On March 18, 1990, at 1:18 am, 1/2 billion dollars worth of irreplaceable artwork was stolen from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston and hasn’t been seen since.
The thieves took… NO, ransacked the beautiful Venetian palace and absconded with 13 pieces of irreplaceable art, including works from great masters like Rembrandt, Monet, and Degas – many of which were brutally cut from their frames with a box cutter. The thieves have never been caught, and the empty frames still hang in the museum awaiting their artworks’ return.
Flash forward 30 years, and my career of 33 years in the theatre industry was also stolen right from underneath me in the blink of an eye. This time the thief was COVID-19. Everything that I had worked so tirelessly to build, a stable, self-supporting full-time career in theatre, vanished around me, and I could do nothing to save it. I’m not alone in this, as the disease ransacked the whole world, turning ALL humanity on this planet upside down in so many ways, leaving us all hopeless, helpless, and scared.
As many of us know; to work as a freelance, the full-time theatrical artist is an accomplishment only a tiny percentage can claim, and once you’ve achieved that stage of your career, you need to continue the momentum to the best of your ability so the “survival” job can be a thing of the past. Not an easy task, but the more you put into it, the more it gives back, and work seems to come your way with less effort than it took before. It’s important to note that I, by no means, had to suffer through the kind of destruction and devastating toll COVID took on the world, nor am I whining about my relatively minor misfortunes over the past year.
On the contrary, I am grateful that my family and I have remained safe and healthy and that forced time off has elicited a reassessment of priorities that I haven’t done in quite some time. Good has come from bad…but it was still quite a blow. For many of us, our days started running together. Showers were being skipped, deodorant fell off the list of necessities, and our trips to Publix (a local grocery store chain) were met with hesitancy, caution, and LOTS of sanitizing. Lockdown prevented doing much of anything, and staying home was recommended. I was ok, with all of that…doing what needed to be done and taking a forced vacation from work was welcome.
BUT… I had NO OUTLET for purposeful creativity…and it started getting to me. I noticed a change in my behavior and daily demeanor. I watched from afar as people turned to Zoom for performance opportunities, classes, and whatever they could think up. While I 100% respect their efforts, this Zoom thing didn’t replace LIVE theatre for me, and I just wasn’t interested in any of it…watching it or participating in it.
NOTHING REPLACES THE EXPERIENCE OF SITTING IN A DARK THEATRE WITH OTHER HUMAN BEINGS WATCHING A STORY UNFOLD BEFORE YOUR VERY EYES. PERIOD. END OF STORY.
You can dress it up by over-producing it with all kinds of bells and whistles, but it will NEVER come close to the real thing. I get why Zoom became so popular, and folks turned towards it; some out of necessity and some out of a need to express their creativity. But for someone who is primarily a director, Zoom opportunities were few and far between.
Until I started seeing audition notices and got the idea to begin submitting myself as an actor again, I thought, “What the hell, why not?” I’m fortunate to have spent at least 20 years pursuing a professional acting career before turning to direct, so I felt comfortable throwing my hat back in the ring. The cool thing about it this time was that years of experience on the other side of the table have made me wiser and more confident. And like many, I said, “I don’t have anything else going on. Let’s give it a go!” I was fortunate to book the lead in an indie feature and then was asked by Peter Galman of The Shakespeare Troupe to do some Zoom readings of various Shakespeare plays.
YES! I gave in. I was now a card-carrying member of the Zoom Theatre Community. I got to do HAMLET, TWELFTH NIGHT, and JULIUS CAESAR with some tremendously talented actors and a director who made me like Shakespeare again. Dare I say, I also found that I liked the process.
Easy peasy…just login and go. No pants needed. So looking back, I shouldn’t have been so judgmental about Zoom Theatre. It goes to show that you need to experience something before passing judgment on it either way. Then along came ART HEIST EXPERIENCE.
