Derren Brown joins Jonah this week to discuss developing ideas, finding your own voice, and what magic means in our current society. Between his award-winning stage shows, TV specials, and books, you’re probably familiar with the UK based mentalist.
Hypnotism was Derren’s path into magic. During his time studying German and law in university, he had the chance to see hypnotist Martin Taylor perform. His interests shifted, and he began to practice hypnosis alongside his studies. When he started working, Derren learned that magic was easier to present to people compared to hypnotism.
Derren’s shift from being a gigging magician to a household name was slow. Even with the release of Mind Control in 2000, Derren was still working as a restaurant magician. Between focusing on doing the strongest magic and the skills of the team he’s built over the years, Derren has been able to create a name for himself.
Mentalism & Magic
Derren dropped the conjuring side of his persona when the TV specials started to kick off. Mentalism, to him, allows for more impressive presentations than simply finding a card; however, you have to go further than just asking someone to think of a word, writing it down, and showing you got it right. The interesting aspect of mentalism lies in the process the performer takes to divine the word. If your goal is to take your audience’s mind to a richer place, you have to commit to the process.
There is, of course, the ethical questions behind mentalism that Derren has struggled with over the years. Initially, he would make direct claims about his abilities, but, as he grew, Derren found an area where he could be honest while digging into the interesting aspects of magic. While he’s been able to create a brand that allows for this, Derren explains to performers that you should be taking responsibility for your actions and focusing on the core audience watching you.
Tips for Performing
Light and shade is necessary for any performance. If a trick is slow and serious, the next one should probably be upbeat and quick. The performer has a responsibility, especially in a theatrical setting, to move people in different ways. Derren explains that you don’t want to be operating in one state of being on stage as it’ll be difficult to create those big shifts your performance needs.
You have to earn what you’re doing on stage. For example, if you want to tell the audience how to be, you have to be vulnerable and reflect on your own actions. Derren points to good comics as an example: they often have a lot to say, but they don’t come across as preachy because they put themselves at a lower status than the audience.
Never have a better time than your audience. If anything, you want to carry with you the image of a spectator on the verge of leaving. How do you keep them engaged? How do you surprise them and keep them in their seat?
Finally, be likable. Be you. You can have all the power if you act like you don’t have it because we want to connect with a human. Derren explains that we like performers for what they do, but we love them for what they are.
Creating a Show
Derren has worked alongside Andy Nyman and Andrew O’Connor since his early TV specials to create his shows. The three of them will sit down to brainstorm themes, images, and the core of the show. What they don’t do is talk about the tricks. Their focus is on finding the rhythm of the show and determining what beats they want to hit throughout. What tone is he starting the show with? How can they overdeliver with the ending?
The finale is what people last remember when they leave the theatre. The finale is where you can get away with madness and rule-breaking as you build up the audience. He wants something simple but that explains so much of what the audience saw. Derren reminds listeners that there are a million ways to end a show. You just need to make a conscious choice about what you want your audience to leave with.
What do you like about modern magic? What don’t you like?
Derren doesn’t really keep up with the world of magic, but he has really enjoyed Christian Grace’s work on billet switches recently.
Be human. Be likable in a way that is right for you and love what you’re doing. It’s not about the trick, it’s about your humanity.