“I Tell [the Audience] the Truth and Allow Them to Lie to Themselves”: Derek DelGaudio on His Frank Oz-Directed One-Man Show, In and Of Itself
The following piece contains mild spoilers for Derek DelGaudio’s In and Of Itself, the film version of which, directed by Frank Oz, opens today at IFC Center and is currently also streaming on Hulu.
For the live viewer of Derek DelGaudio’s In and Of Itself — a theater production which ran in Los Angeles and New York from 2016 to 2018 — the piece began not when the suited, dark-haired performer took the stage but 20 minutes before, in the lobby. As ticket-holders lined up before entering the theater, they were asked to pick a card — not a playing card, but, printed in bold black letters on white stock, a kind of descriptive identifier. One could self-identify by selecting their profession (“I am a sportscaster,” “I am an oncologist”), something a bit more general (“…a transcendentalist,” “…a traveler”) or just high-spirited (“…a lighting rod,” “…a good time”). (One could also venture into more disturbing territories: “I am a racist” said one card which, reportedly, was actually selected during the show’s run.)
The audience’s multiple selections became meaningful when, towards the end of the show, they enabled one of its most astonishing and arresting scenes. Viewers were asked to stand up only if they selected a card that represented in some way how they saw themselves, with DelGaudio’s subsequent revelations as he called out their selections acts of affirmation, recognition or, perhaps, enabled confession. At the show I attended, composer Stephen Sondheim revealed himself to be “a beekeeper” while a gut-punch moment was DelGaudio’s pausing before one man, wincing, and with a kind of brutal compassion informing him that he thought of himself as “a failure.”
Identity and how it is shaped by storytelling — the stories we tell ourselves, the stories society refracts back to us — is the theme that runs through In and Of Itself, a one-man show that mixes Borgesian riddles with autobiography, illusions with introspection, mystery with personal monologue. And while the show contains a number of intimate illusions, some masterful sleight-of-hand, and a truly baffling centerpiece, discussed below, in which an audience member receives an unexpected communication from a distant loved one, these are all presented with a kind of modest, almost anti-showmanship that redirects the viewer’s inquiry from the “how” to the “why.” By breaking the literal boundaries of theater — the evening’s denouement properly occurs blocks away — and by constructing the performance to be endless (one Mobius Strip-like bit involves a book one audience member leaves with mid-show only to return with the next night, handing it off to another), DelGaudio subjects the one-man show to the sorts of formal interrogations conceptual artists like Tino Sehgal apply to the world of visual art. (Significantly, DelGaudio works in this field too as one half of the conceptual art duo A.Bandit.)
With occasional rare, Stop Making Sense-style exceptions, filmed versions of live performances can be second-best substitutes for viewers unable to attend the real thing, or audiovisual souvenirs for those who did. I’m happy to report that that’s not the case with In and Of Itself. While faithfully capturing the live performance, DelGaudio and director Frank Oz, who directed the original theater production as well, have opened the work up, adding clips of DelGaudio’s own home movies and creating montages out of multiple nights of the show’s most astonishing moments. As I discuss with DelGaudio below, there’s something about seeing In and Of Itself in filmic form, with my own audience member performance anxiety removed, that made its form clearer and its questions more piercing to me. (The show’s themes and questions, by the way, find form in another new project, Amoralman: A True Story and Other Lies, which Errol Morris recently in the New York Times Book Review dubbed “a masterly memoiristic account of lying and self-deception.”)
Below we talk about the different and complementary strategies DelGaudio used with Oz to create the film and the performance, the theoretical underpinnings of some of the show’s signature moments, and the nature of truth and lies when they’re given an artistic frame.
Filmmaker: Was it certain from the beginning that there would be a film of the show and if not, when did that aspiration arrive?
DelGaudio: No, it was actually almost a certainty that it would not become a film. I have never felt the need to film the things that I do because I felt they were separate from that medium. But then as time went on, and I continued to do the show, I started wanting it for myself, for posterity. This was maybe nine months into the New York run, so I had done hundreds of performances before I even considered it.
Filmmaker: By this point, I imagine the show didn’t change much further as the run continued. But did your own perspective on it change as you were thinking simultaneously about doing the show each night and then about how certain moments would translate to film?
DelGaudio: As soon as the idea of turning it into a film was in my head, how to translate it became the number one question because, traditionally, in my opinion, these sort of things don’t translate well on film. You have that feeling of, “Man, I wish I had seen 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 [as in the theater], but an experience at home or wherever they saw it.
Filmmaker: Was your relationship with Frank different in the filmmaking and post-production process than it was while developing the performance?
