There's A Zoom Magic Show Keeping Drama Alive In LA — And It Starts With A Package In The Mail

In the new play, "The Present," by LA's Geffen Playhouse, audience members are mailed a small box ahead of time that's meant to be opened after the play begins. (Leo Duran/LAist)

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This isn't Helder Guimarães's first time in quarantine.

As a child, an accident left him bed-ridden and sequestered at home with only his grandfather to look after him during the day.

And that's about as much of a spoiler as I'll give you for Guimarães's new play, "The Present," which debuts tonight (virtually) at LA's Geffen Playhouse.

Yes, it is a play that you can actually attend via Zoom — specifically, a one-man show that's part-autobiographical monologue and part-magic show. "I kept thinking about what stories I could tell at this time," Guimarães told KPCC's Take Two. "This kind of felt like the only one that made sense for me to share."

I "attended" a recent preview (meaning I actually showered and dressed myself to look presentable to strangers on the internet) and I have to say, it was a lot of fun.

The surprises start with a small present that's mailed ahead of time to audience members. Showing the sealed brown box to the house manager, who greets you over Zoom, is your ticket in.

For just over an hour, Guimarães then shares his story, while instructing the audience members to open their own boxes, so he can perform tricks inside their own homes — yes, he's actually figured out a way to do magic, not just on Zoom but through Zoom.

"I had this crazy idea about doing magic without being physically with people, and I thought that this was the perfect time to actually try that out," he said.

Magician Helder Guimarães stars in "The Present," a new play by the Geffen Playhouse that takes place with the entire audience video conferencing in via Zoom. (Jeff Lorch/The Geffen Playhouse)

It helps that more and more people have become super accustomed to using video conferencing to connect with friends and family from afar, but the technology still caused some challenges for recreating a theatrical experience.

"I wanted the best possible image that we could have," said Frank Marshall, director of "The Present." "On the audio side, it's not really meant to have everybody responding at the same time. Our stage managers and house managers are all there muting and unmuting people so the show flows in a nice way."

The audience's mics are mostly active throughout the performance, however, so there were a few moments where someone's small conversation or barking dog meant I couldn't hear exactly what Guimarães was saying.

But I actually found it weirdly comforting and familiar to be annoyed by strangers disturbing a performance; it hasn't happened in such a long time! Remember when someone munching on popcorn too loudly in the seat behind was the most irritating thing in the world? Now it feels oddly mundane, in a good way.

Magician Helder Guimarães performs a magic trick for an audience entirely on Zoom for the new Geffen Playhouse production "The Present." (The Geffen Playhouse)

The most unique moment of the play happens when each audience member is "pulled onto the stage" during the show (meaning their Zoom window is enlarged), so that Guimarães can perform magic with them one-on-one.

"It's great that we can see all these movies at home right now, you know, but you can see those today or you can see those tomorrow," said Guimarães, "in this live show, what people are seeing is for them, and I'm there exactly at that time, doing that for them, interacting with them, answering what they say."

Ultimately, Guimarães wants to channel the same kind of connection he feels with audiences during a live performance; and connect audience members to each other, so that even over Zoom, the play becomes a shared experience in a time when we feel more isolated than ever.

"We've had people attend that are friends and live miles apart. Someone that lives in New York, for instance, and someone that lives in L.A.; they bought tickets to the same performance so that they can experience it together," said Guimarães.

Who knows when we'll be able to gather at physical theaters again? It's possible that the format of "The Present" could become the norm for theater in these pandemic times, when people want something a little more interactive and community-oriented than flipping through Netflix.

"There are a lot of technical challenges here," said Marshall, "but I think maybe for single performers of music or one-person plays, or comedians, this might be the way to go [if you want to] get your show out for people to see."

The first five-week run of "The Present" sold out in less than an hour, and an extension to July 5 has also sold out. If Zoom theater sounds like your thing, we recommend you get on the wait list fast.

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Box closed, slippers on, drink in hand. We're ready for opening night of The Present!

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