In & Of Itself: A
Conversation With Derek DelGaudio, Glenn Kaino, and Frank Oz
By Chris Philpott (published in Magic Magazine September 2016).
Derek DelGaudio’s In & Of Itself
played from May through August at The Geffen Theater in Los Angeles and will
open in New York in 2017. It is a magic show that doesn’t feel like
a magic show; the theater billed it as “a metaphoric labyrinth, filled
with allegorical illusions and centered around a single paradoxical truth.”
It was a critical and commercial hit.
Chris Philpott spoke with Derek, producer Glenn Kaino and, in a separate interview, director Frank Oz about the creation and meaning of the show. Kaino is an acclaimed conceptual artist and Derek’s collaborator on the performance art group A Bandit. Oz is the director of such films as Dirty Rotten Scoundrels and The Score, as well as the puppeteer and voice of such iconic figures as Miss Piggy and Yoda.
PHILPOTT: In & Of Itself is a lovely hybrid of conceptual art, magic, and theater. This seems like an unusual place to come from.
DelGAUDIO: Glenn and I have used a Venn diagram as a symbol for our work together. When we started, we looked at magic and art as these two rings, and this little space between was our work. But in this show, I wasn’t holding one of the rings; I was in the center of all of them. I look at Glenn as being the ring of ideas, art, and culture. Then we had the entertainment, pop culture, and theater ring — that was Frank. Then the magic ring was held by Michael Weber and Sebastien Clergue.
KAINO: There was this amazing fusion between the production systems of how to make a conceptual art show, how to make a magic show, and how to make a theatrical production. I’d say that we utilized every technique and we threw every technique away throughout the process. We got to use the best of all worlds that way.
DelGAUDIO: This show literally could not have existed before now. The show, which explores identity, is rooted deeply in my own exploration of my identity, what I was, what I am, and what I will become and the paradoxes that live with that — and the fact that I have a foot in the art world, and a foot in magic. This show did to me what I’ve read theoretically happens if one enters into a black hole, which is you are ripped apart completely, and somehow I’ve been assembled on the other side through the show. It tore me in every direction.
PHILPOTT: It seems like you took a big risk with this show.
DelGAUDIO: Huge. Randall Arney [Artistic Director of the Geffen] was tearing up, and had me in tears in his office, saying “You’re out there, man. You’re on a ledge, f---ing jumping off!”
That level of risk is there in the show. The show should not exist. The Geffen took it on spec. Unheard of. In twenty years, they’ve never done that before. They saw it the same night paying audiences saw it. And they told us now it’s officially the most successful show they’ve had since Nothing to Hide [Derek’s 2012 show with Helder Guimarães].
PHILPOTT: What was it like, working with this team?
DelGAUDIO: I’ve never been in a room of so many egos with no egos. I mean, everyone in the room has a reason to be puffed up, but no one is. Everyone was just super generous.
There was a point where I was standing, the wall behind me and the team out there discussing an idea, and I was waiting for them to finish and I realized, I’ve never been in a room with this many talented people that moved this quickly. It was incredible to watch. I remember in that moment I took a mental snapshot and I said “Whatever else happens from this point on” — this was a month and a half before we opened — “whatever happens in the future, you need to understand that you created the circumstance for these people to be in the same room together and meet and become friends and to make things together, and that needs to be enough right now. Whatever else happens is either gravy or it’s bullshit.”
KAINO: I think, for all of us, if we’re going to do this, we’re going to do it right and we’re going to force Derek to get what he wants out of it. No one cut him any slack. Everything got challenged, and that’s why everything up there is so well crafted.
DelGAUDIO: Imagine you have your own filter for personal quality and then you add another filter of someone who’s the best in the world at what he does. Then you add a guy who’s from a different world and has the same level of quality. What passes through that filter and comes out on the other side, you pour in a bucket of water and get a drop. You’re like, “F---, we’re going to be here awhile.” [Laughter.]
PHILPOTT: It’s unusual for a magician to invite that kind of intense collaboration on a project.
DelGAUDIO: It starts with trust. Even if Glenn disagrees with me, I know that he has the ability to give notes in the right spirit. He has no ego in it. I think there’s too much ego and lack of collaboration in the magic world. I think magicians don’t know how to collaborate.
PHILPOTT: How did you get that ability?
DelGAUDIO: I grew up with harsh critics, David Williamson, Michael Weber, Eric Mead — guys who just flat out told me “That sucks; don’t ever show that to anyone.” I remember I was probably thirteen or fourteen and I was trying to do a center deal. I was showing it to David Williamson, but I was holding a big break in the deck, so he goes “Oh, I’ve never been to the Grand Canyon before. Thank you.” [Laughter.]
