It's no mystery
Everybody wants to be a star: Audience participation drives rise of interactive theater
Sunday, July 7, 2002
The Columbus Dispatch
Dispatch Theater Critic
In central Ohio, where only one theatrical troupe regularly did it a decade ago, five companies are doing it today: staging comedic mysteries for audiences hungry to guess who did the dastardly deed -- and why.
"We love the interactive aspect," said Gloria Hartung of Grove City, who with her husband has regularly attended Cloak & Dagger Dinner Theatre shows since the early years, when the troupe performed at the old Jai Lai restaurant. "Usually just the two of us go, and we get very involved with the other people at our table.
"That we can't anticipate the mystery is part of the pleasure: It's fun to talk about the clues and argue over whether this is a red herring."
Before Valentine's Day, when Brian Mason, a 42-year-old software engineer, was seeking something entertaining, he noticed a Murder Mystery Players sign at Dave & Buster's in Hilliard.
He went to The Missing Rubies of Nepal with three other people.
Although he was disappointed in the dearth of interaction, he pronounced the dinner-theater show a "hoot" and a "riot."
"We were bickering among ourselves about who did it," he said. "The show gave us a chance to be a part of the action."
Hartung, 52, also sees shows with husband Carl, 51, at Little Theatre Off Broadway, the Grove City community theater.
"But I'm a musical lover and he's a musical hater, so I could never get him to go to the musicals," she said. "What we like about these dinner theaters is that they're not deadly serious, they offer a little music and they're very topical, with witty references to Columbus and current pop culture."
Founded in 1992 by producer Bill Saunders and his wife, Valerie, Cloak & Dagger once operated as part of the Mystery Cafe chain.
The couple changed the name in 1996, moving to a Morse Road banquet center.
Their shows still follow the original format, alternating dinner courses with scenes and musical parodies.
The actors double as waiters.
"This is rough theater for the masses," said Saunders, adding that many patrons haven't attended live theater before.
The most seasoned trouper is Joy Schmitt, who has appeared in all but one production.
"To me, each audience member is another actor, part of the show," she said. "We like to interact with the outgoing people, who think off the top of their head. Of course, you don't want to pick on those who prefer to be observers, but you can sense that."
Schmitt, a veteran community-theater actress, took awhile to adjust to the interactive style.
"I had done stage plays for so long that the thought of going off my script was frightening. It was hard to interact with people at first because I was afraid I'd lose my lines. But then I got comfortable.
"A lot of good actors will not do improv, because it puts them on the spot. But I've always been a clown. Even as a kid growing up in Circleville, I had a wise mouth."
The success of Cloak & Dagger, which celebrated its 10th anniversary last month, has inspired competitors, especially in the past two years. The most popular has been the Theatre Lab, which stages interactive shows most Tuesdays at the Spaghetti Warehouse.
"The biggest challenge is the audience," producer Theresa Flais said.
"A lot of people come in not knowing what kind of theater it is. Our troupe improvs quite a bit off the crowd, and some people go with the flow. But even if we explain how the show works at the beginning, it throws some people. If people don't want to participate, it can bring the show down."
Flais has written about two dozen of the 30 productions staged since her company began in 1997. Unlike Cloak & Dagger, which relies on elaborate scripts, the Theatre Lab's scripts are limited to 20 pages to ensure room for improvisation.
One challenge of the genre is finding enough twists within the formula to satisfy repeat visitors.
"You've got to have the jokes, the audience participation and a catchy title to draw people in," Flais said.
Creative Dramatics began performing two years ago, trying out Chili Verde, Buckeye Hall of Fame Cafe and Westerville's The Lakes Country Club.
"I always tell my actors to mingle before the show, chat up the audience and get them to like you," producer Michele Williams said. "Even the villain has to be likable. You have to get the audience on your side so they're cheering for you, more interactive and more at ease."
Increasingly, the troupe is performing Wasted in Margaritaville and other shows at private functions.
