English illusionist, mentalist, and author Derren Brown has headlined Olivier Award-winning shows on London’s West End and performed in several TV series and specials, including Sacrifice on Netflix. He has also written five books on topics ranging from magic tricks to the philosophy of happiness.
By his own admission, Brown first started practicing magic as an under-confident 19-year-old studying law at Bristol University just to impress people. Gradually, he developed his act, which now incorporates elements of magic, hypnosis, misdirection, memory techniques, and psychology to manipulate audiences.
On a break from starring in his Broadway debut, Secret, which is playing at the Cort Theater through January 4, 2020, Brown talks embracing vulnerability, connecting the audience, and how Greek philosophy has shaped his approach to performing.
Don’t limit yourself
Brown’s work defies categorization, mixing theatrical and conjuring techniques with social psychology and science.
Not limiting himself. According to Brown, his work revolves around “stories that we tell ourselves, the narratives that we live by.” He says that moving away from traditional magic performance has allowed him to develop a deeper connection with his audience, “one of the difficult things about any sort of magic . . . is that it’s just this quick route to impressing people. And I think for that reason magicians tend to be interesting for a little while and then become figures of fun or dislike, because it’s sort of posturing after a while.”
Now, he relies on psychological techniques to manipulate outcomes in addition to magic tricks. “When a magician shows you a trick, he’s guiding how we edit reality to form this story that’s amazing. But we’re doing it all the time,” he says, adding, “it’s a great analogy for how we interpret the world. So we live in this infinite data source, there’s all this stuff going on, there’s an infinite number of things that we could pay attention to, but we edit and delete and we choose what we’re going to pay attention to. And we make up this story and then we mistake that story for the truth and we live by that.”
Focus on what you can control
Even as tickets sell out to his shows, Brown often does not have the act fully planned out until right before he performs. As he prepares, he starts thinking about where he wants to lead his audiences before choreographing the performance. “My starting point is always I’ve got a couple of thousand people locked in a room with me and I have carte blanche to do anything, so what would be an interesting thing to take people through? So it starts with that,” he says. “Way after that comes the actual tricks, the things that I’m doing. And it’s often the other way ’round with traditional magic. My tool kit is the ongoing experience of an audience member,” he adds.
He broadens this approach to everyday life: “If you watch a film, you don’t just watch the last scene because that’s where it all makes sense. And yet we tend to do this in life,” he says. “Maybe it’s more like a piece of music and maybe you’re supposed to be dancing.”
Although Brown has made a career of controlling the minds of others, in his own life, he focuses on the elements he can control and tries not to worry about the rest—a tenet he learned from studying the philosophy of stoicism.
“Bryan Cranston talks brilliantly about this, about being an actor at an audition. Your job is just to present yourself and present the character and the text in a compelling way. It’s not to get the job. That’s all the other stuff that’s out of your control. And it’s very good stoic advice,” he says.
Collaboration is key
To put on his shows, Brown works with two colleagues who direct the show and work with him in rehearsals. He credits their collaboration with getting him through times when he has found it difficult to be creative. He is careful not to let a performer’s ego cloud his judgment. “I think there’s a certain madness that creeps in when people work with a writing partner, and then after awhile, particularly if they themselves have become the star, the onscreen person, when they decide they can do it on their own, the product is never as good. The end result is never as good.”
Getting feedback from his colleagues is crucial, he says, for developing his shows. “For these shows that I’ve done I’ve worked with a director so that’s very helpful, so you learn a lot from having that other pair of eyes looking at you and I’m sure I’d be very different . . . well, I’m sure I wouldn’t be anywhere at all,” he says.
Brown says that he believes relationships are also important, because they can hold people accountable for their actions. “Relationships are very good for you. It’s kind of what a relationship is, isn’t it? A relationship is there for someone to go, ‘No, that’s mad, what are you doing?’ Because when you’re on your own, you find yourself ultimately endlessly fascinating, but you just crustate into this version of yourself that probably gets quite intolerable to others.”
An audience, Brown says, doesn’t mind seeing seams of a performance sometimes. “Teller, from Penn and Teller, has spoken about it a lot. That if you’re a magician you can click your fingers and make anything happen. You’re playing a god. And dramatically that’s really not very interesting,” he says. This is why Brown says he begins his show on a vulnerable note. “At some level you find that. I think if you’re imparting information, how do you do that without preaching? Well, you make yourself vulnerable.”
He has noticed this play out when he calls up audience members to participate. “People come up on stage, and they are nervous. So what do you do with those nerves? And I notice that when people are just nervous and a bit shaky and a bit apprehensive—because that’s the normal thing to do—a whole room of people loves them. Because they’re all kind of vicariously experiencing that. And they experience their vulnerability as a positive thing that something in you just reaches out to them. But when somebody comes up and turns the nerves into . . . they’ll be the joker or they’ll try and spoil the trick or they’ll do all the number of things that we all do in life with nerves. Or they’ll be very standoffish or something or appear disinterested. The room hates them.”
It’s a lesson Brown has embraced in his life outside of work. “When we’re just nervous and we’re just vulnerable and we let that sit, it may feel very alienating,” he says, “but actually, we pull people in toward us.”