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First Stage nailed this virtual create-your-own-adventure play


If you tuned into the First Stage live-stream of Finegan Kruckemeyer's Escape from Peligro Island, perhaps you saw the same show that I did -- one that really made a splash. I mean truly, the story splashed into the ocean. And then into an under-sea cave. See? Lots of splashing.

But seeing as how this is a create-your-own-adventure play, it's likely that each audience saw a different iteration of unlikely hero Callaway Brown's unexpected adventure. The live-stream I saw just happened to take place largely underwater.

Whatever thrills and spills befell your Callaway Brown, the play overall is a smart and super-fun choice for a stream-at-home piece of theater. Here are four ways First Stage nailed this pandemic-friendly production:

They nailed the interactive format.
Says Director Jeff Frank, "Part of the magic of live theater is the danger of it all. What happens if something goes wrong?" In our current climate, theater companies can't help but favor the streaming of pre-recorded works. But in that case, for the audience, what separates theater from movie night? It's a bummer, but recorded theater is often zapped of that spark that makes it so special.

Luckily for the live-stream of Escape from Peligro Island, the danger and magic remained. Like I said, this is a create-your-own-adventure play, and First Stage rigged it so that audiences could vote by phone to help our hero Callaway Brown make key decisions: Should he pack his inhaler or his eyeglasses? Follow mysterious footsteps or radio for help?

Every time Callaway reached a critical decision, the choice landed with the audience at home, hurriedly voting for A or B before the timer ran out. The actors then responded in real time, taking us on an adventure of our own making. This is a really fun format -- interactive in a way I've never seen in live theater. The cool thing? Although the live-stream productions are over (they ran for just two weekends), First Stage is now streaming the various iterations of Callaway's story, so curious kiddos can see all the ways his adventure could have played out.

They nailed the technology.
Every time the audience had to choose between option A or B, we got to watch the answers calibrate on screen: 20% voted A -- no, 35%! (Come on, option A!) Not only was this a clever way to keep audiences on the edge of their couches, it also felt like an awesomely unexpected bit of technology.

While this real-time element was a treat reserved for the live-stream, the tech behind the visual and sound effects in Escape from Peligro Island would surely delight audiences even in a recording. There really is an impressive use of virtual media here, from comic book-like animations to immersive sound effects.

Jeff Frank explains: "Through the use of OBS, (Open Broadcast Software), we've basically created a living graphic novel -- with illustrated backgrounds and animations and the characters appearing and storytelling in frames that we can move all around the screen. It has been quite remarkable to see all of the elements come together."

They nailed the "alone together."
The staging, so to speak, of Escape from Peligro Island feels very Brady Bunch -- that is, each actor is boxed off in their own little square, yet interacts with the others in their respective squares. The narrators (David Flores and Eleanor Hannan) remain planted at the bottom of the screen, always gazing upward at the unfolding story. Sometimes, actors appear to pass props from box to box. First Stage seems to have perfected the art of alone-together theater, making for a really fun visual experience -- one that can only be achieved on screen.

The actors nailed the physicality.
This First Stage cast really nails the art of acting from the chest up. Sounds funny, but in their little boxes, there's only so much room to act. So it was surprising and delightful to see just how much physicality this troupe put into their performances. From plane turbulence to swimming to frantic running, Loralei Madson's Callaway shows keen instincts, along with Matt Daniels' character, "Man." Shout out as well to Nadja Simmonds as "Woman" and Liam Eddy as "Young Boy," for though they perhaps didn't play as large of a role in the Escape from Peligro Island I saw, I imagine roles vary from adventure to adventure.

If you're itching to see those adventures, recorded episodes of Escape from Peligro Island are available to stream through February 28th. As First Stage entices: "Will Callaway time travel to the Wild West and meet a talking horse? Develop superpowers and fight crime in the future? Or have a crush on a vampire?" There's still time to grab the kids, stream the show, and find out.

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