"A lot of people have heard about interactive whodunits, but it's hard to build a following. We're finding a niche with corporate events," Williams said.
Murder Mystery Players is a Dallas-based company that has produced interactive mysteries for Dave & Buster's restaurants since 1987. Today, the company rotates about 30 mystery scripts, all written in the Dallas area, at 28 of the national chain's 31 outlets, with six or seven scripts staged annually.
"Americans love mysteries, and people like to play the detective. Just look at the success of Perry Mason, Matlock or Murder, She Wrote," vice president Philip Smerick said from Dallas.
"It's an entertainment especially popular with people celebrating birthdays or anniversaries and with corporate events. Many companies consider it creative team-building, with employees working together at each table to figure out the killer."
Although the Hilliard restaurant initially staged shows every Saturday, small audiences forced a cutback to one a month.
"There will always be some type of audience for this type of show," Smerick said. "People remember how funny it was when one of their party got up to do the hula with an actor or got asked to lead a cheer."
Mystery Ink, a fledgling troupe co-produced by Doug and Leeann Martin, has presented two interactive comedy-mysteries at the Davis Discovery Center: The Color of Murder and last month's Taxed to Death.
Doug Martin, who got acquainted with the genre in the mid-1990s when he began writing Murder at Raccoon Lodge and other mysteries for Cloak & Dagger, is writing two shows for Mystery Ink's second season.
"I like being able to write something and pass it off to someone else to produce, but having my own troupe gives me more artistic control over the scripts," he said.
While Cloak & Dagger emphasizes the comedy, Mystery Ink emphasizes the mystery, he said.
"I like to know that the mystery makes sense and can be solved. I try to be honest and tell the cast: `The characters you're playing are two-dimensional stereotypes. We only have a half-hour to introduce eight characters, so you have to go for broke and go over the top. You need to be bigger and broader than life so the audience has a good sense of the characters' motivations.' "
Local producers have mixed feelings about the proliferation of interactive theater, which includes the comedy-variety shows at Shadowbox Cabaret and 2Co's Cabaret.
"There are so many other companies now that if someone says let's go to an interactive murder-mystery, people know what to expect," Martin said. "Of course, if there are four or five choices, people will tend to pick just one."
Lois Reiner, a 52-year-old property manager in Westerville, hasn't returned since a disappointing experience at Murder Mystery Players with her husband, son, mother and father.
"It sounded intriguing and different, and I wanted to be involved in unraveling a true mystery," she said, "but I expected something longer and more intricate, with twists and even chilling turns."
Reiner, who frequently attends Contemporary American Theatre Company productions, said she also was put off by the long tables and ticket prices.
"It ended up costing us more than $300, with tips. I don't think we got that much enjoyment out of it, and I think I prefer the entertainment cost/reward ratio at CATCO."
The interactive genre may have peaked in Columbus, according to Ted Morris, president of the National Dinner Theatre Association.
"The trend got hot about 10 years ago in most cities," Morris said from Wichita, Kan., where he produces the Crown Uptown Dinner Theatre.
The association represents about 35 theaters nationwide, down from about 150 at the peak in the 1970s.
"When dinner theater was created in the late 1960s, it was basically sex farces. The shows weren't very good and the food wasn't very good, so dinner theater got a bad rap that we're still fighting today."
The theaters that survived, Morris said, did so by offering a combination of good food and entertainment, from musicals and comedies to the recent flurry of interactive shows.
"What our mysteries offer is something you can't get from traditional dinner theater: Closeness with the actors," Saunders said. "Everybody wants to be a star, and our shows give everyone a chance to be in the spotlight for a second or two." W--Type Title Here--
The Columbus Dispatch
Stage Notes: Young troupe spoofs trash-talk shows
Thursday, January 18, 2001
Dispatch Theater Critic
Creative Dramatics is gearing up for a busy season of mirth and murder.
