“This is not something that happens for you. It’s something that happens because of you.” – Michael Borys, Co-creator of The 49 Boxes.

In a way, a magic trick is the quickest and purest expression of what live theatre can aspire to. Performer and audience standing eye-to-eye, nothing between them but a proscenium of the magician’s skill and ability to obscure the true nature of their actions. The performance is over in a minute, but the audience is still transported to a world where anything can happen with a jolt of amazement and exhilaration that other shows might take hours to build up to. We know it isn’t real, but, in another more meaningful sense, isn’t it? The 49 Boxes, the increasingly inaccurately named interactive exhibition curated by Michael Borys and Alex Lieu, is currently enjoying sold out tours across California. It is an evening like no other: joyous, fascinating, inspiring, and above all, fun, I encourage you to bring every friend you have and prepare to make at least a hundred more.

While the 49 Boxes have proven to be quite portable, traveling to numerous secret locations throughout the show’s run thus far, my experience at the palatial Houdini Estate in the Hollywood Hills gave the night’s activities and added resonance that only grew more fitting as the evening progressed. The 49 Boxes is, first and foremost, a love letter to the history of early 20th century illusions and the artists whose skill and ingenuity cemented magic as one of entertainment’s most enduring forms.


The 49 Boxes - Michael Borys Alex Lieu - Houdini Mansion - Escape Immersive Game - Magic - Floyd G. Thayer


The night’s story centers around one such master, Mr. Floyd G. Thayer, who in the 1920’s and 30’s provided working magicians across the country with a diverse catalogue of ingenious tricks and original inventions designed to delight and amaze. Upon his death, Thayer left his closest friends a collection of 49 boxes, each containing a unique and indispensable artifact that, when brought together through cooperation and curiosity, would lead the magicians on a night of magical exploration. These boxes, however, remained unexplored for over half a century, waiting for you and one hundred of your closest aspiring magician friends to solve the secrets and riddles that will lead to the grand moment: the unlocking of Thayer’s final box, sealed with nineteen unique padlocks protecting the magician’s mysterious treasure, whatever it may be.

The historical context and framing device aside, 49 Boxes is less of a story-driven show than it is a raucous, fully interactive bazaar where participants are invited to play hands-on with authentic antiques from the golden age of magic. Every table is furnished with several boxes, the contents of which should eventually add up to a single complex, self-contained illusion.


The 49 Boxes - Michael Borys Alex Lieu - Houdini Mansion - Escape Immersive Game - Magic - Floyd G. Thayer


However, the night’s greatest trick is how in every facet of the night it encourages room-wide collaboration and full-throated support of all fellow participants. Your table is not your team. The entire tent is your team. Some boxes have been purposefully mismatched, forcing you to get acquainted with your fellow magicians as you rove through the crowd both hunting for the artifact you need and marveling at the countless splayed treasures needed for other tricks throughout the night. A microphone available at all times allows you to announce to the room “I’m looking for the Orb of Ascension!” or “I need the elephant tusk!” hoping to hear a beckoning cheer from a table in the corner that has just what you’re looking for over the roar and laughter of the crowd.

For every trick mastered and every lock removed from the mysterious final box, a triumphant participant is invited to ring a bell into the microphone, signaling to the rest of us that we’re one lock closer as we look up from our work to answer back with hoots and cheers. Finished working on your own trick? Walk up to any active table and offer your services or just take a tour of the tent and gaze in wonder at the illusions already assembled. The energy in the tent is infectious. There is, quite literally, magic in the air.


The 49 Boxes - Michael Borys Alex Lieu - Houdini Mansion - Escape Immersive Game - Magic - Floyd G. Thayer


Every trick is layered and requires multiple steps to complete. Several roving magical docents are available for questions and demonstrations, often performing a slight bit of close-up magic for your group alone as an integral step towards completing your own more involved trick. For my group, our trick required enough water to fill several test tubes with water, and our assisting magician obliged by producing a jug smaller than a pint glass that was somehow able to measure out the levels required by pouring out the entire contents of the jug for one tube—and then pouring out even more for the next tube, and the next tube, and the next tube.

The joy we could see beaming from the magician’s face at simultaneously seeing our wonder at his trick and our fierce excitement from working out a trick of our own is a distillation of what this entire evening is about. Making the barrier between audience and performer disappear. The chance to nerd out and revel in the nitty gritty. Immersing yourself in the intricacies of what it takes to be a magician. Being gifted a peak behind the curtain, allowing us mere mortals a taste of the passion and affection for the art and history that the people who run this show so obviously possess.


The 49 Boxes - Michael Borys Alex Lieu - Houdini Mansion - Escape Immersive Game - Magic - Floyd G. Thayer

The 49 Boxes is something so simple but in such short supply these days: fun. Unpretentious, uncynical, utterly engaging fun. As the final box is opened and the ultimate intent of Floyd G. Thayer is made clear, I for one was filled with a great swell of optimism and inspiration. That night, a diverse group of a hundred people comprising the widest range of ages I had ever encountered at an immersive event set out to learn from the past, experiment, and explore the unknown, all in service of a beautiful common goal no one of us or even ten or twenty of us could have achieved on our own and succeeded as one. Quite the trick.

While the next event in January is already sold out, tickets are now on sale for another Los Angeles showing of The 49 Boxes on March 24th. Visit 49boxes.com for more information.

Check out our interview with Michael Borys here.

49 Boxes Review