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49 Boxes Offers an Intimate Evening of Participatory Illusions

Experiences

Jessica Lachenal | December 6, 2017
The greatest trick of interactive magic show 49 Boxes is turning the audience into a roomful of magicians

What makes immersive experiences so appealing is that they give the audience an opportunity to break the fourth wall. That’s why site-specific pieces are often staged in places like apartments, warehouses, or even bathtubs: There’s an unparalleled connection between you and the story, which unfolds all around you.

But when it comes to magic shows, the maintenance of that fourth wall is integral to not only the performance, but also to the art and craft of magic itself.

Michael Borys and Alex Lieu’s 49 Boxes places the art of magic center stage, aiming to not just tear down that fourth wall but obliterate it completely. They accomplish this goal wonderfully, in ways that continue to reveal themselves long after the show is over.

At the start of the show, the audience was seated around a series of tables in the ballroom of an exclusive members-only club in San Francisco, much of which was taken up by a display showing the titular boxes. At the center of that display was a larger box adorned with many different padlocks, and a few other curious artifacts were staged alongside it, including an antique record player emitting soft, crooning jazz. Between this and the dimmed lights, the atmosphere was subdued and intimate.

The evening’s premise, like most illusions, is simple enough — on the surface. The audience is told that Floyd G. Thayer, a famed inventor of magical illusions, left behind a final mystery, sealed away in a box protected by 19 padlocks. It would be up to us to solve puzzles, unlock all the locks, and reveal Thayer’s final secret.

Those puzzles came in the form of gorgeous, delicate boxes, each of which housed a beautiful antique related to Thayer or his magical designs. As the premise was explained, a few of the boxes were delicately placed on each table, until all 49 had been dealt out around the room. We were told that the experience wasn’t meant to be competitive, but collaborative, and that we would need to rely not only on our tablemates, but everyone in the room. The ending would only be revealed through our unified efforts.

Once the instructions had been relayed, the ballroom exploded into a hectic frenzy. In moments, the calm feeling vanished, replaced by the sounds of boxes being opened, padlocks jiggling, and a room full of people trying to find order in chaos.

It was a jarring transition, but not a bad one. It was simply the moment when the story was thrust upon us. We quickly transitioned from viewers to participants, and 49 Boxes flipped from being a show to a fully immersive experience. The fourth wall vanished, and we became not just part of the magic, but its conductors. Whether we noticed that shift in the moment is beside the point; what matters was that we all willingly crossed over as one into the world Borys and Lieu had built.

Much to their credit, it was an easy world to cross into. Handling the artifacts was a magical experience unto itself, as each wondrous piece felt infused with history: antique catalogs of Thayer’s Quality Magic, antique radios, a dynamite “plunger” detonator, and a cryptex straight out of The Da Vinci Code. Seemingly conventional items like decks of cards also hid secrets, which were only revealed thanks to the help of some modern technology. The only thing that could have made the experience better would have been if we were allowed more time to see the artifacts and tricks at other tables.

This show has been performed all over the country, and the collection of historical items has grown with it. “After every show, there’s always someone who wants our mailing address because they have a piece of history they just don’t know what to do with,” Borys said. “When people send us artifacts, we write them into our next experiences so that they’ll live on forever. We never want to see these things behind a glass case where no one can touch them. That would take away what they were made for in the first place.”

Not only are participants’ stories infused into the artifacts, but 49 Boxes was also designed to create new stories for the audience. “Collaboration among strangers is very important to us,” Borys said. “How many times have you been to an event where you planned on leaving early but became engaged with someone or something you hadn’t expected? This only happens when you are forced to interact with the unfamiliar.”

As the frenzy died down, and as each lock on the central lock box was removed, this unity became evident. Strangers danced between tables, offering each other puzzle-solving advice. The crew performed magic tricks and demonstrated a few of Thayer’s experiments, attracting the attention of those at surrounding tables. Perhaps more importantly, people wandered around the room, sharing stories about what they had discovered. Not only was the fourth wall between the audience and the “show” gone, but so, too, were the walls between all of us.

And thus, much like Thayer’s final secret, the true magic of 49 Boxes was revealed: It was in the connections we’d made with one another, the lingering conversations at the bar afterwards, the excited, breathless stories we shared with our new friends. Though we all knew that we might never see each other again, for one brief, shining moment, we’d come together to accomplish something that seemed impossible.

In that moment, we all got to feel like magicians.


For another unique experience, head to Fernet-Branca


All photos courtesy of Michael Borys and Alex Lieu

Jessica Lachenal is a writer, editor, and immersive experience designer. Her writing and art have been featured in No Proscenium, The Mary Sue, SFist, The Advocate, The Bold Italic, Model View Culture, an indoor forest, the streets of downtown Oakland, a selection of basements in San Francisco, the San Francisco Bay Bridge, and elsewhere. Find her at jessicalachenal.com.

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