How about dinner and a mystery ... and a chance to play? A Q&A with Murder Mystery Company's Justin Issa

Sure, there’s lots of great theater in Chicago. But will those theaters make you a cast member for the night? And sure, there are many ways to immerse yourself in a good mystery. Read a book. Listen to a podcast. But will the characters materialize before your eyes?

The Murder Mystery Company can answer an emphatic “yes” to those questions. You can expect a gourmet dinner, a mystery yarn springing to life around you and if you’d like, a juicy role to play right in the midst of it. All these things make this theater stand out from the rest, says Justin Issa, the company’s national director, who is also known to show up as a detective.

The company has its own writers who have written ten different themes and counting. Themes include 1920's Gangster, bad wedding, the 80's, and more.

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Justin Issa in detective hat

Chicago's public shows are offered at a city and suburban location. You can find the Murder Mystery Company at Salvatore’s in the city and at Milhurst Charhouse in Oakbrook Terrace. For locations around the country, check here. Public events are family-friendly and as Justin says, rated “PG-10.”

For a private event at any locale of your choosing, this live mystery puzzle will come to you. You can choose any of the pre-written themes, or for a premium, the company’s writers will custom-write your idea. Requests have been granted for everything from a Downton Abbey tale to a Caddyshack extravaganza at a golf club.

Food allergies? No problem. Accommodations are available. Not a fright fan? Don’t worry! Justin assured me that “there’s nothing scary or violent. No cursing. Maybe some innuendo.” The evening is wholly comedic and the cast is populated by alums of Second City, iO, and the like. If further proof of levity is needed, the company’s web site bears the irresistible domain, grimprov.com.  You can also choose a more low-key theme like a jewel heist.

Justin kindly took time out from wrangling actors, props and locations to reveal some of the mystery behind the Murder Mystery Company.

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Teme: On your website you say, “when you arrive you're part of the story.” I'd love to hear more about that.

Justin: People don’t come to sit and watch the show. They come to be a part of it. It’s as much a game as a show. When they come in, they may not know who they’re sitting with, but those folks end up being their teammates for the night to solve that crime.

We choose eight to ten people from the audience to play our suspects. They get a costume piece from us if they didn't already come in costume. Everyone gets clues to share with their table mates throughout the night. There are ten people at each table and at the end of the night, the winning table gets an award.

20228252_10155544014584868_3920865931342305080_nIt all starts right when people arrive. They’re greeted by our actors. If the mystery that night is about a wedding gone wrong, you may be greeted by the maid of honor as if you were a guest at the wedding.

Teme: Would you say the evening is more mystery or more comedy?

Justin: There's definitely a strong mystery element, but it’s always going to be funny. If you're at a stand-up comedy show or a concert, people love seeing audience members pulled into it and doing the unexpected. Our show is really heavy on that.

Teme: Do your actors have to be psychologists in a way, too? They have to assess each audience member to decide who plays which suspect. How do they figure that out?

Justin: That's an awesome question. Yes, we definitely train for things like that. It isn't an exact science, but there are certain personality traits we're looking for from the audience. We also look at the guest list to see whose birthday it is or who's celebrating. We try to focus on those people first.

Other than that, we're looking for people who are enthusiastic but not too enthusiastic; people dressed up in costume; people who give us a feeling that they’re up for remembering a few clues and having fun and having bribe money waved in their face all night.

Teme: Wait, what was that last part?

Justin: Each table gets a big stack of “money” to buy clues throughout the night. There are a couple of breaks where people are encouraged to get up from their table to talk to the suspects. They can bribe them for clues.

We even write suggested questions on the back of the money. “What was your relationship with the deceased?” “Did you gain anything financially from this murder?” I joke that the clues for our guests are written in small-ish words and big type because it's meant for people who are drinking and having a good time.

Teme: It sounds like a mystery book come alive.

Justin: Exactly. I tell actors that we're in the experience business. That’s the reason our shows are sold out every night. What we do forces people to put down their phone and have human interactions in a fun way.

It’s different from a movie or theater where you may go with people, but you don’t experience it together. That's a parallel experience.  At our show, people experience something together. We didn’t realize the power of that in the beginning. But it’s carried us from being a company begun in Michigan nine years ago to opening in twenty-five cities with three hundred performances a year in each city.

