Jack North knew he had a good idea back in 1990, but he never dreamed his interactive murder mystery show, Murder Afloat, would still be sailing strong 20 years later.
"In the late 1980s, I was doing a show at City Lights theater," North says. "One of the other actors told me about an interactive murder mystery show on Hilton Head. I auditioned and was cast.
"Though I had done dozens of shows at both City Lights and the Savannah Theater Company, I had never experienced interactive theater before," he says. "After doing a few shows for that company, I tried to convince the producer/director to bring the show to Savannah and perform it on the Cap’n Sam riverboat. They didn’t really have an interest in doing that, so in 1990 I did it myself."
North had never written a mystery before, but he scripted a show. "I cast a few actors I had worked with in various shows, and convinced the staff at Cap’n Sam to let us do a few public shows through the summer to see how it would go over," he says.
The following year, Murder Afloat became a weekly attraction. "Over 20 years, as various other riverboat companies came and went, we managed to become a fixture on River Street," North says.
"In 1998, we began our current 13-year run with the River Street Riverboat Company," he says. "Thursday nights were chosen only because they were slow for the riverboat.
"We all worried how a Thursday night show at such an odd time (9:30 p.m.) would fare," North says. "It has turned out to be one of the most popular cruises offered by the River Street Riverboat Company."
There isn’t a theater producer alive who wouldn’t envy such a record, but Murder Afloat isn’t your regular play. "It’s a scripted show, but the actors do not perform on a stage," North says. "They do not typically dress in outlandish costumes.
"Instead, we blend in with the audience and perform scenes amongst them," he says. "You won’t see such hackneyed stereotypes like the rich dowager with a feather boa and cigarette holder, or a big game hunter with a rifle and pith helmet."
North says he "really, really, really" hates those kinds of shows. "I’ve seen ‘em in big markets and in small ones," he says. "They’re very sophomoric. They’re like the closing night amateur skits performed by camp counselors at summer camp."
The actors walk onto the riverboat along with the passengers. "Often a scene or two goes by before the audience is even aware that the conversations or situations taking place right next to them are part of the show," North says.
"This is not a show you sit and watch," he says. "As characters move about the boat, the audience is encouraged to follow and even ask questions, preferably between scenes."
Anyone who has ever performed knows that not every audience member behaves. "Inevitably, there are times when an audience member will simply begin interrogations while a scripted scene is taking place between two or more characters," North says. "The actors must deal with this interruption just as they would in real life, addressing the audience member, then returning to the script."
The show is a little different each time. "Though it is scripted, with the same plot through the season, the reactions from the audience may differ from week to week," North says. "The story line and characters change from year to year."
In previous shows, there were seven actors in the cast, but this year’s cast has just five characters. "Our cast includes relatively new additions who made their debuts last season and veterans of 10 or 12 years," North says.
Murder Afloat has changed over the years. "I feel I’ve become a better writer over the 20 years, though that’s subjective, of course," North says.
"The biggest challenge has always been to present a murder in front of a hundred people, and still keep it a mystery. Authors who write mainstream mystery books, movies or stage plays have it a bit easier in this regard.
"Usually, the only people present during the crime are the victim and the culprit," North says. "In a book, for example, a body is found, then a detective is brought in to systematically uncover clues while the reader tries to piece together the mystery.
"In our show, the audience gets to see the murder, more or less," he says. "Sometimes it’s not obvious how the victim was done in. Other times, there is an obvious bullet or knife wound. But things are not always what they seem.
"This is the hardest part of writing the scripts for Murder Afloat," North says. "I find the interesting characters and funny dialogue fairly easy to write."
Sometimes funny things happen that aren’t in the script. "Without a doubt, the strangest occurrence was a night many years ago," North says. "Every week I could count on some audience member coming up to me and saying something like ‘Hey, I think so-and-so is gonna end up in the river!’
