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What do you picture when you hear the word magician? Maybe David Copperfield. Or a birthday party.
"Magic suffers from the people who do magic," Derek DelGaudio says.
DelGaudio and Helder Guimarães, two of the world's best young card magicians, are trying to change such perceptions with their show Nothing to Hide, which opens October 23 and runs through December 8 at the Signature Center. The duo brings the show to New York from the Geffen Playhouse, one of Los Angeles's most respected theaters, where it became a hit and extended its run several times.
Nothing to Hide features some mind-bending illusions, but its popularity stems mostly from the fact that DelGaudio and Guimarães aim to do something more than fool people: They want to raise magic from a craft to an art, from something nerdy to something cool.
They want to make magic that means something—magic that, like art or poetry, relates to the real world.
How does one create a meaningful illusion? One routine in Nothing to Hide involves Guimarães doing a card trick and then DelGaudio performing the same trick, reciting the same script. The second time, the expectations of the crowd and the connotations of the words have shifted. Audience members think they know what's coming because they've just seen it—and then they don't.
The routine examines issues like how preconceptions can change an experience, or how shifting context can change the meaning of language. There's no explicit message—but a good artist doesn't have to make his intentions explicit.
"We don't discuss the idea openly—they feel it, which is more interesting than saying, 'You know what, this [trick] is about preconceptions,'" Guimarães explains.
If a trick is successful, DelGaudio adds, "They're not asking themselves how that happens. They ask themselves deeper questions."
In another card routine, called "chess," they two face off against each other in a sleight-of-hand battle. There is no dialogue, and yet the audience can understand exactly what illusions are taking place (and often starts cheering).
"That's all of life in that piece," DelGaudio says. "It's our lives. It's reality. It's dreams—in the sense of what people dream [magicians] do—brought to life."
DelGaudio and Guimarães are not the first magicians to think this way. Penn and Teller, for instance, are among the most popular illusionists of our time, using humor to upend typical magic conventions and challenge audiences to rethink aspects of the world at large. Sometimes they reveal the methods behind their tricks, as a way of calling out magic as entertainment and questioning the value of secrecy. DelGaudio and Guimarães use magic to explore the same kinds of concerns, but in their own fashion.
"I think they're the two greatest young sleight-of-hand magicians working today," Penn Jillette says in an e-mail, "not because they do unbelievable tricks, which they do, and not just because their technique is better than anyone else's, which it is, but because they are charming and not saccharine, funny but not cute, artistic but not pretentious.
"Most importantly, they are trying to say that what they do is important."
Seeing one or two magicians perform a fully formed, 70-minute show is an anomaly—especially the intimate, close-up card tricks that form the core of Nothing to Hide.
New York is home to only a handful of respected magic shows. Steve Cohen performs for small audiences at the Waldorf Astoria. A group of magicians runs Monday Night Magic at the Players Theatre in Greenwich Village. This month, the Conjuring Arts Research Center, a magic library, has been hosting a few well-known magicians at the Axis Theater on Sheridan Square. Nothing to Hide, though, is perhaps most comparable to Ricky Jay's off-Broadway shows at Second Stage, directed by David Mamet, the last of which took place in 2002.
"In America," says Guimarães, "the live shows are dominated by musicals or stand-up specials by comedians or music or concerts, and there's no space to do one full evening show of magic. Those opportunities are not as common as in Europe."
Guimarães grew up in Portugal, where his first performance involved assisting his magician father. He began traveling to Madrid several times a year to study with Juan Tamariz, a legendary Spanish card magician. Guimarães pushed his illusions toward the impossible. What if an audience volunteer signed a blank white card and then, after the signed card was involved in a series of tricks, it were to morph into a signed playing card—the same card the volunteer had named earlier?
He created precisely such a routine, and in Stockholm in 2006, at age 23, he won first place in the close-up card category at the World Championships of Magic. Some performers backstage were so stunned, they thought the volunteer was a stooge. To convince the panel he hadn't cheated, Guimarães swore a judge to secrecy and explained how it was done. He also re-created the trick using a volunteer chosen by the panel.