KAINO: You’re someone who’s skilled at performing magic, but your ego doesn’t trade on fooling people and being in that social contract that conventional magicians operate in. I think if your ego is in the tricks, and someone tells you you’re doing it wrong, you’re like, I’m not doing it wrong; I’m doing it the way I want to do it, as opposed to, Hey, this idea could be better expressed if we do something different. It’s a whole different thing.
DelGAUDIO: I have no problem if someone I really trust and is smart, I show them something and they’re like, “Dude, that’s terrible.” I’m like, Why? I don’t know if he’s right, but I know that I’m going to fight to understand what he means until I figure it out for myself.
PHILPOTT [to Frank Oz]: How did you get involved with the show?
OZ: My wife and I went to see Nothing to Hide and she suggested we visit them backstage. Turns out Derek was a fan of mine. [Dirty Rotten Scoundrels was Derek’s favorite movie, growing up.] We got friendly and had drinks. Then he called and asked if I’d be interested in directing his new show. He said if I said no, then they wouldn’t get a director. My main question to him was “How can I contribute?”
PHILPOTT: How did you see your role in this?
OZ: Derek had all these ideas and needed someone who could guide him and hold him to his own honesty. I just watched Derek and suggested things. Going from honest impulse to honest impulse, but it always had to come from him. I almost never get to work like that. I worked with Derek as I worked with Jim Henson and Steve Martin. He gives ideas and I pick them — “Yes, I like this one.” It’s rare for a director to have that kind of trust.
PHILPOTT: Guiding him to keep his impulses honest sounds like the way you might work with actors. [And Frank has worked with some great actors: Robert De Niro, Marlon Brando, Michael Caine, Bill Murray…]
OZ: It is. I’m used to working with actors and asking “What’s your next instinct?” But Derek is not an actor. I think he was expecting me to say “Move over here, move over there.” Derek kept waiting for me to push my way in. After the first week, we had to have a talk.
DelGAUDIO: Yeah. I think I wanted to get his input while things were being shaped and molded, and he doesn’t work that way. He works very much with “I have to see it on its
feet; I have to see it how you move.” He works with minutia. He’s looking at a monitor and he’s looking at facial expression, and the difference between a lip doing this and a lip doing this could change the meaning of the sentence.
There was a disconnect because of Frank not knowing about magic. He learned that if I do this here, that means I can’t do that there, because of magical elements. We had to learn the language of each other to sort of figure out what we meant.
PHILPOTT [to Oz]: Did you enjoy the magic?
OZ: Not particularly. What I knew of magic was from the magicians I performed with in my early days as a puppeteer. In this show, I pulled back when they talked about magic. I still don’t know how some of the tricks in the show are done. I have no interest in figuring out how they work. The point is to experience the wonder of it. I let them do what they needed to do. Actually, I think it’s demeaning to call them “tricks.” And I’m not even sure this is a magic show. This particular show is more art, and Derek’s not just a magician, he’s a conceptual artist.
DelGAUDIO: That’s nice of him [to say]. I mean — or not. Depends on how he means it.
[Laughter.] One day he said, “I haven’t had this much fun since I worked on The Muppets.”
DelGAUDIO: Yeah. And we were all like, “We can go home happy.”
KAINO: There were challenges to learning each other’s language, and I think that is partly what imbues the show with so much meaning, that sensitivity to every word and every gesture and every placement of every object onstage. In a way, the process was a conceptual art process. That time, that three months making the show every day downtown, that was the performance-performance. What ended up onstage was the amazing byproduct of that art.
PHILPOTT: If you had to describe the show in May of last year, I imagine it would’ve been really different.
DelGAUDIO: Surprisingly not. It’s staggeringly scary how it came around.
PHILPOTT: Can you give an example?
DelGAUDIO: Yeah, I have my journal which I started from day one, and the very first thing in it is six chambers of a gun with a bullet in one of them, top left corner. That’s the very first image in that book. [This became the set for the show.] The next thing is the story of the Roulettista. The first six pages of the book are already in the show. Then the rest is the exploration of that story and the duality of identity — being something, and being seen by others.
KAINO: It’s just like advanced craftsmanship.
DelGAUDIO: Yeah, better execution of the idea.
KAINO: A fleshing out, nuance.
DelGAUDIO: Clarity, editing.
KAINO: There was a solid set of foundational ideas. The first phone call about this, over a year ago, was about perpetual motion. Someone coming back.
PHILPOTT: Without going into too much detail here, since the show’s many surprises are worth preserving, in every show, someone in the audience is asked to leave mid-performance and come back the next night. That choice is just so playful with the form of theater.
KAINO: A lot of questions started off with “What is…?” What is theater? What is this show? When does the show start? When does it end? If it’s perpetual motion, the show has launched over six weeks ago and it’s still going.
DelGAUDIO: How do you break the notion of what people think a thing is? Where’s the “isness” of a thing? How will they define this experience? Well, they’ll define it by them being at a theater and watching for a set amount of time. All right, well, what if it’s expanded outside of that? Yes, it’s happening now, but it’s also happening yesterday and tomorrow. And now it’s happening outside the theater. The idea is how do you break — we use this term a lot — but how do you break the notion of what they think a thing is?
OZ: Isn’t that the idea of art, to disrupt things and break some stuff? This work was a rare opportunity to be as rebellious as my nature is. I usually do big films for a large audience and so can’t take chances. But Derek and I both wanted to break things.
PHILPOTT: And one of the things you tried to break was the language of a magic show.
OZ: Derek was still stuck in magician patter. I don’t want to do patter — neither did he. So I held him to that.
DelGAUDIO: In a lot of the reviews for Nothing to Hide, I kept seeing the word “patter” when they talked about language. I’m like, Wow, that’s interesting. I was at a party with a reviewer from The Village Voice, and he wrote a very favorable review. I said, “I have a question. When you talk about the language, you talk about patter. Why is that? Why the word patter?” He said, “You know, vaudevillians, comedians, magicians, it’s the stuff you say in between the stuff that matters.” I’m like, “Huh, okay.” So then I started looking into the word patter and its origins.
PHILPOTT: Pater Noster. Latin for “Our Father.”
DelGAUDIO: Pater Noster, exactly!
PHILPOTT: The way I’d read it is it was people in the middle ages who were forced to say the “Our Father” so many times for penance —
DelGAUDIO: That it became mumbles.
PHILPOTT: That it just became mumbles.
DelGAUDIO: Yeah, exactly. It was reduced to literally meaningless words. That’s what they ended up calling what a juggler or magician or vaudevillian said.
PHILPOTT: And we accepted that.
DelGAUDIO: We accepted that. And I did not. I said to Glenn, if patter is words devoid of meaning and I’m there to say meaningful words, we need to address the problem. If they can’t hear it, what’s the point of saying it? I would be talking and Frank would be like, “That’s patter!”
PHILPOTT: Any effects in particular?
DelGAUDIO: Yeah, an effect that didn’t make it into the show. I had a piece where I had someone hammer a nail into a wall. I needed to say, “Here’s a hammer and here’s a nail. Place it into the wall anywhere you’d like.” That, to Frank, sounded like patter. That needed to happen in order to do the thing we were trying to do, but how do you do it without patter? Then Frank got up and said “What if you were to —”
KAINO: Hold the nail up.
DelGAUDIO: Yeah! He goes, “Why not just do this?” He hands the guy in the front row a hammer, walks to the back wall, holds the nail to a wall and just stares at him. That was the first time Glenn and I were like, “Oh, shit! Frank’s a baller!” [Laughter.]
KAINO: Frank’s the third member of the band!
PHILPOTT: With the show, there’s little to no process in the effects
DelGAUDIO: There’s none. Mike Caveney said, “There’s never been a show that has eliminated the procedure part of a magic show so much. You’re just walking along and all of a sudden you get punched in the gut.” And that’s been remarkably challenging. For everyone. Frank would say something and we’d be like, “That sounds like patter.” “God damn it, you’re right!”
KAINO: I think it was a natural entry point into the studio for Frank, because it’s also how he directs film, without wasted motion.
PHILPOTT: In Robert Elder’s The Film That Changed My Life, you [Oz] describe how you were inspired by a shot in Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil — not the famous, elaborate opening tracking shot, but a low-key, beautifully crafted five-minute-long take in the accused’s apartment, where Welles choreographs an elaborate scene with eight people moving in and out of close-ups, wide shots, light, and shadow.
OZ: That is the most staggering scene to me. It’s so economical.
PHILPOTT: A lot of your own style as a director seems to grow out of that shot.
OZ: It really does. The director’s job is to disappear. It’s pretty easy to do flashy camera moves, but as soon as you say “Oh my god, what a gorgeous shot,” you’ve lost.
PHILPOTT: The visual style of In & Of Itself is quite spare.
OZ: It’s spare because that’s all we needed. It wasn’t on purpose. Nothing was imposed. Everything is at the service of the narrative.
PHILPOTT: In & Of Itself doesn’t have a traditional narrative. Rather, there are flashes of a story, all related to moments in Derek’s life. In some ways, it seems like a coming-of-age tale.
KAINO: Yeah, I think that’s fair. But in art, people who work with narrative run the risk of it falling very personal and thin. It’s hard to ask big questions on personal stories. I think that the stories in this explore the largest possible questions about our state of being, which I think is really exciting. This doesn’t feel like a one-man show telling someone’s personal backstory.
DelGAUDIO: I avoided that like the plague.
PHILPOTT: You did avoid it. But your show is filled with hints of yourself.
DelGAUDIO: I wasn’t going to do it at first. It was Glenn and Frank and Vanessa Lauren [Derek’s wife and a producer on the show] who were like, “You have to.” One of the things I wrote was explicitly for my own understanding of why I’m doing this. I read it to Glenn and he goes, “Do that in the show.” I’m like, “No, I just wrote this for me.” He’s like, “You have to do that in the show!” Then I started testing it out on friends. Sitting them down, I would recite it and I look over and my friend is crying. I’m like, Maybe I should do that in the show. [Laughter.]
PHILPOTT: As I listened to your stories, I wondered to myself if the stories were true, but ultimately they were so interesting I didn’t care. But now, as long as I’m here, I might as well ask...
DelGAUDIO: If they’re true? Yes. All of them. That’s why I start the show with, “I get that you’re not going to believe me, but try. Try to believe me, because it’s all true.” That is the paradox of the life you lead as a magician. If I was Billy Crystal, and I came out and said “Hello, folks. I’m here to tell you a bunch of true stories.” You’d go, “Oh, Billy Crystal is going to open up to us.” But it’s a huge problem with being a magician.
PHILPOTT: So you want to be scrupulously honest because everyone expects you to be a liar.
DelGAUDIO: Yes, 100 percent. It needs to be honest because everything about the identity is deceptive.
PHILPOTT: Do you lie in the show?
DelGAUDIO: No. I’ve always erred on that side. I think that’s why I gravitated toward gambling demonstrations. It allowed me to demonstrate something I do without feeling like I’m being deceptive.
PHILPOTT: You’re telling people exactly what you’re doing.
DelGAUDIO: Yes. You just go, “Here’s the truth” and still have that moment of appreciation and wonder.
KAINO: In that way, you put the lying on the audience. Their eyes are lying to them.
DelGAUDIO: That’s this whole show. I’m going to say something. You’re going to think I’m lying, but in a second you’re going to realize you just lied to yourself. [Spoiler alert!] With the letter, I say “You’re up here, and it’s a lot to ask to have you come sit here. Here’s what’s about to happen. Right now, this is just an envelope with a piece of paper in it. In a moment, you’re going to open it. And you’re going to see a handwritten note from a loved one.” I tell them flat out and they’re like “Okay,” and I watch them every night scoff at me, every single night. Then, when they open it and they see it, you see them travel the distance in that split second to realizing that I was telling the truth — Mother------ is just telling us what’s happening!
PHILPOTT: That’s patter, isn’t it?
DelGAUDIO: Yes, exactly! That’s the thing, they’re hearing it as patter when I say it in that moment, then they realize it’s just true. I just realized this, thinking about the patter conversation; we’ve had lots of writing about the show and not a single person has said the word “patter.”
KAINO: That’s true.
DelGAUDIO: Not a single person.
PHILPOTT: Well, it’s going to be all over this article. [Laughter.] Pick a trick and let’s talk it through a little bit.
DelGAUDIO: Geez, without ruining it.
PHILPOTT: The bottle? I wrote about this effect in my review of the show in the July 2016 issue. “DelGaudio wordlessly takes a bottle from one of the dioramas, peels off the label, folds it into a little boat, then balances the boat on the back of a chair. A light projects the shadow of the boat on the wall behind, and DelGaudio maneuvers the bottle so it seems like its shadow swallows up the boat — and in an instant, the little boat is now inside the real bottle.” I went on to discuss how the effect’s metaphor tied into the themes of the show.
DelGAUDIO: I feel redundant talking about it, because you’ve kind of hit the nail on the head with the duality of that bottle and setting up the tone for what you’re seeing, anchoring that to the metaphor of the show, and this idea that things are more than they appear to be.
