A magician, an artist, and a puppeteer join forces to create a unique theater experience. It’s not a fairy tale nor some sort of surreal dream, but the premise behind the new performative theater production, ‘In & of Itself.’ Written by magician/artist Derek DelGaudio and produced by conceptual artist Glenn Kaino, who worked together in the lauded off-Broadway theater piece, ‘Nothing to Hide,’ the duo welcome the legendary Frank Oz (of ‘Sesame Street’ and ‘Star Wars’ fame, amongst many other accolades) to the directorial chair, creating an unprecedented tour de force experience. Ahead of the show’s opening, which runs from May 3 – June 12 at the Audrey Skirball Kenis Theater at the Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles, the trio of talent met at NeueHouse Hollywood to discuss the inner and outer workings of their collaboration.
Derek DelGaudio: I have been a magician since I was 12 years old, but it started off somewhat reluctantly. I didn’t really understand if I necessarily wanted to be a magician, I just knew I was interested in the things that magic had to offer. I found a lot of beauty in magic and always enjoyed the mechanics of it – how it worked and what it provided. I did it for myself mostly and then, when I started doing it professionally, it wasn’t very rewarding for me, so I left magic and got involved with the art world through Glenn. When we met I saw something in his work and in his world that I felt was missing in my own, so we started working together. Then I began thinking about my personal practice, about the work Glenn and I did together, about art, about magic, and really about the world and what these things I was interested in meant and how to amalgamate them, which I was struggling with.
About the time when I was ready to start doing work again and show as an artist, I really started to figure out my voice. However, another magician and I were asked to do a gig and the show kind of took off, which led to the show at The Geffen and Nothing to Hide in New York. The show ran for months and broke tons of records, but it took me away from my own practice and what I thought I was heading towards, including the work that Glenn and I had been doing together. And so, after that show ended its run, I kind of started to say, “Ok, where was I?” and that’s what the show, In & of Itself, explores. So it was natural, of course, to work with Glenn on it. The last show, which Glenn also produced, I wrote and starred in with another guy, and it was directed by Neil Patrick Harris. Neil was amazing, but it was a different experience. I mean he’s an animal when it comes to theater, and at the time he was just getting off How I Met Your Mother, so the frenzy he brought to the table was amazing, but when the show came around, I would tell Glenn I didn’t know if I wanted that type of attention.
Glenn Kaino: We wanted a nobody. (laughs)
DD: Yeah, a nobody (laughs). It was very important because I didn’t want to have a director just for the sake of having a director. When it came down to what I wanted the show to be, there was only one person in the world that I wanted to direct it, and that was Frank. So I sent him an email explaining why I thought he was the only one in the world qualified. I even said in that email, “And if you say no, I won’t have a director. It’s not a threat, it’s just there literally isn’t another person who I can think of that I would want to direct this.” This show is about being undefinable. It’s about the duality of identity, and I couldn’t think of anyone who could understand that more than Frank, because whenever one thinks of the name Frank Oz, people think of different things. Some people are thinking of one aspect of his career while others think of something else. He said yes, so here we are.
Frank Oz: It was pretty open (laughs). I met Derek because my wife and I saw his show in New York, and afterwards my wife said, “Just go say hello!” I said “I don’t want to do that.” She always says, “You’re Frank Oz! Go say hi!” I go, “They’re not gonna know who I am!” But I went to say hi, and then we became friends.
DD: He came up to me and said, “Hi Derek, I’m Frank Oz.” And I responded “Oh my god you’re Frank Oz!” (laughs)
GK: And then he called me and goes, “I just met Frank Oz!” (laughs)
FO: In any case, when he sent me the letter. All I care about is doing good stuff, and it sounded really interesting. I liked the rebellious tone of it. We talked about it and I said, yes.What I’m doing in the show, and it’s what Derek has asked me to do, is to keep him honest to himself. It’s a very personal show, as you can hear. And it’s a very generous and brave show he’s doing, but it’s also very complex and ambiguous, and he wanted to make sure that he stayed true to that. So, he can trust me to do that. I also love taking ideas and just shaping them, which Derek and I are doing together. Glenn is no help whatsoever (laughs).
