The theater resounds to the audience’s sighs and gasps. Mouths are agape in collective shock and confusion. Yet it is strange to see the brilliant mentalist and illusionist Derren Brown perform in the relatively compact 199-seat Atlantic Theater Company’s Linda Gross Theater in New York’s Chelsea.
In Britain Brown is a huge star, with prime-time TV specials and many controversies—from a notorious game of Russian Roulette to predicting a set of National Lottery numbers—behind him. His shows fill arenas and theaters with thousands of seats.
This is Brown’s first solo show in the U.S., and so he must begin smaller, although the sighs of wonder and confusion from the audience in response to his 2 ½-hour show, Secret, are testament to his skills and talent. His ambition to take the show to Broadway will surely be realized.
Journalists have been asked not to write about any of the material Brown performs. What can be said, very simply, is that this is a baffling, stunning evening that melds illusion and apparent mind-reading.
The wander to the subway afterward is taken up with strangers scratching their heads comparing notes on how Brown could have done what he did. “Are there plants, hidden cameras?” “Is it prearranged and gamed?” “How could he have done that…?”
The tall, bald, and handsome 46-year-old performer presides over the show over in tuxedo and tails, with his cut-glass British accent initially sketching a psychological spine to the material around the keeping of secrets.
This comes to feel a little wafer-thin: He says he had kept his homosexuality a secret for years, and then doesn’t mention it again. He isn’t as theatrical or showy as some magicians. He’s a fast talker and fastidious organizer, darting this way and that, making sure things and people are as they should be. Then the magic begins.
Munching through a lunch of spinach salad—he now in civvies of light pink shirt and jeans—Brown told The Daily Beast that there was no technical trickery involved in all the bamboozling feats he performs. No secret cameras, no secret plants.
“None of those things,” he said. “It’s exactly what I say in the show. It’s just getting people to tell themselves a certain story of what is happening. Ninety-nine percent of it is happening right in front of you, but you’re sort of compelled to join the dots in one particular way.”
In person offstage, Brown speaks in flurries, a little nervously, complex thoughts becoming complex sentences. He’s a thinker, very much inside himself. He also has a slight facial tic or twitch, which is not apparent when he is performing (I asked about it in a subsequent email, which Brown has yet to respond to).
The crafting of a show, Brown said over lunch, is around a “what if” moment. “There is no actual psychic mind-reading going on, because that would be impossible. What you’re left with is a spectrum of activity: conjuring through to hypnotic and other suggestion-based techniques. I take all of that and try and blend it into a compelling experience.”
The point of Secret, he said, was that there are always things on stage—and in one’s own life—that aren’t the full story: “Sometimes you need to be aware of the bigger picture you are missing.”
Well, sure—although, if we were, Derren Brown wouldn’t be as successful and as masterful an illusionist as he is.
“A bedrock of insecurity made me want to impress and want to be the center of attention,” Brown said. As a child growing up in Croydon, South London, he wasn’t sporty and felt intimidated by those who were. “When I got to sixth form [age 16-18] and university, I could suddenly be an attention seeker.”
He wasn’t actively bullied at the private school he attended—and where his father coached swimming (“which made getting out of sports very difficult”)—but he would just get on the “completely wrong end of” the other children. He was beaten up by other kids only once, during a Duke of Edinburgh scheme field trip.
His brother was nine years younger, so Brown was “slightly an only child. I wasn’t terribly sociable. I had two or three friends at school. I drew things, played with Lego. My parents left me free to do whatever made me happy.” He smiled. “I fell in with the wrong group in my first year—the classical music group, not the cool group.” In his last year at school, he blossomed a bit, drew caricatures of the teachers, and finally found an outlet for the attention-seeking part of his personality.
Brown began learning illusion and hypnosis while at university in Bristol, studying law and German. In his first year of study, he went to see the illusionist and hypnotist Martin S. Taylor.
