No matter how much time theater professionals spend diligently rehearsing a show, it's often the unscripted moments—an improvised line, an unexpected response from the audience—that are the most memorable.
Two newer Tucson theater events take that idea to heart, putting audience interaction at the center.
Murder Mystery, a dinner-theater show at Hotel Congress, combines food, performance and good-old-fashioned murder. This Friday and Saturday night, in the spooky In Search of Dillinger's Ghost, a dinner guest just may expire right in the middle of the meal.
Then at Colors on Saturday night, in the latest edition of Retro Game Show Night, drag-queen Tempest Du Jour will preside over a re-creation of the game show Family Feud. Audience members will play one side of a combative family; members of the Southern Arizona AIDS Foundation will play the rival faction.
Du Jour pushes the insanity to "truly hysterical pitch," Retro co-founder David Hoffman reports by email. Also known as Patrick Holt, Du Jour is "one of the funniest (and tallest, at 6-foot-8-plus) drag queens in town."
Even so, not everyone in attendance is eager to participate.
"Some people are like, 'Dear God, please no,'" Du Jour says with a laugh. "But I'd say about a third of the people there really want to."
To become a contestant, audience members have the option of dropping their names into a box (affectionately referred to as Tempest's Big Pink Hairy Box). Some folks are so eager to play that they engage in illegal ballot-box-stuffing. Others prefer to sit back and enjoy dinner; Colors' full menu and bar are available during the show.
Retro Game started up last December after a lunch between longtime collaborators Holt and Hoffman. Both are Tucson theater professionals. By day, Holt is a UA associate professor of theater. Hoffman worked at Arizona Theatre Company for more than a decade, and he founded the Reveille Men's Chorus and the Green Thursday Theatre Project. Before that, he was involved with One in Ten Repertory Theatre.
The two had worked together on Holt's drag show, Honeybaked Glam, now a regular Friday-night event at Colors. While brainstorming ideas, Holt mentioned he'd seen a drag performance that included a version of that former television staple The Dating Game.
This idea evolved into the monthly game-show night. So far, the team has rotated through a variety of vintage shows, including Password and Match Game. June's offering, The $9.95 Pyramid, was "one of our most-successful—and hilarious—nights so far," Hoffman says. A second Password is under consideration as the next game, to be played Aug. 11. (The shows are usually on the second Saturday of the month.)
The owner of Colors, John Lochert, suggested that proceeds go to a local nonprofit. So far, donations have benefited the Community Food Bank, the Humane Society of Southern Arizona, the Loft Cinema and HEART of Tucson.
Hoffman, Holt and Lochert all have deep ties to the gay community, and Colors is known as an LGBT-friendly restaurant and club. Nevertheless, "What was important for us from the beginning is that it's not a gay-community-exclusive thing," Holt says. "We wanted to open it up."
Hoffman agrees. "It's a nice way to tie it into the community," he says. This weekend's Family Feud will benefit the Southern Arizona AIDS Foundation.
Both organizers are proud of the variety of people the show attracts, but Hoffman does offer a word of caution to parents.
"It's not vulgar," he says, "but it's an adult show."
Murder Mystery was also created by a pair of local theater veterans, Sheldon Metz and John Vornholt.
Metz is a director (he's recently worked with Beowulf Alley and Live Theatre Workshop), and Vornholt is a professional writer (and has been a contributor to the Tucson Weekly). They debuted the show in May, and for each outing, they generate a new murder story—one that requires audience participation.
Guests arrive at Hotel Congress for cocktails, then mingle in a crowd that mixes patrons with members of the actors' troupe Murder Mayhem. Everyone sits down to a gourmet dinner—and someone is brutally "slain." Eventually, the audience must vote on whodunit.
The debut show, The Dillinger Diamonds, staged in May, sold out the hotel's Copper Hall. For this weekend's In Search of Dillinger's Ghost, infamous 1930s bank-robber John Dillinger—who was captured in Tucson after staying at Hotel Congress—again provides inspiration.
"The Hotel Congress has so much history behind it that it's a natural place to stage something like this," Vornholt says.
For the second show, Metz promises more interactivity. The show is "still humorous and fun," he says, but the mystery angle will be ratcheted up, with clues for the audience to find and solve.
Metz and Vornholt keep an eye out for audience members who are especially keen to join in the dramatic fun. The opening reception gives them a chance to see who is rarin' to participate—"people who have come knowing that it's an interactive situation," Vornholt says.
Adds Metz, "Most people who come to Murder Mayhem know that they're not going to be able to be wallflowers."
Different as they are, Murder Mystery and Retro Game Show Night have the same basic mission.
"We want to have fun, and we want our audiences to have fun," says Metz.