After decades of stage shows, TV specials and essentially reinventing mind control, Derren Brown is doing something new: He’s getting off the stage, and into the director’s chair.
And “it’s been a lot,” Brown said in a recent video interview.
“Unbelievable,” directed by Brown and his longtime collaborators Andrew O’Connor and Andy Nyman, opens on Tuesday in London’s West End, and is a family-friendly magic show the likes of which its makers promise you’ve never seen.
It’s also a new kind of Derren Brown show. Previously, Brown, 52, has been at the center of his productions. Brown has long maintained that he is not a psychic, but that his mind tricks are a combination of magic, suggestion, psychology, misdirection and showmanship. He has managed to convince people to commit an armed robbery (with fake weapons, of course); to take a bullet for someone (also staged); and that he has healing powers.
This time, Brown said that creating a magic show using actors and musicians directed by him, O’Connor and Nyman “just felt like a really appealing idea.”
The change also seemed to come at the right time for Brown. After a 2019 Broadway run, followed by a post-pandemic run of his show “Derren Brown: Showman,” which ended in the West End in March, and working on “Unbelievable” at the same time, Brown said he felt burned out for the first time in his life. “I don’t think any of us had it in us to write another show for me,” Brown said of him and his collaborators.
Creatively, too, Brown said that he thought directing would feel different and challenging: “It felt like it’d be very liberating.”
It both has and hasn’t been, he said.
The liberating part is that he will not have to be onstage every night once the show is up and running. He will be able to see performances with friends, for example.
But his new role as director, alongside two collaborators with a lot of experience directing, has induced a bit of impostor syndrome. “I’m not naturally one to speak up in a room,” he said.
Feeling not quite good enough is a common experience, but one people are often hesitant to talk about. The insecurities that get filtered out on Instagram — which Brown described as a “curated theater of triumph” — are part of what makes us human.
That thought is at the center of “Unbelievable.” “We make the mistake of comparing our insides to other people’s outsides,” Brown said. “That’s what this show is ultimately about.”
“Unbelievable” is a magic show without professional magicians, and some of the seven-person cast are making their West End debuts. The result is what Brown called a production without ego. There is no lead role.
Musicians are used to rehearsing and repeating, which helps when learning magic tricks. In general, because most of the cast members did not have a background in magic, they approached the material with an open mind and did not have to unlearn habits, the show creators said.
“I was worried that if you saw people you knew weren’t professional magicians, would you not buy into them?” Brown said. But he found the opposite to be true, saying that it showed the humanity and vulnerability of the performers.
People who go to a performance want to connect with another person, Brown said: “What you’re there for is not what it says on the bill.”
“Sharing in their struggles is part of that,” he added.
The road from inception to the stage has been a long one for “Unbelievable,” and was interrupted by the pandemic. “It’s been in our heads for five years,” Nyman, who has directed many of Brown’s shows and is also co-directing “Unbelievable,” said.
Audiences can expect some familiar aspects of Brown’s magic, but it may end up feeling very different. “There are points of it that are very me, just in terms of the types of magic,” Brown said. But having other people perform the tricks will change the flavor.
There will be a lot of audience participation, though Brown said he did not want to make participation feel in any way mandatory: “I’d hate to be dragged on the stage.”
In past shows, Brown has thrown Frisbees to choose who’d be coming up in front of the audience, with the idea that someone who doesn’t want to participate can simply hand the Frisbee to their neighbor.
For “Unbelievable,” the directors are doing something different. When buying a ticket, people can tick a box that asks them whether or not they want to be part of the show.
In the second half of the show, O’Connor said, “We pull out little chips with names on them. One person gets chosen and they have this big experience.”
He didn’t go into any more detail to avoid any spoilers, but said that it was not “dark or difficult,” which might have been expected from Brown’s other shows.
What audiences can expect, Nyman said, is an emotional journey.
“I love theater,” Nyman said. “It’s essential to me that what an audience comes away with on a Derren show and on ‘Unbelievable’ is a properly crafted piece of theater that takes them on a full journey.”