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The Magic of Being Back in the Theater

An interview with David Kwong

By Amy Levinson, Geffen Playhouse Associate Artistic Director

Amy Levinson: This show is a wonderful amalgamation of your talents as a magician, puzzle builder, and storyteller. Would you talk a bit about how the show came together?

David Kwong: I like to think of this show as all of my childhood passions combined. I discovered magic very young, and in my teenage years I started playing Scrabble and solving puzzles with my mother, the history professor. Later in life, when I was around 30 years old, the light bulb turned on, and I realized I could fuse the worlds of illusion and puzzles to create a new type of magic. And I believe magic tricks are puzzles, in a sense. They challenge your brain to figure out what’s going on. They ask you to figure out the solution. Of course, it’s a puzzle where we hope you don’t figure out the answer! That’s how this hybrid career came about. So, I’d been performing these puzzle-based magic tricks for the better part of a decade, and I started thinking about a story that I could tell in concert with sharing these puzzles based on secret codes. I was looking for stories in the world of unsolved codes and enigmas and ciphers. Then I came across this reference to the Friedmans and George Fabyan. I was in New York City at the time, and discovered that there was an extensive archive of materials in the New York Public Library. I excitedly made an appointment to visit the rare books collection, where it’s all stored. And there I found the perfect jumping off point for the story.

AL: I know you’ve been patiently—or rather, impatiently—waiting for the theater to open again. Are there things about the show that have changed in the last 18 months? Are there things you had to alter?

DK: It goes without saying that we are living in a different world now. But it’s a world that still needs magic, wonderment, and awe. Like any good puzzle, in which the creator is engineering something within given constraints, we have had to figure out what it means to be in close quarters again. One of the big things I learned is that we are at our most creative when we have to work within parameters, which is how Inside the Box came about. I’m taking that same spirit and applying it to this show.

AL: Which is your first love—puzzles or magic?

DK: Magic was my first love. When I was a young boy, I went to a pumpkin patch in Upstate New York—in Rochester, New York, where I’m from. A magician was there performing in the barn, and he performed a classic trick. Some consider it one of the greatest ever—it’s the little red sponge ball trick. He showed me two red sponge balls, he placed one in my hand and made the second one disappear. When I opened my hand, my mind was blown. Both red balls were in my hand. Then, what he did next changed my life forever. He performed the trick on my father, the biochemist. When my father opened his hand to reveal the two sponge balls, I turned to this omniscient character in my life and asked him how it worked. And he flashed me a sheepish grin and said, “I have no idea.” That’s when I knew I wanted to be a magician. So, it’s been a lifelong passion.

AL: From whom do you draw your inspiration? Are there other artists who inspire you?

DK: I’m very inspired by Will Shortz, the puzzle editor of the New York Times. He has been a dear friend and mentor, and his mantra is, “A good puzzle makes the audience feel smart.” I have taken a page out of his book in trying to build every puzzle to both challenge and encourage people so they have a deep satisfaction when they hit that “aha moment.” It should feel like an accomplishment when the puzzle is solved. I’ve also always admired Penn & Teller and their irreverent, transparent approach to magic. Similarly, I don’t pretend to have any superpowers. Magic is a puzzle. You can all figure it out.

AL: What did you miss most about in-person theater?

DK: (laughing) Messing with people. And eye contact! I missed the look of astonishment on people’s faces. I missed seeing people look at each other and mutually enjoying something. There’s a moment in the show where I celebrate that we’re all nerds and that we’ve all come together to appreciate this kind of nerdy culture. Whenever I say that, I can see people look at each other knowingly. When I make mention of this lovely nerd love story, I really enjoy the glances between the couples in the audience.

AL: Finally, what did you enjoy most about doing a virtual show?

DK: The shortest commute I’ve ever had! Down the stairs to my office. More seriously—that I was able to reach people from all over the world. We had people join in from numerous countries who were getting up at all hours to watch the show. What I’m most proud of with Inside the Box is how we embraced the format of Zoom, and the aesthetic of Zoom, if you will. I really have to tip my cap to Brett Banakis, the Inside the Box Creative Director. I just marvel at his aesthetic sense. He encouraged me every step of the way to embrace the boxes and write puzzles and tell stories that utilized the five-by-five grid. The greatest compliment I got about the show was from a fellow magician who said we never once pretended we weren’t on a Zoom call. That feels true to the kind of magic I do. Figure out the puzzle—I welcome you to try.

The Enigmatist

SEPT 14 – OCT 30, 2021
Written & Performed by David Kwong

Can you solve the enigma? From the creator and performer of the hit virtual production Inside the Box comes an immersive experience of puzzles and cryptology. Following a sold-out New York City run in 2019, renowned magician and New York Times crossword constructor David Kwong brings his popular in-person show to the Geffen Playhouse. Clues are everywhere, so keep your eyes open and be ready for surprises behind every multi-layered illusion.