Borrowed Time: a magic show and portal to another world

On Sunday evening, I attended Helder Guimarães spellbinding card magic performance, Borrowed Time in Los Angeles. I was excited because Helder was the 2006 winner of the close up card magic awards at the World Magic Championships and is regarded as one of the finest close up magicians in the world. I expected the magic to be good, but what I didn't expect was for the entire experience to be as wonderful and mysterious as it turned out to be.

When I reserved my ticket, I received an email telling me that I wouldn't be given the address of the venue until the day of the performance. When I got there, I wasn't sure I in was in the right place. And it just got weirder from there.

If you live in the LA area, I highly recommend that you go. The show ends May 29, and most performances are already sold out. I interviewed Helder about Borrowed Time and, trying not to give away too much, asked him about the origins of the show. I think you should see the show before you read what follows, but if you definitely can't make it, go ahead.

Mark Frauenfelder: I'm going to have a difficult time describing this because I loved every minute of the surprise of this performance. To go into any detail would take away from the experience.

Helder Guimarães: Yes, that's the problem we've been having sometimes with people trying to talk about this. It's that one, they don't want to destroy the experience people coming and two, there are too many things happening simultaneously.

Mark: I think it's safe to say that as soon as you buy a ticket the magic begins because you aren't given an address until the day of the performance. Then when you get to the location, you kind of have a big question mark. It's like – "Am I at the right place?"

When I arrived at the venue, there was a woman and here husband standing in the doorway to the address of the place. They were kind of arguing with the guy and they actually walked away. They came back later and when I talked with the woman she said, "I almost called the police!" I thought that's perfect. That's exactly what you want from something like this – to kind of put someone in that state of confusion.

I would love to have you talk about your ideas behind designing this entire event and how it's so much more than just the magic performance itself, which was fantastic, but there's a lot more to it. Could you talk about the thinking that went into designing Borrowed Time?

Helder: The overall theme of the show and the experience is this idea of creating memories. I wanted that memory to start when you hear about the show, and the way you interact with the show, even before you arrive at the show. I felt that was a very important part of creating this overall memory.

This show can't exist in a theater because it would take away from this bigger idea that the show has. I didn't know what I wanted to do with it at the beginning but definitely I always believed that this show needed to exist in a more alternative location.

At the same time, the other running theme of the show has to do with the secrets and the way we as humans interact with secrets, how much we are willing to go after a secret or not. So it just made perfect sense to me that this memory, this overall memory, would start with a secret. The first secret that exists in the show besides many others is the location itself. That was the first time that I kind of understand the location doesn't necessarily need to be open and accessible at least at first sight. That's where the idea of having this kind of initial feeling of "Am I at the right place or wrong place?" comes from.

Mark: The design of the whole experience is so great. I love that, first of all, you don't know where it is, then you find out, then you get there and it's like, "Am I at the right place?" Then, once you cross that threshold you get deeper and deeper, both physically and kind of conceptually this world. The first place you enter is not the place. You go through another portal and then another one and then finally to another one. Each place is like a completely new, magical but slightly disorienting experience, like "Woah! What is this? Where I am?" Finally you get to the place where the actual magic performance and I loved the intimacy of it.

I counted 26 people in the audience. One group sits around a table and then there's another circular row of seats. You are illuminated by a bare hanging light bulb, so it's kind of a very intimate experience. Is this new for you or have you been doing performances like this since you started?

Helder: I like challenging myself and recreating things that I don't believe necessarily existed in the performance aspect of magic. Close up magic is kind of the starting point of all my work really. Even when I go and do stage work, it always comes from that initial love for sleight of hand.

I've never had this type of intimate setting the way it's done on this show but I've always wanted to do it. It's like a long dream that I wanted to perform in a very intimate environment for a very small group of people. But I also believe (and this is where the pieces of the puzzle start to get real)… I always believed that just going to a room to experience that could feel not… I don't think people would be in the right mindset to see the show if they don't have the whole experience before.

So when we started to think about the whole thing, I didn't know exactly how the show was going to end. Then I went like, "You know what? This is exactly what I want. I want this really small environment." Because I think it's the perfect combination for all the rest of the experience. I believe that in a certain sense, when people get to that space their mind already believes that they are in a different world. I think when you see magic, it's important that people get that kind of belief system that they are in a different mindset or in a different world. So the intimacy definitely is something that I've worked before. The setting itself that I have now is unique for me. But I also believe that the set that I'm using for that show is not independent of the overall experience. I see it as a combination of it.

Mark: I imagine that this was quite expensive to produce, because of the real estate involved and just the beautiful interiors that were designed for it and things like that. How long was this in the making and who helped you produce this?

Helder: So basically it was me and then it all started from me and my manager having a conversation. All the producers are listed on the website. It was all people that believed in this idea and wanted to have it happen.

It's been more than a year in the overall process. Wen we finally figured out what this process would be then it took us like two months to design the real experience that's going to happen and then a month and a half to put it up.

Mark: That's pretty good actually! That seems like an accelerated schedule if you ask me.

