Derren Brown: Lord Of The Trance
Client: Liverpool After Dark
Küla creative team: Anthony Bennett
This interview was first published in Liverpool After Dark Issue 4.
Britain’s most famous, or should that be infamous, trickster Derren Brown makes a much anticipated return to the Liverpool Empire this March with his follow–up show to the Olivier winning Svengali. In the decade plus since the self-styled “psychological illusionist” entranced his way into our collective consciousness, he’s single-handedly reinvigorated the ancient art of stage magic by rescuing it from the cheesy cabaret clutches of old style conjurers (epitomised a little bit by Paul Daniels... but not a lot). With the enviable ability to continually throw his discerning audiences off kilter, he’s injected the genre with intelligence and suspenseful edginess, while providing sensational feats that genuinely inspire awe and unquenchable curiosity. Along the way the inimitable Mr Brown has challenged our belief systems, our superstitions, our everyday perceptions; he’s made us question our free will, our morals and our ability to not be glued to a chair. But he’s also taken ordinary Joes and seemingly made them do the most extraordinary things such as landing aeroplanes with no flying experience, admitting to murder, saving the world from zombies and even attempting to assassinate national treasure Stephen Fry. Such controversy drawing exploits have led to fanciful descriptions of the mind bending maestro ranging from post-modern anarchist to extreme self-help guru.
“I don’t think either of those things,” declares Derren. “Gurus are always self-styled therefore just very dangerous, fuelling bad belief systems; so certainly not that. I’m not quite sure what a post-modern anarchist is but that sounds more appealing.”
During a fascinating chat with the impeccably mannered and disarmingly gracious star, he revealed his thoughts on hypnosis, stage stress, rebuffing requests to spy and how he’s yet to put the finishing touches to his impending show.
AD: You’re back together with your long-time collaborator Andy Nyman; will that mark a change of direction for this particular show?
DB: Yes. We did every show together apart from Svengali, but even if I wasn’t getting back with Andy there’d be a strong desire to do something a bit different and not quite give people what they would expect. So it will have a different tone to it but we’re still writing the show and have yet to rehearse it and it’s during that time that it really finds itself. There’s been a sort of template in my head with all the other shows, so it’s been quite exciting departing from that.
It’s surprising to discover you’re still in the process of writing the show (in February), bearing in mind the show starts in March. How long does it take to put a show like this together and what’s the process?
Two months - a month of writing and then a month of rehearsing, maybe 10 weeks in total. What’s very weird is having theatres sell out before you’ve got the first idea what you’re going to say when you walk out on stage. It’s a bit odd when somebody says to you “I’ve just spent a load of money to come and see you in Liverpool or Edinburgh” and you’re just thinking, “Oh god, I’ve got to think of something to say when I step out on stage”. It would be a luxury to be able to write it all well before we have a poster and a title for the show. But that commitment has to be made so that the artwork will get into the brochures. So with all the marketing stuff happening first, that starts to help shape the content and structure of the show.
You’re coming to Liverpool quite early in the tour. Will you make changes as the show progresses, taking feedback from the earlier audiences?
Yes completely. The first week we’re testing to see what works and then loads and loads of changes are made in the first weeks. We’re not openly asking the audience for feedback but the way the audience responds will absolutely define what happens. Because there’s so much that may not actually work reliably enough or doesn’t quite come together, or which might be a bit slow in terms of the pacing of the show; so a lot can get changed around in the first week and there’s no other way, sadly, of doing that.
Do you have to adjust parts of your performance based on different areas of the country or is it a similar response wherever you play?
There’s no doubt that audiences change a lot; but I don’t think, on top of everything else, I could be thinking about the show being different. With Liverpool in particular, because it’s got such an unusually famous sense of community, there’s such a strong, warm feeling when you’re walking out on stage and what that translates into as a performer is a feeling of “right, come on then; entertain us; we’re up for it, show us something”. Whereas with other cities, newer cities where there haven’t been generations of people who’ve grown up there, you tend to get crowds that are very polite and very attentive but there’s not this kind of thing going on between us, there’s more of a gap feeling, which is very different. Sometimes you might get more heckles etc. but there’s something about those big cities, particularly Liverpool, Bristol’s another one actually and Dublin, where there’s a strong sense that people are up for a good time and there’s something naturally welcoming. It makes a huge difference and those places become the hub places when you’re touring.
