What comes to mind when you read the word “magic”?
Wands? Doves? Tall black hats and puffy shirts? Maybe a douchey guy in Ed Hardy flexing his abs in a Vegas show? Even worse, maybe a little light misogyny – a woman being manipulated in a borderline-creepy way, being sawed in half, or vanishing altogether.
Whatever it is, either amazing or obnoxious, likely what you’re picturing isn’t something you’d describe as “art.” Unless, perhaps, you’ve seen the show currently breaking box office records at L.A.’s Geffen Playhouse. This magic show is different. Because it might actually be magic.
Derek DelGaudio’s new show, In and Of Itself, which premiered at the Geffen on May 3, was first extended for another month past its original end date, then another, then another, then another, and now finally will close on August 28th after its fifth extension.
So why are people losing their minds over this hour long, deeply personal, exceptionally strange, and potentially groundbreaking phenomenon?
Here’s one theory: DelGaudio looks out into the crowd, every night, and everything he does on the stage, every beautiful illusion he creates, shows the audience that we are as much of a part of the show as he is. He exists because we exist. We have the power to change the show each night (which we do) and he gives the space such an emotional feeling that at least one person breaks down crying during nearly every show. Though DelGaudio is creating the illusions, it’s that power, and those emotions, that create the magic.
“The show is one half of the equation, and the witness is the other half, and that creates the full picture,” DelGaudio says, describing how the audience plays a crucial role in his performance. “The show is a metaphor for that larger picture of identity: you are who you are, but you’re also who you are because I see you, and recognize you as that thing.”
While that may sound complicated, DelGaudio takes his inspiration from perhaps the most accessible magician in pop culture history: Willy Wonka. “There’s a real magician. He has these amazing secrets, and he’s letting people in, but keeping them at a distance, and he’s in the most magical place on earth but it’s just normal to him,” he says, admiringly, of Gene Wilder’s iconic portrayal of the character in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.
It’s the scene at the end that leaves the deepest impression. Wonka suddenly turns on Charlie, scolding him for his mistakes, yelling that he lost, then coldly turning away. And Charlie, motivated only by his innate goodness, returns the gobstopper that could make him rich—and that is when Charlie understands that he’s won.
“Willy Wonka was willing to be a villain through the whole movie. He set up the opportunity for Charlie to make that choice,” DelGaudio says. “And the poetics weren’t in Willy Wonka’s actions of doing this crazy wild tour. They were in that one gesture, of Charlie giving back the gobstopper. The noble act was not the magician. It was the spectator.” It’s an idea that DelGaudio says changed his life, helping him to view magic and theater in a different way.
DelGaudio’s own identity as a performer began to take shape in his early teens, when he started learning card sleights – specifically moves that facilitate cheating within a card game. He spent a lot of his childhood in back rooms being mentored by some occasionally unsavory people. He said he never really wanted to cheat at cards, but he gravitated toward the card table because he considered it “the most honest version of the deceptions. You learn this thing, and then you just do it. You can deal off the bottom of the deck, and that itself can just be the thing that you do,” he says. “And these gambling cheats have a real causality to them. Like, most magic, you make a coin vanish, and the coin vanishing is result of the action. But with the gambling sleights, it can literally change real circumstance. You can move money across the table. I liked how concrete that was.”
By the time he was in his early 20s, DelGaudio was widely recognized by his peers in the magic community as one of the finest magicians in the world. In particular, his skills with cards were second to none. He can perform sleights so difficult they’ve only been conquered by a handful of living masters. He showed off these skills with great aplomb in Nothing to Hide, a two-man show in which he and then-partner Helder Guimerras performed an hour of card magic so astounding it set a box office record for The Geffen in 2013. In and Of Itself is now on track to break that record, giving DelGaudio the remarkable distinction of being the author of two of the Geffen’s top five grossing shows of all time.
In his new show, DelGaudio presents several different standards of magic: an impossible penetration, an object vanish, a demonstration of mind reading. Lay audiences are amazed, but those who are magic-savvy are even more impressed—what DelGaudio is doing is essentially performing a stamina-destroying marathon every night, and making it look effortless. He could have just stuck with cards, but he wasn’t interested in sticking to anything safe, or repeating himself.
DelGaudio provides only one stunning demonstration of the gambling sleights he spent years learning, sitting at a card table and pulling off false deals that only a few people in the world can do reliably. “It’s the only part of my show that isn’t completely new, and there are still some new elements in it,” he says. “But I consider it a little 12-minute portrait of 20 years of my life.”
Audience trust also plays a huge role in In and Of Itself. In a pivotal moment during the show, one person is given an impossibly personal object they can choose to reveal to the audience, and another person is handed a one-of-a-kind book they are asked to take home with the promise that they will return it the next day.
In the 12 weeks the show has run, no one has ever welshed on either request. DelGaudio sees it as proof of what he calls the “invisible transaction” of magic—the idea that magic doesn’t exist within the piece, it exists within the distance between the piece and a person’s belief in it.
“People ask me every night, ‘Do you think they won’t bring it back?’” he says. His answer is always the same: “I believe they will. And that’s why it works.” Just like Charlie in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, here too, the spectator is given a choice. And they always return the gobstopper.