Elusive Illusions

by Howard Sherman
Derek DelGaudio in In & Of Itself
Derek DelGaudio in In & Of Itself

Derek DelGaudio conjures an undefinable show with In & Of Itself

"The only reason we call this a magic show is because you call it a magic show.”

That’s Derek DelGaudio speaking about In & Of Itself, his one-man show that began performances in April at New York’s Daryl Roth Theatre, following an extended run at the Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles. “I don’t mean you,” he reassures his guest, “I mean everyone. The only reason that I’ll have a conversation about it being a magic show is because there’s not really a word for what I feel it is yet.”

“When I tell a story,” he continues, describing the structure of In & Of Itself, which contains many very personal stories from DelGaudio, “I’m not telling a story to get to a trick. I’m using a moment of illusion as a metaphor to punctuate the idea of a story that I just told, or I’m using sleight of hand as a metaphor for the idea that I’m trying to convey. There’s a massive difference there.”

Given that magicians’ very livelihood stems from deception, one has to wonder whether DelGaudio’s anecdotes, drawn from his own life, including his mother coming out as a lesbian when he was very young, aren’t therefore going to be perceived as dishonest, as a form of narrative trickery.

“You have to work harder to make it legible,” he explains, “because if they’re waiting for a trick essentially they may not be listening to you, in the sense that they think you’re just saying this to get to the next illusion or next moment of magic. The way they’re listening to you is different than if they were listening to someone doing monologues, different than they would listen to Spalding Gray, or listen to Chris Gethard."

“Their defenses are up,” he emphasizes. “’How is he trying to deceive me right now? Maybe he’s trying to get me to look in one place when I should be looking the other place.’ I’m not trying to do any of that. I’m just trying to have a conversation.”

Punctuating DelGaudio’s stories in In & Of Itself are indeed some impressive displays of illusion, of sleight of hand, and of mentalism—time honored staples of the magician’s repertoire. But he’s very careful to make a distinction between the current show and his prior success, Nothing To Hide, also seen in New York and Los Angeles, which he calls, “an exceptional magic show in the purest sense.” 

“It wasn’t lacking anything, but it wasn’t where I wanted to take my practice,” DelGaudio confides. “So when that show ended, I started working on the next show, which was going to be a real leap on my part, which was to not leave magic behind, but to start to change the conversation or the social contract between me and spectators of what expectations of magical performance could be.”

“In this show, I don’t know that I’m giving anyone what they want,” he admits. “I’m just saying what I want to say and doing what I want to do, allowing people the distance between the moments of wonder and where they are, giving them the room to take a leap. Then that leap is where the real magic is for me, the poetry of the moment.”

Collaborative Support
While DelGaudio is alone on stage, and the show itself emanates from him, there is a significant team that has helped him to bring In & Of Itself to life on stage. The lead producer of the show, also credited as artistic producer is the artist Glenn Kaino, DelGaudio’s partner in A.Bandit, a conceptual art duo. A.Bandit is responsible for the production design.

“Glenn is my partner in crime on so many levels,” DelGaudio explains. “He’s the artistic director for lack of a better term in terms of the aesthetics of the show. I knew what I wanted functionally, I knew what I wanted in terms of what had to happen for moments. Glenn was always there for me to look to, to get a sense of have we lost the idea. Glenn is there to keep the poetics in check and to make sure that we have not traveled so far into the world of entertainment, theatricality, because it’s easy to do that. I value entertainment, but I value ideas more.”

Another member of the team is the acclaimed lighting designer Jules Fisher, credited as theatrical consultant.  His role? “He’s amazing,” DelGaudio effuses, “He’s been a tremendous source of support and also a kind of sage of the production.” DelGaudio describes working with Fisher, “We don’t know how it’s supposed to be so what he says kind of goes, in the sense that if Jules says, ‘This is how it’s normally done,’ we say ‘OK, Jules. Yes, sir.’ We look to Jules to explain the world around us and he’s been really this source of good energy around us.” DelGaudio also notes that Fisher is “a very knowledgeable and accomplished magician.”

And what of this ‘Frank’ that DelGaudio references? That happens to be In & Of Itself’s director Frank Oz, the esteemed puppeteer and film director. “I owe that guy everything,” says DelGaudio, “Basically, I told him I want to do a show. I am a magician by trade. It’s what I know. I’m going to do a show with a lot of illusions in it and a lot of magic, but I don’t want it to BE a magic show. He got that and he held me to it on every front. He held me to it about authenticity. He was the one who looked at it and was like, ‘OK, you have a leg over there and an arm over here and a nose over here, but we have to make a living, breathing thing that’s together. There’s no starting and stopping.’”

“I wanted everything about how you would identify this thing to be broken a little bit, to make it harder for people to identify it as the thing they know. He loved that. He’s an anarchist creatively. He always has been.”

Directorial Contribution
Oz himself, in a separate conversation, echoes those thoughts. “He wanted to do a piece of theater with magic supporting it,” Oz explained, after declaring that he had no interest in directing a magic show. “He had the main pieces, and he trusted me. He used me, as his friend, he trusted me to guide him into making it more of a theatrical piece that had sinew between the pieces, that had the meaning he wanted to convey to the audience.”
Director Frank Oz and Derek DelGaudio

“As far as my contribution, that’s the very first thing I asked him,” Oz recounts, “’How can I help contribute to this?’ My contribution was that, I think, giving it a cohesive theatrical experience from disparate elements; that still had the same theme, but were not connected in such a way that it would touch an audience.”

“We didn’t quite do the show we wanted at the Geffen,” continues Oz. “It was only in New York, and months of work prior to coming to New York, with Derek that we now have the show that I wanted. Derek now is so far advanced and knows so much more, that he’s so giving and so courageous. He now realizes that the value of this show is not what is presented, but what is lying underneath.”

Asked about how the show has continued to develop since its opening, Oz notes, “What’s wonderful about Derek is, he is not performing. He has this extraordinary honesty about him, to just talk without seeing him perspiring trying to please us. So that kind of authenticity is, I think, what’s gotten better.”

What It Is
DelGaudio spoke of In & Of Itself as the second piece, following Nothing To Hide, as an evolution in his work, without yet knowing what the next iteration might turn out to be. But he doesn’t think telling the stories of other people is in the cards, at least not yet. “If I was better at the craft of writing, that might be true. There are people who have the ability to write about any subject, or they can write about themselves, or others’ stories. I haven’t done that enough, really done it enough to know if I would be good at it because even the stories I tell about myself, they actually come from a place of an idea. Like the idea of me telling the story of my mother and the child. It’s really about the transformation of an object.”

“For me, the transformation of an object doesn’t have to be a physical transformation,” he explains. “It can be just a metaphysical one or just your interpretation of the object. The show is full of the idea that you’re going to watch this person transform. This letter is going to transform. This brick is going to be something different. In all these things, nothing really changes, except what you know about it—and then it changes everything.”

Given how much DelGaudio speaks of breaking out of the rubric of magic and illusion, it’s impossible not to ask how he would like people to describe In & Of Itself, since that’s instrumental in bringing in audiences. “People are saying, ‘You just have to go see it’,” he proffers. “People telling me, ‘My friend came back and said you just have to go see the show. I’m not going to tell you anything about it. Just go see it.’ That’s actually the perfect amount of information that someone should have going into the show. I don’t mind if their expectations start to form the moment they walk in the door, because now it’s on me.”  

Be sure to also read the other SD stories: Designing the Undefinable about Glenn Kaino's design work and Working with Derek DelGaudio about Jules Fisher's work on In & Of Itself