Rebecca Northan and Bruce Horak have really hit on something. The writing team who first honed their improv skills years ago at Loose Moose Theatre have successfully figured out a way to test those skills to create entertaining theatre — by incorporating a member of the audience into the show. Now, it would be easy enough to have an audience member come on stage and play a bit part, but Northan and Horak take it to the next level by handing over the reins and making that audience member the star of the performance. With a nod to their previous shows, Blind Date and Legend Has It, Northan and Horak have created Undercover — a mystery wherein the audience member becomes a detective and must figure out “whodunnit.” Or, not.
“The thing that’s so great about the murder mystery genre,” explains Northan, “is that it cuts across all demographics, age, everybody because we all love a mystery.”
Having opened the show in Toronto at the end of August, Undercover has seen 40-plus performances to date and great audiences at the shows.
Horak sets the stage for what Calgarians can expect from Undercover during its local run at Vertigo Theatre.
“We invite an audience member to come on stage and be a rookie detective the first day on the job,” he says. “The assignment is to go undercover to a very elite, exclusive art party that’s happening, and there’s nefarious and seedy characters that are going to be (there) … We just sort of watch (the audience member) navigate. Act One is basically surveillance and then in Act Two they get to step up and do the interrogation and eventually lead towards making an arrest. Now, whether or not they get it right it doesn’t matter, but we really just get to go on the ride of watching someone play the game.”
Picking the detective takes some skill and a certain amount of sleuthing on their part. “Exactly as in Blind Date and Legend Has it, we mingle and say, ‘If this was a party, who did you meet that you’d want to hang out with?’ also, ‘Who’s willing?’ ” explains Northan.
With a new audience participant each night, it’s like a whole new show each time. “The murderer is always the same, the theme is constructed so there is one right answer,” she says, “but then the joy is, ‘Well is the next person going to solve it or not and if they do, how?’ ”
Opening the show each night with a new “rookie,” one might think that the cast of Undercover would have to continually guide the action and the narrative, which isn’t the case. “I think if we were trying to every night make them win, to solve it and make sure that they got it right, that would be more tedious than to go, ‘What are they going to do?’ and in a way we get to play the game with them. That’s what keeps it so exciting for us,” says Horak.
Despite the show being largely improv, Northan and Horak have put two years into the the planning and writing of the show, not only creating the numerous backstories of all of the characters, but brainstorming all of the different scenarios and possible angles to the mystery.
“We’ve never done Act Two the same way twice,” explains Northan, “because every person gets to make choices — what rooms do you want to investigate, what people do you want to talk to (etc.) — so it never comes in the same order. Sometimes people uncover the clues, sometimes they don’t. We’ve certainly had detectives who didn’t even bother searching the house at all, so they found NO physical clues, even though there’s stuff to be discovered – there’s an element of escape room kind of gaming going on, no physical clues at all, they only talked to the people and we’re like, ‘Ok, no props tonight!'”
According to Horak, the development of this show was more about the back story, which helps to form the participant’s approach to solving the case. “The bible of this play is more about the characters and their relationships, and the back stories rather than the events because, again, that’s going to depend on the rookie and how they’re going to play along. It’s really complicated but also really exciting.”
The creation of the storyline takes a bit of a different path when you’re trying to plant clues along the way: “In the writing of it you go, ‘OK this person killed this person and this is why,’ ” explains Northan, “and that’s the straight line. But then your job as the mystery writer is to then take the straight line and start bending it and hiding it and fracturing it and putting in the red herrings, but making sure that all the bread crumbs are there so someone could solve it. It has to be fair, so everything you need to solve it is either locked up inside the characters and/or it’s in the physical clues — everything you need to solve it is there.”
At the end of the run all of the rookie detectives are invited to a cast party to not only watch the show, but to compare notes with the other former participants. For your chance to go Hart to Hart (oh, yes I did), take in Undercover at Vertigo Theatre until Feb. 13. http://www.vertigotheatre.com.
Kari Watson is a writer and former Listings Editor of FFWD Weekly, and has continued to bring event listings to Calgary through theYYSCENE and her event listings page, The Culture Cycle. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.