Derek DelGaudio in and of itself
The following track contains mild spoilers for Derek DelGaudio's In and Of Itself, the film version of which, directed by Frank Oz, opens today at the IFC Center and is currently also being streamed on Hulu.
For the live viewer of Derek DelGaudio's In and Of Itself – a theater production that ran in Los Angeles and New York from 2016 to 2018 – the play did not begin when the suitable, dark-haired performer entered the stage, but rather 20 minutes before the reception hall. When the ticket holders lined up to enter the theater, they were asked to choose a card – not a playing card, but a kind of descriptive identifier in bold black letters on white paper. You could identify yourself by choosing your profession (“I'm a sports caster”, “I'm an oncologist”), something more general (“… a transcendentalist”, “… a traveler”) or just cocky (“… a Light stick "," … a good time "). (One could venture into more worrying areas as well, "I'm a racist," said a card reportedly actually selected during the run of the show.)
The multiple audience choices made meaningful when they enabled one of the most amazing and impressive scenes towards the end of the show. Viewers were asked to stand up only if they selected a card that in some way represented how they saw themselves, and DelGaudio's subsequent revelations as he highlighted their selections, confirmed, acknowledged, or possibly enabled a confession. At the show I was on, composer Stephen Sondheim emerged as a "beekeeper" while DelGaudio paused in front of a man, winced, and informed with a kind of brutal compassion that he considered himself a "failure". ”
Identity and how it is shaped through storytelling – the stories we tell ourselves, the stories society breaks back to us – is the theme that runs through In and Of Itself, a one-man show, the Borgesian one Puzzles with autobiography, illusions mixed with introspection, mystery with personal monologue. And while the show contains a series of intimate illusions, some masterful tact, and a really confusing centerpiece in which an audience receives an unexpected message from a distant loved one, these are all presented with a sort of humble, almost anti-showmanship that is redirects the viewer's request from “how” to “why”. By breaking the literal boundaries of the theater – the breakup of the evening comes a few blocks away – and by making the performance endless (a Mobius Strip-like piece includes a book that puts an audience in the middle of the show leaves only to return the next night). DelGaudio hands the one-man show over to the formal interviews that conceptual artists like Tino Sehgal apply to the world of fine arts. (Significantly, DelGaudio also works in this area as half of the conceptual art duo A.Bandit.)
With the occasional rare Stop Making Sense style of exceptions, filmed versions of live performances can be the second best substitute for viewers who cannot partake in reality, or audiovisual souvenirs for those who have. I'm happy to announce that this is not the case with In and Of Itself. While DelGaudio and director Frank Oz, who also directed the original theatrical production, faithfully captured the live performance, they opened up the work, added clips from DelGaudio's own home videos, and made montages of several nights of the show's most amazing moments. As I discuss with DelGaudio below, it has something to do with seeing In and Of Itself in cinematic form, removing the fear of my own audience performing, making its form clearer and its questions more pervasive to me. (The show's themes and questions, incidentally, find form in another new project, Amoralman: A True Story and Other Lies, which Errol Morris recently described in the New York Times Book Review as "a masterful memoiristic account of lies and self-deception.")
Below we talk about the different and complementary strategies that DelGaudio used with Oz to create the film and performance, the theoretical foundations of some of the show's signature moments, and the nature of truth and lies when given an artistic framework is given.
Filmmakers: Was it certain from the start that there would be a film about the show, and if not, when did that request arrive?
DelGaudio: No, it was almost a certainty that it wasn't going to be a movie. I never felt the need to film the things I do because I felt like they were separate from this medium. But then as time passed and I kept doing the show, I wanted it for myself, for posterity. That was maybe nine months after the New York run, so I'd done hundreds of gigs before I even thought about it.
Filmmakers: At that point, I imagined that the show hadn't changed much as the run progressed. But has your own perspective changed when you simultaneously thought about doing the show every night and then about how certain moments translate into film?
DelGaudio: As soon as I had the idea to make a film out of it, translation became the main question because, in my opinion, these things traditionally don't translate well in film. You feel like, "Man, I wish I saw this live," and Frank and I didn't want people to feel that way. We wanted them to have an experience – maybe not the same experience (like in the theater) but an experience at home or wherever they saw it.
Filmmakers: Was your relationship with Frank different in the film and post-production process than in the development of the performance?
