“This production contains haze, strobe lighting, and subliminal messages.”
I first attended a Derren Brown show some 20 years ago in London. Fascinated by the artist’s admission, nay boast, that despite what we observe, he possesses no supernatural powers and by upfront explanations of technique other magicians and mentalists eschew, I wondered at specific methodology. (In truth, some explanations are misdirection but we sign up for that buying a ticket. “I am often dishonest in my techniques, but always honest about my dishonesty.”) Brown’s shows are not just extremely entertaining, they’re a window into our minds.
The performer’s bio says that while studying law and German at The University of Bristol, he attended a presentation of hypnosis and had a kismet moment. He researched/studied, emerged a close up magician/ mentalist, and has broadened expertise from there.
Any really good practitioner in the former area must be able to gauge a subject’s suggestibility. Success in the latter requires a highly trained memory, perceptive ability i.e. taking in and quickly processing such factors as age, clothing, sexual orientation, ethnicity, level of education… and talent to quickly roll with the tenor of audience/volunteers who affect each show.
Brown has written five engrossing (and witty) books (several of which I’ve read) on how he does what he does. He uses not only the above skills but cognitive psychology and perception without awareness = subliminal and ideomotor suggestion (the reading of a subject’s unconscious, often reflexive motions). Manipulation of high probability guesses with invisible follow-ups is seamless. “I discovered that world of delusion through a love of illusion…”
All of this is background. Brown is first and foremost a showman. Secret was first presented here at The Atlantic Theater in 2017. If you didn’t see the buoyant piece, run to this presentation.
No other practitioner so completely involves an entire audience. From the show’s initial, thoroughly engaging group experience (cue considerable laughter) to throwing out Frisbees to secure volunteers, to having us fill out cards whose content he later gleans through sealed envelopes (remember Johnny Carson’s Carnac the Magnificent?) he brings us together with unusual bonhomie while at the same time making the group more prone to manipulation. Oh, and prepare to feel foolish.
He intuits that a man had been circumcised twice and that a woman had seen the musical Wicked more times than she’d had sexual partners. Careful what you write on those cards.
Having attended the earlier production, I found Secret only a smidgen less beguiling despite having witnessed other artists perform some of these effects in the interim. As with all magic, personal framing determines entertainment quotient. Brown is utterly charming. He’s worked a few childhood stories neatly into narrative and has consummate knack for relating to volunteers. There’s always at least one slip up to indicate fallibility. Timing is virtuosic. Even being in America is deftly addressed by the Brit.
A video camera is employed to capture what occurs on a table top or up in the balcony. Hoping to detect things with closer view, we’re of course, again, misdirected. Who cares? My companion, a Brown virgin, was infectiously amazed and delighted.
I do, however, have a bone to pick with Brown. The American celebrity around whom a later segment centers has not been changed since 2017. Surely someone else could’ve been chosen.
We’re asked not to relate goings on, but if you attend, keep in mind the last complicated sequence, which ties in with the shows title, has to work every night though it depends on 6 different volunteers and an audience vote.
Direction by Andrew O’Connor and Andy Nyman is superb.
Scenic Design (Takeshei), Lighting (Ben Stanton), Sound (Jill BC Du Boff) and Projections (Caite Hevner) work together symbiotically to create intriguing atmosphere.
Photos by Matthew Murphy
Derren Brown: Secret
Written by Andy Nyman, Derren Brown and Andrew O’Connor
Directed by Andrew O’Connor and Andy Nyman
138 West 48th Street