Don’t Miss Missed Connections: Our Q& A with Magician Jon Tai

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First of all, I saw Missed Connections (a live interactive online play with magic) in a preview, and liked it enough to want to see the show again–which I did, on the very last day of its run presented by A Red Orchard Theatre.  

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No, that’s not first of all.  First of all, Alex Gruhin, the producer, invited me to the preview, to see a show by his good friend, the magician Jon Tai...and then let me know that they’d done some tweaks and that I might want to revisit it.

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Actually, that’s not first of all, either.  First of all, there’s the reason I know Alex at all, and that is because I met Jim Knable, long ago on a train, which would absolutely have been a missed connection had I not tracked him down a few years back to see if he was still making music.  And when Jim invited me to see the show he’d been working on, Nightcap Riot: Mombucha, I was greeted at the door by Alex, whom I got to know a little bit better afterwards.  (I also met Pauline Turley that night, another non-missed connection.) 

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But back to Missed Connections, the show: it’s a really lovely combination of sleight of hand, mentalism, and storytelling, an interactive virtual performance making brilliant use of technology (Zoom, email, cell phones, calculator apps) to connect, and to delight, a small audience.  Defiantly hopeful, it’s about the optimism of potentiality, the magic of connections both found and lost, the strange fact that we’re all part of many people’s stories, alternate universes, Craigslist, the road not taken, and a fateful Halloween party.  

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Jon was kind enough to answer some of my questions after the show, and here’s what he had to say:

Name: Jon Tai

Occupation: Magician

Current town: Pittsburgh, PA

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What artists (or writers, musicians, magicians, or whoever else) inspired you the most in coming up with Missed Connections?

The show was inspired in many ways by the work of author Haruki Murakami (in particular, his short story “On Seeing the 100% Perfect Girl One Beautiful April Morning”), by Marshall McLuhan‘s “The Medium is the Message,” and by the magic and theater of Derren Brown and Derek DelGaudio.

I love that Murakami story and have always found it very powerful.  And I really enjoyed experiencing Missed Connections. I love the small group, which manages to create a feeling of intimacy and connection among people over Zoom of all things, and how you use technology to bring your audience together–do you have any particular stories of any interesting or amazing or unusual things that have happened in one of these performances?

When the show ends, I walk off stage, but leave the virtual room open and running. Most nights, audience members will offer warm goodbyes to one another, wish each other well and leave the room. There have been a few nights, however, when most of the audience simply stays on and just…talks. They were people who didn’t know each other prior to the start of the evening–total strangers–and yet, the experience made them feel safe and willing and curious enough to stay and spend some real time together, outside the defined confines of the show. One of these groups stuck around and chatted for over twenty minutes! That was just incredibly beautiful and especially meaningful to us as it spoke directly to the ethos of the show.

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What’s next for you?  It looks like you’re booking further shows, either privately or through other theater companies….do you have another show or something further in mind, especially for when live theater is possible again?

Our show is live theater. As Kirsten Fitzgerald, A Red Orchid Theatre’s Artistic Director, said: “Missed Connections is  not  a passive viewing experience, a livestream or a virtual magic show. It  is  a totally unique theatrical event, designed for a new performing arts media landscape, enabled by and co-created with its audience on a performance-by- performance basis.”

During our run in Chicago, we facilitated connections between audience members all across the globe–from Anchorage to Los Angeles to Chicago to NYC to Dublin to London to Madrid to Grand Cayman to Perth and Taipei! And that’s an incredible thing. So we will continue to develop the show and grow its reach…with further, exciting engagements to be announced soon.

Fair enough!  You’re right, it absolutely is live theater even though the audience is scattered.  I will look forward to the further, exciting engagements. On another note, if you could give the whole country a book assignment, what should we all read?

I hesitate to give a blanket strong recommendation since no work is right for everyone, but my favorite novel by Murakami is Kafka On the Shore.

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And what is your favorite children’s book?

There was a picture book I was absolutely enchanted with as a kid called Animalia. It has 26 pages, one for each letter of the alphabet, and an alliterative phrase describing an animal scene on each page (e.g. “Proud Peacocks Preening Perfect Plumage”). The illustrations are whimsical and detailed and playful and have a fairytale-like quality to them, and I remember just getting lost in the pages.

I am not familiar with that one but may just need to get a copy for my younger daughter.  How about a movie that you’d recommend?

One that comes to mind right now is Pan’s Labyrinth. I’ve found myself thinking about that movie in recent times because my experience with it evokes how I hope audience members perceive the mystery in my work.

Without giving too much away for anyone who hasn’t seen it, the movie involves a young girl in a traumatic situation, and she begins to enter into this dangerous parallel world in which fantastical things happen. But it’s never made clear whether these things are “actually” happening in the world of the film or if they are simply fantasies conjured up in the child’s mind. I remember watching the movie when it first came out, back in 2006, enjoying it, but really getting hung up on the question of, “Was it real?” Was what the girl experiencing actually happening or was it just in her mind? And that not-knowing that the film left us with really bothered me. I just couldn’t get past it.

I recently watched the movie again, and this time I enjoyed it so much more than the first time I saw it…because of the not-knowing. Because it left me with a Mystery with no easy answers. I guess age has taught me to embrace that idea. To know that to be given the experience of a real Mystery–one that cannot be solved by a quick search on the Internet, or penetrated by the application of logic or intellect–is a real gift.

That’s really how I feel about magic shows.  I mean, I know they aren’t “real,” you can’t actually change universes on us, but I’m not motivated to figure out how you pulled it off.  I just appreciate the wonder of it and enjoy the ride.  So…what is the best advice you’ve been given?