DelGaudio: Yes and no. No in the sense that we work very well together and somehow know what the other is thinking. And when we don't, we have a lot of confidence. When I push something back, he stops, listens and takes it into account. And of course I try to see everything he says, his point of view. So it was the same, and it came from years of collaboration. As for the theater and the type of work I've done, he likes not knowing, just going with the flow and figuring it out as we move, while with the movie the minute you get in with Put him in the cut or put behind the camera, he's "Frank Oz, the director." It's amazing to see his confidence and how much he understands this world. But when we were building the show there was often a void – we deliberately plunged into some kind of nothing, an ignorance. We didn't know what the show was going to be like, and it was partly intentional not to be able to define it. And so sometimes part of that process of creating the show had to be moved into the process of creating the movie. How do we use the same process we used to create the show to create the movie and let the work do the talking to us? And that's why Frank was on the trip.
Filmmakers: This idea of stepping into the unknown, what would be an example from the show?
DelGaudio: When I started thinking about what I wanted to explore, I thought of the show not as an object, but as a creature. How can I give this thing a life and not let it be something that exists in a way that people have experienced before? Which meant breaking a lot of rules. I've been thinking about it spatially – how can we break the identity of the space? How can we temporarily experience the experience outside of space? How can we break it so that there is no defined period of time that starts and ends at this point in time? What if it never ended And that led me to things like the book. I'm going to kick people out who paid money off the show, gave them an item that is a blank diary at first, and hope they come back the next night ?! You can't see the end of the show – you have to imagine an ending, write it down, come back and read its imaginary ending? Sitting in the room with Frank and explaining this (first) – well, it's a lot to ask of an audience. And things like the letter – at first I didn't even want (an audience) that I have to read it out loud. In a perfect world, they would just open it up, read it and we would see that moment. Telling the audience beforehand what is going to happen contradicts the (traditional) theory of how to deal with it (type of scene). But for me it was important to do that because it wasn't about surprise, it was about watching a person transform from one thing to another. That (letter) transforms for them, and then we see them transform. These are abstract ideas before they were actually considered, you know?
Filmmakers: Yes. As someone who's seen the show, I really appreciated the montages in the film, which cut multiple reactions from viewers from different shows.
DelGaudio: That's probably the most important difference (between the movie and the show) and one of the things I absolutely knew we'd do in the movie. All shows were sort of a show. That's why the book goes – it keeps the show from ending without end because it comes back the next day. So what you get in the movie that you couldn't get (on the live show) is the entire experience that is my experience of all the shows put together. By showing multiple people having the same experience over and over again, you get something new that you couldn't have if you were sitting in the theater. Often people had doubts or asked what they were experiencing live. People asked me after (the show), "Is this really the person from the previous day?" Or: “Does this person work for you? It's the same person every night, right? ”Ironically, that is alleviated in the film. And not only are these all real people, but you can also see something (in the movie) that you may not be able to see in the back row, like the single tear that falls from someone's eye while reading the letter.
I say from the start (of the show) that I will tell you the truth and knowing that (the audience) will not believe me is the only reason I will tell (them) the truth. I know people don't believe me because of the context, who they think I am, and because it's the theater. When I say to someone, "In a moment you will open a letter and it will be from your uncle." If I were a postman and gave you a letter, you wouldn't question it. But because of the context, the (viewer) cannot even fathom (that this could be true). So I tell them the truth and allow them to lie to themselves. And then when they see that that is exactly what has happened, there is a conflict that they have to resolve within themselves. The drama exists in it and nowhere else. In the movie, you can see the honesty in my face and in my words, and you can see in the reactions how real (this moment) is. I think the theater washes that away and in the movie (it works) in a really positive way. In other concert or theater films, the disadvantage is that the theatrical part is what you go there for. But for me the theater was, in a way, what stood in the way of people experiencing what I wanted to show them.
Filmmakers: When I saw the piece in the film, I got a much clearer sense of the structure of the piece, the way the themes connected and built around the concept of identity. I also found – and that's funny because I used to work in experimental theater – that I have a real problem with the fourth wall. When I'm in the audience I want the fourth wall to stay up. So I was always aware that when I entered I had chosen a card and that I could be asked to participate at any time, which caused a kind of fear. To see it at home, step back a few steps without worrying about suddenly being called on stage, what felt more fragmented in the theater room felt more unified at home, if that makes sense.
