One of the greatest unsolved mysteries of the 20th century is the 1990 theft of Rembrandts, Vermeers, Manets and other old master paintings, valued at $500 million, from Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum.
But from now through May 16, the Kravis Center invites you to crack the case by interrogating characters who represent the actual suspects, in an outdoor, socially distanced, interactive show known as Art Heist Experience.
It will be the first live production to play the Kravis – well, the grounds of the Kravis – since the advent of the pandemic. And as its Vancouver-based co-writer and co-director Ming Hudson puts it, “It’s a show that was created in direct response to COVID-19. Once the pandemic happened and the entire entertainment industry sort of ground to a halt, we tried to find a way to keep theater going.”
She concedes that the show is hard to describe. “It’s a little bit like a murder mystery crossed with a bit of a scavenger hunt crossed with an escape room.”
Hudson and her writing-directing partner TJ Dawe designed the show around the evolving virus protocols. “TJ and I created this show to be safe for both the performers and the audience,” says Hudson by phone from her apartment in Canada. “The audience members always remain six feet apart from each other and all of the audience bubbles are 10 feet away from the actors.”
There is minimal interaction among the performers, with the emphasis instead on interrogation by the audience of the cast, who play the actual suspects in the 31-year-old case.
As in the actual case, Art Heist Experience has four suspects. There’s Rick Abath, a security guard on duty the night of the heist. There’s David Turner, a career criminal who was planning a different heist at the time, perhaps to gain information about the Gardner. There’s Brian MacDevitt, a con man and failed writer who planned a very similar heist in Glen Falls, N.Y., about 10 years before the Gardner heist. And there is Myles Connor Jr., a very famous art thief which made him a prime suspect, even though he was in prison at the time of the Gardner heist.
In addition, there are what Hudson calls “guide characters,” whose job it is to drop significant clues into the discussion and to move the audience from location to location around the performing arts center. They too are based on real people, “all actual experts in the field who are connected to the case.”
At each performance, the audience votes on whom they think the culprit is. “The thing is we don’t know who did it, so we don’t pretend that we know the answer,” says Hudson. “It’s really about the audience coming to their own conclusion. That totally changes night to night.”
And no, the guide characters do not try to steer the audience towards a particular culprit. “Our guide characters are as neutral as possible because we don’t want to influence what the audience thinks,” notes Hudson. We really want them to be empowered to follow whatever path they want to follow. If they think a suspect is guilty, we want them to hound that suspect as much as they want to.”
As you might imagine, the script is as unconventional as the show itself. Each suspect is given a file of research into his or her character and the known facts of the case. “What we’re really asking our suspects to do it take this material and then answer questions the way they want,” explains Hudson. “The expert guides are more scripted because they have to be information givers. The suspects are almost not scripted at all.”
Art Heist Experience picks up a local cast for every venue where it plays. Over time, Hudson and Dawe have figured out what skill sets to look for.
“We found it’s this really unique group of people who have the training of a professional theater actor with the spontaneity of someone who is comfortable with improv, plus those with the skills of people who do those historical walking tours,” says Hudson. “It’s a really interesting niche group of artists who are able to handle this material fluidly.”
While the actual characters are all white males, the show looks to cast a diverse group of performers. “We cast regardless of gender, ethnicity, age, shape – none of that matters to us,” says Hudson. “When people audition for us, what we’re really looking for is if they can exude the right energy and think on their feet.”.
Because of COVID, Hudson and Dawe are stuck in Canada. As the show has hit the road down to the warmth of Southern states and South Florida, they have held all their auditions and rehearsals by Zoom. Rehearsals consist largely of the co-directors firing questions at the suspects, trying to trip them up, just as audiences will.
Says Hudson, “We try and send them as many curveballs as we can, but you know what? Audiences are smart and creative and they ask questions that even we couldn’t have imagined. You never know who will be in the audience is and what their knowledge is.”
Art Heist Experience premiered in Vancouver in September, but only played there a couple of weeks before it got too cold to perform outdoors. So it took the plunge to the States – several markets in Texas and North Carolina and, more recently, the Arsht Center in Miami and the Broward Center in Fort Lauderdale. After the Kravis, the show is booked into Fayetteville, Ark., and after that “hopefully we can move farther north as it gets warmer.”
Although it sounds like the kind of show that would be helped by the audience’s ingestion of alcohol, Hudson says attendees will have to remain sober because of the COVID protocols. “We wish we could, but because of our mask policy, we are unfortunately not able to serve drinks. It could be a little more fun in that way, but we will probably have to wait a little longer before we can get alcohol involved.”
While Art Heist Experience was designed to be performed outdoors, Hudson can envision it moving inside once that is allowed.
“Our dream would be to do it inside art galleries. I think that would be really, really cool,” she says. “But yeah, it would be awesome to do it indoors, to be able to take it to colder climates year-round. We don’t know what lies ahead for us, but our hope is that we can keep going even as things return to normal.”
ART HEIST EXPERIENCE, Kravis Center for the Performing Arts, 701 Okeechobee Blvd., West Palm Beach. April 29 – May 16. 5:30 pm on weekdays, 2:00 pm on weekends. $41.50 – $46.50. 561-832-7469 or at Kravis.org/artheist.