 Natalie Palamides, Carl Donnelly, Carey Marx, Mark Thompson – we’ve got performers from all the big name venues, sellout acts, and every show is different. Check out our full list of acts on facebook.com/notsosecreted.
You’ve got 20 seconds to sell both shows to somebody in the street, what would you say?
Ben: Well I wouldn’t promote both shows in the same 20 second pitch, but… “Free hypnosis show! Trance Of A Lifetime!” Come to the festival’s funniest, most unpredictable and unforgettable show. Come on stage and get hypnotised or enjoy the show from the audience as you prefer.” For Not So Secret the promotion methods would depend entirely on the day’s lineup.
Using my own mind-reading powers, I do believe this might be your last Fringe for a while, whats the angle?
Ben: Yep, my last one. You’re a very impressive mind-reader. Or simply ‘reader’. I want people who have thought over the last few years ‘I’ll see him next year’ to know that there isn’t going to be a ‘next year’ again. And for those who have seen me before to come pay tribute to the past by witnessing my 21 swan songs. And for people who haven’t heard of me before to bask in the fact that they discovered me just in time. And to lead a more nocturnal existence for once now I don’t need to be flyering in the mornings, enjoy the night time cabaret scene a bit.
Well good luck with that Ben, & thanks for chatting. One last question, can you describe the experience of performing at the Fringe in a single sentence?
Ben: Thanks for having me Mr Mumble, it’s been a pleasure. Performing at the Fringe is the ultimate journey of self-discovery – when you’re pushed to the limits in the most competitive environment any performer can find themselves you get to know your strengths and weaknesses and work ethic and just how much you’re prepared to put in to achieve the best you can.
Liquid Room Annexe
Aug 4-13, 15-21, 23-26: (22:00)