“It was one of those life-changing moments. I left thinking, ‘I am going to learn how to do that.’ It was a very good show. It wasn’t making people look stupid. It was hilarious, and you were laughing with the participants and their bafflement, not at them.” Afterward Brown bought “every book I could” on magic.
Brown had a vague thought about being a lawyer but became “obsessed by hypnosis—it’s about control, the man of mystery and so on.” Once he had learned some techniques, he began to perform shows around Bristol. He had “zero ambition,” though by writing a couple of magic-related books himself, he became well-known in that world. He started off as a hypnotist, then “got into doing magic, conjuring, and close-up card tricks.”
At the time, mind-reading was popular in the U.K., down to the success of David Blaine, though back then there were few British practitioners, Brown said. The TV network Channel 4 approached Brown to front a show, and other shows soon followed—and his reputation for shock grew, too.
Considering the scale and swagger of some of his pieces, it is surprising to find him so humble and quiet.
“I didn’t know about the commercial and other realities of making TV,” Brown said. In real life, he is a “slower, more indulgent” performer.
He said he had incorporated a faith-healing element into a recent act. He doesn’t, for the record, believe in faith healing or that he is capable of doing it. But there is something in what he says to people that helps alleviate their pain—he is not sure if their pain and discomfort lifts just in that moment, or for a longer period.
“Until I did this I hadn’t thought of how powerful the story that you tell yourself, the condition you live with, that is suddenly interrupted and then you’re suddenly in a weird wonderland where you can move and feel a little better. You interrupt the story you know.”
So he doesn’t believe in faith healing, but he believes that somehow he can help people help themselves.
Brown denies he has any special power. For him, it is those people coming up on stage “telling themselves something” that alleviates their suffering.
One woman had been paralyzed down the left side of her body since she was 4; at his show she could suddenly move her arm. “I know I am not doing anything to affect the causes of her paralysis,” said Brown. “But somehow the psychological environment she found herself in was enough to bypass anything she was doing unconsciously. It was extraordinary.”
This is confusing, or sounds it. So he thinks he has some kind of supernatural power? I asked.
“No. Why do you keep saying this?”
Because you described in some way alleviating a woman’s paralysis, I replied. Surely that implies you helped effect some kind of physical change.
“I’m not affecting the organic condition of her paralysis,” Brown said. “What it reveals is there a psychological component to suffering, which we are all aware of. When you cut your finger chopping vegetables, it doesn't hurt until you see blood.” For Brown, “there is this gray area of being a faith healer. They’re charlatans. They can’t cure anything at all.”
Brown does not invite participants with terminal conditions on stage. He will not claim to have eradicated cancer from your body. A preferred illness of his focus is fibromyalgia, a pain-related condition that, for Brown, “is utterly real and debilitating. Its cause is psychological, although the really horrible symptoms are very physical.
“I’m treading a fine line between mystery and amazement and impossibility, and at the same time treading that line not doing things that are not worth it—those areas that faith healers try to exploit—while still trying to create a powerful enough effect without promising those things.”
I asked if it was frightening possessing these strange powers.
“There isn’t a power I have. The other person has that quality. I am facilitating that situation where they snap themselves out of it, or tell themselves a story that helps do that. I can create the situation where that happens. If they are going through something, people are vulnerable, so you must balance their participation with being in a TV show or on a stage. I don’t exploit vulnerable people.”
In his TV work, Brown accepts that he puts “people through quite dark journeys, but always to get to a worthwhile point for them. That doesn’t work if you’re going to be insensitive at their expense.”
Brown's mention of his coming out is an early, significant moment within Secret. The path to self-acceptance was complex for him, taking in a flirtation with a group that promised to “cure” his homosexuality.
“I look at kids now, and… not everywhere and not at all schools or strata of society… but it seems much less of an issue now. There is a much more accepting culture now at schools. When I was growing up, it was like, you have this thing—what you think this massive terrible thing. A friend once came out to me over dinner as if he had this terrible news to impart to me. I remember thinking, ‘When I do this I won’t do it like this.’ It’s not that much of a big deal.’”
