We had the good fortune of connecting with Derek Hughes and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi Derek, what role has risk played in your life or career?
There’s nothing that feels quite as risky as improvisation. You step out into the stage light with absolutely nothing planned. You trust your scene partner and they trust you and together, guided by audience laughter, you find your way to an impossibly funny, interesting, fulfilling moment. A foundational idea in improvisational performance theory is “yes, and…”. When your scene partner makes a statement. “Nice purple hat.” you never negate “It’s not purple, its orange.” Because negation immediately cuts off the creative flow. Rather you, without hesitation, respond with YES. “Yes it is a purple hat.” Then you add “and..” You build upon the reality being created. “and…my grandmother gave it to me for my birthday.” Now we’re going somewhere. “YES, and…she always gives you a birthday hat.” “YES, and…” and so on. Fresh out of college, studying comedy improv at the Dudley Rigg’s Brave New Workshop I had an epiphany, realizing that this idea of “yes, and…” could also be a life philosophy. When I had the opportunity to perform magic tricks tableside at a local restaurant I said yes. AND I gave out business cards developing a supportive client base for private and corporate events. When an actor friend of mine invited me to be her scene partner for an audition I said yes, AND…her audition turned into a relationship with her agency leading to a string of commercial jobs that financed self-produced solo work. That solo work lead to some wonderful press which lead to increased credibility, which lead to higher profile opportunities…and so on and so on… “Yes, and..” became my mantra. As a professional risk is a matter of perspective. I’ve been filing taxes as a full time performing artist since 1989. I’ve never known what my work will look like nor where my income will be coming from more than six months out. Always moving forward, always facing a financial abyss. I feel blessed that I made the choice at such a young age which makes it hard for me to consider any other option. All chips on the table. Had I known a salaried position for a handful of years I might be a little less comfortable embracing the unknown with confidence. 10 years ago, when I found out I was going to be a father, I called my mother in a panic. “Should I get a job?!”. I’ll never forget her response. “Well, you’ve been doing this (full time artist) for a long time (over 20 years), and it seems to be going well (no debt, bills paid)…maybe you can trust that?” I once heard that one’s success in life is in direct proportion to what they do after they do what they’re expected to do. What we’re expected to do is the “yes”, what we do above and beyond is the “and”.
Can you open up a bit about your work and career? We’re big fans and we’d love for our community to learn more about your work.
I’ve always used humor as a bridge to connect. Where there is laughter there is hope. I recall recovering from major surgery in the intensive care unit. I was 10 and my mother sat at my bedside, her face a mask of veiled concern. In spite of my discomfort I ran a G.I. Joe action figure across the gore and stitches on my chest and said “look mama, it’s a battlefield.” She laughed. I began my journey as a magician with a magic kit that came into my life earlier that same year. One trick in particular captured my imagination. It was a penny that turned into a dime. To me it represented the potential for real alchemy. When I was 12 a neighbor friend received $100 birthday gift. I pitched him on investing his capital in new magic tricks that I could use to cobble together a show I could sell. I’d pay him back with interest. He passed on the opportunity but I was convinced. Every dollar I could earn raking leaves for my grandfather, every penny of allowance was saved and invested in a monthly Saturday afternoon spent at Eagle Magic Store in downtown Minneapolis. Countless hours perusing the hardbound product catalogue of Tannen’s Magic Shop in New York. As I pieced together a store bought set list it became clear that the most important factor in a successful show wasn’t the tricks performed, but the person performing them. I studied the craft of acting, always with the end goal of improving and differentiating my magic act. I’d apply performance theory to my magic tricks, finding obscure venues to experiment with off the wall ideas, and elements of that work would find it’s way into my more commercial offering. Levity was always a big part of my work. Harry Anderson and Penn & Teller were hugely influential. I began poking fun at the public’s preconceived notions of what a magician is supposed or expected to be. Rather than the mysterious and all powerful wizard I began to allow things to break or go off track. As I tear a section of newspaper I fail to notice a piece fall to ground. When it magically restores I’m just as surprised as everyone to discover a piece missing from the center of the page. I would open the show with pounding music and deep confidence announce “Get ready for magic!” only to cut the music and confess as an aside “actually, this isn’t magic…it’s just a trick…MUSIC!” and the music would pick up where it left off and I would resume an air of mystery. But from that point on the audience knows that this isn’t the magic show they may have assumed it to be, that perhaps anything can happen. This unique voice led to an invitation to perform at the HBO US Comedy Arts Festival in Aspen, CO. Though I had been working comedy clubs and many of my peers were stand up, it was this weekend of total emersion that inspired me to begin writing and performing straight stand up material with no magic. I had the vision of a hybrid performance weaving together stand up and magic. A good trick and a good joke have a lot in common. Both require a clearly understandable set-up and, ideally, a surprising yet inevitable climax. Though I’d already been working as a headliner I started taking weeks of work at clubs in the feature position, the middle spot opening for the headline comic. I’d do 30 minutes of straight stand up, developing the confidence to guide the audience toward a crescendo using only words. This is the work that lead to the branding of Standup Magician.
If you had a friend visiting you, what are some of the local spots you’d want to take them around to?
A morning hike up Runyon Canyon. Lunch at Fig Tree in Venice Beach. A visit to the Museum of Jurassic Technology in Culver City. Drinks in the lobby bar at the Culver Hotel. Sushi dinner at Hama in Venice Watkins Family Hour show at Largo at the Coronet. A road trip up the coast to the Hearst mansion. Overnight b&b in Santa Barbra catching a concert at the Bowl. A matinee at Mann’s Chinese and a stroll down the walk of fame. Then suit up for an evening at the Magic Castle
Who else deserves some credit and recognition?
I was the only child of a single teen mother (she was 16 when I was born) and she was always supportive of my efforts. I joke that she was supportive to the point of neglect. Thank god she didn’t know any better. I found surrogate fathers in my magician mentors. Through visiting lecture series at the local magic shop I developed a relationship with Eugene Burger, a close up magician from Chicago, and Michael Ammar, an award winning magician from West Virgina. I always invested my hard earned money in tapping these men for a couple hours of personal instruction after their lectures. Their guidance and encouragement ignited a light of hope and illuminated my vision of a successful future. The collaboration and esprit de corps between my contemporary peers: Rob Zabrecky, John Lovick, Derek DelGaudio, Michael Carbonaro is an invaluable source of inspiration.