"I don't know what I'm doing!" I hear a young girl cry. She is dangerously close walking into traffic outside New York’s Cort Theater, on 48th St., and her friends are rushing to pull her back before she gets clipped by a car. The confusion in her voice is palpable. She's probably not paying attention to walk signals at the moment, still in a bit of a haze. Moments ago she had been the latest participant in the grand final trick of Derren Brown's enthralling, mind-altering Broadway show, Secret, and if you'd seen what we'd all seen, you would understand how she might still be short-circuited.
You'd also be wondering: who the hell is this guy? Derren Brown is a household name in his native U.K., where he has spent the last 20 years ritually, and somewhat ruthlessly, messing with people’s heads. The 48 year old began as a mentalist on British TV, supplanting the sepia toned image of a mustache-twirling stage hypnotist with a more modern trickster: smartly spoken, endlessly charismatic, and usually in quite a nice suit. In the ensuing two decades—which include seven TV series, 13 TV specials, and nine stage shows—he’s carved out a genre all his own.
Like Hannah Gadsby’s blend of comedy, storytelling, and message, Brown’s work is polymathic and layered, especially as his spectacles grow in size and ambition. Which makes explaining just what he does—not just the magic, but the job itself—difficult. Sitting in his sunny Upper West Side apartment, I ask him to pinpoint his job title. “It's a question I've been asked for 20 years, and one I still don't really know how to answer," he says. "I have ‘Entertainer’ on my passport. But in terms of what I do, it's got one foot in magic, one foot in hypnosis, and then a third foot in influence... And yet another foot in theater." If he wanted, I’m sure he could hypnotize me to believe he has four feet.
A key component of Secret is, naturally, that Brown himself remains something of a secret in the U.S. currently. (If Brown were a Bond villain—and he could be, with his tastefully cropped goatee and devilish streak—Secret would be phase two in his global takeover.) For years now, audiences across the Atlantic have spilled into theaters already knowing what to expect from an evening with Derren Brown. But surveying the Broadway crowd, it’s clear that this group might not know what they’re getting themselves into.
The show itself has been reverse-engineered from his previous U.K. stage shows—it’s a greatest hits album, though only diehard fans will be able to identify where and how they've seen them before. Performed live, here in the U.S. Secret involves far fewer contrivances and relies on no small amount of audience participation; Traffic Girl, selected seemingly at random by Brown, is one of many he'll choose from his crowds throughout the show's 16 week run, ending on January 4th. To prove he’s not using plants, Brown flings frisbees from stage to select those who will join him onstage, shooting the discs every which way out across the audience.
Very early in the show, Brown explains to the crowd that he in no way believes he possesses any supernatural powers. He uses, in his own words, a blend of "magic, suggestion, misdirection, and showmanship" to achieve what he wants. "Sometimes I have to behave dishonestly," he says with a grin, "But I am always honest in my dishonesty."
Up front, Brown also establishes this won't be a Vegas-style journey of skyscraper-disappearing tricks. Brown wants to show his new audience a good time, and Secret is a surefire feat of theater and pared-back showmanship, designed to satisfy even the most hardline anti-magic crowds. The show starts with a bare stage, and Brown telling a quite tender personal story. That's before he suddenly switches gears, leaps up, and demands "Right then, everyone stand up, let's get a look at you!" and away we go, for two-and-a-half hours of being under his spell.
A signature trick of Brown’s, and one that never gets old, is his technique of instant hypnotism. He starts with a handshake and a greeting—“Nice to meet you, by the way,” he says, ever-beaming. As soon as the hands make contact, his voice suddenly changes; “and sleep” he coos, bringing his subject’s own hand up to their forehead. And guiding them down into a restful stoop. It’s as alarming and impressive to see up close in Secret as it is on The Tonight Show. He says the technique has something to do with interrupting a safe pattern— the handshake—that short-circuits a person’s mind. Looking for anything to ground it again, Brown’s command to “sleep”—along with the safety of their own hand meeting their head—persuades the subject to do just so.
Sadly, I suppose, he doesn’t make me sleep when we first meet. (At least, I don’t think he does.) Where onstage Derren Brown speaks with authority, gesticulating and gliding across the stage as he transitions from one feat of impossibility to the next, at home he's gentle and talkative. He’s attentive, but not in stage mode, which makes interviewing Brown about his craft a challenge. I’m afraid to report that the secrets of Secret must stay that way—when I tell Brown the story of Traffic Girl, he asks me not to mention any of the other feats I remember from the show—because spoilers really do destroy the magic. Also, Brown doesn't find his "magic" all that interesting.
He’s a showman whose sole job, as he sees it, is to entertain first, and figure out how to talk about it later. "As I've kept at it, the how do you do it bit is the first question people ask—and it's strangely the least interesting bit to talk about because, dramatically, it's the least interesting part of my process,” he says. “A magician, or whatever you want to call him, is making you edit reality to form a story. That's where it starts for me, because everything we do is just us telling ourselves a story."
