The mentalist proves there’s more than what meets the eye
Your mind isn’t playing tricks on you, or is it? If it is, then that might be the work of renowned British psychological illusionist Derren Brown, whose exciting new Broadway show, Derren Brown: Secret, can be seen at the Cort Theater in New York City through Jan. 4, 2020.
So what is psychological illusionism you ask? Brown has the simple answer for that.
“I sort of made it up really,” Brown said. “The title doesn’t really mean anything. I got asked once to describe what I do at the start of my career and I didn’t really have a good word for it, so I said psychological illusionist. I started up as a hypnotist and then, I did close-up magic for a long time like card tricks and that kind of stuff, but it was always the psychological call of magic that interested me more. I was always pulled back to effects like mind-reading and things around the idea of suggestion and influence.
“Once my TV career took off around 20 years ago in the UK and when I realized that I could just do that, it became my thing. And then over the years, I’ve spread out and dissipated into different areas, but I suppose they are held together by an ongoing interest in our inner lives, the stories that we tell and the narratives that we live by and so on. That’s something that interested me more than just trying to impress people with tricks.”
Throughout his popular television career across the pond, Brown has played Russian roulette on live television, correctly predicted the result of the national lottery in the UK, convinced middle-managers to commit armed robbery, hypnotized a man to assassinate actor Stephen Fry, led the nation in a séance, stuck viewers at home to their sofas and created a zombie apocalypse for an unsuspecting participant after seemingly ending the world.
Brown’s big break came in 1999, when he was asked by the UK’s Channel 4 to put a television show together. The result was Derren Brown: Mind Control, which aired the following year. No one, not even Brown, could predict what would happen next.
“The very first show that I did in 2000, I don’t think any of us imagined that it would ever go beyond that,” Brown explained. “The channel repeated the show and it repeated very well, so they commissioned another one. It felt very much under the radar. It was well received, but it wasn’t well known as a show. So we decided to do something a little bit more public, I suppose.
“This Russian roulette show was the first one in 2003, and it got a lot of attention and since then every year or every couple of years I’ve done something like a one-off special. As I’ve grown up, they grow up with me and they changed dramatically. There are specials on Netflix, which are The Push, Sacrifice and Miracles, which was my last stage show. So what I thought now is to put real people through situations where my illusion skills are creating a Truman Show-like environment to somebody who doesn’t know the danger of a TV show and being put through a giant psychological experiment with the chance of transforming them in some way. So that’s what the TV shows have become, which is very far from what I’m doing from the stage shows such as things like Russian roulette, tricks and mind-reading stuff that I was doing 20 years ago. Now, my reasons for doing them has grown up with me and I’ve got older, and other things sound interesting and more worthwhile. I’ve tried to reflect that in the shows.”
In order to achieve his illusions, Brown has a variety of methods that he uses, some of which he keeps close to his vest like a true magician.
“It’s a mixture of the skills of a hypnotist and of a magician, so what you’re seeing is happening on a spectrum of genuine techniques in a fabricated world of a magician,” Brown said. “I use perhaps a verbal ploy or add a suggestion or sometimes, it’s more physical. In terms of specific methods, I keep those to myself in the same way a magician does, but it’s a little hard to describe. Somebody comes up on stage, I shake hands with them and then, I hypnotize them. I’m using the bafflement that they experience when they come up on stage. When people are baffled they become highly suggestible and then I suddenly become a figure that can give them relief from their confusion and bafflement. In situations like that, we respond fully to somebody giving us direction in those moments. If you’re using something hypnotic like that, it makes it very effective because you’re exploiting a moment of bewilderment on someone’s part. There are moments throughout the show where I have to work with people at random, but I can construct the show in such a way where I’m filtering for suggestible types of people who are more likely to respond. It’s a very layered process. It really isn’t effortless.”
Recently, breaking the record as the longest-running magician on Broadway, Brown made his U.S. debut with Secret, which originally played at the Atlantic Theater Company in lower Manhattan in 2016-17 and ultimately won the 2018 Drama Desk award for Unique Theatrical Entertainment.
“I trialed it in England as a ‘best-of-show’ and then, I did the show at the Atlantic,” Brown said, whose various one-man stage shows have garnered him five Oliver Award nominations for Best Entertainment. He won twice. “We realized going into this that the show in its full run would be the longest running one-man—now you have to be careful how you say it— but it would be the longest running one-man magic show in Broadway history. The only possible objection to that is Doug Henning, who was a huge magic name in the ’70s. He had a musical show in the same theater, the Cort Theater, where I am, which is quite exciting. It was a musical, but it had magic in it, of course. If you don’t count that, then it’s the longest running show.”
Every night, Brown swears the nightly audience to secrecy, which is fitting for a show that’s called Secret.
“I think word has gotten around that the show is good and people are turning up quite excited and that’s a really lovely thing,” Brown said. “I swear the audience to secrecy every night and people respect that. On the one hand the show is about me doing the stuff that I do, but also it’s about the way that we live and the narratives that we live by and recognize them. We have the internet and a daily source of information coming at us and we believe it and we turn it into a story, which is the only way to break down the data of making sense of what’s going on. We’re all trying to navigate with our own compasses and that’s really what the show is about.”
Besides being a master of illusion, Brown is also a master of the written word and has written several best-selling books.
“I think out of all the things I do, it’s probably my favorite,” he explained. “It’s actually what I’m doing right now. I’ve just stepped outside of a coffee shop where I’m writing. It’s very nice because I tour every year, so I’m away for months and it’s quite important to find something to fill. So being able to sit and write all day and then come out and do a show in the evening where you just get to be this very charismatic well-rehearsed version of yourself, it’s a very lovely rhythm. I wrote a book on happiness [appropriately titled Happy], which is largely about Stoicism, which is a 2,000-year-old philosophy where they had the idea of happiness where it feels like it’s very resonant in today’s time, but a nice antidote to this sort of self-help version of happiness, which I think causes more problems. It took me a few years to write it because I wrote it in chunks while I was away on tour. I’m quite introverted at heart so it’s kind of my favorite thing to do.”
So what is next on Brown’s agenda for the new year?
“When I get back [to the UK], I have two months to write my brand new show that I’m touring with in the UK, which is called Showman,” he said.
Derren Brown: Secret is produced by J.J. Abrams, Thomas Kail and Jeffrey Seller, and is not suitable for children under 12. Derren Brown: Secret is a strictly limited engagement that is running at the Cort Theater, located at 138 W. 48th St., New York, now through Jan. 4, 2020. For tickets, visit www.DerrenBrownSecret.com or call 212-239-6200.