I found this audition notice for an immersive, outdoor, socially distanced, walking mystery tour – a true-crime theatre experience. They were casting a Fort Lauderdale company for the Broward Center for the Performing Arts and a Miami company for the Arsht Center. So I submitted for the Fort Lauderdale company, was asked to audition via Zoom (of course), and booked it!
But because of the pandemic, the show was postponed twice due to rising case numbers in Florida and the production company’s concern for actor safety. How grateful am I? Producers who genuinely care about health protocols and actor safety – I must be dreaming! So finally, a go date in March of 2021 was carefully established, and the schedule began.
In brief, ART HEIST EXPERIENCE is about the multi-million dollar theft of as I stated at the beginning of this article, artwork from the Gardner museum, where you meet three experts who know everything about the case and four suspects who MAY have been involved. As an audience member, you’re given clues via an online dossier that you can access with your smartphone, and then you ask questions of the experts and suspects to try and figure out whodunnit.
Jeremy Quinn as Myles Connor Jr. in Art Heist
Or at least, who may be the most likely to have ‘dun it .’Conceived by Justin Sudds of Right Angle Entertainment in California and written/directed by TJ Dawe and Ming Hudson, both from Canada, the show was birthed as a direct result of the pandemic. Mr. Sudds was quoted on BroadwayWorld as saying, “Right Angle is reimagining and repurposing live entertainment to fit today’s reality.” It couldn’t be more authentic, and what a job well done.
With progressive-minded individuals leading the way, I was so impressed at the first orientation when each company member’s preferred pronouns and a land acknowledgment began the proceedings. There was a profound effort to train us when dealing directly with the public instead of assigning gender to individuals, but rather acknowledging audience members by other means. For example, instead of calling on “the guy with the blue hat,” we were asked to phrase it as “the beautiful person with the blue hat” or “the inquisitive individual with the green shirt.”
I was in HEAVEN! Not only were we acknowledging the peoples who inhabited the land in South Florida before it became what it is today, but we were taught to use purposeful means of inclusivity when welcoming ALL audience members regardless of how they identify. My heart swells with this kind of approach because I happen to share the same open-mindedness and desire to warmly accept any beings on this planet without the need to label or categorize. What a concept??!! And let’s face it, shouldn’t theatre take a primary role in leading the way to societal change?
Jeremy Quinn as Myles Connor Jr. in Art Heist
Not to mention that casting had been done without the concern of ethnicity, gender, or physical type. When was the last time you saw THAT happening in professional theatre? Examples are few and far between my friends. They seemingly looked for the essence of the actor and if it would be applicable for the role. Mic drop. Could this experience get even better?!? The answer is yes. The company ended up being comprised of the nicest, most hard-working, “in it to win it” actors with no cliques and no ‘drama’ to be found ANYWHERE.
We weren’t competing with each other; we were competing to present the best and most believable version of our characters in an ensemble-driven, outside-the-box production where everyone supports each other to rise to the occasion. So pick up the mic and drop it again!
In our orientation, we were shown how the show works and is executed and getting TONS of available research to prepare our approach and build our characters. Everything from newspaper articles and prepared dossiers to a present-day, true-crime podcast about the heist.
Randall Swinton in Art Heist
Well, I devoured all of it because it was so damn interesting to start with, AND I wanted to be as prepared as I could going into my first Zoom rehearsal. Because the show is ‘unscripted’ per se and mostly improvised with the facts of the story, we had to prepare a 10-minute chunk of the MOST essential information and get ready for rapid-fire questions; paying close attention to what data we NEEDED to make sure the audience received for them to get the total ‘experience’ and be able to identify who they thought was most likely to have been involved.
With tons of information about the heist AND my character swirling around in my head as well as the authentic voice of my character that had permeated my ears through the podcast; I entered into the first of TWO (yes, TWO!) rehearsals ABSOLUTELY TERRIFIED; even though I had solidly prepared my 10 minutes of information by walking and talking and timing myself as our directors suggested.