For Brown, coming out to family was easier when he had a partner: “It was, ‘Oh, I’m in a relationship now, and oh, by the way, it’s with a guy.’”
Growing up, it took him “a while to realize” he was gay. “As a Christian, it opened up the weird world of them trying to cure you. I didn’t go through it, but I skimmed the surface. I had a gay friend who was much more into it.” What happened to him? Brown laughed. “He’s still gay, just more disillusioned with the church. There was never anybody that it actually worked for.”
Did this “cure” therapy hurt or affect Brown in any way? I asked. He shook his head. He was “less of a Christian” than his friend who was more into the group, and when “you went to a priest or church with this as problem, they wouldn’t know what to say except ‘Read your Bible and it will all go away.’ That was not helpful.”
Brown does not believe people are born gay, and neither does he believe they are made gay: He thinks sexuality is a mixture of nature and nurture.
Whatever “grain of making sense” the cure groups held for Brown, it was invalidated by the “do this and your sexuality will change” centrality of their thinking. “That was the ‘nah’ for me. The language of curing isn’t healthy.”
Did he buy into it as a teenager?
“I sort of did. It offered a glimmer of hope.”
In what sense? He didn’t want to be gay?
“Yeah, which is a very common experience. This is clearly not the message one should send out to anyone. But people of my generation, if not people now—still a number of people—have felt that. Not being gay, for me back then, was a very appealing promise.”
Rather than feeling judged by the church or in conflict with its beliefs, this group, Brown said, was saying, “‘No, we understand, and here is a way out of it.’ But that is disingenuous because it doesn’t go anywhere except to lead to further guilt and failure, as you never achieve what it says you will.”
Brown attended one meeting of the cure group, which was invaded by LGBT activists, and Brown observed the melée thinking of the activists, “They’re really, really angry about this and I can see why.”
After he came out in 2007 in The Independent, Brown expected to walk down the street, “like the last scene in Dead Poets Society. But no one cared.” A few months later, a reporter from the British tabloid Sun twisted a few of his words to intimate Brown had come out to that paper, with the homophobic headline “Derren Brown: I’m a Mind-Bender.”
Why had it taken Brown so long to come out? I asked. “The whole Christian thing delays it a bit. I was very into my creative life with magic, too.” Was he worried about coming out? “Not really. I wasn’t going to change. I was still quite insecure, and magic and hypnosis was one way of patching up that insecurity. By being this impressive figure I was keeping people at bay. If I had come out earlier, I don’t know if I would be doing what I was doing. Something about that frustrated artificial bubble I was living in probably lent itself to the work I was doing.”
So if he had come out earlier, what would have happened? Brown laughed. “I might be a lawyer or something.” Did being famous also delay his coming out? “There was a slight kind of a moment of embarrassment, but not really.”
There has been no reconciling of faith and sexuality, as Brown became an atheist—a personal transition aided by Christianity’s “demonization” of psychics and Ouija boards “for ushering in the devil, when Ouija boards work by human hand movements you’re not aware of.”
“I think there’s a tremendous value in transcendence,” Brown said of his beliefs. “We all look for meaning. If we don’t have meaning, we tend to throw ourselves off buildings. We all want to find ways of connecting with things bigger than ourselves… love, or finding that thing. At one point believing in God was the means of doing that. It was a very raw way of connecting with that.” For Brown, what has come since are a number of variants, weaker non-religious variants, of that desire to connect with something bigger.
Surely magic and religion are similar in a sense—both eliciting a sense of wonder in what appears unknowable, I said.
“In as much as we have lost touch in the last couple of hundred years with superstition, myth, and cultural narratives that try and make sense of death, which is now just scary and lonely and makes no sense,” Brown replied. Magic is a secular response to this desire, he added. “It’s about wonder, and sometimes makes us feel like kids again.”
