The Geffen Playhouse becomes a ‘Stayhouse’ to keep theater alive in a virtual format


(CNN)Although live theaters have closed during the pandemic, they have also found ways to still entertain — perhaps none more creatively than the Geffen Playhouse, rebranded a “Stayhouse” in interactive virtual shows designed to bridge the gap among us not just for patrons in its native Los Angeles but anyone with an Internet connection.

“The Present,” a brilliant magic act from Helder Guimarães adapted to a virtual format, is ending its extended run, which began in May, later this month. Guimarães performs card tricks, augmenting that with an affectionate look back at his youth, when an accident forced him to stay home for a stretch, reflective of the experiences people are currently enduring.

Having performed for small groups — each of which received a box in the mail containing items put to use during the show — Guimarães’ production will conclude with a “grand finale” on Oct. 17 that has already registered thousands of viewers.

Not bad for a presentation that, without coronavirus, would have been mounted in the smaller of the Geffen’s two theaters, and which has attracted participants from across the globe, including Europe and Asia as well as the magician’s native Portugal.

    “All of a sudden we have fans and friends in different cities, and people who are enjoying our work all over the world,” Matt Shakman, the Geffen’s artistic director, told CNN.

    As a follow-up, the Geffen has launched “Inside the Box,” an evening of magic and puzzles from New York Times “cruciverbalist” (that is, crossword puzzle constructor) David Kwong, who enjoyed a long run in New York with a show called “The Enigmatist.”

    Kwong was scheduled to perform at the Geffen before coronavirus intervened. His virtual show — which quickly sold out and was extended through Jan. 3 — is “entirely new,” he said, tailored to an audience that will participate on a five-by-five Zoom grid.

    “The goal is to get people to interact across those virtual lines,” Kwong said. The cameras will be operating by stage managers remotely.

    While the popularity of these shows has provided a boost to the closed theater, Shakman said the intangible aspects of being able to continue reaching audiences is almost as significant as whatever revenue the shows generate.

    “For sure it has been helpful financially, but just spiritually,” he said. He added that the shows provided “a very intimate experience,” with “The Present” having grown out of a discussion “about how we could just stay in touch with our audience.”

    When “The Present” opened, Los Angeles Times critic Charles McNulty wrote that the show is “the closest approximation I’ve had to being in a theater since the pandemic closed the venues. The show contains a slew of card tricks, but the real sleight of hand is the transformation of digital into theatrical space.”

    Kwong’s show is different, but the goal of forging a connection in a way that overcomes the digital divide is much the same.

    “A big part of this show is this idea that human beings are at their most creative when they have to think inside the box,” Kwong said. “Art is flourishing right now. I’ve been very impressed with all these virtual shows that I’ve been seeing.”

    The Geffen, meanwhile, is working on additional concepts, and also in contact with other theatrical entities and organizations as they try to navigate what their world might look like for the foreseeable future, with the announcement that New York City’s Broadway venues would stay dark through May.

    One pleasant surprise, Shakman noted, is that the theater hasn’t had difficulty marketing its shows, as participants and word of mouth sell them.

      “We were incredibly surprised to realize the audience was there without us having to work too hard to find folks,” Shakman said. “Much like ‘Field of Dreams,’ if you build it, they will come.”

      “The Present” “grand finale” is scheduled for Oct. 17. “Inside the Box” officially opened Oct. 8 and will run through Jan. 3, 2021.