Derek DelGaudio Conjurs Life After His Off-Broadway Smash ‘In & Of Itself’; Hollywood’s Been Watching

Adam Nemser

When Derek DelGaudio’s 72-week, four-time-extended Off Broadway run of his accurately titled In & Of Itself vanishes August 19 from the 150-seat Daryl Roth Theatre, the one-man-show will have grossed $7 million, played 560 performances and stretched far past its planned 10-week engagement.

Hollywood visitors will have to find something else to do with their evenings.

Directed by Frank Oz and produced by, among others, Neil Patrick Harris (both pictured above, with DelGaudio), the remarkable, critically lauded show of illusions and drama (“I hesitate to call it magic,” said NPR. “It’s more like art”) will have mesmerized star-filled audiences impressive even by jaded New York standards. Jason Sudeikis has seen it five times. Tom Hanks has seen it, as has Daniel Radcliffe, Joseph Gordon Levitt, Mark Hamill, Common, Martin Short, Kevin Kline, Salman Rushdie, Paul Rudd, David Blaine (four times), George RR Martin, Olivia Wilde, Liev Schreiber, Kate McKinnon, Taran Killam & Cobie Smulders, Neil Gaiman (twice), Larry Wilmore (three times), Woody Allen, Stephen Sondheim, Olivia Wilde, Marina Abramovic, John Cleese and, in one night, John Lithgow, producer Jonathan Landau and…

“…and you know,” DelGaudio said, his memory blanking during a very long, very incomplete list, “that actor, that guy who smokes weed with Seth Rogan?”

“James Franco?”

“Yeah, James Franco.”

What they’re seeing or saw is as difficult to convey in description as a good magic trick is to figure out. In & Of Itself is confessional and autobiographical (unless it isn’t, but more about that in the interview), with DelGaudio performing astonishing illusions to raise questions about self-identity and public facades. Sleight of hand – card tricks, spiriting a ship into a bottle – slowly gives way to emotional encounters with audience members, each of whom upon entering the theater has picked one of a thousand small, self-identifying cards, “Skeptic,” or “Grandson” or “Resister” or “Republican.” The cards are handed to an usher, who hands them to DelGaudio, who uses them for an astonishing coup de theatre at the show’s end.

DelGaudio told Deadline he has not yet decided what his next move will be. “I’m going to take some time off and try to think about what’s next, both in terms of what I’ve left unsaid and what direction I want to take things, like what medium do I want to work in.” Although In & Of Itself has been “documented,” he said, he’s not planning on a Netflix or cable special. “I mean, maybe that’s where something will end up if I do put something out,” he said, “but that’s not the intention that I have with it.”

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Deadline: Do you plan on doing In & Of Itself anywhere else, or is this really the end?

Derek DelGaudio: No, this’ll be it. We’re in a fortunate position that we could choose to end it. That’s a luxury that many, many projects and shows are not afforded. The show looks like it could run in perpetuity, but when you feel like you’ve said everything you needed to say, and the only reasons I could think to keep running were either based on commercial reasons or fear of not knowing what to do next, it just seemed logical to end it.

Deadline: You really could be Blue Man Group, though, and go on for years.

DelGaudio: Blue Man Group has understudies. They’re replaceable. The show takes its toll on me. I haven’t had a day off in 17 months or whatever, so it’s been grueling.

Deadline: Now that you’re closing, can you tell me some of the secrets? How do you get the ship in the bottle?

DelGaudio: I don’t make it a habit to explain the things that are in the shows I do, and not just because that focus is on a dialogue I have absolutely no interest in participating in. The whole point of my work is to get people to stop asking those questions and to start focusing on the questions that matter. You know, you do a show about identity and someone wants to know how you put a ship in a bottle. It’s still like I still have a long way to go in terms of getting people to hear what I have to say, which is why I have to go on to do other things.

Deadline: I was joking about that, really.

DelGaudio: You might be, but other people aren’t usually, you know? It’s common, and of course why wouldn’t people want to have that dialogue? That’s what they’re used to having. That’s all they know to talk about, and so I would rather focus on things that actually matter, and that’s kind of the point of this show. To answer your earlier question, why there’s more to be done is because I feel like if people are still asking those types of questions, even in jest, I haven’t done my job yet. I haven’t made something worthy of creating a new dialogue, at least not across the board, you know?

Deadline: I probably shouldn’t have led with that question, because what I really want to talk to you about is identity. I’ve seen the show twice now and it seems to me that you use magic or illusion whatever you want to call it…

DelGaudio: I don’t really…either one.

Deadline: …to address the larger issue of identity, and how we identify ourselves. For those of us who aren’t students or historians of magic, have any other magicians explored this terrain before? How new is this?