In New York, Brown has enjoyed playing a far smaller theater than he used to—the audible individual exclamations of surprise and “No way” to him symbolizing the vivid colors of American individualism itself. He has a beautiful Leica camera attached to his backpack via which he has been capturing New York in photographs.
Last year Brown wrote a book, Happy: Why More or Less Everything Is Absolutely Fine, which was in praise of the stoic spirit, and the merits and motivation of possessing a measure of anxiety. “I don’t walk towards stress, I’m quite an introspective person,” said Brown. “Nowadays we’re fed the idea that to be happy you have to set goals and believe in yourself, and that anything is possible. As with the faith model and like faith healers, you end up feeling anxious and like a failure if you don’t achieve that.
“I wrote the book to say to people to make peace with life when it doesn’t work out the way you hoped or expected it would—to feel comfortable with a natural unhappiness, to embrace a strategic pessimism.”
Brown has had two major relationships, the first for eight years. The one he is in currently is two years old, and he and his partner, whom he declines to name but who works “loosely in the world of performance,” live together.
“Relationships are very good at making you more conscious of yourself. Especially as you get older, you develop a crust around your madnesses and shortcomings that take someone else to recognize them. I try to be open to things probably because I know I can become encrusted.”
We both laughed at how gross that sounds; I suggested buying a household cleaning product to deal with it.
“We’re supposed to think love is intoxicating, rather than something we need to work at,” Brown said. “I can be introverted, a bit of an island, and a relationship challenges that in the best way.”
The couple have a dog, a Beagle Basset called Doodle. They have talked about marriage but it’s not important to Brown, and they can’t really decide about it; it’s “hard enough” looking after Doodle, so having children may be far off.
Love, and the experience of it, is very important to Brown—for his partner, and for his audiences—especially as introspection and self-isolation, “and not leaving the house,” would be his default left to his own devices.
Becoming publicly known has heightened Brown’s need for a private life. The lovely part of fame—being able to get good restaurant tables—has been offset by the sometimes unwanted intrusions of fans and media. “Sometimes it’s a bit trying, and sometimes I can’t believe I am doing it,” Brown said equably. “Sarah Jessica Parker was in the other night, standing up and clapping. Woody Allen came to the show years ago. I met Glenn Close, who is an absolute hero, through a friend and we have become sort of acquainted.”
Brown will return to Britain after this New York run for more stage shows and to make more TV. As for making TV here, he is undecided: It has taken 17 years to build a profile and knowledge among a mainstream British audience of who he is. He doesn’t want to have to repeat that long, small screen getting-to-know-you in the U.S. Broadway remains his focus here. He is also working on a new book about “life not being about you.”
In one final vain attempt, I tried to crack the secrets to Brown’s illusions again. Unsurprisingly, he wasn’t to be broken.
“I sell you a story. That’s all it is. I try and get you to join up the dots in a particular way. It’s all there in front of you. If you’re amazed by it, you’ve joined up dots in a particular way. It’s all perfectly explicable.”
He chooses participants by how open and “suggestible” their faces are. People, Brown said, trap themselves into ways of thinking, and that inhibits them from figuring out what he is doing. That, of course, is very good for Brown, as evidenced by all the collective amazement and sighs of disbelief that greet his shows.
Yet there is also that psychology-lite element of guidance Brown also furnishes Secret with. It may not be fully developed, but it is there amid all the wow-ness of the illusions. He hasn’t had therapy, and doesn’t see himself as providing it. Yet there is a pastoral undertone, albeit humming softly, alongside the illusions and sudden appearances and disappearances he orchestrates.
“Yes,” Brown conceded, “otherwise I’m just a guy trying to look clever, which nobody wants to see.”
Derren Brown: Secret is at the Atlantic Theater Company's Linda Gross Theater, 336 West 20th Street, New York City. Book tickets through June 25 here.