While we’ve seen many Zoom shows during the pandemic, I only know of one stage magic show livestreamed from a theatre – the recent Magic at the Barn performances put on by my friend Oliver Tabor.
Oliver and I go way back (we met as teenagers in Davenport Magic’s Demon Club) and I’ve always been impressed with his optimism and give-it-a-go attitude.
I thought other magicians would enjoy getting an insight into what it takes to put on a full-evening stage show in these extraordinary times, so I asked him to write a guest post. As I hoped, it’s a fascinating insight into an epic undertaking. So without further ado, over to Oliver Tabor:
2 Cameras, 4 Screens, 6 Socially-Distanced People, 8 Megs Of Upload Speed, Many Lengths Of Cable And 2 Large Pizzas.
For the last 17 years, a magic show has taken place every summer within a 17th-century barn in Rochford, Essex (many an hour was initially spent thinking up the name for the show) simply called Magic at the Barn. Over the years, the show built up a regular following among families in the local area. Starting off as one show on a sunny evening in July 2003, with the increase in popularity, the shows expanded to include a Sunday matinee, leading to 2 shows on each day, and eventually to an audience of 1,000 on the 10th anniversary of the show in 2013.
Like many live shows that had steady support with regular attendees each year, the job of organising and producing them was much like making a well-tested homemade pizza recipe, with individual ingredients sprinkled in the perfect quantity on each slice, producing extremely tasty, pleasant mouthfuls. Then suddenly, a rogue ingredient comes along, adding itself without permission to the finely tuned, doughy creation and destroying the years of well-rehearsed hours spent in the Italian kitchen.
The current crisis has pushed all shows to the limit, with many postponements and cancellations across the whole industry. Some have managed to survive and keep their brands running by presenting their shows online, with varied success. Most of these shows have used the now tried-and-tested Zoom-chat model, which can work very well for a close-up or parlour-type show. However, the USP for the Magic at the Barn shows is their unique setting.
The venue itself is a 17th-century barn theatre, used as a working barn up until the millennium, when farm equipment became too big for the space for it to be used as a farm building. Over the next few years, it was gradually converted into an entertainment venue with a stage, theatre curtains, lighting and PA system, with enough space for up to 120 people seated.
The summer magic shows have always been presented on the barn stage. Therefore, I wanted to keep this aesthetic when presenting it online by creating the feeling of experiencing the show as if seated in the audience.
No Simple Solutions
Since lockdown, I’ve had the luxury of making recordings for various online cabaret and theatre shows as a guest act, presenting my 10-minute act from the barn stage. An added comfort was having the option to re-shoot and edit the recording to obtain the desired result.
A livestreamed show would be a completely different matter. My original plan was to have two cameras: an iPhone and a laptop that we could easily switch to during the show… sounds easy enough right?? I’m sooooo glad I didn’t go down this route!
To maintain the social distancing between the performers and crew, two performing/filling areas were needed: one camera facing the stage, capturing the stage performances; and the other to the back of the room, for the fill in/introduction segments for the show’s host/compere.
Getting Expert Help
During lockdown, I had been in contact with a man who knew everything there is to know about everything technical, and everything there is to know about online streaming. In other words, he knew everything!
When I first started producing shows, I wanted to do everything myself: flyer design, marketing, performing, hosting, etc. However, unless you’d like to make the contents of your head implode, getting people on your team who have an exceptional knowledge in a particular subject is the best thing you can do. It eases up head-space and vastly improves everything for your product/production.
Matt Grimmett is the man in question. He set up his home hub of machinery in the middle of the venue, consisting of at least two iMac screens with cameras, specialist lighting and monitors for both sound and vision for the performers, together with enough wires and cable to wrap around a large pizza 100 times.
Accessing Enough Wifi
The barn had recently been upgraded with the latest Wifi, however the building is located in the middle of the countryside, offering little upload speed. Therefore, we had to split the upload between the 1 meg that the barn could offer and Matt’s helpful assistant George’s phone, which made it up to 8 meg in total.
