Geffen Playhouse’s magic show ‘The Present’ is a COVID-19 hit

Is box office magic even a thing during the coronavirus pandemic? That’s when the show features a master of sleight of hand who can perform jaw-dropping tricks, erase feelings of isolation for theater-hungry audiences — and sell over 6,000 tickets for just one. evening on Zoom.

The show is called ‘The Present’, the magician is Helder Guimarães and the theater that captured the lightning in a pandemic bottle is the Geffen Playhouse, which launched its Geffen Stayhouse banner to keep audiences digitally engaged after theaters close. by COVID-19 nationwide.

“The Present,” which had its first performance on May 7, quickly achieved local phenom status and was extended three times. By Saturday’s grand finale, Guimarães will have had 251 sold-out shows. He played up to 13 times a week and over 70 shows were purchased, meaning only one group or entity purchased all 25 Zoom slots for a specific performance. Famous faces have logged on including Laura Dern, Mark Hamill, Patton Oswalt, Billy Crystal and Laurie Metcalf.

“At the end of the day, what’s so satisfying is that it kept staff engaged, kept our audience engaged, and enhanced the Geffen stage brand,” said Geffen Executive Director Gil. Cates Jr. “It’s great in terms of energy.”

Ultimately, Cates said “The Present” would have grossed over $700,000, an astronomical figure for the regional theaters which scramble, often blindly, to design entertainment for a virtual audience. Cates compared that number to what a typical show in the Geffen’s 500-seat main stage auditorium might fetch during a non-pandemic five-week run — if heavily promoted and highly successful.

Tickets to “The Present” averaged $95 per household. The cost included a “mystery box”, mailed to homes before the performance, which contained props for the Guimarães story and allowed audience members to participate in its tricks.

Saturday’s grand finale, which has no viewership cap, will let people watch (but not participate in the interactive portions of the show) for $25. With 6,000 registered households so far, that’s $150,000 for a single performance. For an additional $15, viewers can receive a “mystery envelope” which contains a limited number of items in the mystery box.

“We’re running a war-level production shop at the Geffen, deploying boxes instead of tanks,” art director Matt Shakman told The Times in an interview about the transition from in-person to virtual productions in May.

The mystery boxes – mailed to members of the public in 30 countries, including Denmark, Poland, Singapore and Ukraine, the Geffen said – were the key to the magic, turning a solo viewing experience into a a common interactive activity.

“The Present”, starring Helder Guimarães, sold over 6,000 tickets for its grand finale.

(Geffen Playhouse)

Guimarães presents the show from a corner of his apartment. His fiancée, Catarina Marques, directs the camera, and producer Frank Marshall of the “Jurassic Park” and “Indiana Jones” franchises directs from a distance.

The show, experienced by viewers wherever they choose (Cates said one attendee was watching from a hot tub), somehow manages to erase the social distancing that has defined many people’s experience of the world during the pandemic. .

Times theater critic Charles McNulty called the viewing experience “the closest approximation I’ve had to being in a theater since the pandemic shut down theaters. The show contains a multitude of card tricks, but the real trick is the transformation of digital into theatrical space.

The success of “The Present” might be elusive for other theater companies, who might not be able to match the magic of the magic of Guimarães – or who might not be interested in the genre. But as McNulty pointed out, the show’s success hinges on other factors as well — not the least of which is Guimarães’ storytelling ability, who frames his turns with the story of having been set. quarantine as a child after being hit by a car.

It’s also essential that in such turbulent times, the show is pure escapism. It’s funny. If the Zoom screen smiles are any indication, audiences tune out happily.

“Helder is a great storyteller,” Cates said, “and he spoke to people about this moment we’re in.”

Brian L. Hartfield