Keep the secrets

In which I let a mindfuck have its way with me.

Here are a few things that make me anxious: secrets, magic, audience participation, and shows that run two-and-a-half hours. All of that is to say I approached Derren Brown: Secret with a certain level of dread. I’d heard great (albeit vague) things, and I try to see everything on Broadway, so I wasn’t going to miss it. But I also worried it would be, at best, boring, if not a deeply uncomfortable experience for me. And I am here to tell you that I was... absolutely right — it fucked me up. At one point, I nearly ran out of the theater in a panic. But also, I loved it, and you should definitely go see it, because I survived the show, and so can you.

It is exceedingly difficult to write about a show like Derren Brown: Secret, something I’ve noticed in every review that I’ve read. (All of which have been good! It’s just an obvious struggle.) I normally don’t read reviews when I’m planning on writing about a show, but I wasn’t sure I would be writing about this one, precisely because it’s so goddamn hard to talk about. Documenting too much of what happens over the course of those two-and-a-half hours would ruin the experience for future audience members, and I don’t want to take away from what Brown has created here. I think you should go in blind, frankly, so if you want to stop reading now, you have my express permission. (To be clear, you always have my permission to stop reading my work whenever you see fit. I am a gracious person.)

For those who don’t know, Brown is a big deal in the UK, where his previous shows have earned him two Olivier Awards. He’s charming, handsome, and gay — which, honestly, bless — and perhaps most importantly, he doesn’t purport to have any actual magic or psychic powers. I’ve always enjoyed magicians and mentalists who are very upfront about the fact that what they do has more to do with misdirection than with bending time and space. Sure, there are times when I just want to be wowed. I enjoyed Harry Potter and the Cursed Child in large part because sometimes, yes, magic for magic’s sake is fun (and often distracting from a muddled plot!). But I appreciated that Brown was honest about his abilities, and really that just meant I was more caught off-guard when a trick he did appeared to have no logical explanation beyond straight-up sorcery.

I don’t actually think the man is a wizard, although there were plenty of moments in Derren Brown: Secret that I could not come close to explaining. (Which makes sense, as I am not, despite reports to the contrary, a trained magician.) But personally speaking, the parts of the show that were most effective to me were when Brown was displaying his skills as a mentalist and demonstrating the remarkable power of suggestion. I won’t spoil it by detailing the specifics, but there was one moment in particular that really got under my skin. But basically, we were told we would feel an uncomfortable compulsion, and I felt that uncomfortable compulsion, and rather than give in, I fought it, shaking and sweating with the effort, and it was at that moment when I nearly fled the theater, because absolutely not.

I just want to stress — and again I hope I’m not saying too much — that my discomfort had more to do with me not playing along than anything else. No one I talked to after the show had anywhere near as anxiety-inducing an experience as I did. And I honestly didn’t really mind, especially after I calmed down, because I found the whole thing pretty fascinating. Even as I was spiraling, I knew what Brown was doing and why I was feeling the way that I was. Magic is cool, but even cooler is thinking about the way the human mind works — sometimes against us! My brain was 100 percent my enemy in that moment, the way it is when I get a panic attack over literally nothing, and as scary as that can be, it’s also really interesting. That bit, but also the show as a whole, made me think long and hard about the way we see what we want to see, for better or worse. Sometimes you see a trick and interpret it as magic, even though you know that magic isn’t real. And sometimes you see a trick and want to quite literally run screaming, even though you know there isn’t any actual danger. Few magic shows have ever made me think quite so hard, but Derren Brown: Secret is a true mindfuck, and that’s really exciting.

As for the audience participation I’d been dreading throughout the show — it happened. I got called out. I had to stand up with a mic and a camera in my face. It was stressful! But also, I got through it, and it was fun and thrilling and surreal. I also got some insight into a future that, to me, too often looks pretty murky. That doesn’t matter, of course: Brown stressed that he’s not an actual psychic and doesn’t believe he has any precognitive abilities. But what he said to me resonated, especially since it was less about some divine plan and more about what we put out into the world and how we make our own fate. He could still be wrong in this particular case — I would say more if I weren’t trying to avoid spoilers! — but I’m choosing to believe him for the time being. We see what we want to see.

Photo via Matthew Murphy.