DelGaudio: Yes and no. No in the sense that we collaborate very well together, and we sort of know what the other one is thinking. And if we don’t, we have a great deal of trust. If I’m pushing back on something, he stops, listens and it takes it into consideration. And of course, anything he says, I try to see his point of view. So that was the same, and that came from years of working together. As far as theater and the type of work I’ve done, he’s comfortable not knowing, of just going with the flow and figuring it out as we move along, whereas with film, the minute you sit down with him in the edit or put him behind the camera, he’s “Frank Oz, the director.” It’s amazing to watch, his confidence and how much he understands that world. But when we were building the show, it was often that there was a void — we were intentionally diving into a kind of nothingness, an unknowingness. We didn’t know what the show was going to be, and not being able to define it was partly intentional. And so sometimes part of that process of making the show needed to be moved into the process of making the film. How do we use the same process that we used for the creation of the show to create the film, to let the work speak to us? And Frank was on the journey for that.
Filmmaker: This idea of stepping into the unknown, what would be an example of that from the show?
DelGaudio: When I was first starting 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 have it be something that exists in a way that people have experienced before? Which meant breaking a lot of rules. I thought about it spatially — how can we break the identity of the space? How can we have the experience live outside of the room temporarily? How can we break it so that it doesn’t have a defined time period, beginning at this time and ending at that time? What if it never ended? And that led me to things like the book. I’m going to kick people who have paid money out of the show, having given them an object that is at first a blank journal, and hope they come back the next night?! They don’t get to see the end of the show — they have to imagine an ending, write it down, return and read their imagined ending? Sitting in the room with Frank and [first] explaining this — well, it’s a lot to ask of an audience. And things like the letter — at first I didn’t even want [an audience member] to have to read it out loud. In a perfect world, they would just open it, read it, and we would see that moment. Telling the audience what’s going to happen beforehand, that goes against the [traditional] theory of how you would handle that [type of scene]. But for me it was important to do that because it wasn’t about surprise, it was about watching a human being transform from one thing to another. This [letter] transforms for them, and then we see them transform. These are abstract ideas before they were actually envisioned, you know?
Filmmaker: Yes. As someone who saw the show I really appreciated in the film the montages where you see multiple audience member reactions cut from different shows.
DelGaudio: That’s probably the most important difference [between the film and the show] and one of the things I absolutely knew we were going to do in the film. All of the shows were actually one show, in a sense. That’s why the book leaves — it’s preventing the show from quote-unquote ending because it comes back the next day. So what you get in the film that you couldn’t get [in the live show] is the entirely of the experience, which is my experience of all the shows together. And by showing multiple people having the same experience over and over again, it brings something new that you couldn’t have if you were sitting in the theater. A lot of times people doubted or questioned what they were witnessing live. People would ask me after [the show], “Is that really the person from the day before?” Or, “Does that person work for you? It’s the same person every night, right?” Ironically, that’s alleviated in the film. And not only are those all real people, but you also get to see something [in the film] that, in the back row, you might not be able to see, like the single tear that falls from someone’s eye when they’re reading the letter.
I say from the very beginning [of the show] that I’m going to tell you the truth, and knowing that [the audience] won’t believe me is the only reason I’m going to tell [them] the truth. I know that people don’t believe me because of the context, because of who they think I am, and because it’s the theater. When I say to someone, “In a moment, you’re going to open a letter, and it’s going to be from your uncle,” if I was a mailman and handed you a letter, you wouldn’t question it. But because of the context, the [audience member] can’t even fathom [that this might be true]. So, I tell them the truth and allow them to lie to themselves. And then when they see that that’s what happened, there’s a conflict that they have to resolve within themselves. The drama exists within that, and not anywhere else. In the film, you can see the honesty on my face and in my words, and you can see in the reactions how real [that moment] is. I think the theater kind of washes that away, and in the film [it works] in a really positive way. In other concert or theater films it’s detrimental in that the theater part is what you go there for. But for me, in a sense, the theater was what was getting in the way of people experiencing what I was trying to show them.
Filmmaker: Seeing the piece on 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 realized — and this is funny because I used to work in experimental theater — that I have a real fourth-wall issue. If I’m in the audience, I like the fourth wall to remain up. So, I was always aware that I had picked a card upon entering and that at any point I could be called on to participate, which created a kind of anxiety. So, to be able to watch it at home, several steps back, not worrying if I’m suddenly going to be summoned up on stage, made what felt more fragmented in the theater space feel more unified at home, if that makes any sense.
