Coping With COVID-19 Crisis: ‘The Present’ Sleight-Of-Hand Artist Helder Guimarães Transforms Homebound Audiences Into Awestruck Assistants


Few artists can say they’ve surmounted social-distancing obstacles as magically as Portuguese illusionist Helder Guimarães.

The impact of social distancing on the performing arts needn’t be re-stated here: In one way or another, most installments of Deadline’s Coping With COVID-19 Crisis series have dealt with just that topic, as performers – or those aspiring to be – have conveyed newly acquired personal tactics and insights discovered and developed during life in a pandemic.

But Guimarães is a performer who not only needs an audience, but needs an audience to actively participate in the performance of his latest show. Guimarães is an illusionist – specifically, a magician whose métier is sleight-of-hand card tricks, though “tricks”, while accurate, seems a wholly inadequate descriptor once you’ve experienced The Present.

And unless you’ve already purchased tickets, experiencing The Present might be tough, at least for the next few months: The show, directed by Hollywood producer Frank Marshall (Jason Bourne, The Sixth Sense, the upcoming Jurassic World: Dominion and too many others to list) and presented as the first full-length production of L.A.’s Geffen Playhouse’s “Stayhouse” online series, is sold out through August 16.

None of the ticket-buyers will actually take a seat at the Geffen, though, and each show is limited to 25 attendees – 25 households, to be accurate – a cap necessitated by the show’s structure and its delivery system: Performed via Zoom, The Present features Guimarães interacting with his Zoomed-in audiences, performing the sort of “pick a card, any card” tricks that traditionally require a physical proximity considerably less than six feet.

Each purchased ticket includes a small cardboard box – sent through the mail – that includes a fresh, unopened deck of Bicycle playing cards, a printed number (by which you’ll be identified during the show) and a few other small paper items. The box arrives sealed, with a twine bow no less, and is opened by the attendees as the show begins. The title references both the box and our times.

The Present‘s illusions are woven through a narrative in which the magician-monologist tells of life under quarantine of a different sort: When he was 11, Guimarães was struck by a car and slipped into a coma. Recuperating at home after awakening, the boy was confined to a household that included his stoic, unknowable grandfather, a man of the Old World whose manners and motives are as much a mystery to young Helder as these card tricks will be to The Present‘s audiences.

There’s a point about mid-way through the intermissionless 45-minute performance that you wouldn’t be surprised if Guimarães reached through the screen and pulled a coin from your ear. Awed, maybe, but not surprised. In this conversation with Deadline, Guimarães reveals, well, nothing, if you were hoping for how-he-does-it spoilers. But he does talk of adapting his art to a new New World, one marked by long-distance connections and unpredicted pathways to community. If nothing else, Guimarães and The Present, like Richard Nelson and New York’s Public Theater’s Zoomed play What Do We Need To Talk About?, suggest that the ways in which artists – performers, playwrights and other tricksters – will adapt to unforeseen demands are both unpredictable and certain. Just watch.

This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.

DEADLINE: I promise I’ll restrain myself from asking questions like, How did you do that?

HELDER GUIMARÃES: You know what? I don’t mind that you ask. I’m not going to answer, but you can ask as many times as you want.

DEADLINE: Well, then, how did you do it? I’m thinking of one trick in particular that I can’t really even describe without spoilers. It involves a note on a playing card that just can’t be possible. I can’t figure it out, and I’ve tried.

GUIMARÃES: That’s why it’s called magic.

DEADLINE: We can talk about how the ideas for this particular show came about, though, particularly the Zoom approach.

GUIMARÃES: The Zoom part of it is actually very recent. The idea of doing magic [remotely] I’ve had for a few years now, maybe four years. Part of my job and part of my career is exploring magic in different ways and in different mediums and in different shapes and have people experience the impossible things in a variety of different ways. About four years ago I got this notion of people experiencing magic without me being physically with them, and I started developing a couple of ideas and a repertoire not knowing exactly when they were going to be used or when I was going to be able to produce something like that, but that was always, always the idea in mind.

Then, all of a sudden, we found ourselves in this pandemic situation, and the Geffen reached out to me to be part of the Stayhouse series that they were doing with videos, and I recorded a small video for the series. I mentioned to them this idea that I had, and they loved the idea. We started thinking about how it would be possible to create not only a magical experience that transcends the screen and happens in people’s hands but also has theatricality.

That’s when we started thinking about Zoom as a possibility, so combining Zoom with my idea of having people with objects in their hands, and this idea of mailing things to people, that was my initial idea – having a combination of live video interaction plus the objects plus a story that I could share during this period of time. So we had a bunch of loose ideas and tied them together into what I think is a very unifying experience not only for the viewer but also for me as a performer. I really love how one thing blends into the other and the story leads to the magic, and the magic leads back to the story.

DEADLINE: Just so our readers understand, when we talk about a virtual sleight-of-hand show, we’re not talking about merely watching you – watching your hands perform tricks that we could see live  if we were sitting next to you. This is something that the audience is actually remotely taking part in, where they’re holding their own cards (and other props that I can’t give away) and following your instructions step by step to see the magic unfold in their own homes.

GUIMARÃES: What I like about creating magic shows and theatrical experiences and immersive experiences is this notion that once you get out of the show, you can’t describe what you’ve just lived, you can’t put it in words. You have to go through it in order for it to make sense. That’s why I love live performance – it goes into that part of our emotions that we can’t put in words. We have to be there. We have to see it. We have to experience it. 