After winning a coveted prize at such a young age, offers for gigs poured in. Guimarães released DVDs of his work. "I was unknown in the magic community and, one day to another, I became known," he says now.
DelGaudio grew up in Colorado, where he was raised by a single mom, a lesbian firefighter. "It was a complicated childhood," says DelGaudio, who's now 29. "She got into a nasty separation from her partner, there was alcohol, and it was ugly." He took refuge in magic. "It was an escape path in a lot of ways. It was like, I'd go to my room and shuffle."
As a teen, DelGaudio saw one of his magician heroes do a corporate gig in a hotel suite and watched as the audience left, gabbing about how they thought it was done. To them it was just tricks—nothing more. "I was devastated," he says. "This is one of the best in the world, and this is how people leave his show. What chance do I have? Why bother?"
So DelGaudio left magic, moving to L.A. to study theater. But three years later, he was offered a magic gig and needed the money. So he did one, then another and another.
Eventually he met Guimarães, who had come to L.A. to perform at the Magic Castle—a famed private magic club in a Hollywood Victorian mansion—after his win at the World Championships. DelGaudio introduced himself and they struck up a friendship. When Guimarães was in the process of moving to town to stay, he slept on DelGaudio's couch for three months.
DelGaudio found his new friend's passion inspiring.
"It radiated from him: He loves doing what he does. And I don't like doing what I do," DelGaudio recalls thinking. "I don't think what I do has any value."
In early 2012, DelGaudio was supposed to perform with another magician at the Magic Castle. When that arrangement fell through, he asked Guimarães to step in.
The pair discovered they have distinct but compatible goals. Guimarães wants to find the most impossible mystery—one that'll blow your mind, engineered for maximum effect. DelGaudio wants to find the most meaningful mystery.
A hint of DelGaudio's philosophy comes through in his collaborations with artist Glenn Kaino, a vet of the 2004 Whitney Biennial who is credited as artistic director of Nothing to Hide. In an event at the Kitchen in Chelsea, they cut actress China Chow in half and had audience members stroll between her two parts, calling it "A Walk Through China." For another performance, they stole artworks from booths at an art fair and loaded them into a box that was lifted 30 feet into the air. The box exploded, and the art disappeared.
Neil Patrick Harris, in addition to his many other duties, is president of the Academy of Magical Arts, the society based at the Castle. He helped transfer the show to the Geffen, where he directed it, and he now reprises those duties in New York.
"The rehearsal ends up being more of a brainstorming session," Harris says. "My job is to fill them with confidence and encouragement—authentically. Not to blow smoke up their asses and say it's going to be great, but to point them in the right direction."
After the successful run at the Geffen, New York was the next logical step. But DelGaudio and Guimarães had trouble lining up the right producer.
"We had propositions who clearly wanted to make money out of the show, as opposed to just supporting the project," Guimarães recounts. "They wanted us to do that show in a bigger room and maybe use, like, projections."
Tom Werner had seen the show after hearing about it from Hollywood friends. He wondered why it hadn't gotten an East Coast run—so he called the guys and offered to produce one himself.
In addition to co-owning the Boston Red Sox and the English Premier League's Liverpool Football Club, Werner has co-produced sitcoms such as Roseanne and The Cosby Show with partner Marcy Carsey. But he has never produced theater.
"The whole thing is a bit of a lark," Werner says, adding that when he asked veteran Broadway producer Bill Haber to join him, the latter replied, "I'm happy to do this with you, but are you prepared to lose all your money?"
The initial budget is less than $1 million, Werner says; in order to break even, the show must extend beyond its scheduled six-week run. "One thing that is very much like good television and good entertainment is if you deliver a good product, then the economics hopefully will take care of themselves," he says.
Guimarães and DelGaudio are inured to operating in a world that conspires against their chosen field.
"That's no joke when we say magic is irrelevant," DelGaudio says. Back in the day, audiences went to magic shows in order to be transported, he goes on—to be "reminded that we live in a world beyond what we know. And now we go to movies for that. And now we have iPads for that. I think that makes it even more beautiful when it is made relevant again."