I’m filing out of New York’s Atlantic Theater, where I’ve just seen British mentalist Derren Brown perform his first American stage show, Secret. Around me, people are trying to work out how the two hours of tricks were done. I keep fidgeting, checking my phone—anything not to eavesdrop. With Brown’s work, and magic in general, asking how it’s done is missing the point.
“When you’re looking at something and can’t work out how it’s done, but it all took place in front of you, there’s no reason why,” Brown told me on the phone when we discussed Secret, a night of mind-reading, hypnosis, and sleight of hand. “The only reason why you can’t is because you know this guy is manipulating the story you’re telling yourself about what you’ve seen. A magician doing a trick is a nice analogy for what happens every day.”
Brown, 46, doesn’t identify as a magician, though he got his start over a decade ago in hypnosis and close up magic—the terms ‘mentalist’ or ‘mind-reader’ seem more fitting, he says. He’s well-known in the UK for his stage and television performances (as well as a brief appearance in the first episode of Season 3 of the BBC’s Sherlock). In his television work he’s played Russian roulette live, convinced members of the public to rob an art gallery, asked them to push a person off a roof, and helped them overcome their fears and phobias via a placebo drug. On stage things tend to be lighter, though there’s been an increasing darkness over the years—he’s read people’s minds, recreated Spiritualist seances and table-turnings, and performed faith healings. Brown is always insistent that he doesn’t have psychic abilities or supernatural powers, but of course he seems to perform the impossible regardless.
Secret is a sort of greatest hits of Brown’s UK stage work, though he tells me that isn’t the narrative core of the show, which he’s requested that spectators keep under wraps. I was familiar with all of Secret’s effects from seeing them on the internet, but knowing how they were supposed to play out made them fascinating to see live. At one point I even thought, This looks just like it did on TV. Brown succeeds in a largely reliable way, despite 200 completely different audience members taking part in the show every night at the Atlantic. This consistency is a testament to Brown’s ability to coerce the desired reaction from the audience with charming, energetic skill. But it also says a lot about the people taking part.
When most of us think of magicians, we probably think of weird, flashy people out to impress, embarrass, or fool us. Magicians don’t reveal their methods because it feeds into the idea that “how’d they do that?” is the most interesting question on the table. But the actual methods often aren’t that interesting—in his 1949 classic The Royal Road to Card Magic, magician Jean Hugard writes, “Many good card tricks are so simple that to reveal the method is to lower yourself in the estimation of the audience.” The participants drawn into Brown’s tricks in Secret—selected through random means, to ensure things weren’t arranged beforehand—are emotional and revealing. Brown uses their connections to people who’ve passed away as a narrative anchor, or riffs on the audience’s feelings about celebrities for a hilarious and surprising climax. In the talkback the night after I saw the show in previews, an audience member and her father came close to tears when they explained what a particular trick they’d taken part in meant to them. It’s not the sort of reaction you’d expect from a “magic” show. But magic relies on people’s own storytelling capacities to work. It’s easy to be moved by a story you’ve told yourself.
No matter how talented a magician might be, it’s the audience who really does the heavy lifting, facilitated by the magician’s voice and hands and maybe a wire or two. Brown says, “Working with people’s storytelling capacities is really what makes the whole thing work. Everything I’m doing just happens in people’s heads.” Thematically, Secret is about the stories we tell ourselves and who tells our stories to us. In Brown’s words, the show explores “how we move forward and navigate a potentially infinite data source that we find ourselves in.” All magic works this way. A magician directs our attention to some things and not others, makes us think we’re being unique when we’re generally predictable, creates the illusion of choice when we’re just following instructions. In their book on the neuroscience of magic, Sleights of Mind, Stephen L. Macknik and Susana Martinez-Conde explain, “[Y]our brain is on a constant, active lookout for order, pattern, and explanation and has a built-in abhorrence of the random, the patternless, the nonnarrable. In the absence of explicability, you impose it.” The story of someone guessing our secret card or making a ball disappear doesn’t just defy our own explanation of the world (Things don’t just disappear) but our explanations of ourselves (Other people don’t influence my decisions). Magic exposes both the strength and the fragility of our stories.
Brown tells me, “We’re either telling ourselves stories or people—the media, other people’s opinions and so on—are influencing those stories for us. And we’re very suggestible around some people, particularly authority figures. We adopt other people’s stories without realizing we’re doing it. I’m quite intentionally doing that to make a point about how malleable those stories are. I’m doing it in a fun, theatrical way, but there’s a parallel in what happens in every day of our lives in how we see the world and what we tell ourselves about it.”
Secret never touches overtly on politics. There’s a difference in letting a magician knowingly lie to us versus, say, a politician or President. The breakdown of logic inherent in magic is supposed to delight; it’s not so pure in the world at large. But magic, by revealing how we alter and even create reality through the stories we tell, can make us aware of our habits and help us interrupt them.
For Brown, these stories have ramifications in our personal lives too. Later in our conversation, he says, “A particular popular cliche now is that we should all try to own our narrative. I think that’s fine to an extent, but equally those narrative choices that you make for yourself—that you identify with, that you tell yourself that you are and how the rest of the world is—are also very limiting. We all have to do it to an extent. But we always limit our experience, and we often limit our relationships and our sense of other people… I’m not telling anybody what narratives they should or shouldn’t have, but actually that very act of getting too comfortable with whatever story you tell yourself is limiting.”
This message is present in his TV work—in 2010’s Hero at 30,000 Feet, he leads a disaffected young man into believing he’s landing a crashing plane through a series of circumstances designed to interrupt his view of himself. His latest book, Happy, explores Stoic philosophy and how people can apply it to their lives. He summarizes the book as, “Making your peace with the fact that things don’t work out well is more conducive to happiness than making people feel like a failure when things don’t work out.” The book undermines positive thinking and other self-help philosophies, a topic he’s passionate about. He admits that Stoicism can be a pessimistic line of thought, but in Happy he writes, “The good news is that we can give ourselves permission to change our story. To act differently. To remind ourselves that we are not characters in a movie based on a true story… we, unlike them, can act out of character.”
All this could easily feel like some performer is haughtily lecturing you, something Brown avoids. Early on in Secret, as a brief narrative beat, he comes out to the audience as gay. Though his own journey to coming out was lengthy and involved a struggle with Christian conversion therapy, the moment in the show is casual and, by Brown’s own admission, “a little bit disarming.” He explains,
“If the scales tip too far in the direction of a guy who can do clever things and can sort of make anything happen, let alone a guy who’s also giving sort of veiled advice on how we might want to think about ourselves and think about the world, you also have to be very vulnerable as a figure to do that and get away with it. Otherwise it’s just sort of preachy… If I’m going to be this too-clever figure for stage it’s important to balance it with vulnerability.”
Vulnerability isn’t a term most people would associate with a stage magician. But if the audience is going to vulnerable to a performer, by willingly entering into a space where they’re going to be lied to, it not only seems fair for Brown to do so in return, but leads to more affecting drama. Brown says, “We like to watch human beings struggle, not god-like figures achieve anything just by flicking their fingers… Whatever you see, whether it’s a magician or an actor or a dancer, you kind of want to see a human being. You want to relate to a human being.”
“What I do could all just become clever for its own sake,” Brown says, “so I’ve always tried to make the shows about the people watching rather than me, the guy on stage, being clever. There’s only so much of a guy being clever you really want to take.”
Secret runs through June 25, with hopes to return for a Broadway run.