Some Thoughts on In & Of Itself
Lisa, Ava, and I watched Derek DelGaudio’s In & Of Itself when it premiered last Friday on Hulu. It is a beautiful thing. I did not have the opportunity to see the show live when it played in Los Angeles and New York, so I was delighted to learn it was coming to a streaming service. Frank Oz did a superb job translating it to the screen. We took the advice at the beginning of the film and silenced all our outside distractions while we watched. I urge you to do the same.
Many of my friends saw a live performance of the show. All of them raved about it; all of them were gracious enough not to give away too much information about it. I’m going to follow their lead. I’m not going to spoil anything for you, but I do want to comment on two important aspects of the show.
Some years ago, my friend Max Maven commented that magicians of the twentieth century accomplished one amazing thing: they managed to turn something inherently profound into something trivial. With In & Of Itself, Derek shows how powerful conjuring can be when placed in the service of ideas. This is something few magicians ever attempt. The show focuses on the theme of identity – how we identify ourselves, how others identify us, and whether or not those assessments are accurate at all. Every effect in the show (and let me be clear, there are some mind-boggling effects) is there to support the story being told at that moment. Many magicians have discussed the concept of magic and meaning; Derek shows how it can be done at the highest level.
The only other magicians I have seen who incorporate magic into their ideas so effectively are Penn & Teller. I have worked with them since 1998; most of the time, the impetus for a new routine comes from the desire to express an intellectual idea, as opposed to the desire to do a variation on this trick or that trick. By letting the idea drive the trick rather than the other way around, conjuring is placed in its strongest role: as the dramatic element that supports the idea being presented.
Make no mistake, though, it takes a lot longer for routines created this way to reach fruition – sometimes years. I worked on the vanishing pygmy elephant routine for several years before I moved from Vegas. It took several more years before the R&D was completed and the routine entered the show. Here’s something you might not know about this routine: its underlying idea is never overtly expressed to the audience. But this idea makes the effect so baffling.
The other aspect of In & Of Itself I want to mention is Derek’s performance persona. In an interview with Vanity Fair, the interviewer touched on this.
Vanity Fair: Throughout the performance, you speak with a very distinctive cadence – slowly, with lots of pregnant pauses. It reminded me of watching David Blaine. I used to be annoyed by what I considered this flat, almost blank affect, but the more I watched him, I realized it was intentional – that he was turning himself into kind of a mirror.
DelGaudio: He’s getting out of the way of the wonder. Like, he doesn’t want credit for the astonishment. He wants the astonishment to exist on its own, and he just happens to be there. He’s putting the importance where it belongs, which is on the moment rather than on himself.
Way back in Workers One (1990) I wrote this:
“Once it has been established that the performer is ‘quick with his hands’ or has a lot of technical ability, the spectators have been provided with a satisfactory explanation for all the effects they witness. Granted, this explanation may be totally wrong, however it is an explanation the spectators can live with. Many performers of the ‘Look at Me’ school of magic are perfectly content to leave the spectators with this explanation of what they have seen. This is their philosophical choice. My own preference is to consider the magician in the same way you would consider a motion picture screen: the screen is the medium by which we are able to view the movie. If you have ever been to a movie theater where the screen is stained or dirty you know how distracting it is. You become aware of the screen and focus less on the movie. Likewise, the magician is the medium by which the spectators are able to see impossible happenings. This is also the function of the classical musician: to transmit the music from the mind of the composer to the mind of the listener. If the manner of the performance draws undue attention to the performer, the impact of the music (or the magic) is lessened.”
My writing in the above paragraph is a little sloppy (and Darwin Ortiz correctly took me task on it), so let me clarify it. A performer should certainly establish his or her performance persona and point of view. But magic is most effective when presented as a shared experience, with the emphasis on the event, not the performer. When the magician becomes the conduit for the moment of astonishment and not the cause of it, the impact can be profound, because all logical and rationalized explanations disappear.
This is certainly the case with In & Of Itself. Derek is the host, the storyteller. But with the exception of the card-cheating demonstration, when the magic occurs, his role is that of an observer, not an instigator. This is what produces such an emotional and theatrically profound effect.
So, congratulations Derek DelGaudio on your achievement. In & Of Itself is an inspiring show, one I’ll be returning to often. - Michael Close