With those big cities being so “up for it”, does that potentially make those crowds more suggestible?
Not really. There’s just a kind of a buzz that happens in some places and not in others. I always try and make sure we do a show that’ll work across the board and there’ll be enough things to appeal to different kinds of people.
Your brand of entertainment pretty much relies on you keeping your audience unbalanced, in suspense, curious, shocked. Considering you’ve done six shows over the last ten years, as well as the TV specials, how much of a challenge is it to continually surprise and stay one step ahead of your audiences? Surely it must be a big pressure?
Well it is when you say it like that! If you think about it in those terms then it would feel like a huge pressure, whereas all myself and my writing partner have ever done is say, “what would we be great to see and be part of” - not that I want to just please myself, we’re obviously conscious of the audience. It’s about looking at the shows and thinking “well, that really worked; how can we do that same sort of thing in this show and create a similar sort of feeling using a different technique or a different way to get there”. There are some things that theatrically seem to work really well and those are the types of things we try and find a way of achieving. But it’s just about trying to create the best show you can. If it was just about bigger and better, bigger and better all the time you’d just end up losing so much because it wouldn’t be rooted in the right things. It’s the same with the TV stuff. It’s never been about what’s bigger and more dramatic than the Russian Roulette or The Lottery or whatever. For me it’s been about what’s interesting to do, what feels important to me and what I want to watch and I just come with that approach with every new show.
Is it difficult to enter into your stage persona and get up for a performance?
No, in fact part of the problem, not so much now because I’m really used to it, but at the beginning was that I felt so relaxed on stage. Actually having some nerves, having some adrenalin is actually a good thing to walk out with and I had to find a way of achieving that. Because it was very easy for me to just walk out and be completely comfortable, without feeling any change in heart rate or anything, standing out in front of thousands of people. So I kind of learnt how to create a pre-show ritual, not something religious, but warming up my voice etc., stuff you go through where by the time you’ve done it you know you’re ready. And then, it’s almost like being an actor in a way, you know how to stand, how to project and how to call up that energy on stage. So that comes with experience. It’s also about whether you’re comfortable. Some actors or performers get physically sick; you wonder why on earth they bother doing it. But I’ve never had that. I do find it very easy. For the first few shows there’s a bit more nervousness than usual because you’re not quite sure how it’s all going to work. But that’s more to do with running through everything I’ve got to do, running through things in my head, rather than that sick feeling, which I don’t get.
Do you find yourself applying your skill set in non-professional situations? Are there some bills you’re not paying?
Maybe more when I started years ago. I was trying to do that stuff all the time, I was really excited by it; it was like a new toy. But now I think unavoidably that to be that sort of guy and interact in that way it’s a very kind of showy thing and that’s just not how I am; not so much because it’s become like a job - it is something I do really enjoy, but generally I find myself very reluctant to kind of switch that sort of thing on. If I’m with a friend who’s depressed or upset or something then I can probably be more effective than the next person in helping them, so I think there it’s useful. But I don’t go around getting free drinks or wrangling upgrades; I’m not quite that sort of person. Over the years I’ve kind of moved away from that anyway. You’ll notice from the TV shows, I don’t really do that stuff anymore. I’ve genuinely grown out of whatever that sort of urge is… apart from some aspects of the showmanship.
Have you ever been approached by any shady or clandestine organisations to put your skills to an alternative use?
Nothing actually clandestine. I did get approached years ago by… I think it was the police, or some sort of public organisation… I don’t think it was the government... for some sort of spy stuff. I’ve had a little bit of interest from that. I’ve always refused to do it because I’m an entertainer and I’m much more comfortable just doing that. I’m not interested in using the skill set in any other areas. I’m just happy doing it in my own little world. But maybe in time I might apply it to other things. I’d rather apply what I’ve learned to teaching or something like that. That would be a much more useful way of re-channelling it. That might be something I’d consider for a career change, teaching kids. I don’t mean teaching them how to read minds, just being a normal teacher but using all the subtle communication skills would be great for teaching. That would appeal to me more than working with shady people.
