Our series of conversations with magicians who have made a difference continues with another Academy of Magical Arts award winner, Derek DelGaudio, the Close-up Magician of the year. In recent years Derek has evolved from being an obscure, but admired, technician to a dynamic performer to an exciting and original creator, with a new and original approach to magic and performance. John Lovick sat down with Derek in the Library of the Magic Castle for this conversation.
JL: I have to ask you about the six appearances you recently made on Spanish TV. You’ve turned down opportunities to appear on TV in the U.S., and you’re not from Spain, how did those come about?
DD: I was in Madrid doing some shows, and my friend Luis Piedrahita— Luis, by the way is a phenomenal magician and very famous comedian. He has made hundreds of appearances on this TV show doing magic and comedy. Anyway, he asked if I had an interest in appearing on the show. I thought this would be an interesting choice for a television debut. So, I appeared on the show the next day, with no rehearsal or anything, and it’s shot and broadcast live to three to four million people in Spain. I did eight minutes of card magic silently, while Luis was my voice.
After I did the show, the next day they received such a positive response, they asked me if I’d come back and do five more spots. It was a scary prospect. Doing one spot where I don’t speak the language was hard enough. Five seemed impossible. I really pondered it, and thought that it was an interesting challenge. So, I said yes, because I love Spain, and I love Luis, and I loved the idea of the challenge. I thought it could be an opportunity to do something special.
JL: How did you decide what you were going to do?
DD: Well, because I believe magic is a form of communication and I wouldn’t be able to speak, I decided to make the project about the fact that I am not speaking. I wanted to make not talking a strength instead of a weakness and turn the silence into communication. So, I looked at the five spots as all one show, one project.
JL: You didn’t just take items from your repertoire and adapt them. You created five all new pieces, didn’t you?
DD: Yes, I composed all of those pieces for the show. My material is very language based or idea based. And those don’t translate well when you’re having someone speak for you. So, instead of trying to fit a square peg (me and my work) into a round hole. I decided to create a round peg.
JL: The way the six segments work together is terrific, and I can’t think of anyone who’s ever done anything similar. Really impressive. Another impressive thing is that you are the Close-up Magician of the Year.
DD: So I hear.
JL: What was that like to win that award?
DD: It was nice—great. All of my friends won. That was the most satisfying part. It was a shared experience.
JL: One of those friends was Helder Guimarães, and you two have been working and performing together a lot lately. What’s it like working with Helder?
DD: We have a very good working relationship because our skill sets are very different. Our ways of thinking are very different. Together we make one competent magician. We had an opportunity at the Castle to perform together, for the grand reopening after the fire. We had less than a week. We put a show together and did it, and the response was outrageous. We had people flying in from the other side of the country, because they’d heard something interesting was happening. People were saying, “You have to see this.” They weren’t saying “You have to see Derek and Helder.” They were saying, “You have to see this. This thing.”
JL: Do you know why this show got such an amazing response?
DD: It’s a tough question. I’ve wondered why our work together is better than our individual work, because it is undoubtedly more powerful. I believe it has something to do with the fact that we shouldn’t be working together. Often, when people work together it’s because they are lacking something in their own field, or it’s two separate disciplines, like Siegfried and Roy. One was a magician who needed animals in his act, and the other was a guy with animals, who needed to do something with them. It’s a perfect combination. Teller believes his magic is better silent. Penn is a juggler who likes talking. These are combinations that together make a complete experience.
For Helder and me, we have flaws, but there is quality magic in our shows, and we say interesting things, and we enjoy having fun, and interacting with the audience. We don’t need each other as performers—I think people recognize that and wonder why we’re doing it. Because they know it’s not for money, and they know it’s nor for accolades, because they know we already get that through our individual work. So it becomes about something else, something bigger than ourselves, and I think that’s what draws people in. And there’s less ego involved, because we’re sharing the stage. It’s only about the thing we are trying to do and say with magic, and not about us individually.
JL: The material you create together is so different from what we usually see. It’s either classic or familiar plots presented in a way we’ve never seen them done, or new plots and effects that are not familiar. Is there a particular way you two go about creating routines, or does each piece happen in a different way?
DD: We are both in pursuit of excellence, but in different ways. My mission in life is to create the most meaningful mystery, and Helder’s is to create a perfect mystery.
JL: By “perfect” do you mean “deceptive”?
DD: Yes. He’s a marvel at engineering and structuring magic. I focus more on the poetics of things. When the two meet, you have a very deceptive magic effect, but with a perspective that isn’t what people are used to seeing. Of course, we both contribute in both areas, we just have our individual focus. And we are never offended when the other says something is not good enough. Whether it’s what we are saying, or what we are doing. And that happens daily. It’s never good enough.
JL: You’ve also worked closely with me, Rob Zabrecky, Derek Hughes. You’ve worked with or consulted for Ricky Jay, David Copperfield, Mac King, Michael Carbonaro, Luis Piedrahita, and others. How is it that you are able to work so successfully in collaboration with others?
DD: I think because it’s always about the work, and when working with other people you are forced to work outside of yourself on something, and not think about your ego, or how you might come out on the other end—the other people in the room generally don’t allow you to go down that path. Even if there’s a bit of an ego struggle in the beginning, that kind of dissipates because there’s just no time for that.
I’ve always enjoyed having a pure process-oriented environment, where it’s not about feelings, because emotions have no place in the laboratory. With magic, in trying to create a mystery, you have to remove yourself from it, so that you can look at it from all perspectives. Working with someone else forces you to do that. You see it through their eyes.
JL: The other significant collaborator in your life has been with Glenn Kaino, who I’ll explain for the readers, is a conceptual sculptor and artist. And you have worked on several projects with him. You’ve created performance art pieces that you’ve done in theatres and art fairs, and galleries, and other venues. How has your immersion in the art world affected your approach to magic?
DD: Working with Glenn is a natural, organic, awesome experience, and we work together very well. We both have similar goals in terms of making something beautiful and meaningful, and wanting to contribute to the world. We also like things that are just awesome—really cool or neat things. Aside from working with him, the working in the art world has been exceedingly challenging, because it’s forced me to evaluate the magic world from—to see it from an outsider’s perspective. Outsiders who are educated, and successful, intellectual, and artistic. To say they look down on magic would be such an understatement, because it would imply they think about it enough to even look down on it.
I think magicians often write that off as “they’re snooty intellectuals” who don’t get magic, or they think it’s childish, or they haven’t seen enough good magic. And I think there’s a lot to be said about that, but I’ve always wondered why is that level of society so dismissive of magic as a serious art form. There has to be some truth in their perspective. There has to be. It’s not just their lack of seeing enough good magic. At the end of the day—all the bullshit, and the economy of art, and the social aspects, and the politics—at the end of the day, it’s a world that cares about meaning, and asking questions about the world we live in.
Magicians have the ability to destroy all that and remove all meaning. The meaning and intrinsic value is already there. But magicians have found a way over the years to be so reductive of magic that people stopped even caring about it. Because we treat it the way we do, the rest of the world followed along. It really forced me to evaluate what magic is about and what the role of the magician in the world today is. I think right now the role is: “To show some tricks to the kids.” I don’t believe it has to be that.
Photograph by Brad Fulton