When multidisciplinary artist Derek DelGaudio unveiled his live show In & Of Itself back in May 2016, he had a rather audacious goal in mind: He wanted to break magic.
DelGaudio built his performing career as a master of sleight-of-hand and card tricks, and even served as a consultant for film and TV including director Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige, truTV’s The Carbonaro Effect, and CBS’s Vegas. While he acknowledges there’s inherently some entertainment in what he does, for him at least, that has never been the point.
In fact, it’s something he aimed to subvert with In & Of Itself, which is now a filmed special event on Hulu.
“As soon as you say the word ‘magic’ or ‘magician,’ vivid imagery pops into people’s minds and their expectations are instantly of what that means to them,” DelGaudio says. “It might be positive, but even the positive version gets in the way of what I’m trying to show them.”
Directed by Frank Oz, In & Of Itself is a mind-bending exploration of identity (and the illusions therein). DelGaudio pulls from both personal stories in his life and calls for audience participation to dissect the labels we put on ourselves and others. There are plenty of head-scratching “how’d he do that?” moments throughout the show, but it’s clear those are only meant to serve as a means to a greater end. Indeed, In & Of Itself has elements of wonder, but your primary thought is more “How did what he do make me feel?”
And it’s evident DelGaudio touched a nerve with audiences.
In & Of Itself was originally slated for just a six-week run in Los Angeles’s Geffen Playhouse but expanded to Off Broadway in New York City, logging a total of 560 performances over 72 weeks.
“It got deeper the longer it went, and I realize that’s counterintuitive for stage performances, because a lot of them lose steam over time—but I was present every single day,” DelGaudio says. “If started phoning it in, I would be letting the work down.”
“It didn’t feel like I was just entertaining folks,” he continues. “I’m not delusional to think that the work is changing the world or anything like that. But even if one person walked out hearing what I heard in a way that was meaningful, it was enough for me.”
Despite the live show’s success, pulling in more than $7 million at theater box offices, DelGaudio pulled the plug in 2018.
“One night, I walked backstage and I said, ‘We can shut it down.’ And [Frank] agreed,” DelGaudio says. “It was like, I’ve come and said what I’ve needed to say. Enough people have heard it now.”
DelGaudio also felt In & Of Itself was turning into something other than one of its intended goals to reframe illusions as pure entertainment.
For example, there’s a point every night when DelGaudio asks an audience member to volunteer to leave the show with a massive journal. Their assignment: write down what they experienced up until they were asked to leave and imagine what happened after they left. The participant was then asked to come back the next night and read their passage aloud to a new audience.
“They’re watching me make an art piece on stage every night. It was about the totality of the performances all being one performance. Spatially, temporally, the show’s not confined to that space in that time,” DelGaudio says. “There was a tipping point where every day I felt like if it went any longer, it would cease to become what it was. It would start to become like a cult thing where people would come to intentionally raise their hand for the book and take it even though they’ve had it before, stuff like that. You feel those things coming.”
Fortunately, DelGaudio and Oz had the foresight to start filming In & Of Itself a few months into its run. That footage, captured over a multitude of performances, has been stitched together in a film with added storytelling elements woven throughout, including animated sequences and home-video footage of DelGaudio as a kid.
“I’ve never felt the urge to film anything I’ve done,” DelGaudio says. “This was the first time I felt like there was enough substance there to translate it to a different medium and not worry about losing the impact of the live experience because it’s not about the live experience so much as it is about the ideas contained within it.”
In a way, DelGaudio thinks the film version is truer to the work than the live performance.
“While I think that the live performance has its own elements, with this final work you’re seeing the whole picture rather than just fragments,” he says.
It’s subjective whether or not DelGaudio has achieved his goal with In & Of Itself, but what is clear is that he’s successfully blurred the lines of illusion, theater, and storytelling, in effect, creating a genre of his own design—that he himself can’t and doesn’t necessarily want to define.
“I don’t really fit into any world. As a creator, the art world doesn’t quite embrace what I do. The theater world doesn’t quite embrace what I do. The magic world does, but at the same time I’m having to constantly explain the difference,” DelGaudio says. “I’m doing my own thing, and it does feel lonely sometimes. But that’s okay. That’s how I know I’m doing the right thing. When I look to my right and left and I don’t see anyone, that’s when I know I’m in new territory. This is kind of the crux of it: I don’t know what I am. I just know what I do.”
Derek DelGaudio’s In & Of Itself premieres on Hulu January 22.