GK: As a conceptual artist, I like to say I use art to bring systems of knowledge that don’t normally meet together, and I use art as an excuse to do things that one might not normally have the opportunity to do. I attended Art Basel for the first time in 2008, which was the worst time to attend because of the financial crisis. People were miserable. So I got on the plane back home and I told my gallerists, “I quit. I don’t want to do this anymore. We’ve had some success, but I didn’t get into art to be around a bunch of miserable bankers who are buying work or not buying work.” And so my gallerist said, “What are we going to do?” I said, “I don’t know, I think I want to hang out with a bunch of magicians and figure out a new system of belief.”
Sure enough, I began a journey to learn and understand magic. The first thing someone did was vanish a coin right in front of me, and he was teaching me how to do it. In the process he said, “You need to grab the coin a thousand times and come back the next day.” It was very like Karate Kid, so I was really into it (laughs). I went back the next day and asked why I needed to do that, he said, “Because when you perform a vanish you have to actually believe it’s vanishing in front of you. If you don’t believe, your audience is never going to believe it either.” I thought, what a fantastic mantra for my studio. I make work with political meaning, but I have to be the believer in charge, otherwise no audience member or gallery or museum is going to believe it.
I was hooked. I travelled the country to learn and study from magicians, trying to find a noteworthy one who was crazy enough. Every I met, from L.A. to Chicago to New York, kept telling me, “You really need to meet this guy, Derek DelGaudio!” Of course the first thing I did was Google Derek, but this was before there was anything on him. There was actually one Google post – a newsletter from a board of magicians that said, Who is Derek DelGaudio? (laughs). I thought, this is my guy, I need to know more about him, so I got his phone number and we met at a bar in Hollywood at like one in the morning at The Roosevelt. We were immediately friends and brothers. We would have these sessions at night where I would talk to him about art and he would talk to me about magic, and we realized there was an inversion of what we thought the respective practices were. For example, in art, we would say the practice has been sort of hyper-professionalized and systematized, but in magic they say there’s a handful of professionals in a sea of hobbyists. Most people do party tricks, so there isn’t a canon for how to respect the real artists of the craft, so we decided to do something about it and created a performance art duo that we call A Bandit.
Ironically, the first thing we were invited to do was an intervention at an art fair. What we did was run around the fair with loud music, stealing art and putting it into a box, then we raised the box thirty five feet in the air and made it vanish, creating a sense of liberated art. The greatest question was, “Did you give the art back?” and we said, “What are you talking about, it’s gone” (laughs).
DD: This is, arguably, the first show with illusions that is purely conceptual; it was conceived with basically just one idea at the very beginning, which then sort of expanded. I didn’t have a single effect or illusion for about nine months; it was more so digging and investigating and tearing apart and putting back together and finding out what this thing means and what it is I wanna say. The first part was figuring that out what the show was about, and once I figured it out I thought, Well, how do you make a show about this? The show was created somewhat similarly to an art show, where there’s first an idea, then you make pieces that represent that idea, and then you put it up for people see.
The last show was similar, although it wasn’t based around a single idea, rather, it was fragmented into vignettes. And that’s kind of how it’s been constructed with this idea as guardrails that’s slowly funneling down into, hopefully, just the purest essence of it. But where it gets complicated is with Frank (laughs). Because Glenn and I, we almost have a shorthand where we can kind of just look at each other and have conversations with furrowed brows. We’re all about abstraction, especially since magic has so many tropes and there are so many cliches. The work that I create kind of lives on its own, so when I went to Frank and I showed him the show, he was like, “Alright, well, you’ve got a fuckin’ leg here and an ear here and a tail and maybe a trunk. You got all the body parts, I guess, but this thing needs to be a living breathing elephant.” And I went, “Aw, you’re a dick, dude, how do you do that” (laughs). At a museum show you go like, oh there’s a trunk, cool. Oh, and there’s an ear, oh that’s interesting, and there’s a tail. Oh lovely, oh, wonder what that tail means. But you don’t walk in and go, It’s an elephant! I said I wanted it to be recognized as this one thing as opposed to just a bunch of tricks in a row, because it means more to me than that. Frank is a real bastard about that, because ever since I told him that, he has not for a second laid off and made me make this one thing. So that’s been the most interesting challenge, because if we pull it off, it’s a magic show. And I don’t mean that in a “trick” sense, I mean like it is a magic show. It should not exist in this world. So if we pull it off it’s a new thing.