DEADLINE: I’m not a student of magic, so can you put this show into some sort of historical context for me. Have you ever seen or heard of another interactive, remote magic show before?

GUIMARÃES: Not like this, no. There have been moments where people do a couple of interactive moments but not physically in the hands of the audience. When you do a live show, you will give cards to spectators, but that’s very different than this. We’re doing a magic show where people have objects in their own houses, in their own hands, that you’ve mailed to them, and the show revolves around that idea and those objects and that notion. That has never been done before, as far as I know. Someone can correct me if I’m wrong, but I know a little bit about magic history to know that what we are doing is definitely groundbreaking, original, and very innovative.

DEADLINE: You said that you’d been developing some of these ideas for years, but The Present seems so rooted in the current pandemic quarantine…

GUIMARÃES: I’d been thinking about this notion of experiencing magic at a distance and in your own hands for a long time. So, no, that was not related to the quarantine. The show itself, though, happened because of the quarantine, because the Geffen was interested in this idea. I started remembering things in my life that I could talk about now, in this moment, things that make sense in this moment. So The Present would not have happened if we were not all together in this moment that we are living now, and if I hadn’t had the previous quarantine experience in my life.

For artists, part of our daily lives is to create, to collect ideas, to think about new stuff and write in notebooks and be prepared for the moment when something you’ve thought about suddenly makes sense, and so you put it into the world.

DEADLINE: I should know better than to ask an illusionist this, but is the story you tell about your childhood coma and your grandfather true? Did it really happen?

GUIMARÃES: Yeah, 100% true.

DEADLINE: You mentioned that you might be looking at other possible markets or venues, but is that even necessary anymore? Why would you go to an Off Broadway theater when you could do this show from your living room?

GUIMARÃES: I don’t think this will replace live performance. I love performing live. I miss that, you know? I wish things could go back to normal very quickly, so I don’t think this will replace anything that existed in the world as we knew it. Once we get back to that normality, I think we will go back to seeing live shows because there is a unique experience in that that you can’t have even with what I am doing now. Just as what I’m doing now is a unique experience that you couldn’t find in a live show. I don’t think one will vanish because of the other.

I love live performance, and I want to go to a theater not only to perform but to be in the crowd. There is beauty in being in the middle of strangers and feeling as one, you know? There is something very, very magical about that feeling.

DEADLINE: Even if you could go back to performing in a live theater next month, will you combine this new form you’ve created with traditional magic? You’re can’t unlearn this show, right?

GUIMARÃES: I think there is an audience for this outside of the situation we are currently in, for sure. Like I said, I’ve been thinking about this for four years. There is no doubt in my head that what we are doing now can exist after this situation. It’s like theater and movies. You don’t have to pick one and ignore the other.

DEADLINE: What about some sort of hybrid, combining the remote Zoom approach with a traditionally live stage show?

GUIMARÃES: I don’t know. I have a live show I did last year at the Geffen, called Invisible Tango, and before this pandemic situation happened, we were trying to move that show to New York. We were very close to getting a theater that we were very happy about, and all of a sudden this happened. So everything is on hold right now, and we don’t know exactly when the future of that show is going to happen. For me, there’s life in that show that needs still to be lived, and so thinking about what I want to do after that project is just a little bit too far down the road.

And I’m doing The Present, and every day I’m listening to more things the audience is saying, and trying to understand how this new interaction works, because it’s a learning curve. We are all learning how to perform in this new medium, and what impact it’s going to have on my live shows is just too far off to start thinking about right now. It will happen naturally, for sure, and even if there’s not a direct application of what I’ve learned, it will have an impact on who I am as a person and therefore who I am as a performer and a creator. But I’m not thinking about that right now.

DEADLINE: Frank Marshall directed both Invisible Tango and The Present. How did you two meet?

Guimarães: We got connected throughout a common friend who is very interested in magic and is also in the movie industry. I was looking for someone for Invisible Tango that could help me craft the story I wanted to tell but who, at the same time, understood enough about magic to be respectful about that part and know that there are certain things you just can’t tamper with. My friend suggested Frank Marshall, and I said, well, Frank would be great, but I don’t know him, and he was like, oh, I do. So he introduced me to Frank, and we had a lovely meeting at his office, and we talked about many things besides magic. At the end of the meeting, I thought, okay, eventually I’ll get an answer, yes or no, and right at the end of the meeting, Frank just turned to me and said, let’s do it.

DEADLINE: I don’t exactly know how this would work, but are you getting any interest from traditional television outlets, HBO or whatever, to adapt The Present for TV?

GUIMARÃES: Not yet, to be honest with you, but I’m not very concerned about that. Things for me, they happen naturally, so if someone sees the show and thinks there is a format for this for a bigger audience, we can talk about that. I’m always open to conversation, but I also love the intimacy we create with having fewer people for every show and how direct that becomes and how those individual people become a group.

Audiences come out of this show feeling transformed, like they’ve seen something new or felt something new, and that, for me, is much more valuable than having a hundred thousand people looking at a screen and not being engaged with what I’m doing. So it really boils down to what the project would be for something like HBO or Netflix. Which I’m happy to think about.

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