DelGaudio: I mean Penn & Teller, but as far as I know, it’s very new. There’s a canon of magic history, and there have people, magicians who have used magic to tell stories since its inception. Stories are often the access point for a moment of magic, but usually, almost always, the stories are in service of the magic. Whatever it is they’re talking about is dressing in service of a trick or an illusion. Even Penn & Teller, most of their magic, if it’s didactic or it’s about something, it is in service of, you know, a trick. I don’t write for tricks. I create, I write, and then have ideas and use magic to point to other things.

What Penn & Teller did was they made magic meta, and they talked about magic itself to explore ideas that magic is inherently a part of, like deception, like lies and truth and what is truth and what is a lie. Penn & Teller used the intrinsic value of magic to explore bullshit or reality, and unlocked magic to expose the things they wanted to talk about, hypocrisies and things.

Deadline: And to debunk the supernatural.

DelGaudio: Yeah, and James Randi was their predecessor and Harry Houdini before that. Harry Houdini was the first to use magic to debunk mediums. Down the road you get guys like James Randi, who used magic to continue this trend of debunking and exposing fraudulent mediums, Uri Geller. Then Penn & Teller, who were like punk rock, they didn’t give a shit about what people thought about magic or what magicians thought about magic, and they made it cool and hip. They didn’t value secrets the way that magicians traditionally valued them, and so they kind of subverted those notions. They were punk rock and they were postmodern.

The thing that I have been striving to do is get to a place where I add questions to the world instead of trying to answer them. I think magicians, for the longest time now, since Houdini, at the very least, have used magic to try to explain the world we live in. Houdini used magic to explain how fraudulent mediums worked, or Amazing Randi used magic to illustrate how we can be deceived by other people, and Penn & Teller have used magic to explain how bullshit works in the world. I’m more interested in the symbolic and metaphoric aspects of what magic and illusion are capable of, and more interested in using magic to pose a deeper question than just how did that happen or how did he do that. I’m less interested in giving answers and more interested in posing new questions. And that’s very difficult because the inherent question of a magic show is how did that happen?

Deadline: How did you come upon the theme of identity? I suppose illusion and identity are very tied together…

DelGaudio: Well, now they are. For me it started as a personal battle of How do you get people to believe you if they think you’re a liar? And the only reason they think you’re a liar is because you have this title, and with that title comes preconceived notions. They assume that if I am a magician I must therefore be a liar, a performer, an entertainer, you know? And that my value system must be attached to these certain things, and it was just the opposite of what I was trying to express and what I was trying to do.

So I realized that before I could even have the conversations I wanted to have, I needed to have the conversation about that first. Like, look, I understand that you think I’m a magician, and that’s fine, but if you’re going to think that, I need you to be able to hold two thoughts in your head at once, two versions of me, and understand that I do hold that title but there are other things I’m trying to tell you that are coming from a place that isn’t necessarily part of what you know about that label. So it was unpacking that, basically.

Deadline: And what complicates all that is that you start off the show by saying we don’t have to believe anything you’re saying. So frankly I don’t know right now whether you’re being sincere or not.

DelGaudio: No, I start by saying I understand that you won’t believe me, and that gives me permission to tell you the truth. The show only works because I understand that you won’t believe me. The show literally would not work if you believed me when I sat you down in a chair and gave you a letter and said that’s going to be from your brother. But you don’t believe me because we’re in a theater, because I’m a magician, and we’re on a stage, and that’s not possible.

All I’ve ever asked of anyone is to just hear me, to see me and hear me is what I’m pleading the entire show, and no one’s doing it, and even after I write a show about it, you’re still saying I don’t know if you’re being sincere or not. You can’t believe me because you have these attachments to what you think the label is and what the history of magic means. None of that is relevant to who I am other than I know how to manipulate some playing cards and I know how to put a ship in a bottle. That has nothing to do with the humanity and who I am and honesty.

Deadline: At the end of the show, you address people in the audience one-on-one about the identity cards they’ve chosen. Why is that so powerful that people have tears in their eyes?

DelGaudio: I don’t know for sure. I can’t say why someone cries, or what’s in someone’s heart when that moment comes, but in a general sense I think it’s because in this world we’re living in right now, there is no greater gift to give or receive than to really, truly see someone for who they are. It’s a rare, rare thing in this world. We’re so busy fighting to be seen, we forget to see other people, and here’s a moment where we’re going to stop and do that. I think that’s what it is.

Deadline: Was there anyone or any moment that really surprised you, threw you off guard?

DelGaudio: There have been a few moments that I can’t reconcile where people have seen themselves as something negative, but somehow in acknowledging that painful thing, it was healing for them. For instance, I’ve had some people choose [cards reading] “Nobody” and “Failure. The other night someone was an “Addict.” Just acknowledging that part of themselves helped them fight it off, you know? Standing up in front of a room full of people and admitting you’re an addict is cathartic. Those moments stand out.

