Derren Brown Interview
Derren Brown is back on the road with Showman, his first new UK tour for six years. The content of the show remains a closely-guarded secret but Derren discusses touring, his art, and how “the heart of the show is about remembering what’s important.”
Written by Ellen Carnazza.
So Derren, you’re finally going back on the road with Showman, your first new UK show for six years. Excited?
I’m sure anyone looking at touring this year is unusually excited. It’s a particular privilege to be doing it given what an impossibly disheartening time it’s been for people who worked in theatre. The show was originally due to open the first day of lockdown, so it’s been a long pause. The thought of finally getting it on the road, let alone seeing a crowd of people in an auditorium… all of that seems bizarre and exciting and extraordinary. So yes, it’s going to be a huge treat.
Showman was conceived before the pandemic struck. Has the direction of the show changed as a result?
Strangely, the show pre-Covid was, at its heart, about how the tough things in life that we feel isolate us, tend, in fact, to bring us together, and be the very things that we share. And then lockdown happened, which was a strangely literal playing out of that theme. So although the benefit of extra time has allowed us to re-work the show a little and change some aspects of it, its heart has remained the same.
Your live shows are known for bold theatrics and the strong, personal connection you make with your audiences. Will Showman follow suit?
Well I hope so! We – my little team and I – try to provide a kind of experience you wouldn’t get anywhere else. Not at a play, not at a magic show, not anywhere. That’s always been a driving force. And I try to make the shows about the audience rather than about me. My manager once mentioned that the shows were unusual in that they weren’t all about the magician on stage. I liked that and we now keep that consciously in mind when we put the show together. That’s part of growing up, too: both as a person and as a performer.
Books & Art
You’re bringing out a new book, A Book Of Secrets: Finding Solace In A Stubborn World, on 3 September. What is it about? And what was the inspiration behind it?
The themes of the book have fed into this show. I wrote Happy a few years ago which set out Stoicism for a modern audience, offering a powerful approach to navigating difficulties in life. A Book of Secrets continues the theme, but without the underpinning of Stoicism, and leans more into compassion and solidarity than Stoicism tends to. If Stoicism is looking for robustness, this book is searching for compassion. If we can nail both, we’re in a good place…
One of your flourishing passions is your art. Your portrait paintings have been widely praised and are now available to buy from your website. What draws you to your subjects?
It’s been a lifesaver during lockdown. I’ve painted these most of my life, but never had the time to properly think about selling them and producing enough of them. Turns out a global pandemic is very conducive to painting. I’ve always painted people I wanted to have on my walls, but I quickly ran out of space. So now people are buying them for their own walls, I can think more widely and paint anyone I admire or who I think will make for a great picture. That’s the key, I think – the final image is all that matters, so that has to be the driving force. But if you’re going to spend a week or so staring at a giant rendering of a face, you’ve got to find the person appealing too.
Podcasts & TV
You recently recorded a series of podcasts for Audible called Boot Camp For The Brain, which a lot of people have said has been very helpful, particularly at these difficult times. What have you found helpful during lockdown?
Yes again, it’s been rather lovely having time for this other projects. I’ve also been involved in devising a very original version of The Invisible Man for theatres, and a cutting-edge technology project which has been eye-opening. Projects like these have helped, because they’ve got me out of my own head, and provided new connections with some talented and great people. We also moved house which was also a welcome distraction. Currently I’m adjusting to country life which turns out to be unexpectedly time-consuming. Especially when you have dogs who can’t believe their luck and a whimsical relationship to recall training.
Are there any plans to return to TV?
I’ve quite enjoyed the break from it and exploring other projects. But sooner or later – maybe after this tour – we’ll be working on a new show, I’m sure. It’s been an odd year for TV commissioning, and a couple of ideas have come and gone and then had nowhere to go, so they’re on the back burner until things go back to normal.
What have you missed the most about being on tour?
The headspace. My old rhythms of finding coffee shops, writing all afternoon and then heading out to do the shows in the evening. And spending time with my small crew: although they change a little from year to year, they’re always fine people I choose because I know we’ll all get on and have a good time. And also there is something liberating in having just the one clear thing – the show – to be concerned with. The first few weeks it might be finding its feet, but after that it’s just tweaks and improvements and the pleasure of doing it and finding out how to enjoy each moment. And I get to be this well-rehearsed, charismatic version of myself night after night, which will also be liberating after a year and a half of lockdown and the deflated sense of self that has unavoidably brought.
Finally, this will be your 16th year on tour. Does it get any easier?
Not really. Each show has to be built from scratch, and although each show teaches us something about structure that can be carried into future shows, you also don’t want things to feel too familiar for an audience. But at the same time, the experience and shorthand under our belt is invaluable.
The challenge of finding ideas we haven’t done before both gets harder, of course, but therefore more interesting. But when we put Secret together for a Broadway audience with our ‘best bits’ from previous shows (it was the same material as Underground that played here), we may have saved ourselves the trouble of finding new routines, but shaping them to form a new show with a heart and a sense of cohesion brought a whole new set of challenges. So there’s no rhyme or reason to what makes a show easy or difficult to put together. They’re always a mountain to climb, but the views are terrific.
Derren Brown: Showman is at Leeds Grand Theatre from Tuesday 23 – Saturday 27 August. Book tickets now.