After months of sulking in his Brooklyn apartment, Suran began asking some disruptive questions: What if he created a new set of mentalist tricks and customized them for Zoom? And what if he charged people $50 to be a part of it?
“It was a matter of how many more games of ‘Call of Duty: Warzone’ I can play versus how much can I do something about it?” he said in an interview.
Just a few months later, Suran is in possession of the rarest of 2020 breeds: a thriving piece of live theater.
Several times each day, in a piece he has titled “Reconnected,” Suran logs on to Zoom and performs tricks for a paying audience, offering a brand of earnest banter as he goes. He will correctly predict the locale of the dream vacation an attendee secretly wrote down, or make pendulums in viewers’ hands move with his mind. Many of his illusions — they are illusions, no matter how much the credulous part of your brain might think otherwise — regularly draw gasps from at-home viewers.
This has been a dark time for live entertainment. Walt Disney World is hurting. Concerts are nonexistent. And Broadway remains closed until at least the summer, endangering the livelihoods of up to 96,000 people. Traditional passive theater often doesn’t work on Zoom. Experts have noted it can feel like watching a taped performance of a show, with none of the in-person urgency.
But Suran and his producing partner, Adam Rei Siegel, have created a homegrown Zoom juggernaut. Together with a small handful of other performers, they have figured out how to use the platform’s interactivity and intimacy to their advantage. Over just a few months — and with no traditional marketing budget — “Reconnected” has become a smash, selling out more than 200 performances since July. Suran is scheduled to perform the show 150 times in December alone, an average of five shows per day. (Most Broadway shows hold eight performances each week.)
One day last week, Suran began shows at 7 a.m. for audiences overseas and worked throughout the day, culminating in a show at 11 p.m. for the West Coast. No travel means a lot more performances.
Suran’s success reflects both the massively changed world facing entertainers and the innovation — and overnight entrepreneurship — some have shown in coping with it. Experts say that performers like Suran may be creating a new business model for the coronavirus age, in which low overhead and high volume can effectively counter the challenges of a shutdown.
“Jason and Adam are very impressive — I mean, they found a way to create a sustainable theater model when nobody is going to the theater,” said Carl Moellenberg, a Morgan Stanley and Goldman Sachs executive turned Tony-winning producer. Moellenberg was so taken with what the pair had developed that, after seeing an early version of “Reconnected,” he came aboard as a producer.
On a recent Saturday night, Suran was entertaining a group of celebrities, invited by the actor Alan Cumming and the Broadway marketer Rick Miramontez, both fans.
On the Zoom, the actress Edie Falco sat with her daughter in the family living room. The two were asked to pick a figure from Wikipedia at random without telling anyone. A moment later, Suran not only accurately guessed that they had selected Alexander Hamilton but revealed it was already written behind him, causing Falco’s face to go whiter than when she heard Richie Aprile was killed.
In another illusion, Suran engaged with a cable-news anchor, NY1′s Roma Torre, by guessing the vacation spot she wanted to visit, while actress Julianna Margulies, pop star KT Tunstall and director Christopher Guest looked on, mouths agape, from various boxes and registered their surprise in the chatbox. The show has the pedestrian feel of your daily office Zoom meeting, only instead of hearing about Jay from Accounting’s weekend plans, someone is reading your mind.
“I think there are a lot of things we realized we can get along without in this year of lockdown,” Suran said. “But people still want to be amazed in a group setting.”
Part of “Reconnected’s” appeal comes from marveling at how Suran is doing it, heightened by the fact that, since attendees are in their own homes, there’s no possibility he has simply tricked out a theater to his benefit. Also aiding the appeal is how he has flipped the usual mentalist equation. In one illusion, Suran has an attendee guess the number of Hershey’s Kisses in a jar, then reveals a piece of paper on which, before the show, he’d already written down the attendee’s estimate. Many mentalists guess what you’re thinking. Suran thinks what you’re guessing.
Even as it has taken off, Suran has kept his show relatively small, capping each performance at about 25 homes despite the fact that 100 would quadruple the revenue. He says it’s ultimately more profitable because increasing the intimacy raises the quality, stoking demand.
“If there are too many people on the Zoom, you can disappear, and I don’t want to allow you to disappear,” he said. “That’s why so much theater doesn’t work on Zoom.”
Suran’s show also has become an unlikely go-to for the corporate world. Tech firms such as Google and Apple, luxury brands like Van Cleef & Arpels and financial outfits like Bank of America have all booked “Reconnected.”
“It’s really helpful for our sales team — not to read clients’ minds, but to develop observational skills and memory systems, which Jason is so good at,” said Allie Chan, who runs learning and development for Van Cleef & Arpels and has booked the show multiple times for her staff. “Also it’s a great distraction from all those long Zoom calls about strategy.”
The show serves a bonding role, too. “Companies can’t be together at the water cooler, but they can do this,” said Rei Siegel.
The corporate performances are often customized, he said, featuring a company’s brand in a way it couldn’t at an in-person public performance.
Principals have contemplated other ways to tweak the model. Because there is no premium seating on Zoom — a major financial roadblock; that kind of markup is how Broadway producers make their money — the group is investigating other ways to increase revenue. For instance, consumers could pay more than the standard $50 to be certain they’ll be called on (or in the case of some audience members, not called on).
Suran acknowledges that there will be less of a need for his brand of Zoom entertainment once people are out of lockdown and mingling again. He and his partners are developing a live adaptation of the show.
And Moellenberg admits there are limitations to the Zoom business model. “It doesn’t have the upside of a traditional show,” he said. “You can’t scale up like how you would by taking a show from off-Broadway to Broadway.”
For now, the group is trying to make the most of the virtual setting. Suran stops the show to have conversations with audience members about the coronavirus shutdowns, something that couldn’t easily be done live. Many open up, like the father who talked tearfully about finding a new rapport with his daughter, or the man who said he’d built a pond for his wife, then took his laptop outside to proudly show it off to Suran and two dozen strangers.
Of course, the Zoom setting also comes with pitfalls. “There have been least two people who, when they got up to get their homemade pendulums, weren’t wearing pants,” Suran said. “Unfortunately everyone else on the Zoom realized it before they did.”