Deadline: At one of the performances I attended, you cried too at the end. I’m wondering what toll this takes on you?

DelGaudio: I cry most shows. So, if you saw one where I didn’t, I…But yeah, it definitely does take a toll. That’s part of the reason why I have to stop. But some nights it’s harder to tell people what they are, and sometimes I don’t feel like what I’m doing is…the irony is, I built a show about what it means to be seen and [some nights] I feel like I’m with a group of people who just don’t get what I’m doing. But it actually still works because my performance becomes more honest, because it’s like, wow, you guys really just don’t get me, and that is what this show is about.

And some nights I have to be careful that people might enjoy it too much, like theatrically, and I can’t allow myself to get off on that. I can’t allow myself to enjoy them enjoying the show because that would move the show too far into a realm of entertainment, which is not what I’m interested in for this. It could be detrimental to the work if this is just perceived as frivolous, you know?

Deadline: When did you first really think you had something here, that this is connecting with people in a way maybe you hadn’t experienced before?

DelGaudio: Early on. It’s evolved over time, but I knew early on that the idea would be impactful. I didn’t expect, like, seas of audiences crying. That startled me, you know? We were like, wow, Jesus, okay, I guess we need to be mindful…with great power comes great responsibility, because this is really affecting people. I didn’t anticipate it to be as powerful as it was.

Deadline: There’s a moment when an audience member opens and reads a letter in a sealed envelope that he or she has chosen from you, and it turns out, somehow, to be from someone the audience member knows – a relative or friend. Both times that I watched it I was thinking, This could really backfire, couldn’t it? You can’t know what a person’s response is going to be. Do you worry about that?

DelGaudio: No, it’s never backfired negatively. Early on I thought [it might], but after a period of time I realized what we’re watching is purely generous. It’s not like a gotcha. It’s more like, Hey, the world conspired against you to show you how much you’re loved, sorry. It’s like, I’ll break into your house to leave you the thing you always wanted. I’m comfortable with that.

Deadline: How did Frank Oz and Neil Patrick Harris get involved with the show?

DelGaudio: Neil directed my last show. I’ve known Neil for a decade, he’s an old friend. He got involved when I was moving the show from L.A. to New York, and I was like, hey, do you have any theater recommendations? And he’s like, yeah, do you need help, I’ll help you, what do you need? So Neil became involved, our ambassador ushering it to New York City. He’s like the Mayor of Broadway, you know?

And I met Frank after one of my shows, years ago. We have a mutual friend, and introduced himself, and I mean, he’s Frank Oz. So I was blown away, just the fact that I got to shake his hand. We just struck up a friendship. We have a lot in common with how we work and how we feel about things. We’re both very rebellious, as he likes to say, and we both suffer from our labels. I mean, he’s just a puppeteer, if you were to ask some people, but his idea of what that means and the world’s idea are two very different things. He’s become one of the greatest directors of our generation, and directed some of the best movies of my childhood.

When I was making this show and needed a director, I was like, well, I don’t want a theater director because they’ll turn it into theater, and I didn’t want it to be theater. I thought, you know what, Frank, boy, I mean that’s a pipe dream, but Frank is kind of perfect in a spiritual sense. The guy knows what it’s like to be like labeled. So I just wrote him an email, and he said “Only if I can actually contribute in some way.”

After a year or two working together, I said, hey, why did you say yes to this? And he said, “Because I recognized you wanted to break something, and I don’t get a lot of chances to do that anymore.”

Deadline: Do you have any ideas about what you’ll do after the show closes? Are you leaning in any particular way or toward any particular project?

DelGaudio: Not really. Not really. Part of the challenge of this type of work is [industry] people say, “Wow, I can’t wait to see what you do next,” but there’s not really like a “Hey, you should come write a thing,” or “Hey, you should come be [on this].” It’s just not the type of work that fosters that sort of reaction, you know?

Deadline: I can’t imagine that, with everyone who’s seen your show.

DelGaudio: It just doesn’t. People just go – and not in a bad way – but they go Man, I want to see it, but they just don’t know how they would contribute or be helpful, you know? It’s like we’re in two different worlds. They’re like, “I just can’t wait to see what you come up with next,” you know?

Deadline: One of the nights I was there recently, Judd Apatow was sitting in front of me, Stephen Colbert was sitting across the aisle and Anthony Boyle from the Harry Potter play was just down the row. How did this happen?

DelGaudio: Those people just came. They just wanted to see it.

Deadline: I go to a lot of shows. I’ve don’t usually see Judd Apatow and Stephen Colbert sitting in the same row.

DelGaudio: Well, as Steve Martin said, be so good they can’t ignore you.

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