That’s incredible that you’ve been approached about spying!
Believe me; I regularly get a lot of weird requests. From people asking will I give them the lottery numbers, to really sad desperate pleas from people and real cries for help. Although it’s awful it’s become part of the job really, gently letting people down. And we have to deal with these things and respond to these people very responsibly. You know it is strange but likewise it’s strange when people come up and want an autograph or a photo and they’re shaking or they’re welled up because it means so much for them to meet you. There’s lots of weird aspects to being well known. It’s something that’s very odd. Generally you just try to get used to it without taking it too seriously.
You said recently that you were amazed at how the guy in your TV show The Assassin was seemingly content to sit in a bath of ice indefinitely and that you were genuinely surprised by what he’d been able to do under hypnosis. Is that something you intend to explore further, to push the boundaries of what’s possible with hypnosis?
Yes it really did hit me. The scientists who’d arranged the test was actually surprised and I was surprised. The thing with hypnosis is that you’re considerably dependent on the person being hypnotised, there are no hard and fast rules about what the experience of it is or what you can achieve, it’s really down to the person. So just because he did that doesn’t necessarily mean that the next person will do it the same way. But yes, it actually did reawaken an interest. I think I’m naturally quite sceptical, and even though I use hypnosis, I kind of had a model of it in my head that I couldn’t make anyone do anything that they couldn’t do normally outside of hypnosis. When you see someone eating an onion on stage as if it’s a juicy apple, you can actually pick up an onion and eat it. You probably wouldn’t want to do it because it’s perfectly disgusting; but if you’re doing it, for example, to prove to somebody that you can do it, or if somebody’s just convinced you you can do it and made you feel confident about doing it, in fact, you can do it. So those kind of results really don’t show that anything magical’s happening. But obviously Chris (the guy in the show) being in the ice for that long did seem different from what somebody would do if you just said “go on, get in, you’ll be absolutely fine”. Would they be able to achieve the same result just by creating a bit of confidence? I don’t know. But then again on the flip side of it, pain is a very subjective thing. You can cut your finger and just not realise until you see the blood; it doesn’t hurt until you see it and then it starts to throb - all those things are very subjective. So yes, it was a really interesting thing and yes, it makes me think “ah right; how can I push this in other directions”. But equally, all the shows I do, like Apocalypse etc., are about pushing things in other directions. They’re very far from “when you wake up you’ll think you’re a ballerina”. I’ve always been interested in what else you could do with it and how subtly hypnosis can work with people that are responsive to me. For example, with the guy in Hero at 30,000 Feet who landed the aeroplane, I was hypnotising him at one point; I’m hiding outside in the shed; I’m talking on a walky-talky; I’ve got a speaker under his bed; I’m going to wake him up in the middle of the night and tell him he’s asleep and create this sort of weird thing that hopefully A) he’ll go into that sort of trance state and B) hope that he’s sort of dreaming… and not knowing for sure exactly how that’s going to work. But it just sort of did. And all that stuff’s just really kind of interesting to explore. It wouldn’t work on everybody, but it works on people with whom I’ve created or achieved this sort of strong rapport, or this strong responsiveness. So I just find all that really interesting and, I guess of all the projects I do, I like to push things in other directions. But there’s just so much to explore with it.
When will we next see you on our screens and what kind of show can we expect?
When I finish this tour I’ll be going straight into making the TV show and that normally brings in round to September or October. I’ve no idea what’s going to be in the shows but during the tour I’ll be starting to think of ideas. But for now I couldn’t possibly say.
I feel strangely compelled to tell you to go and see Derren’s new show Infamous at the Empire from 25th to the 30th of March. It will be the best thing you’ll ever see in your life and you’d be crazy to not SEE IT, so buy a ticket today or terrible things will happen. Urrgh… What happened? Where am I?