SARATOGA SPRINGS – The learning curve of creative people never ceases to amaze. Six months ago, when live entertainment, including theater, shut down, I never thought I’d be writing about how well new material can work on Zoom, and other digital platforms.
Yet, here I am, writing about two local experiences that worked in excellent fashion as virtual experiences. One is the Opera Saratoga Virtual Gala; the other is “Remote Control,” a magic show that is the first offering in Adirondack Theatre Festival’s virtual season, which starts September 10.
Each is extremely different from any other, yet the creators made a package that feels like a personal experience. To be clear, neither experience matched the feeling of being at the event in-person. Yet, there was a sense of each one being a shared, communal-type experience.
“Remote Control: Magic in a Box” which I saw in a sneak peek offering, was confounding fun that worked remarkably well for an online effort. The mind reading segments, with which we are all familiar – pick a card any card; or write down a number from one to a million – seemed to be even more mystifying when via long distance the magician Max Major showed the same card or number the Zoom participant chose.
Helping the mystifying fun is that you are sent a box that includes a deck of cards and other helpful trinkets, so you can play along with other viewers, shown in the now familiar Zoom box frames. The contents of the box permit you to play along as people pick a random number, a place to vacation or the selection of a household item. It might not really be magic, that you usually choose the same thing – but it sure does feel kind of magical.
This is especially true at the end of “Remote Control” as every answer to every trick seemed preordained. By which, I don’t mean rigged. The faces of the volunteer participants had the shocked look of someone genuinely surprised.
The Opera Saratoga Virtual Gala was only magical in the sense that is was unexpected fun. The gala was a well-paced, entertaining evening that took potentially dry segments like speeches, recognition of honorees and the like, and made them into sincere tributes. Brevity in those moments helped a lot.
Indeed, the program was expertly produced, and the evening was supplemented by young, charming and talented performers singing popular numbers, mostly from Gilbert and Sullivan’s “The Pirates of Penzance.”
Actually, it was magical for Opera Saratoga who raised more than $60,000. According to the Artistic and General Director Lawrence Edelson that was more than their hoped-for goal. He said his desired goal to make the event seem fresh, casual and simple was due to months of hard work by his Gala Chair Steve Rosenblum and staff member Kate Wilkins.
The ATF’s virtual season shows early signs of financial success as well. Producing Artistic Director Chad Rabinovitz has contacted regional theaters across the country and a couple of dozen have bought into the concept and will be using Adirondack’s programming. Not only does this bring in revenue, it enlarges the Zoom audience on a national level. There’s something ultra-connective when the host interacts with viewers from distant states.
The interaction with the audience at Opera Saratoga was also critical to the success of the event. It was especially important when host Tom Stebbins was auctioning off items or when seeking donations. Stebbins was always a pleasant presence who never aggressively pushed a bidder, but in a low-key manner encouraged competitive bidding and giving.
The concept of the fundraiser was The Pirates Pajama Party & Treasure Hunt. It also used the mystery box concept. A small box arrived a few days before the event filled with items – eyes patches, pirate bandanas, scarves, etc. -which encouraged participants to dress as pirates. So, when a bidder was shown on screen, how they dressed and used the pirate accessories, not only added fun, it offered a sense of active involvement.
The key to the success of each presentation is the easy participation that was encouraged. Magician/Mind Reader Max Major has an engaging personality and a friendly manner that quickly relaxes both the participant and the viewer. He seems so genuinely pleased with the success of each segment, you never doubt the sincerity of the trick. He had you scratching your head – not in doubt, but amazement.
Adirondack Theatre Festival’s concept are all reliant on a box with secret ingredients. Indeed, titles of their four major events are connected to the content of the box. The September 10-12 show, “Remote Control” is “Magic in a Box.” The November 4-14 “Living Room Cruise Lines” is “A Cruise in a Box.” “Manhunt,” subtitled “Mystery in a Box,” plays January 12-23 and the zany comedy “Painting for One” is “Paint in a Box.”
If digitally produced shows continue to be as engaging as was the approximately 70-minute “Remote Control” and the 90-minute Opera Saratoga Gala, we might all get through this bleak period of not being able to attend live entertainment.
To learn more about the Adirondack Theatre’s virtual season go to atfestival.org. You can make a donation to Opera Saratoga at operasaratoga.org
Bob Goepfert is theater reviewer for the Troy Record.
The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.