In all my years of doing theatre, I had never participated in a devised piece of this nature at the professional level, and I was so freakin’ nervous that ‘imposter syndrome’ set in. Could I pull this off? Was I in over my head? You always want to make a good impression ‘on the first day of school,’ right? I was being challenged as an actor in a way I had NEVER experienced before. But, as you do, I dove into the deep end and hoped for the best. Well, on my first go, my chunk ended up being about 17 minutes long (Uh oh!), and I was asked about my pace. It turns out; I had subconsciously adopted the real Myles Connor’s voice (South Boston’s Southie dialect and all) from the podcast.
The dialect was acceptable, totally appropriate, and wasn’t intrusive, but the pace of my speech was noticeably slow. The directors were quickly able to diagnose the problem. The voice I heard on the podcast was my character after he had had a stroke, and the moment I appear in the show is before he had the stroke. They told me to think of (the great) Robin Williams on steroids to rectify the situation. Is that even possible without imploding or having a stroke myself?
All I could do was try, and it turned my approach inside out and upside down, but I got there. With new pacing and direction to have more fun and enjoy myself, they sent me on my way to prepare for the next rehearsal, where rapid-fire questions the audience might ask were thrown at me. With the director’s support and encouragement, my anxiety about doing this fell to the wayside. I began to find what would become my ‘Shpiel,’ getting it down to the required 10 minutes and confident about my info transitions and my delivery.
Rehearsal #2 went off without a hitch, and I felt ready for the on-site dress rehearsal to follow. Throwing the ‘environment’ into the mix was also somewhat interesting because now you’re outside with all kinds of life happening all around you, from humans to automobiles to lizards and even a possum who came to visit me on occasion. Well, I’ve gotten this far in the process; and being a team player, I’ll adjust as necessary! Truthfully though, being outside in Florida in March is quite lovely – balmy breezes and all. Which beckons the question, why don’t we have MORE outdoor theatre going on in South Florida during the winter months? Maybe that’s another positive lesson we can glean from this awful pandemic.
A special shout-out to the venue is also a much-needed mention. The Broward Center for the Performing Arts was an incredible host, and production coordinator Brandy DeMil made everyone feel safe, comfortable, and secure in our endeavor. There was constant cleaning happening everywhere, temperatures were taken religiously the moment you signed in, and mask-wearing was strictly adhered to by everyone at all times.
Participants of Art Heist at the Broward Center
Everyone in the cast was so considerate in the dressing rooms, and not once did I feel at risk. So at dress rehearsal, the cast was shown their spots along the route, and we participated as the audience for each other as we went through the show. When it came close to my segment, I slinked away from the group and journeyed to my spot. Along the way, I encountered an older couple on the sidewalk, seemingly out on an evening stroll after dinner. The directors had given me, as my character, the liberty to mess with the audience a little, so I decided to try it out. Being in an orange DOC jumpsuit (inmate number and all), I was visible coming down the sidewalk, so I went into stealth mode pretending that I had, indeed, escaped from prison and began hiding in the bushes as I went along towards my relegated performance spot. Yes, I realize that my age and ‘adultness’ come into question here.
Apparently ‘Karen’ and ‘Ken’ saw me (as I hoped they would) and after they had passed, decided to call the police a few minutes later (as I hoped they wouldn’t!). The tour moved along, and it was my turn to pull out all the stops for my gracious and attentive colleagues. Not 5 minutes or so into my set and the actual POLICE showed up, cars parked strategically so I couldn’t escape. It didn’t take them long to figure out this was an artistic performance, and I just happened to be playing a convicted felon. In the spirit of ‘Yes…and, I made sure to include the coppers in my performance and welcomed them to join our audience. If only this had been an actual performance – you can’t get much more authentic and immersive than that!!! But one of our directors was present via FaceTime, so he got to enjoy my unexpected run-in with the law.
