From a desk in his beautifully decorated Pittsburgh living room, Jon Tai has me completely engrossed.
With dark walls, a polygonal stag mask made out of poster board, and a brick fireplace centering the room, the mood is instantly set, and we’re mesmerized to see what he’s going to do. His living room is his stage, and I can view it all on my laptop.
Jon Tai is a magician, and along with 20 others I am lucky to be his audience. From different parts of the world, we are tuning in on Zoom to watch his new interactive production entitled Missed Connections.
But what I didn’t know is that Jon is also a storyteller, and a damn good one at that. Using these narrative skills, he delivers a stream of stories inspired by Craigslist’s famous column, weaving in flabbergasting magic tricks of all varieties in between. It’s a play with magic, rather than a magic show, if you will.
“It’s not a magic show per se, because people have expectations around the magic show,” Alex Gruhin, who has co-created the show from his Hell’s Kitchen apartment, tells me, “it’s a play that uses magic as the art form through which the story is told.”
These expectations that Alex mentions are ones that I admittedly had prior to watching the show, of an hour filled with simple ‘don’t look here, look over there’ tricks. But unlike some other magicians, Jon strives to make his shows more than just trick after trick, saying, “they foster an impulse that it’s a puzzle to be solved or a fight where I’m trying to fool you, which inherently is not a pleasant experience. No one likes getting fooled.”
It’s been a few years since I’ve seen a magic show, but I remember paying attention to how the magician is doing their trick and running different methods in my head even though they’ve moved on. Inevitably, that takes you out of the moment. Though Jon had his fair share of tricks I would love to have the secrets to, it almost felt like that wasn’t the point. The show felt more like a homage to Zoom — or the connections made amongst us because of it — with the magic there to facilitate it all and make it more entertaining.
“One of the things we’re proudest of is that we built this show with audience feedback,” Alex said. “Everything is rooted in engagement and interaction and you feel invested in it — not only because Jon is such an amazing storyteller and magician, but also because you have a stake in the game, you are co-conceiving the show before you.”
That makes Missed Connections stand out, the fact that an audience member in Idaho, and me, here in New York can play a big role in a show being filmed live in Pittsburgh, with the entire process being as seamless as an in-person production.
While Jon has had a plethora of live shows before COVID, this one was created specifically for this virtual medium. In line with its theme of building connections, the show was, as Alex puts it, “conceived because of the pandemic, in response to the pandemic, as a function of the pandemic.” While quarantine has obviously severed human connection, it’s also fostered new ones through its digital interaction and creation of community. Thanks to this show, I laughed and enjoyed an experience with 20 other people from other cities as they sat in their kitchens.
Jon admits he had fears about what he believed were the limitations of this virtual medium. He, however quickly understood that those doubts in its capabilities were unnecessary. “It’s just another space to play in, not better or worse, just different,” he said. And after watching it all happen, I understand what he means, It’s a Zoom production because it works better as a Zoom production. A digital show is not filled with limitations, it’s filled with opportunities.
In the stories written on the famed Craigslist column, a happenstance meeting inspires one to act digitally and make a post in hopes that a new relationship will blossom. Similarly, my writing for this magazine brought me to a digital show co-written by Alex, someone who lives mere minutes from me and whose apartment building I’ve unknowingly passed by dozens of times. Is it fate? No. It’s a missed connection, but maybe with a sprinkle of magic on top. And Jon loves it.
To learn more about Jon Tai head to www.taimagic.com or to purchase tickets for Missed Connections — currently being presented online by Chicago’s MacArthur and multi-Jeff Award winning A Red Orchid Theatre — go to www.aredorchidtheatre.org/missed-connections/