An Interactive Murder Mystery Party Game

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* * * Reprint from Dramatists Guild Quarterly Spring 1997


By David Landau

Interactive Theater, like all kinds of legitimate theater, comes in many different styles and genres, despite the incorrect assumptions of some. I haven't seen the two shows David Olivenbaum discussed in his article on interactive theater in the Winter 1996 issue of the Dramatists Guild Quarterly and therefore cannont comment on them in particular. But as I have made my entire living writing and producing interactive theater for the past thirteen years, I have a good deal of experience and knowledge about the field and would like to enlighten my fellow members of the Dramatists Guild.

Ayn Rand's serious interactive courtroom drama The Night of January 16th recruited audience members as jurors who decided the play's ending by returning a guilty or not guilty verdict. It played on Broadway in 1935 and was very successful at summer stock theaters in the following years and for the USO during World War II. It would be fun to see how it would play in Los Angeles today - it would probably end in a mistrial with all the members of the jury selling their book and TV rights.

In the early 1960s Nobody Leaves This Theater featured a band of revolutionaries á la Patty Hearst taking the audience hostage. This politically charged interactive play was no more successful then than it would be today. Who enjoys a night of being intimidated and having guns shoved in your face? If you want that you can walk the streets of L.A. for free.

The longest-running play in Boston is currently Bruce Jordan & Marilyn Abrams's interactive comedy Sheer Madness, which opened in 1980. In the second act the farce invites the audience to shout out questions to the characters on stage who snap back well-rehearsed "spontaneous" answers. At the end of the play, the audience votes on which character they want to make the final comical confession as to who killed the diva upstairs.

In 1985 Rupert Holmes's interactive musical The Mystery of Edwin Drood hit Central Park under the auspices of Joseph Papp's New York Shakespeare Festival. We all know it moved to Broadway the same year and it featured actors talking directly to the audience and soliciting them to vote on who would sing what songs by the end of the second act.

All these interactive plays were produced on legitimate theater stages but required the involvement of the audience to come to a final conclusion. In 1983, I took the interactive play one step further, dragging it out of the theater and into real locations.

The Mystery Express was performed throughout a moving train during overnight trips from New York to Montreal. Capt. Morgan's Mysterious Manors was performed in numerous locations in the entire resort town of Cape May, New Jersey during off season (with additional productions in Castine, Maine and Block Island, Rhode Island). In both plays the audience had to follow the characters around to witness various scripted exposition scenes that were performed simultaneously in different places. The actors repeated the scenes when new audience members arrived.

The concept was to allow the audience to experience a motion picture - to walk through a mystery drama unfolding before their very eyes, in real time, in real locations. The murder was revealed the next morning when the entire audience and cast were assembled into a deliberately selected cramped space to be raked over the coals by the homicide detective. Now the audience, as the only witnesses, became essential in the continuation of the play. Though the hour-long interrogation scene was fully scripted and rehearsed, it relied heavily on having audience members answer the detective's questions, which would lead to his interrogating a character. The final denouement scene wasn't enacted until some time later, after audience members had a chance to interrogate the suspects on their own and examine the evidence, including an actual scene-of-the-crime.

Both of these productions were serious mystery plays. They garnered international press with reviews and feature stories in the New York Times, the Village Voice, Life, People, National Public Radio, TV's That's Incredible and Good Morning America, and the highlight - the National Inquirer. All this was well before Tony n' Tina's Wedding and even before Tamara, the environmental melodrama performed in a real mansion where audience members followed the characters to witness scenes, but were forbidden to interact with them.

The massive exposure of these productions encouraged others to do similar events and "mystery weekends" became very popular and common by 1985. It wasn't until the late 1980's that mystery dinner theater began. Single evening productions performed over the course of dinner were much less expensive to produce and thus offered substantially lower ticket prices, appealing to a mass audience..

Murder at Cafe Noir, my comic mystery play in tribute to the Bogart films of the forties, premiered at the Mystery Cafe of Boston of 1989. The play, divided into five scenes performed between courses of a served meal, twice solicited the audience to vote on what the main detective character should do next. The cast memorized and rehearsed two different ways to play the scenes which followed. The audience responded to questions from the detective in the final act and they even got a chance to guess "whodunit" and maybe win a prize. The production was fully scripted (having only one logical ending), featured two original musical numbers (by composer/lyricist Nikki Stern) and was performed in and around the dining tables. Cafe Noir enjoyed long runs in over forty cities, receiving great reviews and playing to sell-out audiences.