Teme: Whenever I'm expected to participate, my impulse is to shrink into the background. Do you see people coming out of their shell and surprising themselves?

Justin: Absolutely. There is room for everybody at that table of ten. There's a place for the person who wants to be a character. There's also room for the person who wants to be the note-taker keeping track of the details. Sometimes that's what's more comfortable for a person. Some like to sit and take it all in. Some people like to get up and use the bribe money.

We do see people surprised with what comes out of them, especially when it's funny and in front of an audience. It's very powerful to make people laugh, especially if you've never done it or didn't know that you could. But no one is forced into it and there is room for everybody, including the shy person.

Teme: How scary is it? Are people going to be startled while they're eating dinner?

Justin: No, no. We don't want anyone to choke on their salad! It's not like the lights go out and all of a sudden there's a dead body. Everything is in the light. The murder itself always takes place in a comical way. It's not like anyone's stabbed to death. A woman is never the victim. Nothing that's going to startle or jar anybody. The characters that die are always kind of grandiose, like the mob boss or the over-the-top best man or the leader of the billionaire's club. Then the detective arrives and leads everyone through solving the puzzle.

Teme: How did the company begin?

Justin: I went to a theater high school in Michigan and a classmate, Scott Cramton, created the business. I graduated in 1999 and moved to Chicago to go to Roosevelt University’s theater conservatory.

Scott started these dinner parties in Grand Rapids, Michigan, where the company is now headquartered. In 2009, he gave me a call to say, "We've started to get calls from Chicago. We don't make any money, but do you think that you could get some folks together and do some of these dinners?"

Our first client was a law firm and is still a repeat client. That first night was a much cruder version of what we do now. Even then, we knew that we had something special. These sophisticated lawyers had so much fun playing our silly game that we made up.

Initially, we didn’t intend to do public events. Anyone who knows anything about theater knows that selling tickets is virtually impossible.

Around that time, Groupon was born. It’s headquartered in Chicago. I had a contact there who said, "Have you ever thought about pairing with a restaurant and selling tickets to these shows?" We found a restaurant and Groupon featured us. We didn’t know if we would sell ten tickets, but in one day we sold three thousand.

To redeem all those tickets, we had to schedule sixty shows. Bam! Right away, we had a ton of shows on the calendar. We then opened in Ohio, Nashville, Los Angeles, New York, Florida and we were able to pay our actors more than most theaters.

That's how we started. A little bit of luck, a lot of hard work. At that time, Scott was running the business out of his apartment. Now we have a 200,000 square foot building in Michigan where we've got a room full of people answering phones, a logistics department, and a production department. We also have writers who work on our themed public events and who can customize private events. All kinds of stuff that we never dreamed of.

Teme: What's the most memorable thing that's ever happened at an event?

Justin: We found out fast that we’ve got to watch the “dead body.” We've had people jump on the actor and do chest compressions or try to give mouth-to-mouth. This was earlier on, not really anymore. We've worked that stuff out.

More than the crazy things that have happened are some of the places we've been. We did Fergie's 40th birthday party with her and Josh Duhamel in Los Angeles a few years ago.

Not long ago, we did Beverly D'Angelo and Al Pacino's party for their daughter. For me, it's been cool just to see every small town in Illinois. I've probably been in every restaurant from Illinois to Wisconsin and from barns to banquet halls, to really nice places that I would never be able to go on my own.

Teme: What is a typical day for you as the director?

Justin: I'm blessed to work from home. When this all started, I was working for a bank as an assistant branch manager doing a very different type of business and life.

Now my typical day involves scheduling shows and rehearsals, making sure costumes and props are prepared, and setting up the week’s logistics.

Teme: What is your favorite part of your job?

Justin: The best part for me, one-hundred percent, is to see people interact and play. Our company is really big on that concept. As adults, we don't play anymore and I don't mean the video games on our phones. It's really rewarding to me when people can play and rediscover that ability in themselves.

People are really enthusiastic at the end of the night. They're shaking our hands, hugging us, taking pictures and saying, "Thank you, thank you, I had so much fun." It used to surprise me.  I'm not being down on what we do, but I used to think, "Really? It's not like you just watched this heartbreakingly deep piece of art." But they're so happy and enthusiastic because they've had a powerful experience.

They become actors for the night. As someone who has been an actor since I was a kid, it's fun for me to see people get a taste of it. I tell the actors, "We're giving people a taste of that feeling that you were addicted to enough to defy your parents to get a theater degree."

