Arts / Performing Arts

Solving an Enthralling Art Heist in Houston and Dallas — This Interactive Walking Mystery Brings Theater Thrills Back

How You Can Become an FBI Trainee and Get on the Case

BY // 03.08.21

The question of how to bring artists and audiences safely back to in-person, live performances has become the greatest theatrical mystery of our interesting times. Luckily the new show Art Heist is hot on the case, making its way across Texas ready to solve this most confounding performing arts puzzle. 

A hit last fall in Austin and San Antonio, now Art Heist sweeps into Houston and then Dallas, taking audiences outdoors and casting them as detectives asked to solve one of the greatest unsolved art crimes of the 20th century. 

Created by Justin Sudds, co-founder of Right Angle Entertainment, written and directed by TJ Dawe and Ming Hudson, Art Heist first debuted at the Vancouver Fringe Festival in 2020. The show turns audience into investigators, specifically FBI trainees, on a field assignment and given a particularly tricky whodunit: Who stole half a billion dollars worth of art from from Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum?  

PaperCity recently talked with Dawe to see how the Right Angle team created a show based on a real museum robbery in 1990 in order to solve this 2021 global conundrum of how to bring audiences back to theater. 

Theatrical Puzzle-Solving

True crime, audience participation and outdoor theater would make for a cool immersive show on its own, but Art Heist’s performance model make it a real rarity in the theater world. Regional audiences tend to encounter two modes of shows, the big touring productions, usually musicals, brought in by presenting companies and theater produced by local companies, with local casts and crews. 

Art Heist merges these models together and then throws the whole concept outside for an immersive theater experience. Right Angle partners with local presenting organizations and venues — Society for the Performing Arts in Houston and AT&T Performing Arts Center in Dallas — uses local production crews and actors, while Dawe and Hudson direct remotely from Vancouver.

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The framework remains the same but with a new set of actors in each city and in a different outdoor space, the show constantly changes. 

Dawe believes Art Heist’s success in San Antonio, Austin and other United States cities prove that when produced safely audiences feel ready to get back to live, in-person performances.

Art Heist original
Is she a witness or suspect in the Art Heist mystery?

“In lockdown, we’ve all been guzzling art, whether Netflix or books or music, but those aren’t interactive and certainly not in the way that even the most traditional, conventional theater piece, much less something like this where the audience is dialoguing with the actors and changing the performance every single time,” Dawe says.

Setting the Outdoor Stage

The varying locations also add creative opportunities for artists and audiences alike. Usually Right Angle and its presenting partners set the show around the main venue, the Tobin Center in San Antonio, Paramount in Austin and the Dallas Art Heist at the AT&T Center. 

SPA takes a slightly different approach, presenting the show along George R. Brown Convention Center and Discovery Green in Houston. 

“The more inherently interesting the backdrop is the better because it invites people to see a familiar location in a new way,” explains Dawe, though he admits theater in the urban wilds can lead to both fun and strange situations for the cast. 

“Another factor we have to consider is the noise of traffic or the noise of people in the park or events that happen in the park,” he says of the Houston production. “There are advantages and disadvantages to all those things. If a passersby sees a clump of people talking to someone in an orange jumpsuit, that’s intriguing.

“People may wonder what’s going on here and want to see the show. Or it could be completely distracting.”

But perhaps those distractions just authenticate the experience. After all, ‘FBI trainees’ have to contend with real world interruptions. With a new 30 to 35 persons audience setting off to solve the case every half hour, no two performances will be the same.

“One of the things I love about this production is that nominally the Houston production is the same show as the Austin, as San Antonio, but actually not. Because something my co-director and I actively want is for each performer to bring something of themselves into it,” Dawe says. 

Casting the Audience

The format of show and audience participation requires the actors to improvise and stay open to the many possibilities each night brings. 

“A lot of our rehearsal with the ‘suspects’ is to dig into who this character is, what kind of person they are,” says Dawe, noting that the actors must ready themselves for relevant and “wiseass” questions alike.

Dawe even recalls one memorable show in San Antonio when a “relentless” 11-year-old ‘FBI trainee’ launched into a particularly “brutal” questioning of her ‘suspect.’

As Dawe and Hudson work with each city’s cast remotely, it puts the pressure on the local crew and artists, but Dawe believe that can spur creativity. 

“One of the great joys of directing multiple productions of this is to see just how much people’s interpretations vary and how much they bring of themselves into it,” he says. “It’s really delightful, especially since I’m almost exclusively working with actors I’ve never met.”

The original idea for the show came from Right Angle co-founder Justin Sudds, who realized early on that for the company’s survival they would have to redefine what live, in-person theater can be to keep artists and audiences safe. Going outside made for one step but touring the show by using local artists in each city changed the model. 

“He found the loophole,” Dawe says of Sudds’s original idea. “COVID is just killing theater, but there’s this tiny loophole here and we crawled through it.”

Art Heist Vancouver
A scene from the original Vancouver Art Heist.

Studds had heard about the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum robbery from a true crime podcast, but Dawe says the team did a large amount of research to get the facts of the case right while setting up the experience so audiences can delve deep into the story. He thinks our collective obsession with the art of investigation makes the show all the more alluring. 

“They’re not just being brought from place to place to watch something happen. They’re actively investigating,” he says of the audience. Dawe believes whether in Vancouver, Austin, Houston or Dallas, when it can be produced safely, theater lovers are yearning to get back to the communal audience experience. 

“Whether they’re conscious of it or not, what I’ve observed is just a sense of relief as people are having new conversations with new people and just seeing how good it feels to be community with other human beings,” he says. “I think it’s the thing we’ve all missed the most.” 

Art Heist runs March 9 to 28 in Houston and March 30 to April 18 in Dallas.

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