In 2009, husband and wife Kasey and Allison Learned began producing the show in California, and its now made its way across the nation. The show consists of a four-course plated dinner, music and an interactive murder mystery. The show also has strategically placed “eating intermissions” to give the audience time to talk with each other.
Kasey Learned said he did not start in theater, but after seeing the effect this show had on people, he knew he had to get involved.
“When we had our first show in San Diego and I saw people with smiles on their faces having a great time, you know, it's like a mini celebration,” Kasey said. “To see people happy, that mattered a lot to me.”
While Learned and his wife produce the show, he said the audience is key to creating the right atmosphere.
“Our audience is a huge part of the success of the show because it's an interactive experience, so what they bring to the table, you know, really is a big part of the unwritten contract or partnership with our actors,” Kasey said.
In this show, the actors are hidden in the audience and are able to connect with guests in a more personal setting than if they were on stage. However, working with real people has its challenges, so Allison makes sure all of the actors know that a good actor is adaptable.
Allison started performing when she was 11 years old and was an original cast member for the show when it was based in Los Angeles. She is also in charge of audition and actor management for production.
The audition process for the dinner consists of two-hour long short-form improvisation games that Allison created based on her theater background at various improv houses in Los Angeles, including iO West and The Second City.
“The games I’ve selected are geared specifically at showing us certain skills that we need from actors. Things like: how high their reference points are; how much they know. You know, good improvisers know a lot about everything,” Allison said.
The Dinner Detective show has been held at the Sheraton in Chapel Hill for four years, and Catering Sales Manager Elaine Primus said that production collaboration has been easy.
“The communication has been great; they let us know how many people are coming and what the meal choices are so, it’s been a really good relationship,” Primus said.
Allison said a lot of the cast has been with the show since it began, but the show also acts as a stepping stone for actors.
“A lot of our actors, while they start with us, they eventually do move on to bigger and better projects,” Allison said.
But when the actors leave, Kasey said it’s not hard to find new replacements.
“The Raleigh-Durham area has been a goldmine, if you will, of talent,” Kasey said.
Together, Allison and Kasey worked with their cast and crew to create a show they hope every audience enjoys. The duo said the show does not force the audience to do anything they don’t want to do.
“It’s really just coming in with an open mind, ready to have fun,” Kasey said. “Honestly, your experience is what you make it.”
The show will continue to run at the Sheraton in Chapel Hill until Nov. 24, and the Learneds hope it will spread even further.
“Now nine years later, we are 13 growing to 18 locations and kind of the rest is history to be made,” Allison said.