Russian Roulette

Russian Roulette: Simon Drake vs. Derren Brown.Russian Roulette

Both of the above performers produced versions of the Russian Roulette game/trick for British television. Drake’s was a 70 second routine for a closing act of an episode during the second series of The Secret Cabaret in 1992. Brown’s was built up with the actual stunt performed live as the closing 10 minute segment of an hour long special.

I find both of these performances to be masterly and beautiful pieces of theatre. These are magic acts made specifically for TV, and choreographed and directed perfectly for that medium. And I find that the massively differing decisions taken in each case in terms of that staging allow a (possibly) useful study. Well, they might. Let’s find out!

Simon Drake – The Secret Cabaret (1992)

Derren Brown – Plays Russian Roulette Live (2003)
(15 minute edit, with the complete live segment)

Despite the long length of Brown’s final presentation, both versions are staged in a minimal manner: so what differences come over when we compare the minute long piece to the hour long presentation?

Let’s start with “believability”. Which of the pieces is more real? Drake’s is certainly more of a “theatre” piece, allowing us the distance to simply watch and draw our own conclusions. Do we really believe he is in any real danger? Perhaps not, but I don’t find that this diminishes from the effect in any way (the same way as I know that Juliet doesn’t really die, yet I can still feel the emotional content of the play as if she did). Brown’s version on the other hand is set up to make it more “real”. He goes out of his way to convince us of how real it is. To convince us at every opportunity of the tricks fairness and danger.

It is far easier to dismiss Drake’s as “just a trick”, but is that an issue? Can we enjoy it more because we are given less information? Does Brown’s insistence on the fairness and truth of the situation actually give us more inclination to search for a method?

Both the performers act (and react) as if it were a genuine stunt, with a genuine risk of death (check their pre- and post-gunshot reactions!). But we accept the danger in Drake’s staging without having to have it explained to us. The music, sound effects, imagery etc communicate the danger. Brown tells us (literally) exactly what the dangers and risks are.

Brown’s presentation also led to a gentle backlash when it became clear that all wasn’t exactly as it seemed. A police statement claimed that despite the script, “there was no live ammunition involved and at no time was anyone at risk.” Was Brown’s insistence on “fairness” and “real danger” too much?

How much information do we need to give the viewer? And perhaps more to the point in terms of circus, how much of that information is already there? There in the technique, or in the cultural history, or in the audience’s own experiences?

When the “story” of the act is as clear as in Russian Roulette, how much extra information do we need to put on to make the act even stronger? I can imagine that Brown’s version lives on stronger in the collective cultural memory: but this is also related to general popularity and famousness, of course. Is it stronger as a piece of theatre than Drake’s 70 second telling?

I find both these pieces to be incredibly strong works of art – and the massive divide between them in terms of running time simply shows the two extremes of staging. The actual trick, the act of Russian Roulette, loading a single bullet into a revolver chamber and guessing (with death being the result of failure) where the bullet lies, is a stark and reduced piece of magic. Simon Drake chose to highlight the feat by cutting it to the bare minimum, whilst Derren Brown took the opposite route – making each step as open and clear as possible.

When the effect (the trick, the act) is clear and strong, then the staging needs to be at least as lucid and direct. How we create that clarity is down to our own artistic needs and choices. And in these two extreme examples we see that staggeringly different presentations can create a similar emotional impact. What they share is clarity, directness, and simplicity in their final execution.

Performer wanted for a new show

Performer wanted for a new show.
So & So are looking for an acrobatic performer for their new show, Backgammon for Beginners. Applicants would preferably have a strong acrobatic background, although we may consider working with a performer from another discipline (dance/theatre/other circus background) with the potential to increase their acrobatic vocabulary.
Most of all, we are looking for someone with a strong stage presence and an interest in creating a new circus theatre piece, who is prepared to work with text.
Backgammon for Beginners follows the stories of Javad, a man who became trapped in London, following the Iranian revolution in 1979. His attempts to comprehend the cultural differences between his past and his present lead to jumping out of hotel windows, introducing backgammon to London bars, facing the terror of the National Front and stopping trains with his bare hands.
The show will be directed by Mish Weaver. We will work with a script, and use live music. There will be 4 performers in the show- Roshi (musician), Lauren & Kaveh (acrobatic pair) plus another performer.
Rehearsal dates are 12th Sept – 23rd Sept, 14th Nov-16th Dec, and 2nd – 11th January. The show will then tour the UK from approximately 15th April- 2nd June (TBC). Applicants must be able to commit to all of these periods.
The fee for rehearsals will be £400/week for 8 weeks. Rehearsals will be held in London (6 weeks) and Yorkshire (2 weeks). Accommodation can be provided if necessary. 
Please send a CV, covering letter and any photos and links to website or videos to by August 14th.
For more information on the company, see or

Fourth Wall

Backstage at the GOP Varieté theatre in Hannover, just finished my training and now relaxing for 40 mins or so before getting ready for the first of our two shows today.

One of the major reasons that I love doing Varieté contracts is the stability of the environment. I prefer to know for example exactly how my lights will be, and to trust that the technicians will turn them on and off at the right moment. Ditto for the space, the sound and the ritual. I think this partly comes from the juggler mindset, but can accept that it probably says something deeper about my own psychology too…

“Change ain’t good, Leon”.

For nearly 5 years I performed a set and unchanging act (duo club juggling with Ilka Licht), and my solo juggling act has been set for the last 6 years or so. In that time I have made plenty of new pieces and shows, with magic and with juggling, but I have always held on to my “act as seen” as the centrepiece.

So why did I decide last year that I would retire my juggling act and make a new one to replace it? Well, for many reasons, ranging from “artistic” to “commercial”, but the point is that I am now busily performing an act that I have thus far only done 15 or so times, rather than the hundreds that I would prefer. It’s a good process to go through again! And by the end of the two month run here it shall be without question my “main act”.

For the first time in my life I have an act where I play fourth wall up. It is only for the first 50 seconds or so, but it is totally new to me. I have always made a point in my work of starting a clear dialogue with the audience as soon as I walk on stage, and to start that dialogue whilst being completely internal and alone is something I am learning. It seems to come so naturally to all my acrobat colleagues, but I guess that is why many of them often say that they cannot imagine eg talking on stage, or that to so would be such a major step. It seems an obvious step to me as an extension of the audience contact, but if that contact is other than what I am used to, then of course it seems as foreign as “being alone” on stage is to me.

But it is getting less so every day.

You know how it is.

American theatrical unions are strange things.

I just arrived at a venue for a tech rehearsal: as arranged I was there 30 mins before the official start time.

The theatre is really beautiful, but a very awkward space for me. Imagine a huge old wonderful theatre auditorium and proscenium arch. Now, dig 10 feet down into the auditorium, and drop in tiered seating all around a central stage area. Have 3 entrance/exit runways going onto the stage, and no clear front or back. As I said, beautiful, but not my perfect habitat.

No problem, I am here early. I will warm up and plan how I will use the space. I ask if I may go on the (empty) stage to do so.

“You may walk around, but you may not juggle until the technicians arrive. Union rules. You know how it is”.

No. No, I do not know how it is…

Here is a video of John Cage performing Water Walk. Sans working radios, because the electricians and sound union couldn’t decide who was allowed to plug them in: