In his Off-Broadway show In & Of Itself, magician Derek DelGaudio has no interest in pulling rabbits out of top hats or turning wands into bouquets. His show, which is directed by puppeteer and filmmaker Frank Oz and produced by actor Neil Patrick Harris, tackles the subject of identity and the artificial limits that are set when someone or something is labeled.
DelGaudio, a specialist in sleight of hand, is widely regarded as one of the most talented magicians and was named this year’s Magician of the Year by the Academy of Magical Arts. He’s capable of performing magic so compelling that audience members are left in disbelief. But in In & of Itself, the magic that’s present serves only as a backdrop to DelGaudio’s storytelling and larger points about identity and how illusory identity may be.
Bedford + Bowery spoke with DelGaudio about the production, his collaborators and the problems with creating a show that’s so difficult to describe.
I initially knew I wanted to make a show about the duality of identity and what it means to be and be seen by others. I also knew that in order to illustrate that idea the show needed to have its own identity and kind of embody the complexity and the paradox of the idea I was trying to express. I knew the show couldn’t be easily defined, in other words. The show needed to be an example of the point I was trying to make. That’s where I started.
I knew what I didn’t want it to be, which is I didn’t want it to be a traditional theater show. I didn’t want it to be a magic show, I didn’t want it to be a one-man show. I wanted it to be something that hadn’t existed yet. I started there and slowly built the pieces.
When people enter the theater, the first thing they see is the wall of cards, each with a label that begins “I am ___”; they’re asked to pick between options like “a teacher,” “an immigrant,” “a failure.” Can you talk about the idea behind having the cards be the first thing an audience member is confronted with?
[I did that] in order to start the dialogue before people even sit in their chairs, and get people in the headspace of thinking about what it means to be labeled, to choose a label for yourself or have labels forced on you. I wanted people to have those thoughts in their heads before they take their seats. And also, to not just have thought about it but to be confronted with that choice and forced to make that decision and think about that decision. That confrontation can spark a real crisis in people, like: “Who am I? Who do people think I am? Who do I want to be in this world?”
When I was thinking, who could direct it, it was a very delicate, fragile show and I thought Frank would be perfect because when everyone thinks of Frank Oz, everyone thinks of a different thing. Some people think of Yoda, some people think of The Muppets, some people think of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, some people think of What About Bob? Everyone kind of thinks of something different and the only way to really describe Frank is to say his name. So I asked him and he said he might be able to help. So I flew out to New York, I walked him through what I thought the show could be, and he understood it. And he was there from the beginning and he helped shape it, make it legible, make it accessible – because a lot of the ideas are really abstract and conceptual.
I worked with Glenn Kaino, an artist in LA. He helped shape the show and the aesthetics of it – he made sure it was beautiful and poetic. Mark Mothersbaugh [former frontman of Devo] did the music, which was great. He was amazing and he’s super talented. When we were moving the show from Los Angeles to New York is when Neil [Patrick Harris] came on and he helped us navigate the theater landscape out here and figure out where we should put the show and putting a team out here together, and all that stuff.
One thing that’s quite difficult is describing the show. Most magic shows have some element of storytelling, but this show takes it to the point where it stops really being a magic show – I’m curious, how do you personally describe the show?
I describe it as a theatrical existential crisis, and a shared one. But the idea behind the show is to acknowledge a thing– whether that be a thing or person– and not have to categorize it, to not have to label it. To just let it exist. I mean, we have to, for communication, but my hope is that we can see things for what they are rather than try to force a label on it.
It’s not commercially very wise to have a show that’s difficult to describe but conceptually, it’s what it needs to be.
Yeah, that’s right. Which is why everyone who is involved in the show, from the top, down. Starting with me, and the producers and the director, needed to believe in the show and now just want it for commercial reasons. Everyone believed it should exist and that’s what was needed for it to exist.
This interview has been condensed and edited.