Brown’s foray into the American mainstream has picked up recently thanks to a deal with Netflix to air a 2016 U.K. special he made—The Push, a controversial and bewitching piece of television. In it, Brown recruits volunteers for a new show he's doing, identifies the man who is the most suggestible of the group, "rejects" him, then months later covertly orchestrates a series of mishaps at a charity event that leads to that rejected man being urged to push someone off the roof of a building, apparently to their death. I won't spoil how it ends, but when I mention to Brown that The Push is his most mischievous work yet, he smiles.
That, I imagine, is because he’s been mischievous from the start. His first show, 2003’s Mind Control, was scrappy, low-budget, and a hit. In its most memorable segment, Brown approached people on the London Underground and caused them to instantaneously forget their destinations. One man sat idly while his stop—the one where, moments ago, he’d told Brown he’d be going to visit an old friend—passed by outside the window. It was a fitting introduction to Brown’s work: Fast, awe-inspiring, but also alarming. We’re not as in control as we think we are.
“A magician, or whatever you want to call him, is making you edit reality to form a story. That's where it starts for me, because everything we do is just us telling ourselves a story."
In the following years, the budget would grow with Brown’s ambitions. In 2009 he presented four specials, The Events, which ranged from hypnotizing a portion of the country to believe they couldn’t get up from their sofas (a gift many TV executives no doubt wish they possessed) to Brown correctly predicting one night’s lottery numbers.
In his 2011 special The Assassin, he spent weeks conditioning an everyman named Chris to despise actor/British national treasure Stephen Fry. Chris was then sent to a speaking engagement of Fry’s, where he fired (what he thought was) a real gun at the actor. Fry, in on the ruse, collapsed—and the man left the venue thinking, briefly, he’d become a murderer. With 2012’s Apocalypse, Brown looked to convince a lazy guy that the world had literally come to an end, and sought to teach him—and us—a lesson in personal responsibility. The Push was, however successful the outcome, meant to make its participant more forthright in their convictions going forward. His 2018 Netflix special, Sacrifice, filmed for a U.S. audience, took a firm MAGA conservative and, after weeks of mental conditioning, put him in a position to take a bullet for an undocumented immigrant.
But after seeing Secret myself—after watching Traffic Girl wander into a busy street, so affected was she by the Derren effect—all I can think about is: what happens to these people after Derren Brown’s done with them? What does the mind-control healthcare system look like?
"The TV shows over the last decade have been increasingly these huge, Truman Show-style experiments, depending on the fiction we're creating for them, and the world they think they're getting into," he says. The mental fortitude to handle the experience, as well as enough suggestibility to make for good TV, is a hard balance to find. "We'll give them questionnaires which intersperse the important stuff with a lot of bogus questions so they, hopefully, don't understand what the show's really about,” he says. “When we get to our final selection, we sit them down with an independent psychologist who knows exactly what's going to happen, and they find out if they're going to be robust enough for this. It's written in a way that they're going to be okay. We layer in safety measures—these people are highly suggestible, remember—where I can calm them by cueing the actors instead of walking in and breaking the reality. They use certain words and things that can help."
And after? "The process itself is... likely to be a dark journey," he admits, with a small smile. "Immediately after we break the reality, and I come out, there's a reframing of the experience for the person when they're highly vulnerable, but also relieved. Which actually is a good place for them to be, and it's a good moment to frame their understanding."
But surely the days and weeks after are taxing, too? "Right. As an example, with the guy from Sacrifice, we flew him over from England for a bit so he could watch the show with me. I introduced him to some other people from my experiments who can share his experience."
Traffic Girl, is fine, by the way. Her friends caught her in time. She will likely go home from Secret with a belief in, if not the supernatural, Brown's ability to get into his audience's head. This is maybe the real sell of seeing Secret—you could very well wake up onstage (or in the road) having performed some wild feat.
But much as Brown’s late-stage works become ever more mind-bending and inexplicable, they’re also designed to deliver subversive messages. These grander experiments have helped Brown evolve from TV special staple to something more like a cultural touchstone and a culture critic combined. Secret, like the shows that have come before, hides a purpose, though it’s less concerned with mirroring societal issues around racism or apathy. With it, Brown wants us to question how we view our own reality, and what we tell ourselves about our own limitations, our own stories.
After the show’s intermission, Brown engages in that most scoffed-at technique of psychics—cold reading. He wraps his head in thick gauze so as not to see any tells. "The question of psychic powers and how they can be faked is... a little bit interesting," he tells me on the phone a few days after our first talk, dangling the mystery without going any further. During this Secret crowdwork, he correctly identifies zodiac signs, days of birth, tattoos, maladies, and, yes, secrets from his now-rapt audience. That's not even why the show is called Secret, mind you. He saves that explanation for the very end.
But I promised not to spoil anything. Just know that as Derren Brown plans more Netflix specials and a U.S. tour—in addition to a book and a new stage show in the U.K.—his global takeover is only in its infancy. My advice would be the same as anyone else’s who’s ever encountered him: watch him carefully.
Originally Appeared on GQ