Teme: You mentioned you’ve been involved in acting since you were a kid. When did you start?

Justin: In fifth grade we were reading A Christmas Carol aloud with a substitute teacher who told my mom, “Justin did really well. I do community theater and we’re looking for Cratchit kids." I auditioned and became “Cratchit Kid #6.” That’s when I was bitten by the bug.

This was in Livonia, Michigan where there's a wonderful high school theater program. If you get in, you give up all your electives for theater classes. We had the same kids in class every day for four years, which included Scott, the owner of the company.

We go back to the school every year and teach the kids for a couple of days and put on a scholarship benefit show. As these kids have been graduating over the last eight years, we're one of the first places they look for a job when they move to their new town.

Teme: Does working in mysteries all day affect you when you're not at work? Like if you hear a sound in the night …

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Justin Issa on left

Justin: In the show I play a detective, so it's definitely awakened my critical detective skills. My daughter just turned five, so sometimes I try to figure out little mini kid crimes between her friends and her, like who ate the cookie and other little-kid neighborhood crimes.

Teme: What are your favorite mysteries?

Justin: I love the movie Clue. It’s got Tim Curry in his prime and it's very much in the spirit of what we do. A lot of people say, "I watch CSI all the time. I'm going to be great at this." Forensic analysis isn't exactly a part of what we do, but I hear our audience reference that show a lot. Sherlock Holmes, of course, is great as a detective archetype.

Columbo is a source of inspiration. Gruff, worn, world-weary, wry detective humor. You might see some Columbo in what we do. That was important to Scott.

Teme: Absolutely anything else you would like people to know?

Justin: If you are looking to experience something on a date, with friends, with family, it's right here. Come see us or we can bring the show to wherever you are. We fit anywhere.

Since we don’t have a brick-and-mortar place, people don’t always know that we’re here. I'm hopeful that the theater community will start to recognize us and see us as one of the big entertainment options.

We're a part of the community that is paying and taking good care of actors. That's important to me.

Teme: I love that for the audience, you offer a chance to be part of Chicago comedy and theater for the evening.

Justin: Absolutely. Periodically, people from the audience ask, "Hey, how can I be more a part of it?" There's an open submissions page on our website for all our cities. We're always taking head shots and resumes and we hold auditions twice a year.

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Learn more about the Murder Mystery Company and upcoming shows in Chicago and Oak Brook Terrace here.

Find out more about locations around the country here.

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This "thank you" note received by the Murder Mystery Company is sent to every actor when they're hired:

Dear Murder Mystery Company,

I wanted to thank you for the wonderful evening that my sister and I had on Friday. I have been to a few of your shows, but this one was very special.

They say that sometimes you can touch someone's life and never even know it. You guys did just that on Friday. I took my little sister out for the night to your mystery show. Every year my parents go on vacation for a week in October. For the past several years, I have watched my younger sister and planned a special evening out at the end of our week as a reward for her being good for me. This year, we picked your show.

P____ is adopted and came from an abusive home. We adopted her 8 years ago. She will be 13 soon, but due to the circumstances she endured at the beginning of her life, she has the mentality of a 10 year old. She struggles through school and is often picked on due to her disabilities and age (she has been held back in school.)

P____ is very special. Though her days are sometimes rough, she is a wonderful and bright child who tries her best and has a smile on her face every day.

Your staff chose P____ to play a role in Friday night's production. This action alone started to create an amazing memory for her that she will cherish. You made her so happy. But you didn't stop there. At the end of the night, you guys presented P____ with an award. I have never before seen such a big smile on her face as when you presented her with her certificate.

Every kid deserves to win an award...and you presented P____ with her first.

She has been nothing but smiles and happiness all weekend. She called our parents on their trip in California and told the story of the entire evening to them. Everyone that she has seen since Friday night has seen her award and she is taking it in to class for show and tell today. She has asked me if once she is done "showing her certificate to everyone" we can frame it and hang it on the wall.

I want to sincerely thank you for what you did for my sister this weekend. This ended up not being just a one night of fun evening out like we usually have...but a once in a life time event for her that she will remember and take pride in for a very long time.

So thank you. I have already told several people about your shows and will continue to do so. You can be sure to see me and several of my friends in attendance at future shows.

Sincerely,

M____

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