Derek DelGaudio: Sleight Of Mind Magician Derek DelGaudio explains pairing storytelling with magic tricks in his off-Broadway show In & Of Itself.

Derek DelGaudio: Sleight Of Mind

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JONATHAN COULTON: This is ASK ME ANOTHER, NPR's hour of puzzles, word games and trivia. I'm Jonathan Coulton, here with puzzle guru Art Chung. Now here's your host, Ophira Eisenberg.



Thank you, Jonathan. It's time to welcome our special guest. He's a magician and storyteller whose off-Broadway show is called "In & Of Itself." Please welcome Derek DelGaudio.



DEREK DELGAUDIO: Hello. Well, hi.

EISENBERG: Hi. I'm so happy to have you.


DELGAUDIO: I don't know what I'm doing here.

EISENBERG: I'll tell you what you're doing. Let's talk about you - 12 years old, you enter a magic shop but not to buy a trick. You go to buy a prank.

DELGAUDIO: Yeah. That's right.

EISENBERG: OK. So who is this prank for?

DELGAUDIO: My mother.


DELGAUDIO: Well, not for her.

EISENBERG: Yeah. To do...

DELGAUDIO: Presumably to do on her.

EISENBERG: (Laughter) OK. What were you thinking?

DELGAUDIO: So basically, it's a little - I think they call them sap traps. And you - it's like a mousetrap that you put a cap on or one of the, like - the little fire caps.


DELGAUDIO: And then you'd put it under someone's drink so that when they lifted it up, it would it would slap shut and, you know, make a huge bang like a cap gun. And so I thought that was going to be hilarious.


DELGAUDIO: And so I went in to get one of those. And they didn't have them, which was a bummer. But the guy behind the counter asked me if I wanted to see some magic. And so he showed me some tricks.

EISENBERG: Yeah. And you were like, all right. Maybe that.

DELGAUDIO: Yeah. I mean, I had to do something with the 12 bucks I had to blow. So...


EISENBERG: And they gave you a book?

DELGAUDIO: Yeah. Actually, I - guy showed me a trick. And the one thing you did at the end was he made a pocket knife vanish. And I said I wanted to do that. How much is that? He said, oh, that's not for sale. You have to learn that. That's sleight of hand. You got to learn that from a book. I was like (groaning).

EISENBERG: (Groaning).


DELGAUDIO: I've got to read. OK. Fine. So yeah. So I bought a couple of books and started a journey that led here.

EISENBERG: That led here. But along this journey, I mean, you tried to leave magic numerous times. You enrolled in the American Academy of the Arts in theater, not performing. You know, you wanted to do theater, not magic.

DELGAUDIO: Did you do, like, special ops research on me? What is this?


DELGAUDIO: Yeah. Yeah. That's right.

EISENBERG: Yeah, right? You quit high school because you were going to work on magic.

DELGAUDIO: I like how you said I quit high school...


DELGAUDIO: ...Like that's a thing you can do. You know, like...

EISENBERG: You give two weeks' notice.

DELGAUDIO: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. Exactly.


DELGAUDIO: It's not working out. I'm going to have to put in my two weeks. And I'm not coming back. Yeah. I quit high school. And...


DELGAUDIO: And yeah. And I had a - I guess a love-hate relationship. I just - I did sleight of hand and magic for me. I didn't really perform it at all and didn't really see that as something I would pursue professionally. And I went to school for theater. And when I got out of theater school, I realized that I had gained a bunch of knowledge that was even more worthless than magic.


DELGAUDIO: And so I had to figure out something to do.

EISENBERG: So you're an award-winning magician. And your current off-Broadway show, "In & Of Itself," really seamlessly combines personal storytelling - your own stories, true stories from your life - with sleight of hand tricks and illusions in a way that is very different because they're actually both upholding each other. The stories illustrate parts of the magic. The magic illustrates parts of the stories. Why combine this?

DELGAUDIO: Most art forms or crafts - comedy, music, movies, anything - you know, great artists try to not just perform or make a thing. They try to say something. And I just wanted to say something. And so I only know how to do a few things. And sleight of hand and magic is one of those things. And so I basically just thought about what I wanted to say and then tried to figure out how to put what I know how to do in service of that thing.