The fledgling troupe, which specializes in interactive comedy-whodunits, began performing last night for the first time at the Buckeye Hall of Fame Cafe.
Talk Shows Can Be Murder, written and directed by Artistic Director Michele Williams, spoofs a ripe subject.
"It's a parody of the trash-talk shows, the people who air their secrets on television and those that exploit them,'' Williams said.
Among the characters: Jerry Rivera (Craig Long), a smarmy talk show host; Rocky Italiano (Mike Stranges), Rivera's calculating assistant and bouncer; Eddie Bumgardener (David Johnson), a sleazy carnival worker; Viloula Bumgardener (Susan Martin), Eddie's loud, obnoxious wife; and Candy Monroe (Williams), a not-so-bright stripper. Mark Reuter plays a mystery guest.
Talk Shows also had a Theatre Lab run two years ago at the Spaghetti Warehouse. Williams was associated with the Theatre Lab before striking out on her own.
She said she plans to write and direct most Creative Dramatics productions. Upcoming shows include A Cheer to a Kill (March/ April), a satire of a cheerleading tryout; Abracadaver (May/June), about a magician who's lost the magic touch; Wasted in Margaritaville (July/August), a Latin tale of an aspiring musician/bartender; Four Suspects at a Funeral (September/October), about a ghost who attempts to discover who killed him; and A Christmas Peril (November/December), set at an office Christmas party.
The lineup at the Buckeye Hall of Fame Cafe represents the return of dinner theater to the remodeled basement room where Cloak & Dagger Dinner Theatre (formerly Mystery Cafe Dinner Theatre) performed from 1992 to 1996 during the final years of the Jai Lai restaurant at the same location.
Creative Dramatics' performers, the Creative Players, rehearse at Snaps & Taps jazz and poetry nightclub, 44 S. Washington Ave.
The troupe produced its first show, Wasted in Margaritaville, for two performances last summer at Chile Verde Cafe, 4852 Sawmill Rd.
The troupe will present Talk Shows Can Be Murder at 7 p.m. Wednesdays through Feb. 28 at the Buckeye Hall of Fame Cafe, 1421 Olentangy River Rd.
Tickets cost $34.95, including dinner. Call 614-291-2233.
The Columbus Alive
January 24, 2001
By Doug Hoebn
Columbus Alive Theater Critic
Farewell, my lusty
Mystery dinner theaters may be formulaic, but sometimes the formula is high octane. And when a top-notch artistic product is matched by superb food, little is left to be desired. Talk Shows Can Be Murder, staged by Creative Dramatics at Buckeye Hall of Fame Cafe, is a piece of clever writing enacted with pizzazz by a sexy sextet of solid actors.
Artistic Director Michele Williams has a firm hand on both the process and the product. The show moves at a steady pace and relies on crisp, corny dialogue with wonderful off-the-wall humor but no flat inanities. "Does anyone know VCR?" asks an airhead when the murder victim stops breathing.
The humor is in our midst but never in our faces, as actors move among the tables with ample room for aesthetic distance. Of course, this zany cast could put on the Ziegfeld Follies in a phone booth without missing a beat.
Craig Long is deliciously sick and slick as the smooth talk show host. Susan M. Martin plays a hag-on-a-rag with gusto, and Mark Reuter is marvelous as both sides of a cross-dressing beauty--OK, ugly--who flings his feather boa with unconstricted abandon. Mike Stranges brings plenty of laughs as the neurotic sidekick, while David Johnson has found his ham as God's gift to women, at least until God finds a better buy at Wal-Mart. Hottest of all is Williams herself in the role of Candy, the exotic dancer with a cleavage that could launch a thousand tips.
The show has terrific jokes, but there is no joke about the quality of the food. From a tasty salad to a nutritious main dish (try the chicken Florentine) to a dessert as rich as Midas, the cafe matches the players' talent with its own best works of culinary art.
The show plays Wednesdays through February. For tickets, call 291-2233.