Most of this sort of interactive productions are staged in restaurants or hotel banquet rooms, run only on weekends, and can only accomodate around 100 people. Some of these locations offer better food than any so-called legitimate dinner theater. My company's Morristown, New Jersey location is the downstairs room of Il Giardino, an elegant, four-star Italian restaurant.

Because interactive dinner theater cannot qualify for not-for-profit status and thus cannot receive donations, grants or government funding, it must be geared towards mass entertainment in order to survive. Let us not forget that legitimate theater in this country began as melodrama and vaudeville. There is nothing wrong with providing the greatly needed escapism that the public craves today more than ever. Sure, there are interactive theater shows with inane sex jokes, broad characterizations, and actors making audience member laugh uncomfortably. The same can be said of Vampire Lesbians of Sodom and dozens of other non-interactive stage plays. I certainly wouldnt claim that any one single play represents all plays of its genre. The eighteen interactive plays of mine that have been professionally produced do not share any of the above qualities. (Okay, so there have been one or two producers that have bastardized some of my plays and lowered them to banal audiences by hamming them up. But this happens to all kinds of plays regardless of genre. We all despair at how little control we authors actually have over the presentation of our work.)

If it's true that some interactive wedding or funeral shows don't offer much of a plot in the conventional sense, we should remember that neither do Oil City Symphony, Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All for You, Pump Boys and Dinettes, Forever Plaid, Nunsense and A Chorus Line. Should these not be considered theater?

Interactive theater is still in its infancy. It is ridiculous for anyone to suggest that it will ever replace other kinds of theater - it was never meant to. The majority of producers that I have met in this business are interested more in sales than theater. They will produce anything that will turn a profit, from cabaret to wedding theme parties, interactive mystery plays to stand-up comedy shows. It is up to us playwrights to expand the boundaries, to discover a bridge between art and popular appeal. I have spiced many of my interactive plays with tidbits of social commentary and political jokes with a bite. The hypocrisy of TV evangelists, the ruthlessness of modern business, the fruitlessness of political violence, the needless destruction of the rain forests, and maintaining one's own integrity are among the themes that have been highlighted in my interactive mysteries. And believe it or not, the audience listened.

Interactive theater can and will continue to expand. In the past there have been the limited box-office successes of Pageant, where the audience voted on the contestants (all men in drag) and Prom Queens Unchained, which included dinner. The lavish Song of Singapore surrounded the audience in the atmosphere of Singapore in the 1930s with international intrigue, a musical revue and light food and drink. My play Ghost of a Chance, which ran for almost a year in New Jersey and just completed a limited run in Salem, Massachusetts, involved the audience in deciding the fate of a ghost who sues a club owner and his nondenominational exorcist for harassment and illegal eviction. We even had three audience member brought up to testify as witnesses - the third changed into a skeleton in a flash of lightening and crash of thunder. Yet even in this overt comedy, the closing statement of the defense revealed that even death can not extinguish love. Comedy can have its moments, interactive or not.

A few of my conventional stage plays and musicals have been given productions and workshop performances. But I continue to write interactive mysteries not just to pay the mortgage, but because I enjoy engulfing the audience in the plot, the characters, and the unexpected twists. Audiences like them because of the escapism and the puzzle - but even more, because they provide reassurance that good does triumph over evil, that sense can be made from chaos and that justice does will out.

I encourage all playwrights to write all forms and genres of interactive theater that continue to entertain yet do something more. Sure, there may be some wacky shows out there, interactive or not. But more is possible and profitable. Interactive theater is here to stay. Let us work to expand its potential rather than downplay its early successes.


David Landau is a member of the Dramatists Guild and the Mystery Writers of America. His stage play Deep Six Holiday won the Blackburn Award for Playwriting in 1991 from the Dayton Playhouse. The same year Murder at Cafe Noir won the award for Best Dinner Theater production in Southern California from Orange Coast magazine. He is the writer/producer for Murder to Go Productions.

Other Articles
Life Magazine, November, 1984
People Magazine, September 3, 1984
USA Today, September 21, 1983
Business Week, September 26, 1983
New York Times, August 23, 1992
The National Enquirer, May 22, 1984

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