Derek DelGaudio and David Blaine: In and Of Themselves.

Magic as theater is a very hot topic recently. Derek DelGaudio’s recent Off-Broadway play “In And Of Itself” has been released in a video format on Hulu, and a much larger audience is finally seeing it. Now seems like a good time to look at how we can best blend theater and magic to create a compelling and workable synergy. We are on the edge of a new approach to magic that has both powerful potential and some definite possible pitfalls. Let’s begin by talking about Derek’s very successful production.

There is a saying that I like to quote “Movies are art, Theater is life, and Television is furniture!” While a little brash, there is much to ponder in that statement, and It flashed through my mind while I watched DelGaudio’s theatrical show repackaged as a TV movie. Maybe this sentiment was one reason I wasn’t quite as impressed by the presentation as I had hoped. “In And Of Itself” has achieved a cult following that is just this side of fanatical, and I can certainly see why. It is an exciting and thought provoking production that is a million miles from the average magic show. Maybe that is its most significant appeal to the (supposedly) more intellectual theater ticket buyer.

Derek’s play/movie was directed by industry heavyweight Frank Oz. I think Oz did a great job of adapting the work, and his decision to include montages of audience reactions from several different performances works exceptionally well. All the additional cinematic material is simple and effective. “In And Of Itself” is being viewed as an intense psychological event by many. It certainly seems to produce a formidable cathartic audience response, one seldom seen in a magical production. DelGaudio and Oz have taken magic and embellished it with a dramatic series of monologues, intense audience participation, and psychodramatic interludes. It has much of the power of a strong mentalism show and a theatrical séance skillfully entwined into the action. To say anything more about the show would be a disservice to future viewers.

One thing that ran through my mind while watching “In And Of Itself” was that we were going to see a great many magicians adding ten-minute monologues, personal revelations, and 20-second gazes into space into their act! This outcome is just as inevitable as was street magic becoming a trend after David Blaine introduced it in his 1997 TV special.  Doug Henning, Siegfried & Roy, and David Copperfield all created new paradigms in magic, but Blaine is the best comparison in this case. Blaine and DelGaudio achieve their impact in a deceptively simple manner.  They each have low-key stage personas that are very “non-magician” like, and their impact does not require stages filled with props, large illusions, or wild animals. Both performers project an exciting potential that “Something Else” may be going on beneath the surface. Whether DelGaudio can expand and develop his persona and performance sufficiently to achieve Blaine’s long-term achievements and success will be interesting to observe.

What makes DelGaudio and Blaine such an absorbing pair of performers is the way that each of them has grasped the powerful impact of how television’s reality programing has gripped the public’s attention and interest. The audience appeal of both entertainers is primarily based on watching how regular folk interact with their performance. This tactic allows the audience to remain one step remote from what is going on but also paradoxically enables them to become even more involved in the action. Initially, I thought that Blaine would primarily remain a TV performer. However, after recently seeing his large scale touring show, I was amazed at how successfully he had managed to expand his performance. Having seen most of the great full evening magic shows in the last forty years, I consider David Blaine to have the most powerful one of all. There is a genuine element of mystery to augment the magic, and his audience loves it.

Magic is currently in a minimalistic phase, with grand illusion in something of a commercial decline. Close-up and smaller scale magic has never been more accessible to large audiences. First-rate video amplification is now available at a very reasonable cost, and it has become quite a game changer. I strongly anticipate that this swing of the pendulum will be with us for a while before things return to an era of bigger is better. The influence of TV shows such as “America’s Got Talent” and “Penn & Teller: Fool Us” have introduced mainstream audiences to a whole new style of magic, and they seem to be enjoying what they see. Mentalism and card tricks are wowing lay audiences in a way that would have seemed incredible a decade ago.

There has been a seismic change in the goals of many professional magicians. It used to be standard fare to hear a magician talk of putting together a big traveling show and taking it to Las Vegas or other cities with massive casinos and large showrooms. However, as I know from personal experience, the travel, logistics, and general satisfaction of “taking your show on the road” is not quite as appealing as it once was. In the ten years that I have been writing stories for Vanish Magazine, I have increasingly heard performers set their sights on creating a personal theater or venue in their hometown or chosen location.

In essence, the custom showroom trend will lead to smaller showrooms with fewer seats and smaller stages. I suspect that many performers will choose to adopt a more “theatrical” dressing for their shows by including a storyline and narrative. Another trend in magic that is readily noticeable is magicians’ sharp increase in awareness of scripting, direction, motivation, persona, and other traditionally theatrical tools of the trade to polish their shows. It might not be a bad thing to look at a few of the potential pitfalls that may lay ahead in our magical future.

Robert-Houdin famously stated that “ A magician is an actor playing the part of a magician.” I have found this statement to be one that needs examining rather closely. Sometimes a magician is just someone who does a magic show, and often that is quite enough. Also, performing a magic show does not mean you are a capable actor as the skill sets are quite different.  Maybe you are better just perfecting your magic show rather than expanding your canvas into other fields. Most magicians are essentially “One-man bands” and tend to forget that an actor usually surrounds himself with a much larger support system. Let’s look at a few significant differences between being an actor in a play and a magician with a show.

A magic show requires meticulous pacing and content to make it successful. It also involves structure, but nothing like the traditional theatrical structure that supports a play or movie. Usually, the emotional interest for a theatrical production is based on the classic three-act format. Act one introduces the players and sets up the intended resolution for everyone involved. Act two mixes up the actions and creates tension by introducing obstacles that need overcoming. Act three resolves all the problems and leads to a grand finale. There are many variations on this basic theme, but you get the idea.

Many specialized people are needed to maintain the audience’s attention for the length of the play.  This team typically includes; writer, producer, director, lighting designer, costumer, and usually other actors. This team blends their talents to create an event that delivers a full theatrical punch. In a good production, all of these people are experts who excel in their craft. The lead actor may be the central character in the spotlight, but his success results from many combined talents.

I have seen many magicians attempt to be profound but only succeed in being precious. Adding theater to your show does not necessarily mean being deadly earnest and trying to use your magic to illuminate or enlighten your audience. Being heavy handed in your approach does not make something “serious” or “important.”  Putting on a costume does not create a persona any more than reciting patter is the same thing as creating an emotionally involved storyline. I have met many magicians who think they can do everything that David Blaine does, but I haven’t seen any who can duplicate the real Blaine magic. Derek DelGuadio and Frank Oz have also created a fascinating new approach to a magic show. I guess there is just a part of me worried about the Pandora’s Box they may have opened. 

~ by Nick Lewin on March 23, 2021.

2 Responses to “Derek DelGaudio and David Blaine: In and Of Themselves.”

  1. I saw both of these shows in person on the same day. Both impressed and astounded me in very different ways. I am still processing both and grateful to have had the experience.

  2. Both have very different but definite impact.

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