Over the next couple of nights of previews, we continued to get notes from our directors who joined us remotely, and we were on our way. I reflect on how different but completely effective it was never to have been in a rehearsal room and never have had the directors present on the ground. It didn’t bother me a bit. It didn’t negatively affect the production, and I salute our leaders to make theatre happen with the available technology we now have in the modern era. Different, yes, but possible – another fantastic element of this experience.
Then the audience came, and they came in droves. People were clamoring for culture, which was a safe way to satisfy the yearning for what we didn’t realize we missed so much. LIVE THEATRE! Our run was Tuesday-Sunday with the possibility of 9 performances a show. The tours were scheduled to start every 30 minutes and were packed back to back to back. After you performed, though, you would have a healthy 30 minutes to visit the restroom, get a drink, etc., before you would have to perform again. So it wasn’t extensive, but it did become a bit exhausting. I think I realized it because my character is such a physically active storyteller. But I loved every second of it – playing with the audience, testing out new lines and jokes, and figuring out which transitions worked best, all depending on the questions the audience was asking. My piece of the puzzle was constantly evolving depending on the give and take with the audience.
I’m not going to lie, though. Sometimes it became super challenging to answer a question and still navigate the material you know you have to give them. For example, an audience member may ask a question about information at the end of your segment, and you have to rewind your way through or use whatever transitions you can to get you back on track to feeding them what they should know.
It’s a fascinating human experiment when you think about it – NEVER EVER the same show twice, mainly because you may have a large group that asks a lot of questions or a small group that asks NONE! Each time you get to manage how it’s going to go, and you get good at it. It’s like heavy-duty improv. Nonetheless, you don’t strive for perfection; it will never be an altogether perfect performance. The human variable makes sure of that.
However, I made it my goal not to be the one the audience votes for when they’re asked at the end, which they think is the most likely to have been involved. My objective is to convince the audience that I didn’t do it with the information I’ve prepared. So when I don’t get any votes, I know that I’ve given a strong performance. The material, performance, the audience’s questions, etc., were all aligned and synced up to deliver a ‘NO’ verdict.
Often, I wouldn’t get any votes at all the whole night, and that was a successful night in my book. But nobody’s perfect. When I would get voted for, I could look back at the performance and immediately distinguish what went awry or how I could tweak something so it would go differently the next time. But that’s the beauty of LIVE theatre; your performance is constantly evolving like a living, breathing, artistic entity. And isn’t that one of the reasons why we do it in the first place?
The constant excitement of ‘what’s going to happen?’ in the air… for a couple of hours at least. Cut to wrapping up a very successful run at The Broward CPA and being asked if I’m interested in following the show which had been booked at The Kravis CPA in West Palm Beach. NO BRAINER! I think I responded within seconds of receiving the email. Same role, of course… I’m not sure I’m daring enough to explore the preparation of another role in the same show. Besides, I’ve very much fallen in love with my little convict in the orange jumpsuit (LOL). He is SO much fun to play, and I find many of his characteristics to be self-confidence boosters during a time when we’re somewhat adrift in our pursuit of creative endeavors, and the self-confidence we get from creating or performing hasn’t been seen in over a year.
This brings us to the present. ART HEIST EXPERIENCE is currently performing at The Raymond F. Kravis Center until May 16 with four NEW cast members (who are equally as credible and talented as the last cast) and just as fabulous with whom to work as well as a fantastic new venue that treats us like Broadway stars. Two cast members (including myself) from the Broward production and one from the Miami production have returned to reprise their roles. At the same time, we welcomed the four newbies with open arms and loads of wisdom from our past experiences. The production team is STELLAR and there to support us any way they can. It’s pure joy to be back working with such professionals. With similar health protocols in place as at The Broward Center, The Kravis is knocking it out of the park. The safety of both actors and audience members continues to be the number one priority.
BCPA Art Heist Experience Company