EISENBERG: And what you're trying to say - it's your exploration of identity in many forms.


EISENBERG: And, actually, the audience is fully part of this. So one of the great beginning moments of the show is everyone walks in. They are faced with this board that says I am, and there's about a thousand nouns that you pick the one that you relate to. And, I mean, it's like I am a mother, a veterinarian, a lawyer, all kinds of different things. And we pick these two, you know, that we identify with. There must be ones that are picked every time.

DELGAUDIO: Yeah. There are certainly, you know, mother and father...


DELGAUDIO: ...And ones that you would expect. Unicorn is taken a lot.


DELGAUDIO: That's just taken a lot.

EISENBERG: Yeah. Interesting.

DELGAUDIO: And then there are things that are, you know, kind of surprising that are taken nightly. Ninja's taken off. And space pirate is also taken a lot. But failure and nobody are also chosen frequently, too, which is - yeah. Exactly. Aww.

EISENBERG: Well, this is what I find kind of interesting about this show about identity because you put audience members in the state where they have to deal with their identity. And I feel like you must be dealing with major reactions to this every show. Can you tell us about a few things that have stood out?

DELGAUDIO: Yeah. I mean, we've had - the show is - you know, examines basically what it is to have an existential crisis. And there's a lot of self-reflection for myself and the audience. And we've had people come to some pretty amazing realizations both during the show or maybe after upon reflection. We had someone confess that they were having an affair on stage in front of the audience. They hadn't told either of their families. But they felt like they just had to share with someone. So they came on a day, and told everyone there, as if, like, social media doesn't exist, and people can't just, like...


DELGAUDIO: ...Like, start talking about it. I found out later after the fact that a lot of people have had some, you know, intense experiences in the show. One woman - I guess I read this in a blog someone sent me, where they talked about going to the show. And they had chosen a prostitute off the wall. And they actually were. And they were with their mother. And they didn't realize that there would be a confrontation of, like, them actually having to decide whether or not that's how they really saw themselves. And apparently, that person just spent the night crying on the steps all night after the show. And so it's a hoot. You guys should come down.

EISENBERG: But it is a hoot. I mean, it is very deep.

DELGAUDIO: (Laughter).

EISENBERG: And, I mean, you know - and this brings up a good point. So, you know, in addition to the self-exploration that you're going through with the narrative stories, the self-exploration the audience is going through, there is also just amazing illusions and sleight of hand. I mean, you know, the card stuff you do and how things appear and disappear is just - it fills the entire room with wonder. And from your point of view, when you are performing these things, and the audience then has a chance to react, what would you like the audience to do?

DELGAUDIO: I've had to stop thinking about that.


DELGAUDIO: You know, and that's been part of the challenge of the show - is not valuing maybe applause or reactions in the way that you normally might as a performer. And you have to be OK with silence. And that's a hard thing to get over as a performer if - you know, on stage. And you just have to really have something to say and mean it and just hope that it's being heard. And so I stopped thinking about whether or not this is funny or entertaining. Just is it legible? And all I can do is hope that it is and that whatever experience they're having is authentic, you know?

EISENBERG: Yeah. Now, you approached your director Frank Oz to direct the show.

DELGAUDIO: Yeah. We had developed a relationship over a few years prior. He came and saw my last show. And I lost my mind. Like, I've only been starstruck, I think, twice in my life. And it was Frank and Muhammad Ali. And I had no idea. He goes, hi, Derek. Frank Oz. And I went, oh, my God. You're Frank Oz. And that's exactly what I said. And we ended up having dinner a few times while I was in New York. And then when I was making this show, and I was thinking about who should direct it, there's only one person I could think of, which is Frank because it's a show about being more than one thing and how difficult that is because our inability to see each other as more than one thing.

