A Whodunit, COVID-Style
One night in 1990, two thieves disguised as police officers walked into Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston and stole 13 works of art valued at $500 million. The crime remains unsolved, 30 years later.
Blumenthal Performing Arts is hoping amateur gumshoes in Charlotte might help solve the theft during its first COVID-19-friendly performance, “Art Heist.”
And there’s hope, too, that the performance might also provide some long-sought entertainment amid a pandemic that has forced theater lovers, actors and directors into various forms of isolation for the past eight months.
“We're all starved for genuine interaction,” co-creator and director T.J. Dawe said. “We've all been kind of bundled with just one or two or just a few other people. And we're watching a lot of Netflix or Amazon Prime or movies, or we're listening to albums; we're reading books. But none of those is interactive.
“So, this show -- this type of show -- scratches a lot of different itches.”
The main urges quelled by “Art Heist” are the ability to interact with others – from a safe distance, of course -- and to see live theater.
The interactive theater experience that runs until Dec. 13 is Blumenthal’s first in-person performance since coronavirus shutdowns began in March. Dawe calls it a cross between an escape room and a scavenger hunt, as small, socially distanced groups are led to five different locations in uptown Charlotte to interview suspects in the crime.
Clues about the heist, which was detailed in WBUR’s 2018 podcast "Last Seen," are revealed through improvised performances. There’s no right answer, but audience members – capped at 30 people per performance -- work to find their version of the truth by the end of the show.
“It's a true crime story, so we thought, ‘Oh, we can get in true crime fans that way,’” Dawe said. “But it's also a bloodless crime; there's nothing grisly about it. There's no murder, nothing like that. So, it's also accessible to younger people or people who are maybe disinclined to look into grisly murder stories.”
Dawe partnered with co-creator Ming Hudson and producer Justin Sudds to develop the story and touring performance concept not long after the coronavirus lockdowns began – and all were wondering if the shutdown meant the end of live theater. “Art Heist” debuted in September at the Vancouver Fringe Festival, and has been to two other cities before Charlotte. Another eight cities have expressed interest in the production in the near future.
“And because there's no live entertainment happening anywhere, this has had a much quicker development than most shows like this do,” Dawe said. “There were just producers and venues all over the place wanting something to offer their subscriber base.”
Kitty Janvrin is the show’s local production manager and said Blumenthal had four weeks to put the event together.
“Like most performing arts centers theaters around the country, we’ve been looking at ways to do a pandemic pivot and incorporate the arts in a way that is going to be safe and also entertaining for audiences,” Janvrin said. “This came up and seemed like a perfect fit.”
It was a tight timeline, though, to find local actors. Morgan Wakefield is one of the local actresses in the cast of 10 – five suspects and five tour guide leaders – performing in “Art Heist.” She was in Theatre Charlotte’s socially distanced performance of “What I Did Last Summer,” but has otherwise spent the pandemic earning money by streaming a different type of performance – her playing video games.
She quickly gave up making her way through the “Halo” series on her YouTube channel to be a part of “Art Heist,” but it hasn’t been like any other performance she’s been a part of. All rehearsals have been individual, one-on-one sessions with Dawe or Hudson via Zoom.
Dawe tries to stump Wakefield and other actors with questions an audience member might ask – so far there have been a lot of unexpected Boston-specific queries that actors have had to brush up on – to make sure it all flows naturally.
“In rehearsals I've thrown as many curveballs as I could and then just let them know, ‘People are going to ask you things that I'm not asking now that I couldn't possibly think of. And you've got to be ready for it. You've got to be able to answer in character like you are that person really responding to that question in real time. No hesitation, just answer,’” Dawe said.
Which has been a bit trickier to do via Zoom rehearsals, Wakefield said.
“In person, you're able to just read body language and pick up things quickly and work off of each other almost in like milliseconds because our brains just naturally do that,” she said. “But over Zoom, internet can be an issue. People's screens can freeze or sometimes we talk over each other accidentally. So it's almost like you're hyper-aware of trying to recreate that in-person experience, but it's just not quite the same.”
But Wakefield lives for performances with an audience and was eager for the Zoom rehearsals to morph into in-person events, which began Wednesday.
“I love acting for the storytelling and it just brings us all back to a human level, we're all able to connect in such a -- this sounds so corny -- but like a magical way that no other industry or form of art allows us to,” she said. “And I really do think that this performance type will foster that, especially since people have been really holed up in their homes and somewhat in quarantine and not seeing their friends and stuff as much.
“So, to have just even that little bit of interaction with others, again, I think will really foster that and bring that about.”
As the coronavirus surges across the country, this type of intimate, interactive performance might be the only way to provide entertainment safely, for the time being.
“Even though there's good news about [there] being COVID vaccines with 90-95% effectiveness rates, how long is it going to be before that reaches you and me?” Dawe said. “And how long is that going to be before it reaches enough of us that we all feel safe to go indoors? So, yeah, I absolutely think there's going to be more shows like this.”
More information about Art Heist can be found at BlumenthalArts.org.
This story originally appeared in WFAE's weekly arts and entertainment email newsletter, Tapestry. Subscribe here.