Is Orlando’s ambitious ‘Secret Library’ the theater of the future?

Improv comedy. A mystery. Interactive theater. An escape room. “The Secret Library” is all of these.

The new online experience is also one of the most ambitious digitally driven projects to come out of Orlando’s arts scene since the coronavirus first shut down theaters and theme parks alike.

“We’ve got big dreams,” says producer Todd Zimmerman, who hopes the experience can “offer an escape to those who dare to go on an adventure but would like to stay safe at home.”

But could a show ideal for stay-at-home coronavirus times also be the show of the future?

Zimmerman thinks so. He owns Orlando-based Odd-O-Ts Entertainment, which has created shows for SeaWorld, Legoland Florida, Busch Gardens in Tampa and Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines among others. The company also is home to Gromalot Theatre Company, a troupe specializing in physical comedy.

With Zimmerman’s theme-park background, he first pictured “The Secret Library” as a show to be experienced in person, along the lines of the Evermore park in Utah or Forbidden Frontier at the Cedar Point amusement park in Ohio. In both those attractions, guests create their own experience by interacting with performers.

But there are big challenges in launching such an enterprise in Orlando, as others have previously learned — namely, upfront costs and world-renowned competition. “Could it be something we could do virtually?” Zimmerman wondered.

Then coronavirus struck, live performances halted, and Central Florida’s creative types were looking for work while those stuck at home craved new entertainment. Thanks to the Paycheck Protection Program, the “Library” project was able to keep moving forward.

“It’s great to have a paycheck during this, but it’s more than that,” Zimmerman said. “Sure, a performer lives from paycheck to paycheck, but really lives from applause to applause.”

“This is the first time in a long time I’ve been this nervous before a show,” said “Secret Library” performer Trenell Mooring, a veteran actor at Orlando’s Mad Cow Theatre and Walt Disney World. “I know how theater works, but this… the platform is so new.”

To devise the story, Zimmerman assembled a team of experts on role-playing game “Dungeons & Dragons,” escape rooms and interactive theater productions.

They knew they didn’t want to use Zoom, which to many these days means “work.” They found different software that allows viewers to visit a virtual mansion and move from room to room with a click of the mouse. Onscreen, it resembles the board for the classic game “Clue.”

“We love the map,” said Odd-O-Ts project manager Debra Beardsley, herself an Escape Room creator. “We love that people get to click and have that agency.”

As audience members move from room to room, they use their computer’s microphone to talk with the show’s characters and work with other viewers to solve puzzles that propel the story, which centers on the search for the titular “Secret Library.”

Although the show is part game, there aren’t individual winners or losers.

“This is about bringing people together during this time,” Zimmerman said. “This is about collaboration, not competition.”

The performers entertain while moving the plot along; Mooring describes her character as “quirky but not too ‘out there.’”

The same could be said for the acting technique, which has to combine the sensibilities of both stage and TV.

“Our camera is right there on us,” Mooring said. “We can’t be too broad for the screen.”

In addition to the usual worries — character development, audience engagement — the “Secret Library” actors also have to monitor the show’s technology and because they work from home, create their own set.

Mooring works in her “she-shed” so uses a digital background. That limits her motion, although the actors do move around to keep the experience more like a show than a meeting.

“We never knew we’d have to learn ‘camera choreography,’” Beardsley said.

That’s just part of the technology learning curve for the “Secret Library” team, which has had to become familiar with the various software programs that make the show happen — and problem solve for audience members with varying degrees of tech savvy.

Even with a preshow tech test, a video tutorial, extensive information on its website (secretlibrary.io) and real-time help, glitches happen, though Zimmerman said problems have decreased over a few weeks of testing.  The show has been refined during the test period, as well, scaling back some of the puzzles to give the charismatic characters more prominence.

“This is the out-of-town run before we hit Broadway,” Zimmerman joked.

This weekend, though, is the equivalent of a Broadway opening night, and the “Secret Library” team is hoping for a long run. Part of the marketing push involves giving away tickets at secretlibrary.io; the regular cost is $30 per screen with up to four players.

“We don’t want this to be something that only lives during COVID times,” Zimmerman said.

That would undoubtedly be fine with the nearly 20 performers in the cast, who are stretching creative muscles while earning income in a lean time.

“This is not just a paycheck, though,” said Mooring. “I’m really excited about it. This is a whole new genre.”

Find me on Twitter @matt_on_arts or email me at [email protected] Want more news and reviews of theater and other arts? Go to orlandosentinel.com/arts.

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©2020 The Orlando Sentinel (Orlando, Fla.)

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