And I wanted a director who understood what that felt like and what that meant. And when you hear the name Frank Oz, everyone thinks of something different. Some people think Yoda. Some people will think of Ms. Piggy. Some people think of "Dirty Rotten Scoundrels" or "What About Bob?" or the guy from the Blues Brothers. Everyone has a different idea of what Frank Oz is or what that means. A lot of people just think he's, you know, just a puppeteer.


DELGAUDIO: And - which he will lose his mind if you say that.


DELGAUDIO: I bring things to life, [expletive] damn it.


DELGAUDIO: And he does. And he's right.


DELGAUDIO: But puppeteer is lower on the rung than magician.


DELGAUDIO: So I figured if anyone could understand what the pain of being labeled as something was, it would be Frank. And I was right.

EISENBERG: Yeah. What is your favorite part of this show to perform?

DELGAUDIO: There's a moment where I tell someone on stage what is about to happen. Everything I'm saying is 100 percent true. But I can tell that not only is the person on stage - but everyone watching doesn't really believe what's about to happen is going to happen. And then it does. And that, for me, is always a very satisfying moment because the illusion isn't created by me lying to them or deceiving them. It's based on me telling them the truth.

And because of who they think I am and what this context is, they don't believe me. And so they're deceiving themselves. And if you watch it a second time, you realize, wow, he was just telling us the truth, and we weren't believing it. And so that brings up a different sort of drama, different confrontation of, like, well, why didn't I believe him? Or why would why didn't I believe that was going to happen? So you kind of pull the wool over your own eyes. And that's one of my favorite moments for sure.

EISENBERG: You bring them to life, [expletive] damn it.



EISENBERG: Very good.


EISENBERG: OK, Derek. Are you ready to play an ASK ME ANOTHER challenge?




EISENBERG: Yes, you are.


EISENBERG: Derek DelGaudio. Derek, obviously, you have amazing card handling skills. We've crafted a quiz for you about playing cards.



EISENBERG: And if you do well enough, Jillian Porus (ph) from Nashville, Tenn., will win an ASK ME ANOTHER Rubik's Cube.

DELGAUDIO: All right.



DELGAUDIO: And if you need a hint, puzzle guru Art Chung is standing by. Let's give it a shot. The first known reference to playing cards is from China in 868 A.D. The four suits we know now as hearts, diamonds, clubs and spades were originally different and evolved over centuries. Which suit was depicted over time as polo sticks, batons and acorns?





EISENBERG: That is correct.


EISENBERG: In the 1500s, the king of hearts was holding a battle axe near his head. But after centuries of inaccurate copies, it now looks like the king of hearts is doing what?


EISENBERG: (Laughter).

DELGAUDIO: Putting a sword through his head?

EISENBERG: Yes. Stabbing himself in the head with a sword.


DELGAUDIO: The problem is these sound more complicated than they are.



DELGAUDIO: They're intentionally misleading in a way. OK.


ART CHUNG: Almost like magic.


EISENBERG: Wow. The king of hearts is the only king missing what facial feature?



EISENBERG: Yeah, that's right.


EISENBERG: Mustache. Mustache. That - he lost that over the centuries, too. Here's your next one. In World War II, the United States Playing Card Company developed decks for soldiers that had a special feature. What is it?

DELGAUDIO: They hid maps in them for POWs.



EISENBERG: When submerged in water, they revealed maps. All right, here's your last question. According to a 1992 study by professors at Columbia and Harvard, how many...



DELGAUDIO: Although there's been a lot of debate on that number since then. So...


EISENBERG: I'll just say the question for the listening audience.


EISENBERG: How many imperfect riffle shuffles are necessary to sufficiently randomize a deck of cards? As you know, the answer way before that...


EISENBERG: ...Was seven. It took professors from Harvard and Columbia.


EISENBERG: Should've just called you.


EISENBERG: Puzzle guru Art Chung, how did Derek do?

CHUNG: Congratulations, Derek. You and listener Jillian Porus both win ASK ME ANOTHER Rubik's Cubes.


EISENBERG: "In & Of Itself" is playing on off-Broadway at the Daryl Roth Theatre through August. Let's hear it one more time for Derek DelGaudio.


PILOT: (Singing) Oh, it's magic, you know. Never believe it's not so.

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