Stephani Atkins is executive director of StoryArk, a storytelling program that is partnering with The Zephyr Theatre. (Submitted photo)
Stillwater Gazette – March 19, 2021 Professor Plum in the library with the candlestick is not the solution to the Clue-like murder mystery being hosted by The Zephyr Theatre on April 18.
But similar game-like sleuthing will be required to join the fun during “New Neighborhood: Welcome to Running Springs,” a virtual fundraiser for The Zephyr in collaboration with StoryArk.
(Because theatre people never sleep, this online production was well in the works before Gov. Tim Walz recently loosened the coronavirus rules that had limited theatre attendance.)
The murder-lite script, more humorous than gritty, focuses on a neighborhood get-together of new residents. The one-hour production stars six actors, but thanks to the interactive magic of Zoom, all audience members will also be party guests and then detectives. They will get to grill suspicious characters in real-time and chat among themselves in breakout rooms.
These gumshoe wannabes will have other hints at hand, too. Each ticket holder will have received a box of clues and a cocktail kit to open and puzzle over during the live event. What’s the hidden message in a dry-cleaning coupon? What more can be read into a welcome-to-the-neighborhood letter? Game players will need to figure it all out — before it’s too late. (Cue ominous music here.)
There’s murder. There’s booze. “This is grown-up entertainment,” said Calyssa Hall, The Zephyr’s executive director, who is eager to engage her online theatre audience.
Adding props to the production has worked before, too. “We sent boxes of merriment to our at-home audience for ‘It’s a Wonderful Life,’ ” Hall said. “It was a wonderful way to present something interactive.”
Partnership with StoryArk
Interaction is key for The Zephyr, not only with its audience members but also with its partners. StoryArk, this project’s partner, is another Stillwater-based nonprofit focusing on creativity.
“Our mission is to help students in sixth through 12th grades to collaborate and connect, creating podcasts, short films, poetry, short stories, music, and visual arts,” said Stephani Atkins, StoryArk’s executive director.
StoryArk has been offering such extracurricular story-telling opportunities to students at Stillwater Area High School and Oak-Land Middle School since 2018.
In conjunction, The Zephyr staff has provided coaching to young storytellers involved in StoryArk podcasts and film projects, and, for a while, the theatre shared its Studio A space in Stillwater’s Brick Alley with StoryArk.
Now, StoryArk is sharing “New Neighborhood” with The Zephyr. The murder mystery was scripted by adults, but influenced by Zoom-savvy StoryArk students, Atkins said.
“The students said that watching a lecture online was terribly boring,” she said, “and that you needed to involve the audience as much as possible through polling, chat questions, competitions, online games, and breakout rooms.”
“New Neighborhood” includes many of those suggestions, Atkins said.
The virtual approach expanded StoryArk’s reach for actors and audience. The script writers — Stephani Atkins (Stillwater), Emma Halleen (Los Angeles), Charles Carpenter (Los Angeles), and Colin Atkins (London) — collaborated online and will star in murder mystery.
Carpenter, who will Zoom into “New Neighborhood” from LA as Detective Sleuthsalot, has legit Hollywood street cred. He has had roles in many TV series, including “NCIS,” “Criminal Minds,” and “Pretty Little Liars.”
Another LA actor who will appear virtually is Susan Mayes, portraying Adelaide E Who. She will be familiar to fans of “Modern Family” and “Office Problems.”
Ken Levine, an Emmy Award-winning writer of “Mash,” “Cheers,” “Frasier,” and “The Simpsons,” will portray himself as a glitzy guest in “New Neighborhood.”
The fun with a Zoom approach, Atkins said, Is that the “New Neighborhood” audience will get to interact with these actors who are following a script but are free to improvise, depending on the questions tossed at them. Who knows what will happen?
“New Neighborhood,” a dual-purpose fundraiser, will benefit both nonprofits.
The Zephyr Theatre will use proceeds from ticket sales to purchase indoor LED lights for both of its stages.
StoryArk will use money from the sale of additional clues purchased during the live event to buy iPads for students who lack the technology to participate virtually in story-telling programs.
“New Neighborhood: Welcome to Running Springs” will be broadcast on Zoom at 3 p.m. April 18. Tickets, which will include Zoom access and a box of clues, are $75 per household. Deadline for ticket sales is midnight April 9. To order tickets, go stillwaterzephyrtheatre.org.
“New Neighborhood: Welcome to Running Springs,” a fundraising murder mystery, has been Zoomed before by StoryArk. In December, online participants were encouraged to enter the event’s Ugly Christmas Sweater Contest. (Submitted photo)