The temptation to time travel during the past year has been strong. What if we could just go "Back to Before," as the song from Ragtime puts it?
For Steve Rashid of Evanston's Studio5, that nostalgic impulse has turned into a cunning online performance experiment called Into the Mist, which takes audiences all the way back to 1927 for an interactive choose-your-own-adventure live immersive experience. Magicians, comedians, dancers, and musicians (plus card dealers, trivia contest purveyors, and others) occupy various "halls" in the virtual speakeasy, which audiences are free to enter and leave as they please. By the end of the evening, we're all back together for a live performance from Studio5 featuring the jazz ensemble the Chicago Cellar Boys and phenomenal sultry singer Roya Naldi.
Rashid, who runs Studio5 with his wife, choreographer-director-educator Béa Rashid, had been doing livestreamed concerts from the venue during the pandemic. But he realized that the competition online was getting fierce. "We were competing, not just against the other venues doing shows on a particular night in Chicago, but against the Internet. It was a very unsustainable thing for us to be able to pay the musicians and technicians and make it work."
The Rashid family, including sons Daniel and Robert, decided, as Daniel puts it, "to use the platform of the Internet and say, 'What could we create within this? What are the possibilities we want to create so that people could actually engage and not just sit passively and watch?'"
The degree to which audiences engage with the performers is up to the nature of the various pieces and to the individual audience members. You can certainly keep your camera off if you'd rather be in your pajamas (as opposed to looking like the cat's pajamas), but it's fun to cast your peepers at the other Zoom participants and the period costumes some have donned for the occasion.
Why 1927, in particular? Daniel Rashid notes that his dad is a fan of Bill Bryson's 2013 popular history, One Summer: America, 1927, which looks at the major events that changed the trajectory of the nation (the Lindbergh transatlantic flight, the advent of talking pictures, and the Great Mississippi Flood among them). "He was texting me some excerpts along the way." Andy Schumm of the Chicago Cellar Boys, who specialize in 1920s jazz, was also obviously a champion for the era.
Says Steve Rashid, "Since it's all virtual anyway, we just wanted to give audiences an imaginative world that they could play in and get a sense of what it was like to be alive in the 20s." And of course, during a year when a lot of nightspots have been closed due to COVID, the idea of a speakeasy, with its illicit connotations, seems fitting in a way.
The first night I attended, actor and magician Jay Lee (a friend of Daniel Rashid's from undergrad days at University of Southern California) provided up-close magic tricks along with a story predating the 1920s. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, Chinese magician Ching Ling Foo (born in Beijing as Zhū Liánkuí) was wowing American audiences with illusions such as pulling a small boy out of a bowl of water and "beheading" another assistant, who would then turn and walk offstage.
Ching Ling Foo's act was stolen by white magician William Robinson, who adopted "yellowface" costuming and makeup and renamed himself Chung Ling Soo, taking the stolen tricks to Europe.
Lee's segment also includes a story about American author Bret Harte, whose attempts to satirize anti-Chinese sentiment in northern California in the poem "The Heathen Chinee" (in which a Chinese man playing cards is revealed to be cheating, but only after one of the white men at the table has also been unmasked as a cheat) backfired. The subtlety of the point Harte was trying to make—white people's misdeeds belong to themselves, whereas they'll blame an entire race for what one person of color might do—got lost in the anti-Asian prejudices of the era (which of course are sadly still too present). Harte later called it "the worst poem I ever wrote, possibly the worst poem anyone ever wrote."
Lee says that his Into the Mist segment (which I found so absorbing I spent most of my first time at the show in his room) is his debut as a magician in a "semiprofessional" capacity. But focusing on the story of Ching Ling Foo gave him a narrative hook. When I saw Lee perform, it was three days after the murders of six Asian women in Atlanta. He noted during his segment that Foo was able to achieve great things, "despite the fact that in 1904, there was anti-Chinese sentiment. And how lucky are we today?" he added with a slight hint of acid in his tone. "I wrestled a little bit with whether I wanted to include that, if it felt too on the nose and I decided, no, I think it's one of those unfortunate things that needs to be included in particular," says Lee.
What else can you find? Well, if you're a silent film buff, you can enjoy shorts by Buster Keaton, with live piano accompaniment from Larry Schanker. If you think you know the era, compete in the trivia game "Know Your Onions," hosted by Mia Weinberger, and win a chance to snag some show swag. (One of the tempting pieces of merch is a flask with the word MILK in Art Deco typeface.) Daniel Rashid and his partner, Reilly Anspaugh, impersonate a comedic duo of struggling actors, "Dusty and June," while his brother Robert works as "the Dealer" in an interactive blackjack room. (What's a speakeasy without a little pretend gambling on the side?) Mardra and Reggie Thomas perform charming ragtime and jazz numbers from their living room.
If you want to move along to the music, you can learn period dance steps from none other than Miss Josephine Baker (Kim Davis). Or if you're in the mood to play with time a bit yourself, you can check in on an increasingly sozzled F. Scott Fitzgerald (Dana Olsen) as he reads from The Great Gatsby. (The book was actually published in 1925 and the Fitzgerald we meet here is a bit older than the real novelist ever got to be, but too much "milk" can take its toll on time and memory, after all.)
Steve Rashid, who serves as the show's host, is an Emmy-winning composer and producer with long roots in the Chicago entertainment world, which proved handy when it came time to recruit performers for Into the Mist, many of whom are checking in from around the country. "They came up with their own thing and they had to come up with an hour's worth of stuff," he says. But on the upside, he notes, "They could be anywhere in the country and do this, and it's a one-hour commitment a week; plus, you know, they didn't have to travel." The show provides a stipend for performers as well as the people helping out behind the scenes.
If you suffer from FOMO, then it's worth planning more than one trip yourself with this show. Daniel Rashid says, "There are a lot of clues in the hallways of where certain rooms are. If you click on posters and things like that in the hallway, you'll be able to find out where to find a certain kind of experience. And if you find you're enjoying a room, I'd suggest staying there as long as you can."
The set by the Cellar Boys and Naldi that concludes the evening feels like a Zoom party across time zones, with audience members checking in from places as far afield as Australia and keeping up running commentary. (The second time I attended, Schumm went old school with a DIY comb-and-tissue-paper instrument, leading one wag in the comments to write: "It's 1927. Kazoos are very expensive!") Naldi's voice is a honey-and-whiskey mix of vulnerability and confidence, moving from wry to wistful on songs like "One More Time," as she seemingly channels the groundbreaking lady-crooner style of Annette Hanshaw.
Into the Mist offers escapism if you want it, but as Lee's segment reminds us, history may not repeat, but it sure rhymes. As Steve Rashid puts it, "Music reflects a time and a culture. So we thought, wouldn't it be cool to kind of reverse engineer an event and experience where people got to hear the music, but before they heard the music, they would be given some sort of entertaining historical context and cultural context that would then make the music resonate more?" The echoes and resonances are just up the stairs and behind the next door in this imaginative and warmhearted experience. v