"Well, one night, one of the actors came up to me and pulled me aside to tell me someone was actually in the river! Sure enough, when I looked over the railing, there was someone swimming toward the boat while we were sailing under the bridge.
"We made an announcement over the P.A. system that we were stopping the show to pick up the swimmer," North says.
"As we pulled alongside the hapless soul so the boat crew could rescue the young man, dozens of audience members crowded around the rail shouting questions to him as if he were one of the characters in the show. ‘Did Buster throw you in the river?’ ‘Are you following Maggie?’"
Turns out the guy was inebriated and had jumped into the river to elude a jealous rival. "We tried to convince everyone that this person was not part of the show," North says. "Even after returning the swimmer to the police at the dock, resuming our excursion down the river, and making another P.A. announcement that the show was now resuming, we failed to convince some audience members that this mysterious stranger was not in on the murder."
The show is changed every year because it is so popular, people want to come back. "Some families have returned for several years, even planning their visits to Savannah to include a Thursday night," North says.
The cast rehearses during the month of March. "Once the season begins, we have only ‘line-throughs,’ which are not full rehearsals, but simply a quick recitation of the dialogue, just to refresh our memories, since the show runs only once per week," North says.
Alison Greer Chodkiewicz became involved with Murder Afloat after doing community theater with North. "To me, it’s kind of like Thanksgiving and Christmas, with all the fun without the stress of buying presents," she says.
"It’s the fun of theater without the stress of a full-fledged show and all the lines to memorize," Chodkiewicz says. "It’s as much if not more fun for us actors than it is for the people who come to watch it."
Each audience is different, Chodkiewicz says. "There are some who come who really aren’t interested in participating, then there are others who sometimes get accused of being the killer because they’re so involved in the show people think they are in it," she says.
Some things affect Murder Afloat that would never affect a production in a theater. "It can be a little tricky at times with inclement weather," Chodkiewicz says. "But I don’t know of any time it’s canceled because of weather."
More tourists than locals see the shows, although there are plenty of locals who love Murder Afloat, Chodkiewicz says. Groups of Girl Scouts attend, and are among the best audiences.
"When you’re growing up and going to theatrical productions, you’re awed by the actors in the show," Chodkiewicz says. "In this, the audience is in and amongst us the whole time, taking pictures with us and talking to us. I’ve always thought that’s the neatest part of it."
Actor Steve Smith also is a long-time cast member. "A space came open one year, and I got the opportunity to read for Jack," Smith says.
"Jack writes a tremendous script every year," Smith says. "We all do it because we like working together and it’s a lot of fun. It’s not a huge commitment, but it is a great time."
Smith also likes audiences of Girl Scouts because they’re always enthusiastic. "The best audiences are people who get into the story line and talk to us and are committed to figuring out the crime," he says. "The more people get involved, the more they get back from the actors and it ends up being a lot of fun.
"It’s like a big game people are playing," Smith says. "They leave after having an absolute blast."
Some audience members interject themselves a little too much. "There are ways you can subtly encourage them to listen," Smith says. "We as actors have to be able to interact if someone does interject into the scene.
"But most realize when it’s a scene and just watch and take notes," he says. "Later, they come up to the character and say ‘Why did you say that?’ As an actor, I’m required to be constantly aware."
Actors also must keep track of the time and extricate themselves from a situation when they’re supposed to be somewhere else. Smith says it’s not unusual to find himself in the midst of 15 Girl Scouts who are all asking questions. "It’s their mission to solve this thing, and they come in by the groups," he says.
"It’s just an absolutely fantastic time," Smith says. "I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone who had a bad time. I’ve never had a bad time."
The Murder Afloat season runs from April through August, with private shows available for conventions or other groups throughout the year. The shows are presented Thursday nights at 9:30 p.m. and last 90 minutes.
Tickets are sold by the River Street Riverboat Company. To buy tickets or receive more information, call 232-6404 or 800-786-6404.
It is free and open to the public.
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Photo credits: Terri Morgan Hsu