Even before he became famous, Derek DelGaudio was insistent about differentiating what he does from the sort of magic he calls “service entertainment”—i.e., guys in top hats doing card tricks for kids at birthday parties or goth magicians in Vegas or on TV. In 2018, when his one-man show In & Of Itself (now a Hulu special) began to buzz, he started calling it a “theatrical existential crisis,” as opposed to a mere magic show. He has even corrected journalists who use the word “patter” to describe his dialogue.
Early on, he did not want his tricks to be filmed. When I mention to him how many magicians have flourished on Zoom during the pandemic, he recoils. He is not one of them! I bring up Harry Houdini, who also toggled between reality and fakery and similarly eschewed the word magician, preferring instead to call himself a “mystifier.“ DelGaudio, 36, has another term for Houdini: “a bullshit artist.”
Whatever you label it—bullshit, magic, mystification—to me the core of what’s interesting about DelGaudio is the way he updates tropes of illusion to appeal to today’s audiences. He wants to be honest about having to deceive the audience, the magician’s job. But he also wants to communicate his discomfort with the role. Onstage, his youthful physicality makes him look like the opposite of someone who could trick you; his demeanor is deadpan, as if he has no idea why he’s there. This is, of course, another kind of trick.
By positioning himself as a reluctant magician, DelGaudio appeals to the American appetite for confession, even as he plays the role of a kindly magic Virgil for a public that seems both exhausted by being deceived IRL and yet somehow, still hungry to be so…in the theatre. (Here it is impossible not to compare the so-called field of magic with that of theatre. There is no school for magic. If you want to learn how to do sleight of hand, escape acts, or close up you have to find a teacher or, more recently, the internet. Nor are there dedicated critics of the form to keep practitioners in line. Magic, in other words, is theatre without plays.)
To deal with audiences who want to see tricks in magic the way audiences want to see stories in theatre, DelGaudio swerves. When people come to see him, they should not think about tricks. “If someone is expecting candy entertainment, my show’s going to be lost on them,” he says, comparing what he does to fine dining.
DelGaudio, who was tormented by doctrinaire bullies in his youth, can sound doctrinaire himself. On a New York Times Book Review podcast about his new book, AMORALMAN, published in March by Random House, he disavows the word “memoir,” instead presenting himself as just someone with “a story to tell.” In this case, much of the story is about his learning how to do sleight of hand, and then working as a “bust-out,” or dirty, card dealer. But AMORALMAN is also about his childhood and his disappointment with magic as a genre. When he sees Grayson, a renowned magician, for the second time at the Broadmoor Hotel in Colorado Springs, he is horrified that the guy has changed his patter: Grayson had first said a holy man once gave him a small box; the second time it was his father. The lie turned DelGaudio, outraged at the “theatrical untruths,” to card cheating, whose technique, as he described it, is more “naturalistic.”
In my dreamiest moments, reading these pages made me think of the late 19th century, when Konstantin Stanislavski and Anton Chekhov shouted about “new forms.” But DelGaudio’s show, in which he plays a character who seems alternately like a Chautauqua Circuit lecturer and a New Age guru, was not just an attempt to create something new. It was a hit. Directed by Frank Oz, In & Of Itself extended three times at the Geffen Playhouse in L.A., and in 2018, in a run at New York’s 150-seat Daryl Roth Theatre, it grossed over $7 million, extended four times, and broke the record for weekly grosses at least twice. In January, it launched as a Hulu special, and not long after AMORALMAN was published, DelGaudio was picked up by the powerful WME agency. Though cast in the new Steven Soderbergh movie, Kimi, he declines to tell me what role he is playing. Abracadabra.
The magician who says that he is uncomfortable deceiving people has become an actor at a time when the theatre industry has trained a sharp focus on actors playing roles that conform to their ethnic and gender identities. Perhaps that is why, while the media does not yet call DelGaudio by one name, as they do with true icons, he is nevertheless a darling. Since 2012, The New York Times has lavishly covered DelGaudio with advance features, including one about the old subject of how a rival magician might have been spying at one of his shows. But the language used about him by certain otherwise skeptical public figures is even more startling than these puff pieces. On a 2021 interview on the Canadian radio show Q, Stephen Colbert, who executive-produced In & Of Itself for Hulu, compares it to Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia. DelGaudio’s work with the audience is akin to the way “a canvas might participate with the artist.”
The entertainer who prizes authenticity—the un-actor non-memoirist who preferred stealing from the rich to magic—turns ordinary audience members into works of art.
There has always been an audience for magic, but DelGaudio may be proof that we are living in a golden age. In & Of Itself “changed the nature of magic,” said Amy Levinson, associate director at the Geffen, who worked on the show. But what seems like a rise of interest in magic is also powered by the pandemic, by Zoom, by and the political upheavals that have wreaked havoc on our world and on the theatre. Opportunities for magicians seem to have correspondingly grown. A number of them work as consultants in Hollywood or have shows in Vegas, for streaming services, or network TV. DelGaudio worked as a Disney Imagineer. Penn and Teller have a talent show. David Blaine recently floated into the stratosphere for YouTube.
