Not long into the Covell in the Cloud’s pre-game festivities I get yoinked out of the main Zoom channel, called “Center of the Room,” into a breakout titled “The Hallway.” Effectively I’ve been pulled aside for a one-on-one with a mute Pierrot-ish clown, appropriately named Dumb, while his siblings Happy, Sad, and Klutz continue holding court with the other participants along with the very… um… thirsty Doc. I’m not entirely sure how I’m meant to have a conversation with a man who doesn’t talk, but Dumb came prepared. He holds up a white sheet of paper bordered with black filigree reminiscent of silent film dialogue frames, and in the center are seven short words: Do you want to know a secret?
ABC Interactive’s Covell in the Cloud is technically a one-night-only remount of C(ovell), which had previously been staged in 2017 and 2018. Since the physical Bar Covell is currently only open for take-out, Covell in the Cloud is mostly remote via Zoom, with a pre-show experience for patrons picking up food and/or drinks, including a $5 discount off two bottles of wine for Covell in the Cloud ticket-holders. Both iterations of the experience followed the same basic premise and structure: Guests primarily congregated in a main area, where they could interact with the eclectic bunch of carnival-themed characters while enjoying drinks of their choice. There were three broad acts: a social hour at the beginning, a more structured game akin to Truth or Dare, and another post-game social hour-ish. For Covell in the Cloud, participation in the game and interaction with the characters was limited to a small number of guests who purchased “Participant” tickets. Most of those who joined, however, were “Watchers,” who could attend for free, with proof of a charitable donation, but were limited to spectating in the show’s primary Zoom channel. The result was in some ways akin to Crimson Cabaret, which also involved taking guests back in time to a fictionalized setting where a few got to have an immersive experience while most were there to enjoy the show.
The overall vibe of Covell in the Cloud was very much dreamlike surrealism, a lighthearted break from normalcy that blended old-timey sideshow carnival with Lewis Carroll-esque characters. Even the game, despite being ostensibly a competition between four teams, ended up being entertaining nonsense with no clear winner but plenty of fun to be had. The mix of one-on-one and one-on-several side interactions gave participants the opportunity to get to know the characters, and potentially themselves, in a little more depth before returning to the merriment in the main chat.
In reality it was the eclectic and weird characters that were the true heart of Covell in the Cloud, and ABC Interactive made some excellent choices in building a cast heavy with veteran immersive performers accustomed to playing it strange. The clown siblings Happy (Dana Benedict), Sad (Terence Leclere), Klutz (Ryan Schwalm), and Dumb (Scott Sytten) were delightful, and kept the audience engaged in the Center of the Room with their singing, dancing, and other assorted antics, with color commentary and overt flirtation from Doc (James Lopez). The interactions and in-game performances from fortune teller Miss Vaga (Lena Valentine) along with the Tamer (Keight Leighn) and her clearly-actually-a-tiger Lion (Jordana Lilly) were equally solid, and each character brought a fleshed-out personality and backstory with some interesting nuances. There were also a few surprise plot twists that really added to the experience, not least one involving the Tamer and the “Lion” which won’t be spoiled here in case there’s another remount.
But a lot of credit needs to go the Speaker (writer/director Annie Lesser) and technical director Kyle Watts for making Covell in the Cloud work as well as it did. Attempting to recreate the feeling of an in-person experience in a digital format is definitely a challenge, and it was obvious that a lot of behind-the-scenes work and planning went into making it happen. The show used Zoom’s breakout room functionality to great effect, successfully mimicking a venue with multiple areas that allow for a main area and off-to-the-side alcoves for more intimate scenes, and a lot of why it worked so well came down to the team being on top of pulling folks into and out of these side areas. There have been comparatively few remote immersives during the 2020 quarantine which attempted to simply make an in-person production fit into a digital format rather than designing specifically for remote interaction, and Covell in the Cloud just may be the most successful example of the former so far.
There was also a clever use of Skype that bears calling out. While the pre-game and post-game socializing took place in a more traditional Zoom format, for the game itself, ABC Interactive created an overlay that fed participants’ Skype sessions into boxes grouped by their team element (Air, Fire, Earth, or Water) along with those of the cast. This made it a lot easier for spectators (and participants) to follow what was going on, keep track of points, and feel like an actual game show. Once the game ended, participants dropped out of Skype and returned to Zoom for the post-show hangout.
Another piece to recognize from an execution standpoint was the set design for the one-on-ones. Since the actors and guests were tuning in from their homes, the team had to get a little creative. Making participants feel like they really were in a fortune teller’s tent or a dimly-lit bathroom meant some minimalist ingenuity and/or green screens, and the cast did a solid job of mixing lighting, overlays, and whatever props were on hand to make it work.
From a pricing standpoint, the tiered approach to ticketing made a lot of sense in Covell in the Cloud, and is usually worth considering for productions that take over a larger venue. The spectator/participant tiers allowed those who were willing to pay full price to get an in-depth and rich immersive experience, while those on a tighter budget were still able to get a show worth attending. Admittedly it adds more when the experience is in-person, since having a crowd lends authenticity to the immersive experience. But in Covell in the Cloud’s digital format, it also got more eyes on the performers, let it feel more like a party, and raised money for some good causes. For Covell in the Cloud, the price for a participant was a much more accessible $45 versus the $175 for the in-person staging in 2017, but when even that’s out of some people’s reach having a truly low-cost option is worth acknowledging.
From start to finish, Covell in the Cloud offered guests a fun, funny, and charmingly weird night with strong semi-scripted performances from a great cast, held together by a skilled behind-the-scenes team. It also did a truly admirable job of translating the original in-person event to the cloud, preserving much of the feel of actually being in the room with friends and strangers in a time where that kind of interaction is sorely missed. Keep an eye out in case this comes back before we’re allowed to once more clink glasses and confess our secrets to a clown in person.