Missed Connections starts with the human, not the trick | Theater Preview | Chicago Reader

Missed Connections starts with the human, not the trick 

Jon Tai's intimate take on magic and storytelling comes (virtually) to A Red Orchid.

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click to enlarge Jon Tai

Jon Tai

Joseph Wyman Photo

Jon Tai is something of an antimagician. Tricking you, he says, isn't exactly the point. So while yes, his interactive show Missed Connections can look like some sort of physics-defying, supernatural-forces-are-at-play experience, that's not the most extraordinary thing. The most extraordinary thing, Tai says, is creating a one-of-a-kind, collectively intense connection between 20 people suddenly, simultaneously swept up in astonishment. 

"If the magic is halfway decent, you can get away with not having a lot more else there," says Tai. "But if you want to create a meaningful creation, you don't start with the trick. You start with the human."

It's rather a trick itself how the Pittsburgh-based Tai's interactive show—inspired by the work of Japanese fiction writer Haruki Murakami, philosopher Marshall McLuhan, and UK magician Derren Brown—came to be streaming through February 28 under the banner of A Red Orchid Theatre. Certainly the Wells Street mainstay didn't have plans to bring in a magician. Tai landed the spot via the 21st-century equivalent of cold-calling. 

Tai was at the start of a sold-out run for his eponymous Jon Tai in Magic, Mind Reading and Mystery at the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust's Liberty Magic theater when COVID hit. When that show closed, he began a two-pronged mission: Conjuring up-close magic that would astound, even though the "up-close" part was physically impossible, and finding a small theater seriously devoted to forging a unique bond with its audience. He sent e-mails introducing himself to those he wanted to work with. A Red Orchid, he said, got his attention with its intimacy and mission and held it once he found reviews of their 2019 production of Levi Holloway's horror play, Grey House. No more than 25 tickets will be sold for each performance of Missed Connections.

"This might seem like a bit out of left field, but I feel like there were a lot of parallel concepts in Grey House, with the way it played a lot with expectations and preconceived notions. Magic is about shaping people's perceptions, making it seem like you're going to a certain place in a certain way—and then you are not," Tai said. 

"Getting a random e-mail from a magician you've never heard of in most times, it would probably go in the trash," Tai said. "But Kirsten got back to me." 

AROT artistic director Kirsten Fitzgerald has a wary skepticism of magic but she wasn't as resistant to an unsolicited e-mail from an artist. She'd sent out hundreds of them herself. 

"I feel like when I came back to Chicago in the 1990s, cold calls—sending your headshot and resume every six months to every theater in town—was a thing. It's not such a thing anymore, but I do get submissions sometimes. I put this one aside, for weeks. Frankly, feeling inspired to create was something I was struggling with personally. And full disclosure: I'm resistant to magic. Something about the big tricks especially—making an elephant disappear or whatever—it all feels really impersonal. The opposite of what we're about."

Tai was never interested in that there-goes-the-Statue-of-Liberty-school of magic. He was lured in by up-close magic, as a self-described shy eighth-grader, at a Chinese New Year party. There were card tricks involved. 

"I was a skeptical, rational human being so I knew what I was seeing was impossible. But there it was. It was like my brain short circuited. I was obsessed—not so much with finding out how it was done, but with figuring out what this was," he said. 

He begged his dad to buy him a DVD purporting to reveal magic trick secrets. "My dad was like, 'This is $50,'" Tai recalled. "And I was like 'Yeah, but it'll teach me to levitate.'"

Tai cannot levitate, but became an avid hobbyist nonetheless, buying books at Barnes & Noble, doing shows for his family, and intently studying his older sister's ability to tell precisely when any given traffic light would change. But after graduating from Cornell, Tai turned a seasonal internship at a medical software start-up into a burgeoning full-time post-college career, especially after one of his best friends became the concern's president. 

Still, even as he and Cornell dorm mate (and now Missed Connections cowriter and producer) Alex Gruhin pursued careers outside the realms of magic, they were shaped by their undergrad days at the school that calls the late great Ricky Jay, Jeffrey Cowan, and Steve Cohen alums. Tai and Gruhin had bonded as undergrads over Derren Brown, staying up late to watch Lance Burton, and argue about who the world's greatest magicians were. 

Gruhin went into serial entrepreneurship; he refers to himself as a "customer experience innovator." Theaters, upscale hotels, big-box retail shops—they all rely on storytelling, Gruhin stresses. And while "experiential" has become something of a buzzword for theaters trying to survive the pandemic, Gruhin's been doing just that for years, for clients ranging from the St. Regis Hotel to Bed Bath & Beyond. 

Fitzgerald eventually watched a version of Missed Connections

"There was something really disarming about the wonder and the unexpectedness of the show," she said. "I felt myself continually returning to this idea of possibilities and wonder, of giving in to the possibility that maybe anything can happen. You think about live theater and you think of Zoom theater, and it can be really tough to make wonder happen on a Zoom call. But here, it was there. There was something about it that felt so tangibly similar to what we try to create in live theater, that sense of wonder. 

 "So I went into my staff ensemble meeting and said 'You guys are going to think I’m crazy. But I want a couple of other people's eyes on this magician. I think it's a lot like what we do in normal times.'" Grey House star Travis Knight loved the show, Fitzgerald added. 

Tai's website has an extraordinarily ambitious teaser for Missed Connections: "Discover the universe's most beautiful magic trick of all." Beyond that, he's giving very little away. 

"It's an exploration of missed connections on multiple levels," he said. "It's inspired by the pandemic, and by my obsession with Craigslist missed connections—these stories of lives that intersected at some point. 

"Every step of the way it is an invitation for the audience to take a leap. To invite you to look at your world in a different way."  v

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