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In conversation: Derren Brown and Andy Nyman

Published 5 July 2013

When thinking of collaborations, well-known names such as Gilbert and Sullivan, Kander and Ebb, and Rodgers and Hammerstein spring to mind. However, long-time collaborators Derren Brown and Andy Nyman are fast becoming a contender to that list, but whether that’s down to the pair’s ever-growing success or their supernatural abilities to literally work their way into people’s minds is unknown.

The dumbfounding duo’s combined creativity was first seen on stage eight years ago with the premiere of Something Wicked This Way Comes. Since then, Nyman, one of those envied beings who is talented in all three fields of writing, acting and directing, and Brown, the master of psychological illusion himself, have achieved Olivier Award-winning success – and bewilderment – by exercising their otherworldly ideas on voluntary victims in auditoriums across the country.

The latest product of their labours, Infamous, which sees them reunited to present a different and more personal show, is currently baffling brains and melting minds at the Palace theatre. Kate Stanbury caught up with them between performances and discovered two down-to-earth grown-ups, one particularly difficult audience member and – after he tried to pour himself a glass of sparkling water with the lid still on the bottle during our interview – a mind-controlling mentalist who is, in fact, only human.

Andy, you weren’t involved in Derren’s previous show Svengali. What brought you both back together?

Nyman: We’d worked together solidly for about 10, 11 years pre-Svengali and I’d stopped doing the TV [specials] for a while because my acting and writing was just so busy. It felt like a really good idea for us to take a break from each other; like all collaborations you get to a point where you can’t see the wood for the trees I think it’s fair to say.

Brown: It was a good thing to do I think.

Nyman: It was a great thing to do because you come to it with fresh eyes. When you’ve worked so closely together, I think it’s easy to forget what it is that you love about the relationship. It’s like any relationship really, you start taking everything for granted because you’re in it all the time, day in day out.

Brown: I also think, in the time apart, we’d both done our own things and just grown. We’d come back together and felt like we were both kind of… grown-ups. And I think that’s lent itself to a more grown-up show as well.

Infamous uses a very different template from the one you’ve used for previous shows. What made you want to move away from that structure when it proved so successful?

Brown: There was a feeling of people now kind of know what to expect and on the one hand it was a difficult thing to let go of because it had won a couple of Oliviers. We were very aware of it as a template, but you don’t want the audience to be as aware of that template as you are. Once it started to feel like they’d probably know what to expect, then it was like ‘Right, let’s do something different’.

Nyman: I also think there’s something about the creative process that is… say… if Derren was starring in a play, you wouldn’t write the same play six times. It’s essential, I think, aside from for us to be sparked creatively, for Derren who has to do the show, it’s exhausting. He’s on stage with a chair, that’s it! If there isn’t stuff in there that feels exciting creatively to do, then I think it would make it even harder.

Brown: Yeah, absolutely. Those things have always been driven by what I find interesting. It has to be driven by that. And likewise with this show, we were both on the same page in terms of ‘Let’s make it more personal’. We just sat and chatted, and there were things that I felt that I sort of wanted to do that had never felt appropriate before. Stuff just starts to feel right. It’s the same sort of process of talking and laughing that probably a lot of collaborators do. You’re always amazed that it comes together to anything that wins an award or is met with any sort of enthusiasm. You just think ‘We just came up with that’, we just sat in a room, sitting and laughing.

Nyman: Forget the awards and applause, the fact you’re even looking at a show… I’m always amazed by that: the creative process. There’s a thing, a real thing that someone’s designed and lit. How many people will have seen your show by the end of it? Half a million?

Brown: Because the tickets often go on sale way before you’ve written the thing, there are people going ‘I’ve just bought four tickets for Edinburgh. I’m going to come and see you. Can’t wait. I hope it’s going to be good, is it going to be good?’ [uncontrollable laughter from Nyman] and you’re just sort of going ‘I don’t know. I don’t know what I’m going to say yet.’ We’ve got used to that over the years haven’t we? But it is an odd thing.

What has the audience reaction been like to the show so far?

Brown: It’s been amazing. The first shows are always nerve-wracking in their own way because it is a braver format. In previous shows, I’ve come out and gone ‘Right, we’re going to play a game, everybody up’. This is asking people to come to me a little bit more. Also, you can rehearse a show to get the lines and the gags and make sure everything’s in place, but there’s so much in the show that, until you get a room of people, you don’t know if it’s going to work.

Nyman: But thank God you’re so calm because as I get to those first shows I just want to puke. I remember it was the first preview night of Something Wicked [This Way Comes] in Dartford or somewhere like that. I can remember so clearly myself, Michael Vine, who’s Derren’s manager and one of the producers, and Derren sitting in a pizza restaurant. The show went up at 19:30 and it was a quarter to seven and Derren – cool as a cucumber – being in there with us having just eaten and then [saying] ‘Ok, I should probably go up the theatre’ and wandering off to the theatre to do the first night of this thing and I’m just marvelling at that and getting there and wanting to curl up into a ball and let the night be over so we can start making it work better.

Where do you get your inspiration from?

Brown: My thing is there’s 2,000 people locked in a room, what should we do with them? Twitter is actually quite a useful thing because you’re very aware of what people are expecting. They are expecting to have something done to them, this kind of experience that they won’t get anywhere else. That’s really helpful as a starting point.

Nyman: I also think a lot of it’s about what’s happening in the world, what’s happening in our two lives, anything that comes up that makes you think about stuff that you want to talk about. It’s a melting pot of all those things really with the biggest thing being you just want to offer massive value for money, a really amazing night that they can’t get anywhere else.

Brown: There aren’t other things that are like it. There are people doing magic shows and there is Andy doing Ghost Stories, but this is a quite different thing and it’s lovely to feel that you’re alone with that. You have permission to sort of do anything with people and that’s exciting.

As far as rehearsing is concerned, obviously you don’t have the audience to practice on, how does that work?

Nyman: I tend to be the audience members. I try to be as tricky as possible because anyone can rehearse with it going well, that’s easy.

Brown: It’s like doing a play and one cast member doesn’t have the script and doesn’t know they’re in the play, so you’re having to constantly change and tweak things because of members of the audience coming up and doing things or you realise that you’re expressing something badly.

Nyman: It’s that balanced with the team that are around us. Simon, who’s the Company Manager, bless him, he’s got to go out and buy props for things that are never going to see the light of day.

Brown: By the time he’s bought it and come back we’ve changed it and we’re not doing that.

Nyman: [Laughs] Literally, that’s not an exaggeration.

How does your approach to putting on a stage show differ to creating a TV series?

Brown: There’s more joy doing a stage show. Although there’s this great team around us, it is sort of just us two, whereas with TV there’s a huge production company and a channel that will have their own ideas. You don’t have that ‘Hmm no’ thing as much, it’s just ‘Yep, whatever’. It’s just a joy throughout.

Nyman: It really is. I remember years ago, there was an American production company who had come over to see it. They were with me and Derren and said they really wanted to meet the creative team and we were like [laughs] ‘Hello?’ and they were like ‘No, no, no the people who create the whole thing’ and [laughs] we were like ‘This is it, this is it’.
Do you think you will collaborate again in the future?

Brown: I’d love to carry on doing these shows. There’s nothing I enjoy more than doing this, so presuming Andy’s free… I may have to work at making sure his career doesn’t take off any more than it has…

Nyman: [Laughs] It would be amazing. This really has been such a joy on every level. I just hope that our diaries can do it because who wouldn’t want to have this much fun?

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