DelGaudio: It makes perfect sense. I’m the same way. If I’m I sitting in the theater, I don’t want to be called on, so I understand that anxiety. Also, oftentimes the ideas were a little bit concealed behind the spectacle. Not intentionally, but it’s just the nature of a performance in a theater that involves mystery. You can’t help but wonder, what just happened? Like when the brick vanishes — that’s a powerful moment, and it’s hard to move on from. I give [the audience] time to sit with it, but then at some point I have to move on, and sometimes an audience [member] is maybe whispering to their friend, “How did that happen?” And then they get left behind. With the film, you can just rewind it. So, yeah, having the spectacle move into the background a little bit and these narrative ideas be now in the foreground and be more accessible for people was the most valuable for me.
Filmmaker: I was listening this morning to the Paul Holdengraber podcast you did, and you talked about the subjectivity of truth, that truth is what we make it. You were discussing that within 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 allowed you to develop a keener story of yourself? Or was it a dramatization of a process that had maybe already occurred?
DelGaudio: No, it was the opposite of a vehicle for my autobiography. When I set out to make the show, there were no stories about me in it other than the [beginning] story of “I met a man who told me this thing….” Which is true. Obviously the roulettista story is an allegory of some sort — 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 misunderstood what was told to me. And that became part of the idea of the book — the listener holds half of the story in the sense of what it becomes. But [the story I wrote] ends totally differently, the point being that I had the framework of what 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 brickmaking, the brick coming from the factory until it was in my hand, and then spray-painting it gold, and then using the cards to make it vanish. The idea was to take an object that has value to me, but I was avoiding saying the truth. It was very abstract. There was content there, but Frank couldn’t tell what the hell I was actually getting it.
And so he’s like, “What is this about?” It was at the end of the rehearsal, and I said, “I’ll write it up and send it to you.” And so I wrote him what it was actually about, which was, “Every secret has a unique way, and I learned this at an early 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 remain in the realm of ideas about the nature of identity. I felt like [these ideas] would get lost if I made it a personal narrative, but I eventually chose to go that route because Frank convinced me that it’s an act of generosity. I was so afraid of it being a bad one-man show about myself that I ran from the true stories that I was embedding [into the pieces]. I grew up around some alcoholism in my family — not my mother — but that’s where the ship-in-the-bottle piece originated. I escaped into my room and had to invent my own worlds to escape some ugliness. So the original drafts did not include the actual personal narratives. Now, looking back, it’s like, how could you do that?
Filmmaker: That’s fascinating, because in the film, you have gone even further into personal narrative by incorporating home movies, which are another layer of “proof,” you know?
DelGaudio: I had people come up to me after [the show] and ask me how truthful the stories are. It was always a funny question because if I was going to fictionalize it, what a weird way to fictionalize it! To give yourself a lesbian mother is kind of an odd fiction to create. But then I realized it’s also part of the entire gesture of the show in that they don’t believe me because they think I’m a magician. That’s really at the heart of why people don’t believe the stories I’m telling, and rightfully so, because I have yet to see anyone else who is a practitioner of the deceptive practices who is honest in this way. They don’t know how to, or they don’t want to, because it’s uncomfortable, or whatever it is. I don’t blame people for questioning the authenticity of what I’m telling them because they’ve never had a model showing them otherwise.
Filmmaker: Did you see, by any chance, Dave Chappelle’s latest set on Instagram? He tells a very similar story to the three-card monte story you discussed on the Holdengraber podcast.
DelGaudio: I know! It blew me away.
Filmmaker: For him, figuring out the game is kind of like a revelation of a dog-eat-dog Hobbesian social order. You can figure out the game, but you can’t challenge it because that would be exposing a power dynamic that you’re not allowed to challenge.
DelGaudio: Any comparisons to Chappelle are always welcome, but he definitely had a lived experience of the arena that I’m playing in.
Filmmaker: I’m wondering your take on his interpretation of the game because it’s both similar to your interpretation but also different in the way he interacted with it.
Del Gaudio: I mean, he was on the other side of it, He’s had to navigate incredibly rough waters throughout his life and his career and he’s smart enough to recognize that this game exists. But I’m coming at it from the other side and trying to fight to get to his side. And he’s in a sense, trying to see it from the side that I’ve been operating from. Two sides of the same coin. The more we can have an honest dialogue about deception, the more we understand truth. The people who understand deception and think about it a lot and practice it aren’t in the business of using it to tell the truth. It’s usually deception for deception’s sake. Anytime there’s an opportunity to shed a light on the truth, I think it’s a valuable opportunity that should be explored.