According to Atlanta theater lore of the late 1990s, there were only two ways to get a gig at Agatha’s. Actors hoping for a starring role in the murder mystery productions had to wait for one of the existing actors to move out of state...or die.
“It was such a popular place to go and everybody wanted to work there,” said Ryan Girard who first attended a show in 1997 and thought it might be a fun place to work. He went off to college, began working in customer service and took improv classes on the side. He also began attending networking events at Agatha’s.
It took a few years but in 2004 a casting director noticed his persistence and humor and gave Girard a role in a Harry Potter spoof called “Harry Plotter and the Sorcerer’s Headstone.” Four years later, Girard took on his current role as Creative Director.
For 30 years, Agatha’s has been an Atlanta institution outlasting similar concepts in several other cities. Murder mystery dinner theater first evolved in the 1980s and peaked a decade later but has continued to thrive in different formats.
A traditional show features several actors who set the scene then involve the audience in a search for whodunit as they look for clues and ask questions, all while eating and drinking their way through a five-course meal.
The scene at Agatha’s is slightly different, Girard said. “People have this idea that it would be more like Clue (the murder mystery game from Hasbro),” he said. “In our shows if you follow along, there are clues as to who the killer might be but at the end there isn’t something to write down. There is no hunting around around for clues.”
In each of their four annual productions (suited for ages 10 and up), only two roles are played by professional actors, Girard said. When audience members arrive at the theater they are greeted at the door and offered a role in the production. At least 20 speaking parts are handed out at each show and on a crowded evening there may also be smaller group roles for audience members to play.
Each participant is given a script which shows them where to sit and what character they will play as well as their cues and lines. Sometimes they may also be given costumes.
All of the acting takes place within and around the tables between dinner courses, said Girard. Someone dies in every show and the cast leads the audience through clues to determine the killer.
It can be challenging to write a script that depends on non-professional actors delivering lines, Girard said. The writers have learned to avoid vocabulary or sentence structure that is too complex to accommodate participants who may be too nervous, too tipsy or not very good readers.
“You have to think, how do I write this so that if you are going to ask people to stand up and do the most dreaded thing in the world, public speaking, how are you going to make sure they have fun?”Girard said. “The best and worst thing about Agatha’s is that each and every show is different.”
He has seen people come through the door determined to not have a good time but end up drawing a standing ovation from fellow audience members for their performance. The audience member who gets to die is often the most colorful actor.
“It is amazing the choices people make. The only thing we direct is you must die in your chair, but people will come up with the most extreme ways to die,” Girard said.
For years Agatha’s was located across from the Fox Theatre. It was good company to be in and gave them an extra boost of credibility as professional actors who do a bit of everything -- acting, hosting and improvising. But 12 years ago, the lease at Peachtree and 3rd wasn’t renewed and after a brief detour through Toco Hills, Agatha’s headed to its new location at 161 Peachtree Center.
Without proximity to the Fox to help them pull in the crowds, over the years Agatha’s has had to rely even more on its stable of talented actors and writers. “We hire the best and funniest actors that get hired other places and we let them go work other places,” Girard said. Some come back and some move to other cities. Several have gone on to earn substantial work in television and film both in and beyond the metro area.
In 30 years, Agatha’s has only repeated three to four shows which means they have had well over 100 original productions. The writers rely on pop culture for timely topics which have included ABC’s popular dating show, “The Bachelor” and an upcoming show inspired by Lifetime’s “Dance Moms.”
“We hope to continue that and the great thing is the world is always moving and there is always going to be the next thing to make fun of,” Girard said. “People still walk in and they say ‘I have lived in Atlanta for 20 years and have never seen a show.’ Not only are we still here, you should come see a show.”
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Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com