Setting Up The Cameras
The show was streamed live over the internet, with tickets sold to either watch and interact in a Zoom chat room, or to simply watch the live stream through a dedicated YouTube channel. The performers’ monitors allowed them to interact with the Zoom participants for assistance with routines and to experience their reactions throughout the show.
The “stage cam”, as we called it, captured the entire stage so we could make use of the stage curtains and lights to give it the feel of watching a stage show. Having one locked-on vantage point also had the advantage that angles presented no problems at all. So a hidden Black Art method utilised in the vanish of a girl in a cloak could be made to look as deceptive as possible, with the whole stage giving more opportunity to improve larger effects, such as a version of the Artist’s Dream with mirrors surrounding the back of the stage, also heightening the presentation of the classic Zig Zag girl illusion.
The stage cam could also be utilised for more close-up presentations, allowing acts to perform closer to the camera and to help with chatting to Zoom viewers. The stage also gave juggler Mat Ricardo the chance to really play with the space, rather than being in the small room he had been using during lockdown for his online shows at home. And with the monitor projecting the audience reactions, it gave him the almost real feeling of performing at a real gig.
The other camera, the “barn cam”, was for the show’s compere Wayne Trice. The image captured him in front of a mini-theatre set-up that we hoped would give an intimate feel, adding some warmth and rapport with the watching audience. Wayne interacted on this camera to help keep that connection going.
The Running Order
The show had two halves of 45 minutes, with a 15 minute interval, to mirror the template of past barn shows. Each half opened and closed with a visual act, set to music, that included an illusion, such as the production of a girl (Vicky Butterfly) and Zig-Zag girl, a dancing hank routine (which opened the second half), the Colour Match routine, Butterfly Snowstorm and the vanish of a girl to close.
Wayne presented routines in-between such as ring on rope, Torn & Restored newspaper and Tic Tac Toe. He kept the flow of the show going, much like a live show, plus introduced the guest acts Mat Ricardo and 2 Minds Combined, who pre-recorded a hand shadows routine. ‘Machine mechanic’ Matt, together with George, kept the show streaming live on Zoom and YouTube whilst directing cameras, playing videos, positioning lights, grabbing screens from the Zoom chat for all watching to see during the interactive parts of the show, plus altered sound levels and played music cues. You can now understand why he was absolutely pivotal in being there for the successful running of this process!
How It Went
We ran the show twice over course of the weekend, at 7pm on Saturday and 3pm on Sunday, matching the times for the previous year’s shows. We gave ourselves the day before to set up and run the routines through the cameras, watching the capture on Zoom and YouTube to iron out any problems and to witness what worked visually and audibly.
Thankfully, we had no major problems during the show, apart from losing the YouTube stream during Sunday’s show – as so many people were watching, the stream couldn’t handle the output: not a bad problem in my book. However, we did record the Sunday show and sent out a link after to all that this broken live steam affected.
We also offered free tickets to NHS workers throughout the weekend’s shows by offering them access to the live stream YouTube link in return for a picture of their pass. This proved very successful and boosted viewing numbers for each show. Each show had roughly 100 people watching, which was the aim: I could have easily increased numbers with advertising, but this was an experiment and we wanted to gain confidence and experience in running this model first and foremost. As tickets were being sold, I didn’t want any possible backlash in case of any problems over the course of the trial to keep the Magic at the Barn brand running.
The main aim of this project was to perform an online virtual magic show but with the added elements that a theatre show would have, such as lights, curtains, music tracks and audience interaction, to give the feel of everyone being together in a venue.
It was definitely stressful at times but with lots of lessons learnt. The greatest feeling was to be in the same room as other performers… to share stories, jokes and generally feel the support and shared camaraderie you usually feel when performing shows! As soon as Matt announced the joyous words “And we’re clear/That’s a wrap”, hugs were replaced with euphoric clapping, beer bottles were opened and an order to Domino’s was placed!
The usual pizza production recipe had been altered that weekend to accommodate the new rogue ingredient, but the taste of two large post-show Dominoes pizza never changes.
And watch Mat Ricardo’s video about his experience of doing the shows:
Next week: a psychological scale of impossibility.