Helder: Oh, it is! It is! Actually, I think the only way we were able to accomplish that is because we had a really great team working on every aspect of it. If you enjoyed either the show and the experience itself, it's a group effort. I'm just the visible face of it but the truth is that this couldn't happen if it wasn't for all the people involved in the production.

Mark: I think you really were successful in making this a very memorable experience. Helder, can you tell me what kind of work have you done before this? Are you a full time professional magician?

Helder: Yes, I've been a full time professional magician since 2006. In 2006 I won the World Championship of Card Magic. That was kind of the first time that internationally inside of the entertainment industry that my name kind of really started popping up.

I've been doing magic since I was 4 years old. This has been an all-my-life journey. Around 12 I really started taking it seriously. I started to compete and win several awards but then the biggest aware I got was in 2006, the World Championship of Card Magic. Then I started to travel around the world doing multiple shows and different projects.

Around 2012, I moved to the United States. The first show I did was at the Geffen Playhouse where I did the show that was directed Neil Patrick Harris called Nothing to Hide. That show kind of just took fire in LA and ran for fourth months. Then it was taken to an off Broadway project the next year in New York. That ran for three years. Then went to the main conference of TED in 2014 and I did a performance there. Since then I've been doing consulting jobs for different things, using my magic knowledge to help services and artistic projects on different areas.

Mark: Where were you born? Where did you grow up?

Helder: I grew up in Portugal so I'm born and raised in Portugal.

Mark: Are there any fun anecdotes you can share about people who have come to your performances and their reactions when they first entered the venue or during your performance that are memorable to you that you can share?

Helder: Yes! So without destroying the experience, when you get to the venue it looks like something that should not be there. We have a lot of people that enter that store not to see the show but actually to be in that venue for what it looks like.

Mark: Right, to patronize the business.

Helder: Yes, patronize the business! We had a couple of people that wanted to actually buy some of the products and we can't sell them because they are part of the bigger picture of the thing. So there have been a couple of moments where the person in charge of that space just offered them those things.

It's really interesting because people have that no idea what's going on, they are just kind of like mind blown on a different level. They are like, "How can you survive if you are doing this to all the customers?"

Mark: I don't think I'm giving away anything to say that that same woman who was about to call the police, she seemed really perplexed in the area that we were in before the performance. She felt like the kind of challenge she had been given in that room was overwhelming to her and she was like almost panicked about it. I was amused by her. Her husband was amused by her also. She was the same woman, who during the performance, for some reason started talking… You know that woman who was talking to her husband in there? I think she was really thrown off by the whole thing.

Helder: Yes! It's so interesting, that experience. That woman, she clearly started the whole night from kind of a bad moment because she was in a place that she believed was not the right place. She felt tricked at the beginning. When she starts to experience it all and when she gets to that room before the actual performance, at that point her mood had completely changed. She is now at a completely different mindset and in a different world and trying to fulfill this task that is given to her. At that point we want to make sure that she was comfortable with the experience, so the person that was in the first side of things went to her and asked, "Ma'am, are you comfortable? Are you okay?" At that point she was already like… The problem with this is that this fictional set-up is very realistic. So that's why she was so thrown away by it.

When the performance starts she's talking with her husband but she's basically commenting on the impossibilities she is seeing. Then, at the end, she came to me and she talked about all of the evening. She kind of gave me a resume of what she believed and she was so amused and so impressed that at the end when she left she said, "I have to apologize to the first person I've been with. They definitely deserve an apology from me because I was too harsh on them."

It was fun because that's what I feel sometimes happens with that journey. People come to see the show and they leave differently. Part of that secretive journey that you are taking requires you to put things in perspective and of understand that there is always a different side to every situation. I'm glad that you saw that because that is something that sometimes happens – people start in one mood but they end up in a completely different space. Part of it I think is the overall journey combined with the show.

Mark: I agree so much! She entered the place, as I'm sure a lot of people do, with a very literal mindset so it was almost upsetting, but your whole event is designed to be a transformational experience. I know that word transformational is overused but in this case it's exactly what you designed. I think it really worked on her and it worked on me and everybody in there. Everyone left feeling like they had gone through something that was special or magical. Helder, I just can't congratulate you enough on doing something that is so successful and memorable and enjoyable.

Helder: Thank you so much! I'm really glad because I always try, at my shows and my performances, to do something that causes people leave the performance looking at the world a little bit more brightly and a little bit more hopeful and a little bit more happy about not only the way they live but how they are going to approach their next thing in life. It's so good to hear your words saying that you felt this, that this lady felt that, because I believe that. That's part of what I want to accomplish with my shows and my performances is putting up some good energy in the world. If people leave the room with that mindset a little bit changed I think I've fulfilled my desires.

Mark: The show closes on May 29th. That's the final performance and I just want to let everyone know that a lot of the shows are already sold out so if you want to go to this (and I really highly recommend that you do) go to as soon as you can and you can get your tickets there.

Helder: Thank you for being there. I'm glad you had a great time and I hope to see you again in my future performance.