FO: I always listen to his heart. That’s where the wellspring is. We talk about patter, you didn’t want to do patter. Which is magic patter, you know that term?
DD: Can I tell them where it came from?
FO: Yeah, go ahead.
DD: I spent a lot of time thinking about the words I’m going to say in front of people. Not now, clearly (laughs), but when I actually do a show. And in the reviews I notice that any time a reviewer mentioned the language in the show, the majority of interviewers would use the word patter. They would say, “Oh, a very clever patter written by Derek DelGaudio.” And they meant it as a compliment, I think, but it didn’t didn’t feel like it, so I met a reviewer at a party and we talked for hours. I asked him, “Why is it that any time a reviewer mentions the language they say ‘patter?’ I’m not asking because I’m offended, I’m asking because I want to understand what that connection is.” And he said, “Well you know. Comedians, I guess…It’s what you say when you’re in between tricks.It’s the stuff that doesn’t matter in between the things we’re there to see.” And I thought, this is a real problem.
I looked up the word, which comes from a place similar to the Lord’s prayer, but then criminals took the language, then carnys started using it, and then it went to vaudeville. The definition is literally: “Words devoid of meaning, meant to deceive people.” And I’m like, god damnit, this is the opposite of what I’m trying to do (KEEP IT). They don’t believe a word I’m saying because they think it’s all just patter, and the problem is, it’s not. If what I’m saying matters to me and I think could matter to other people, how do I get them to hear me? When I told Frank that, he thought it was interesting, so he took it on.
FO: Well, patter to me is just consequential words between and during a magic trick, and I couldn’t care less about doing a magic show. (laughs)I don’t even want to know how magic tricks are done, I want to be a little kid and wonder. So when he said he really didn’t want to patter, I’m holding him to it. I’m holding his feet to the fire because he wants me to, and both of us, along with Glenn, who’s doing amazing work, are creating something that kind of hasn’t been done before.
It’s not my show, it’s Derek’s show, with Glenn. I mean, I’m the new kid on the block. It’s Derek’s show and whenever I work with him, I say, “Listen Derek, how do you feel about that?” Because it’s not me imposing. People think directors always direct, but it’s a misnomer. They don’t direct, they work with people and guide, but don’t impose. And so, I always have to ask you, Derek, “Are you cool with this is? This is the kind of thing you’re talking about right?” And he still gets mad at me.
DD: Because what that looks like is, “No, no, if you want to say that that’s fine, if you want to go back to doing patter that’s fine. Do what you want, it’s your show. If you want to do patter in your show that’s fine.” (laughs)
FO: When one is doing a movie or a play, one has to be true to the context in which that play is living. And that’s the same here, one has to be true to the world in which we create, and if that world is created around ideas, if something is too good, it’ll take away from the idea. It’s really being as honest as possible to the world that is created.
GK: What I’m also appreciating about the process of working with Frank is his constant ability to see a bigger picture in that way. I think when we’re in the studio, and oftentimes because it’s such a personal story, we find ourselves working very rigorously to a level that is required, in some way, to extract some of the density and the poetics of the intention. We might work for days on end to identify one word or one image or one moment or one gesture, and then we’re proud of ourselves, but it’s really great because Frank is there and is like, “Great, well how does that fit in?”
What’s wonderful is to be able to watch this happen on multiple levels. The show is being crafted on the micro level and on the macro level at the same time, and I think we all felt we’re pretty fast and can keep up with each other, which is a really great rhythm to have for the whole process.
FO: That’s the joy for me, working with world class people. I’ve been very blessed, so I come with these very talented guys and we’re all playing ball on the same level. We may disagree with certain things, but we all want to get to the same place. It’s a joy to work with – that’s what it’s about, just having some fun and working like a son of a bitch. I never think about the result. Ever. I think it’s because the process will usually answer all the questions, and the result will come without you knowing how you actually did it.
Photography: Anthony Cabaero for NeueJournal