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Throughout pandemic-era stay-at-home orders in Los Angeles, magician and puzzle creator David Kwong has been doing an Instagram video series called the Puzzle Corner. In each approximately 30-minute video — he’s done 19 since March — the erudite, congenial host tries to stump the likes of The Late Late Show’s Reggie Watts, directors Jason Reitman and John M. Chu, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend creator Aline Brosh McKenna, Camryn and Milo Manheim (Zombies), and Billions’ Daniel K. Isaac with a variety of brain teasers.
“I hold up these visual puzzles with my iPad,” says Kwong. “One thing I really noticed was that the fun of it was people were typing in their answers in the comments. I realized this was an ecosystem that worked very well for puzzles.”
Now his IG series has inspired Kwong to write and star in a fully-fledged theatrical show, Inside the Box. “It’s an evening of puzzles and games and wordplay,” says Kwong, of the virtual production, presented live, that premieres today as part of the Geffen Playhouse’s Geffen Stayhouse banner of view-from-home offerings. Kwong says that the initial sale of tickets ($55-$65 per household) sold out “in under three minutes.” And the show, which includes Kwong telling tales of some of history’s most fascinating puzzle-makers, has already been extended to run through Jan. 3, 2021. (Inside the Box is the second full-length production from Geffen Stayhouse; its show The Present, also live, virtual and interactive, from magician Helder Guimaraes, has already been extended three times and runs through Oct. 17.)
No more than 24 tickets are sold for each Inside the Box performance. Audience members receive an advance email with a packet of puzzles to download prior to the show that will be used during the interactive program. “What I’ve done here is design a show that specifically takes advantage of the five-by-five grid of Zoom. I joke at one point, ‘Look we’re all in boxes already.’ We’re like a human crossword puzzle. It’s designed to take advantage of the Zoom ecosystem and get us interacting and getting everybody to get their thinking caps on.” The puzzles are not designed to be “too hard,” he adds. “My goal is to make everybody feel smart. If you don’t know the answer to one — once I reveal it, you’ll go, ‘Of course.’”
Kwong grew up in Rochester, New York. “My parents are both professors. That’s why I’ve always had this academic approach to magic,” he says. After graduating from Harvard, where he studied the history of magic. He’s since become a New York Times Crossword cruciverbalist — that’s the fancy word for crossword puzzle constructor — as well as appearance at the TED Conference speaking on his two obsessions. “I believe that magic and puzzles are the same, because they both key into one of the most important human drives: the urge to solve. Human beings are wired to solve, to make order out of chaos,” he said.
Another aspect of his career is consulting on movies and TV shows, including the recent Netflix feature film Project Power, where he helped star Rodrigo Santoro with “some coaching in sleight of hand. We got together and taught him some moves,” says Kwong, who’s also worked on such films as Now You See Me, The Imitation Game, Mission Impossible — Rogue Nation, Paranormal Activity 4 and the upcoming Ghostbusters: Afterlife, often working with puzzle-design collaborator Dave Shukan. Kwong’s TV work includes the NBC series Blindspot, which recently had its series finale. “I was the puzzle consultant for that show which was all about Jaimie Alexander’s cryptic tattoos on her body that are like a treasure map. I’ve reteamed with those writers and I’m consulting on the upcoming Kung Fu TV show for the CW,” says Kwong, who also was a co-producer on the short-lived ABC show Deception.
“It’s not surprising that I consult on so many Hollywood films,” continues Kwong. “So many filmmakers were magicians as kids and it’s the same art form. In fact, filmmaking grew out of magic. Georges Melies who is the father of cinema was a magician and if you look at his early films — they are all on YouTube — they are literally the plots of magic tricks. I Such as The Vanishing Lady — original magic trick by Buatier De Kolta in 1886 — and An Artist’s Dream — original magic trick by David Devant in 1893. It’s about controlling the frame — that’s a phrase we use in magic — and controlling what people look at. — and that’s what a director is doing. This is not a light connection. Filmmaking literally grew out of magicians. That’s why famously J.J. Abrams is into magic and the list goes on and on.”
Next year, Kwong is hoping to be on a proper stage once again. In 2021, the Geffen Playhouse is slated to stage his immersive magic show The Enigmatist, which ran in 2019 in New York City’s High Line Hotel for 125 sold-out performances, was presented by Greg Berlanti and Robbie Rogers. (The L.A. production was originally scheduled for May of this year but was put on pause due to the pandemic.)
Until then, though, he’s enjoying what he describes as the shortest commute he’s ever had. “[The Geffen] built a set in my basement office,” says Kwong. “We’ve had a lot of fun, elevating Zoom with some graphics and dynamic video to make it a really new dynamic experience.”
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