In Las Vegas, it’s as easy to take in a big magic show as it is to lose big money at the casino.
The most popular acts include Penn & Teller, David Copperfield, and Criss Angel. Magic is even dominating the box office with “Now You See Me 2,” which opened to good box office returns this past weekend.
Now, magic takes center stage at the Geffen Playhouse. Derek DelGaudio’s “In & Of Itself” is dedicated to the most intimate aspects of illusion and sleight of hand.
Like a lot of performers doing so-called "close-up" magic, DelGaudio works in front of only about 100 people, and this intimacy actually makes his illusions more amazing. But “In & Of Itself” is as much a piece of theater as it is a magic show. The director is the filmmaker and muppeteer Frank Oz, best known for his work with Jim Henson. And the show is filled with stories about DelGaudio’s childhood, a legend of a man who cheated death playing Russian Roulette.
The Frame's John Horn spoke to DelGaudio on the Geffen stage about the intimacy of the performance, what he's trying to achieve with "In & Of Itself," and the importance of magic in the art world.
You start your show not with a magic trick, but with a disclaimer to the audience. Why is that?
I start with a disclaimer that what you about to see and hear — I understand that because of the context of being in a theater and under some lights, I'm a performer, I'm a magician — I realize that you're more inclined to not believe the things that happen in this room, but I implore you to please do because they're true.
Meaning that the audience, when they walk into any theater or a theater where someone is doing illusions, is going to be skeptical of everything they see and hear?
Correct. Instead of having that work against me, I've tried to have that work for me. One of the things that happens in this show is everything starts from a place of truth, and then a sort of an illusion is created around that and the illusion erodes. What you're left is the truth, which is more confounding in a way, because you're left with an enigma that's true as opposed to an illusion that's a lie.
Do you think there are two different ways that people tend to watch somebody like yourself — people who surrender and people who remain skeptical? Is there a blurring between the two — people trying to figure it out as it goes by, and people who give up that process?
Yeah, especially in today's society where information is so accessible and knowing something is a click away. Society tends to be a little more skeptical, a little more intellectual when it comes to a magic show, unless it lands more on the emotional side. I think the people who just want to go and have fun are generally there for an intellectual challenge.
For me, I have no interest in fooling people, but I have an interest in creating a space for their imagination and a space for them to think about new ideas. I try to use magic and moments of wonder and mystery to create that space for people to have an experience, to reflect on something that they didn't know they were going to think about.
I want to talk about the space we're in and how intimate it is. We're sitting in the front row. To the beginning of the stage, it's maybe three-and-a-half feet. The stage itself is maybe 15 feet deep, the house is a little more than a hundred seats. There's a closeness and a proximity from audience to performer that is really tight. I suspect that's important to you, to the show itself, and the way in which audiences see what you're doing and the way you see the audience?
Yeah, it's necessary in terms of the function of the show. They have to be able to see what's happening to experience it, and that creates an intimate environment for everything. The fact that people can see if I'm holding something in my hand — I can just show it to them and they don't need to have the people in the front row vouch for people in the back row. So it's important aesthetically, but it's also important in terms of this show, [which] is very confrontational. Being in the room with a performer who can look you in the eye is a connection that you don't normally get.
You mean there's no place to hide.
There's no place to hide in this room and it's very important, especially with what I'm trying to do. I'm trying to say something and I realize that you're already there to maybe ruin it for yourself in terms of trying to figure it out, or understand it when really that's not what the experience is about.
I need to be able to see the room to know where people's minds are at, because I can tell if their eyes are wandering or if they're getting bored and looking at their feet, or if they're talking to the person next to them about what they think is coming or what just happened. Those are all important things to keep the energy in the room flowing in the right direction.
Do you think the idea of a magician as an artist is something that the broader culture doesn't get?
I think there is a fundamental difference between someone who is clearly involved in service entertainment and an artist who is trying to say something and make new things.
Who would you put on that list?
Aside from the obvious, Teller is an artist, Ricky Jay is an artist, René Lavand, who passed away recently, is an artist. David Blaine is absolutely an artist and he's a perfect example of someone who society doesn't really allow to be framed as an artist because he doesn't bother with the rhetoric that goes with most performance art. David Blaine, if he had a curatorial team behind him telling him what to say, would be the greatest performance artist alive.
David does things like standing on a block of ice for three days. Someone like [artist] Chris Burden, that would have been his entire career. [Blaine would] be buried alive, he has people shoot him in the face with real guns. That's performance art, but he doesn't bother with framing it that way because he just does. He doesn't seem to care about being involved in the art world, he just likes doing what he does.
That's what this show is about. The show is about being labeled as a thing and then not being able to be anything other than that thing. The people who I think are incredible are the people who transcend a thing.
If you could be a fly on the wall after the show, and people are talking about their experience, what would be the most gratifying things that you could hear as they leave the theater?
I can't say what would be gratifying for what they would say, but I can say what would be gratifying to not hear. If I heard a room full of people talking about the show and they were not discussing or speculating on how things worked, but what the show meant — that would be gratifying for me. If they were talking about the ideas and what it made them feel and the experience and what this show means, I've done my job.
Where I think I failed is if they leave the show asking the question, How did he do that? Or, I think he did this or that. Then I still have a ways to go.
But you're talking about a divide between cynicism and wonder, about people wanting to be blown away and people wanting to find holes in something. That's the age in which we live. How do you think magic fits into that conversation?
I think it's a time for us to rethink what magic's purpose is in society. Magic's purpose used to be to evoke a sense of what's possible. And the unknown and magicians were so far ahead of technology that they were able to live on their secrets, and [the] technologies they were using against people that they just weren't aware of — advancements in technology and the invention of film. Now, it's impossible for even the heads of technology to keep up with what's new in this world and there's no such thing as secrets, in a sense.
So I think the way that a magician functions and what they think magic is for, they need to rethink it a little bit and it needs to be more metaphoric and more about what magic means about the whole. As opposed to the occult, or the unknown, or the cliché of [making] you think that anything is possible. We now have a better idea of what's possible and what's not possible in this world, and we don't need magicians to show us how far we can reach.
“In & Of Itself” is at the Geffen Playhouse through July 24.