How important is a venue? Touring productions always have to adjust the show to the space, but designers often create in ways that make the show adaptable to anticipated venues. And scripts? They usually stay the same.
Unorthodox Arts, based in Boston, is, well, unorthodox. For its first production, Dust and Shadows, rewriting the script to suit venues and respond to spectators was part of the plan. Company members created their own roles in a sketchy 20-page script for a murder mystery, staying ready to elaborate and revise. At some performances, particular props were used, at others they weren’t, and sometimes they were used in unanticipated ways.
Before setting up in a venue, in this case the parish house of a Unitarian church, the company researched the building. What stood there 100 years ago? A private residence, it turned out. When the company discovered that the homeowner had been the director of the Massachusetts Department for Mental Hygiene and had written books about murderers, they changed a character, basing his experience on early treatments for the insane. “If we partner up with a restaurant, we’ll be researching its original location and history, and working that into the plot and the history of the dead man,” says co-founder and director Kat Kingsley of an upcoming set of performances.
The event, which Kingsley calls “a controlled car crash,” immersed spectators in the mystery, charging them to figure out who murdered a man 100 years ago. Taking instructions from the victim though letters provided by his imaginary estate and through other characters, spectator-investigators handled props and interrogated suspects, who performed interactively; some spectators worked individually, hiding relevant information from others, while others teamed up. Spectators ranged from students to seniors, and for Kingsley, watching them interact as the script changed was “like being attached to back of a train when you’re never sure where it’s going to go.”
At one performance, a character was drilled for the name of the woman he was sleeping with, and the actor invented a name that happened to correspond to the name of the dead man’s sister. “The audience connected the two names, fundamentally changing a large portion of the show,” says Kingsley, who played a Victorian spiritualist; at another performance, a spectator asked her to communicate with the dead man, who had been summoned to the room during a séance. “I then played a literal medium between the audience member and the dead man, allowing the audience member to ask any questions he could think of. We all have to know every detail of the script inside and out, just in case this stuff happens.”
Audience members used smart phones to Google anything mentioned in the script or discovered in props. “Because we try to keep up the illusion that our characters, and their histories are real, we have to be very, very careful about dotting our Is and crossing our Ts,” Kingsley says. “Any references to existing locations or histories that could exist online have to be carefully researched and integrated so that nothing conflicts with our script. Even a single typo on a single piece of paper can set off a series of events that can derail a show. In our last performance, we had one prop which mistakenly read ‘Medfield’ instead of ‘Medford’ as the other props did, and suddenly all the patrons were insistent that it was a clue and worth investigating, when it a simple typo. We then chose mid-performance to spontaneously invent a reason for the typo, and inform all the other actors of that reason while they were effectively ‘on stage.’ It was harrowing but part of the joy of truly giving the audience the ability to rewrite the show on the fly. The audience will always manage to horribly break some part of the game mechanic mid-performance—it’s just a matter of what and when—and having flexible enough actors and script to move with the audience and not against them [is essential].”
Some prepared scenes were played out only during performances when a spectator asked specific questions about a particular prop. Actors built these props, which included a long journal with detailed entries, a 1920s checkbook, train tickets, antique postcards with real antique stamps, a cashbox, fake audio reels with dates and names, and a remote controlled self-lighting candle that utilized lighter fluid and flash paper. Some props were hidden in the space or on the characters. “It’s like they’re in an episode of CSI. There are knives and other fun things you would expect in a mystery,” says Kingsley.
And what’s a murder mystery without blood? In this one, an actor cuts his arm with a knife. Since actors can be in fights earlier, and since it isn’t clear which actor will bleed from the onset, a blood bag on the actor can’t used. Instead, blood was stored in the knife handle, made from an adapted shampoo bottle. This fed the blade made of balsa wood; when an actor squeezed the handle, blood ran. The blood formula included laundry detergent, food coloring (red with a touch of blue), coffee to give it an earthy tone, Scotch Guard to make it less translucent, and Woolite to help get stains out of Victorian-style clothing.
Characters also bled onto a table that could release blood on cue. While creating the bleeding table, Kingsley says she made so many trips to the local hardware store that the owner began greeting her with ‘“Oh, what has gone wrong now?’ It was designed to run off of battery so no cords would be sticking off the table, but the battery started to spark and catch fire,” says Kingsley, adding that the effect became more dramatic, extension cord notwithstanding, when they could add a dimmer switch and dial it down at will. Cast members controlled the bleed manually with a switch attached to a pump that rested in a bucket and came up through a hole in the table.
Unorthodox Arts’ answer to the traditional “pencil and paper” voting mechanism in murder mystery shows was an animatronic. “This was our attempt to take a style of performance that is usually rather hackneyed and make it theatrically interesting and impactful,” says Kingsley, explaining that spectators could vote on who the murderer was by placing a key in one of the boxes labeled for each character.
Kingsley built and designed the box over eight months. “I’ve done talking robots and other animatronics in the past, but I had to learn a whole new programming language to run this,” says Kingsley, who found it relatively easy to program the box to light up and play music but had a hard time getting a door to move on cue. “If the door doesn’t open, the show doesn’t end.” A local software company assisted with the brains of the box, which ideally would open the door by remote control. “Due to some weird error, part would run and another part would shut down,” says Kingsley, who finally relied on a crew member who would operate it from a computer in the next room. At each performance, the ending was different, and the show ended successfully.
Davi Napoleon has been writing for Live Design and its antecedents from 1977. Her work also appears in a variety of other publications, including American Theatre, The Faster Times, and alumni publications for several schools. She is an expert on the American not-for-profit theatre and author of Chelsea on the Edge: The Adventures of an American Theatre.