‘Into the Mist’ Sends Viewers to the Roaring ’20s

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The Chicago Cellar Boys provide the musical backdrop to this trip into the 1920s.

(Photo: chicagocellarboys.com)

Since the pandemic shut down most live performances, jazz presenters have sought innovative ways to approximate online the intimacy and interactions of performers playing to and with audiences breathing the same air. Steve Rashid of Studio5, an Evanston, Illinois-based arts center, with help from his family, has dreamed up an intriguing solution. “Into the Mist” is his Zoom-enabled variety show, whisking viewers into virtual time-travel from wherever they are, introducing music and personalities of 1927 as if it were here and now.

Debuted in late autumn 2020 after Rashid, who has produced weekly concerts at the venue (post-produced for airing on Chicago jazz radio station WDCB) that hosts his wife Béa’s dance classes during daytime, was imagining ways to distinguish his offerings from the live-streams flooding the internet. Brainstorming with his wife, with whom he’d enjoyed immersive theatrical experiences, and their grown sons, both performers, Rashid came up with a sort of digital vaudeville, webcast on Friday nights, in which attendees can choose what they watch, and in several cases chime in or even mingle.

The setup for “Into the Mist” is easily navigated, even for those unfamiliar with online gaming. After buying a ticket (cost: $16) a viewer gets a password into a website depicting a building with upstairs and downstairs areas to “explore.” Guide your mouse through the corridors, click on the doors that light up and enter a space with pre-recorded material such as a Buster Keaton silent film with live piano accompaniment by Larry Schanker, or an increasing soused F. Scott Fitzgerald (Dana Olsen) reading from The Great Gatsby.

Alternatively, you get into a Zoom room in which Josephine Baker (portrayed by Kim Davis) teaches her then-scandalous dance steps, a young couple (Daniel Rashid and his partner Reilly Anspaugh) hosts a dinner party treating you as a guest, showing how they mix cocktails, Robert Rashid sustains lively banter while dealing blackjack to his Zoom customers, or magician Jay Lee does sleight-of-hand while telling the mostly true story of Ching Ling Foo, an early-20th century illusionist whose tricks were stolen by a white man who took a “yellowface” disguise and toured Europe with the act. Actor Stephen Ruffin portrays poet Langston Hughes, talking about the Harlem Renaissance; Jasmin Tomlins improvises conversation as a flapper; Reggie Thomas, head of Jazz Studies at Northern Illinois University, plays blues and boogie while his wife Marda sings from the piano bench, house-rent party style.

The actors may change from show to show. They’re located all over the U.S., beaming in; it only seems they are all in one place. But they actually do engage with the audience members, who may move from room to room at whim and, by communicating using Zoom’s chat function or messaging with their own phones, can make new contacts or form spontaneous parties. As Rashid points out, “Into the Mist” requires little investment from its performers. “They need about an hour’s worth of material and a quiet performance space,” he says. “They take on their roles once a week, typically without leaving home.”

The growing audience that’s discovered the program, however, has come from all over the world. It’s not unusual to see (and via the chat, “talk to”) people from Australia and Asia, where it’s morning when “Into the Mist” starts at 9 p.m. in the Central time zone. And after an hour, when the individual rooms close and all the attendees (sometimes as many as 100) are directed in the main hall, an unexpectedly gratifying, climactic moment occurs: Attendees see each other onscreen, as patrons of a speakeasy that really is the Evanston Studio5 space.

There, socially distanced but together, the Chicago Cellar Boys (Andy Schumm, cornet, clarinet, tenor saxophone; John Otto, clarinet, alto saxophone; Paul Asaro, piano, vocals; John Donatowicz, banjo, guitar; Dave Bock, tuba) and sultry singer Roya Naldi deliver a period-accurate set of almost 100-year-old songs. You can almost taste the bootleg hootch. But hurry: “Into the Mist” will suspend production after April 30.

For more information about “Into The Mist,” click here. DB



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