DelGaudio: It makes perfect sense. I am the same. When I'm in the theater, I don't want to be called, so I understand this fear. Often the ideas were a little hidden behind the spectacle. Not on purpose, but it is in the nature of a performance in a theater that involves riddles. You can't help but wonder what just happened. For example, when the brick disappears – this is a powerful moment and it is difficult to move on. I give (audience) time to sit with it, but at some point I have to move on and sometimes an audience (member) might whisper to their friend, “How did that happen?” And then they are left behind. With the film, you can easily rewind it. So, yes, letting the spectacle take a back seat and having these narrative ideas in the foreground now and being more accessible to people was the most valuable thing to me.
Filmmakers: I heard the Paul Holdengraber podcast this morning that you did and you talked about the subjectivity of truth, that truth is what we make of it. You discussed this in a political context, but the quote can also apply to autobiography – the story we tell ourselves about ourselves. And that's very much part of this piece. Could you discuss the role autobiography plays in the work and whether the work enabled you to develop a sharper story of yourself? Or was it a dramatization of a process that might already have taken place?
DelGaudio: No, it was the opposite of a vehicle for my autobiography. When I set out to do the show there were no other stories about me than the (opening) story of "I met a man who told me this thing …". What is true. Obviously the Rouletteista story is kind of an allegory – it's actually kind of a hybrid of something I wrote based on what I was told and because it was in Spanish and I don't speak Spanish very well, I got it wrong understood what was being told me. And that became part of the idea of the book – the listener keeps half of the story in terms of what becomes of it. But (the story I wrote) ends very differently. The point was that I had the framework that I wanted to do, but the pieces were idea based. They weren't about me. I was rehearsing with Frank and I had just written this thing for the brick – about the process of making brick, the brick that came out of the factory until it was in my hand, and then sprayed gold and then got the cards used to do it it disappear. The idea was to take an object that was of value to me, but I avoided telling the truth. It was very abstract. There was content there, but Frank couldn't tell what the hell I was getting.
And so he says: "What is this about?" It was at the end of the rehearsal and I said, "I'll write it down and send it to you." And so I wrote him what it was all about: "Every secret has a unique way, and I learned that at a young age." I told him the truth and he said, "Why don't you just say that?" And I said, "Because I don't want this show to be about me." I didn't want people to misinterpret the show as "Oh, he's doing a one-man show about his dark past." I wanted it to stay in the realm of ideas about the nature of identity. I felt like (these ideas) would be lost if I made it a personal narrative, but I eventually chose this route because Frank convinced me it was an act of generosity. I was so scared that it might be a bad one man show about me, that I was running away from the real stories that I embedded (in the plays). I grew up with alcoholism in my family – not with my mother – but that's where the ship in a bottle was born. I fled to my room and had to invent my own worlds to escape some ugliness. So the original drafts did not contain the actual personal narratives. When you look back, how could you do that?
Filmmakers: This is fascinating because in the movie you went even further into the personal narrative by recording home videos which are another layer of "evidence," you know?
DelGaudio: After (the show) people came up to me and asked me how true the stories are. It was always a fun question because if I was going to fictionalize it, what a strange way of fictionalizing it! Giving yourself a lesbian mother is a strange fiction. But then I realized that part of the overall gesture of the show is that they don't believe me because they think I'm a wizard. This is really why people don't believe the stories I am telling, and rightly so, because I have not yet seen anyone practice the deceitful practices and be honest in that way. They don't know how or they don't want because it's uncomfortable or whatever it is. I am not accusing people of questioning the authenticity of what I am telling them because they have never had a model that shows them anything else.
Filmmakers: Did you happen to see Dave Chappelle's newest set on Instagram? It tells a very similar story to the three-card Monte story you discussed on the Holdengraber podcast.
DelGaudio: I know! It blew me away.
Filmmakers: For him, figuring out the game is a kind of revelation of a Hobbesian society that eats dog and dog. You can figure out the game, but you cannot challenge it as that would expose a power dynamic that you are not allowed to challenge.
DelGaudio: Comparisons to Chappelle are always welcome, but he's definitely had a lived experience with the arena I play in.
Filmmakers: I wonder how you would rate his interpretation of the game as it is both similar to your interpretation and different in the way he interacts with it.
Del Gaudio: I mean, he was on the other side, he has had to navigate incredibly rough waters throughout his life and career and he is smart enough to realize that this game exists. But I come from the other side and try to fight to get to his side. And he's kind of trying to see it from the side I was operating from. Two sides of the same coin. The more we can have an honest dialogue about deception, the better we understand the truth. The people who understand deception and think about it a lot and practice it are not supposed to use it to tell the truth. It is usually deception for the sake of deception. Whenever there is an opportunity to shed some light on the truth, I think it is a valuable opportunity to be explored.