Indeed, Arthur C. Clarke’s famous quote that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic” itself seems obsolete. The explosion of magic reveals how little tech by itself can do for us—how hungry we are for some sort of ur-tech or anti-tech.
“Magic is everywhere,” says Gustav Kuhn, director of the MAGIC (Mind, Attention, & General Illusory Cognition) Lab at Goldsmith College, a five-year-old graduate program at Goldsmith’s College in London, which uses magic to study behavioral psychology and neuropsychology. Kuhn agrees that some of magic’s tropes make it seem old-fashioned. Houdini was not the only 20th-century magician to disparage the genre. Ricky Jay, who developed a persona as a writer, a collector of magic, and a curmudgeon, was a skeptic, as well as a kind of actor, appearing in some of David Mamet’s movies. Magic also continues to draw mostly white men as performers, a fact that DelGaudio has been open about criticizing. The “gender imbalance is decreasing, but slowly,” says Kuhn, acknowledging that the stars in the industry remain white men.
Both In & Of Itself and AMORALMAN are a mix of old-fashioned and millennial. They tell the story of a lonely, ostracized boy raised by a single mom, a boy who gravitates to magic. But DelGaudio is the first magician I know of to recount his mother’s coming out as a lesbian in conservative small-town Colorado when he was six, and the first who says he became interested in magic to protect himself from homophobic bullies. And while a number of magicians are drawn to philosophy, he may also be the first to recount how, when a kind teacher gave him a copy of Plato’s Republic, the allegory of the cave is what drew him in.
He is not the first magician to reject school, preferring to search instead for surrogate fathers who could teach him sleight of hand, nor the first to go to L.A. As he recounts his time under the tutelage of a card sharp and the months he spent swindling rich people at the L.A. card game, he seems ambivalent. In this section he does give granular detail about How He Does it (unlike the magic sections). But he spends only a few paragraphs at the end of the book on what is to me an equally fascinating subject: his interest in conceptual and performance art. Around 2008, when he was 24, he met the conceptual artist Glenn Kaino, also an amateur magician. Both were frustrated with the limitations of their disciplines and wanted to expand them. So they had a trade: Kaino taught DelGaudio about the giants of conceptual art and DelGaudio helped Kaino with magic.
DelGaudio calls the artists he learned about—Marcel Duchamp, Joseph Beuys, Marina Abramović, and Chris Burden–“magicians.” As he told The New York Times: “I want to do for magic what Duchamp did for art: break it.” At first I had trouble understanding what he meant. DelGaudio is a static performer. He hardly takes the kinds of physical risks that Burden did in his famous 1971 performance, Shoot, in which a friend actually put a bullet in him, or that Abramović took for 1974’s Rhythm 0, in which she stood next to 72 objects (a gun, a knife, etc.) and invited the audience onstage to use them, or that Beuys did for I Like America and America Likes Me, in which he climbed into a cage for three days with a coyote. When I mention these objections, Glenn Kaino tells me that in focusing on the violence in these pieces of performance art, I am missing the point. In & Of Itself “is about creating a space for revelation,” he says.
Kaino has been key in DelGaudio’s thinking. Around 2010, the two men created a performance collective called A.Bandit and did shows at many spaces in L.A. and New York, including LAX Art Annex and the Kitchen. In A Walk Through China, (2011), they talked about the lies Marco Polo told after he came back from China, and then sawed the actress China Chow in half. That same year, they performed Set Sale at the Kitchen. This was, as Kaino described it to me, an auction for an unknown artwork, which went up to “thousands of dollars.” The winner would come onstage, and Kaino would say: “You bought the artwork, but we are going to make it.” Then he spray-painted a guy’s cashmere shirt with the stencil “A.Bandit.” Afterward, in a bar, euphoric, Kaino and DelGaudio saw the guy walk in. They thanked him for being a good sport, and he replied: “You guys let me prove that I’m awesome in public.”
Allowing audiences to be “awesome in public” soon became a goal. Around this time, some of the artistic staff at the Geffen Playhouse discovered DelGaudio performing at the Magic Castle, the turreted Hollywood clubhouse for magicians. “We don’t usually scout there,” said the Geffen’s Amy Levinson, but Neil Patrick Harris, a magic aficionado who had played the role of Chris in All My Sons at the theatre, had encouraged the team to check out DelGaudio’s show. That is how, in 2012, the Geffen (which had earlier produced Ricky Jay) produced Nothing to Hide, starring DelGaudio and the Portuguese magician Helder Guimarães, and Harris directing. After breaking box-office records and extending several times, the show moved to New York’s Romulus Linney Courtyard Theatre, where it recouped its $400,000 capitalization in four weeks.