PHILPOTT: I could have gone on. But how did you arrive at this effect?
DelGAUDIO: I was actually thinking about the duality of objects and how to represent that duality. I’m certain that began with the idea of shadows, and which one is real. What is more real? We talked about an effect where one thing is video, and another thing is happening live. The duality of this, of which story are you going to choose to watch.
KAINO: It’s a challenge.
PHILPOTT: You can feel that tension — which one should I watch?
DelGAUDIO: Which one is true? In one, the ship is in the bottle; and here, it’s clearly not in the bottle. Which story are you going to choose? The magical journey is on the wall, or are you going to choose the not-so-magical journey that you’re seeing before you.
There’s also a secret narrative to that bottle story that I didn’t pursue, a personal one, which is about growing up with alcoholism. That was never intended to be part of the explicit narrative, but I wanted moments of my life that were fractures in defining who I am. These moments — some are explicit, like a brick through a window, and others are implicit. I don’t need to explain to you why that’s a bottle, because I know why it’s a bottle and that’s what matters.
KAINO: That knowledge, just knowing that, I think, conditions your performance.
DelGAUDIO: Every night.
PHILPOTT: You think about that when you pick up the bottle?
DelGAUDIO: I don’t try or try not to, because then we get into acting and that’s a dicey area. But I just know.
OZ: A couple of times, I said to Derek “Hey, you’re acting.” But that was rare. He has the extraordinary ability to both push a meaning but say it in a simple way. The audience appreciates that.
PHILPOTT: How do you feel about the audience reaction to the show?
OZ: People don’t know how to describe it; I like that. The show is ambiguous, hazy, and that’s on purpose. It’s not tied up with a ribbon, and that bothers some people and I don’t give a shit. This is not a Neil Simon situation where you want clarity. This is clearly ambiguous. The connections are tacit. It’s a living, breathing animal. It’s not dead. This isn’t at all like a studio project with their bullshit notes that you have to listen to. “Oh, could he be gay?” This is a whole different thing. This is conceptual art. Which is wonderful.
DelGAUDIO: Michael Weber says magic is a strong enough art form to carry a weak performer. You can dig through my curtains and veils, and there’s a deep rabbit hole there. The secrets in this show are more impressive than some of the effects.
PHILPOTT: You wouldn’t believe the magic chatter about the brick [a brick that vanishes in a ridiculously clean and impossible way].
DelGAUDIO: (Delighted.) Really?
PHILPOTT: Yes. Unbelievable. We’re all fooled.
DelGAUDIO: What have you heard? This is just curiosity. We get nothing but positive feedback other than maybe theatrical critics. I don’t know if they really understand things, so that’s fine. What have you heard? What’s the chatter?
PHILPOTT: Well, most people love it, but from what I’ve heard, in the magic community, most of the chatter is about how you did the tricks.
DelGAUDIO: (After a pause.) That’s so sad. You should talk about that. That’s important.
KAINO: It sucks.
PHILPOTT: Don’t get me wrong, there are a lot of magicians who get it. But mostly I don’t think we’re trained within the art of magic to look at a show the way that yours really should be looked at. To think about its meaning.
KAINO: There’s no critical class that is trained to appreciate and to have dialogue about it. Magic is a handful of professionals in a sea of hobbyists. Most people just want to be able to do a trick at a birthday party and not really take the art form seriously.
PHILPOTT: You’ve gotten phenomenal reviews.
DelGAUDIO: Penn Jillette wrote, “It’s Andy Kaufman and Marcel Duchamp, if they could do perfect bottom deals.”
PHILPOTT: I read that. That’s great.
DelGAUDIO: After he wrote that, I texted him. As a joke, I said “So I guess the centers needed work,” because he said just the bottom deals. He responded, “I assumed those were fake.” I said “Nope,” and he just wrote back “F-------k.” [Laughter.]
Part of the reason I think magicians have fragile egos is because there are insecurities about their practice. There are insecurities about what they’re actually capable of doing, and it’s that thin line of, Will they know I’m a fraud or not? Don’t be a fraud. But if you’re going to be a fraud, be a really good one.
Chris Philpott is a screenwriter and magician who lives and works in Los Angeles. He began doing magic in his teens, performing at parties and working at Len Cooper’s Browser’s Den in Toronto. He may be best known in magic for his creation of the 100th Monkey effect. Chris has been a frequent contributor of MAGIC Magazine.
©Chris Philpott 2010-2021. All rights reserved. Original designs and content by Kathleen Breedyk and Chris Philpott.
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