Don’t eat before bed.

I can’t argue with that! 

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(Believe it or not, I ask a lot of people this!) If you could go back in time and do something over, what would it be?

The Me I am today is composed of everything that has come before. The good, the bad, the triumphs, the losses, the mishaps and mistakes, the decisions made and not made, the chances taken and the ones I’ve let pass me by. And I’m very lucky not to have made decisions with serious enough negative consequences to warrant wishing I could actually change them, even if I could. Also, as explained in Missed Connections there are no magic crystal balls, so I do my best to live the path that I live, and happy to leave all of the what-ifs to the multiverse.

Thank you so much for your time and for the excellent show!

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Laura LaVelle is an attorney and writer who lives in Connecticut, in a  100-year-old house, along with her husband, two daughters, and a cockatiel.

Laura can be contacted at laura@newswhistle.com

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Images Courtesy of Jon Tai

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Other Q&As by Laura LaVelle

Alexi Auld, author

Simeon Bankoff, Executive Director, Historic Districts Council

* Eric Bennett, author

*Lydia Bourne, Rastrello

* Jay Bushman, author, producer, storyteller

Victor Calise, NYC Mayor’s Office for People with Disabilities

Alexander Campos, Executive Director, Center for Book Arts

* Victor Carinha, Journey Lab

Mark Cheever, Friends of Hudson River Park

Yvonne Chu, Kimera Design

*Claudia Connor, International Institute of Connecticut

Sarah Cox, Write A House

Betsy Crapps, founder of Mom Prom

Cynthia Davis, Our Woven Community

Ameet Dhillon, US-Africa Housing Finance

Margaret Dorsey, anthropologist

Mamady Doumbouya, Jonathan Halloran, & Robert Hornsby, founders of American Homebuilders of West Africa

Wendy Dutwin, Limelight Media

Kinsey Dyckman, Board Member, Dyckman Farmhouse Museum

Rhonda Eleish & Edie van Breems, interior designers

Martha Albertson Fineman, law professor

John Fletcher, photographer

Christopher Fowler, author

*Guy Fraser-Sampson, author

Bob Freeman, Committee on Open Government

Les Friedman, Mikey’s Way Foundation

Alex Gaudelet, INVEST HOSPITALITY

Dr. Ramis Gheith, pain management physician

Robert Girardi, author

Carrie Goldberg, internet privacy and sexual consent attorney

Alex Gruhin, co-founder of Nightcap Riot

Leslie Green Guilbault, artist, potter

David Halloran, City Running Tours

Bill Harley, children’s entertainer and storyteller

Tracey Hecht, author, Fabled Films creative director

Garnet Heraman, brand strategist for Karina Dresses, serial entrepreneur

Meredith Sorin Horsford, Executive Director, Dyckman Farmhouse Museum

Margaret Pritchard Houston, author and youth worker

Camilla Huey, artist, designer

Dr. Brett Jarrell & Dr. Walter Neto, founders of Biovita

Michelle Jenab, anti-racism activist

Beth Johnson, Townsend Press editor

Mahanth Joishy, founder of United States – India Monitor

Alexandra Kennedy,  Executive Director, Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art

Jim Knable, playwright and musician

Jonathan Kuhn, Director of Art & Antiquities for NYC Parks Department

Elizabeth Larison, Director of Programs for apexart

Ann Lawrence, Co-Founder of Pink51

Jessica Lee, dancer, Sable Project Administrator

Najaam Lee, artist and sickle cell advocate

Devoney Looser, English professor

Amy Losek, author

Chris Mallin, theorem painting teacher

Melanie Marks, CT House Histories

Anthony Monaghan, documentary filmmaker

Ellie Montazeri, Tunisian towel manufacturer

Heather-Marie Montilla, Executive Director, Pequot Library

Lorin Morgan-Richards, author

Zoe Mulford, folk singer/songwriter

Yurika Nakazono, rainwear designer, Terra New York

Jibrail Nor, drummer

Doreen Odom,  Mental Health Project, Urban Justice Center

Nick Page, composer, song leader, conductor

Craig Pomranz, cabaret singer, children’s book author

Alice Quinn, Executive Director, Poetry Society of America

Laurie Richter, 100 Who Care Alliance

Ryan Ringholz, children’s shoe designer, Plae Shoes

*Carrie Roble, Park Over Plastic / Hudson River Park Trust

Alanna Rutherford, Board Member, Andrew Glover Youth Program

Deborah Ryan & Frank Vagnone, Historic House Anarchists

Steve Sandberg, musician

Bill Sanderson, author, reporter, and editor

Lawrence Schwartzwald, photographer

Rose Servitova, author

* Lisa Shaub, milliner

Marjorie Silver, law professor

Peter Sís, writer and illustrator

Charlotte Smith, blogger, At Charlotte’s House

Patrick Smith, author and pilot

Juliet Sorensen, law professor

Jeffrey Sumber, psychotherapist and author

Diana Swartz, Liger Leadership Academy

Rich Tafel, life coach and Swedenborgian minister

*Jonathan Todres, law professor

Andra Tomsa, creator of SPARE app

Maggie Topkis, mystery fiction publisher

Pauline Turley, Irish Arts Center

Vickie Volpano, Goodwill of Western and Northern Connecticut

Carol Ward, Executive Director, Morris-Jumel Mansion

Krissa Watry, Dynepic & iOKids

Adamu Waziri, creator of children’s television program Bino and Fino

Ekow Yankah, law professor

Brigit Young, author