Though DelGaudio seems to reject theatricality, there are one or two compelling moments in AMORALMAN that suggest there’s more to this story. He spends one or two pages telling the reader that, as a young man in Colorado, he took a one-month course in acting at a local theatre and liked it. After that, he was cast, as he puts it in the book, in the role of “a Mormon named Rick who kills himself after being seduced by a gay con artist.” It was only in talking to him that I realized this was a part in Six Degrees of Separation; Rick is an actor who comes to New York to make it with his girlfriend and then, like everyone else in the movie, gets conned by Paul, the charming street hustler. Could this be the only time that DelGaudio played the mark, the person duped by someone else?
DelGaudio is also coy about another flirtation with acting. After he moved to L.A., he took classes at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, but he didn’t like it. “Craft was secondary to the art,” he says. What’s more, he concedes, “I didn’t have the personality of an actor.”
In In & Of Itself, DelGaudio is not acting, in the sense that he is not exactly playing a role. And yet his eyes moisten by the end of the night. But Kaino says the tears are not theatre. “That is Derek. At the end of the night, he’s spent.”
Other elements in In & Of Itself seem highly theatrical. The show starts in the lobby, where the audience is steered into DelGaudio’s version of “pick a card, any card.” Along one lobby wall hang rows of cards, which, DelGaudio told me, were inspired by the placards 5,000 Memphis sanitation workers, encouraged by Martin Luther King Jr, carried at the 1968 strike that said “I AM A MAN,” and by the artist Glenn Ligon’s 1988 work about that strike. Of course, this is not 1968, and the audience is not part of the Civil Rights Movement, and the cards substitute for “MAN” a list of identities that include “I AM AN ORIGINAL,” “I AM A BEEKEEPER,” “I AM A RACIST.”
I don’t think DelGaudio is trying to suggest that In & Of Itself audiences are as disenfranchised as Memphis sanitation workers during the Civil Rights era. But he has tapped into a pop-psychology truth about our moment: No one is seen as who they are. Thus he lets the audience make themselves visible, not as social protest but in a psycho-social way. Still, this moment seemed shticky to me, like something dreamed up by corporate human resources for the annual retreat. It does, however, lead to one hilarious moment in the performance captured for Hulu: DelGaudio, intent on calling on someone in the audience, picks the card “I AM AN IDIOT.” He says, “Someone here is an idiot.” Silence. “Will the idiot raise their hand?” Silence. “That’s about right,” DelGaudio quips.
The set and props (contributed by Kaino) also riff on old-school magic. Mostly bare, with some cubbies holding props, the set reminded me of the clutter onstage in Doug Wright’s genius 2003 one-man show, I Am My Own Wife, and of old-fashioned cabinets of curiosities. In front of these items, DelGaudio, in a three-piece suit, spends most of the 90 minutes standing alone expounding high-falutin’ ideas about identity and adventure. As in conventional magic shows, the props are ordinary objects. But DelGaudio gives them different meanings: He teleports a brick to various street corners of Manhattan, for one thing.
Moving a brick through time and space just one corner of what the show is about. It is also about ritual healing. About two thirds of the way through, DelGaudio asks an audience member onstage and has them pick a letter from a pack of them. The one they pick turns out to be written by an intimate of theirs (there are whole threads on Reddit speculating about how this was done). DelGaudio has the person read the letter to themselves in front of the audience. His goal is to have them transform onstage from the identity they chose at the top of the show to the one that their beloved sees. As he said to me, he wants this “trick” to “expose a part of ourselves that we have kept hidden, or unintentionally reveal another side of ourselves to the world through the eyes of someone who loves us.”
In the Hulu show, this moment is shown with a montage of footage compiled from different nights: The camera zooms in on the readers’ faces as they weep, laugh, exclaim in disbelief. In the most striking cameo, a middle-aged woman with white hair begins to sob and daubs at her eyes with a handkerchief. The camera cuts away to the audience, where many people, including celebrities, weep too. DelGaudio puts his hand on her shoulder.
“I don’t understand,” she says, looking adoringly at DelGaudio.
“I know,” he replies. She reads a letter from her father about what he taught her about God. “He’s dying of Parkinson’s,” she tells him.
“What you’re getting is an honest place, their empathy exposed,” said Amy Levinson. I described this moment to Gustav Kuhn, the director of the Magic Lab. “It’s very rare for magicians to play with negative emotions,” he said. But he wanted me to factor in that our cognitive facilities get processed differently in magic, which is not about “a suspension of disbelief but conflict in belief.”
This moment of the show unsettled me, though. “The camera is more voyeuristic,” concedes Levinson. “The moment in the theatre is more communal.”
Maybe. What DelGaudio is doing could be called by many different names: con man, priest, magician, actor. That last, despite his protestations, is his latest role. Abracadabra?
Rachel Shteir (she/her) is the head of dramaturgy at the Theatre School at DePaul University and the author of the books Striptease: The Untold History of the Girlie Show, Gypsy: the Art of the Tease, and The Steal: A Cultural History of Shoplifting.
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