Latest News: Faculty Engagement Corps Journal Day 1: On the road
Eric Forsythe, prime suspect
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Live theater has been described as a "moment of danger" for everyone involved. Because it's happening in the moment—unlike a movie or pre-recorded TV program—a variety of things could go wrong at any moment. Forgotten lines. Technical breakdowns. A tornado warning. A heart attack, fight, or freak-out in the audience.
Theatre arts faculty member Eric Forsythe, artistic director of the current Iowa Summer Rep season of "Chills and Thrills" mysteries, once learned how truly dangerous theater can be when he became the prime suspect in the criminal investigation of a true-life mystery.
"Back in the early '80s, I was living in Philadelphia and working as a professional actor and director," he explains. "It was then that murder-mystery parties came into vogue, and some actor-friends and I thought we could improve on the typical model by creating a mystery event to take place over the course of a weekend within a ritzy hotel.
"We could set it in the '20s, have a live jazz nightclub act and dance party on Friday night in the lounge where the 'murder' would take place, and through a series of scripted and improvised investigations throughout the weekend, the guests would gradually form their suspicions about the murderer, who would be unmasked at a gourmet Sunday brunch."
Forsythe and his friends not only found a ritzy hotel, but one managed by a former London actor, and a staff that was happy to play along. They ended up playing the event many times to satisfied patrons, and also took the event to other hotels in the chain, including one in Bermuda.
"Normally, I served as director, watching the event as it unfolded, coordinating with the actors at regular intervals to keep the piece sharp and on-track," he says. "For the Bermuda event, I took on the added role of stage manager, meaning that I made sure certain clues were properly planted, that the actors arrived on the scene on time, telegrams were delivered as needed, that sort of thing.
"On the Friday night, as the jazz party was taking place in the ballroom, I was moving around the rest of the resort property, placing 'clues' to be discovered by the guests on Saturday morning. So, down by the pool, close to 10 p.m., a beautiful night with moonlight and a gentle, tropical breeze, I'm placing a clue when I look down on the pavement and see a pool of blood."
This was a clue, but not one for the theatrical event he was staging.
"I look around, nobody's there, but now I do see a trail of blood, drips and occasional larger pools, moving toward the direction of the men's restroom," Forsythe says.
"My first thought is to drop everything and inform the hotel management, but that might upset our (fictional) event happening upstairs in the ballroom. I also think, this may not be blood after all, but paint, and I'm just imagining things due to the mystery weekend circumstances. So I follow the trail, to see if I can discover anything and take care of it myself. Obviously, I don't want either blood or paint, whichever it is, to get in the way of the smooth running of our show. Who knows what the guests would do if they were to discover it before I could get it taken care of? There'd be a lot of unwanted conjecture, false accusations, etc."
So Forsythe cautiously walked down to the restroom, and, with a mix of curiosity and terror, carefully peered around the open door. "What I see is a total shock. It's like The Texas Chain Saw Massacre in there," Forsythe says. "Blood, literally, is everywhere, even dripping from the ceiling.
"I venture a timid 'Hello? Anybody there?' No answer. I wonder if anyone's in a stall. Again, I consider going to management, but again decide not to. Maybe it is paint, and someone's trying to spoil our weekend or something." (Forsythe admits, in retrospect, that he wasn't thinking too rationally at this point.)
"I do, finally, look in one of the stalls, and find there, in the toilet, a woman's girdle, and the idea of a rape-murder springs to mind, and I clear out of the restroom to decide what to do, heart beating like crazy."
Forsythe came to the conclusion that it was all too coincidental, and someone was playing tricks with his event, and he should just let maintenance clean everything up as they normally would do. "I'll just finish planting my clues, make sure the murder-event in the ballroom has come off as planned, and go to bed. I do so, not telling anyone what I had discovered. Don't ask me why, I just didn't."
But the next morning as he looked out his window to make sure everything was cleaned up as he had hoped, Forsythe saw the entire pool area cordoned off with yellow police crime-scene tape, and police everywhere.
"A normal human being would go to management now, but I had my Saturday morning event to get going and I was not to be dissuaded by logic or the entire force of the Bermuda police," Forsythe says. "While the breakfast event is taking place, amid all sorts of questions by the guests about when they can start exploring the clues, and how amazingly realistic everything is, I get called in to the main office by a very unhappy looking police investigator.
Police investigator: "Sir, do you know anything about these events?"
Forsythe: "I apologize, but I really can't stay, I have a murder mystery to keep going—could I just take care of a few clues and I can come back?"
Investigator: "Sir, may we have a look at your shoes?"
With that question, Forsythe realizes he has blood all over the soles of his shoes, and his footprints must clearly be all over the real crime scene outside.
Investigator: "Sir, do you own a gun?"
And, again, Forsythe realizes, while he doesn't actually own it, they did have a very realistic pistol with them to shoot the blank that supposedly kills their fictional murder victim at the Friday night party. It's back in Forsythe's room at the moment.
"Somehow, the manager gets it sorted out so I can continue with my stage-management duties, but I'm being watched like a hawk by our detective friend," Forsythe says. "I have to turn in my shoes and our pistol."
So now Forsythe was both the primary suspect in a murder investigation, and, at the same time, facilitating a fictional murder investigation while trying to steer the guests away from disturbing the real investigation when they believe it's part of the fiction.
"It's funny to me now, but at the time it was both terrifying and unnerving. The mix of actual and fictional was nothing short of surreal," Forsythe says. "As it turned out, I was never actually arrested; the murder mystery weekend was great fun for all, although admittedly confusing to everyone, not least the Bermuda police force. They did let me get on the scheduled flight home, satisfied that I likely didn't commit a real murder, but still unsolved was the question of all that blood—and it turned out it was blood."
So, what WAS the solution to the puzzling real mystery? A few days later, Forsythe got the word that there had, indeed, been a crime, involving a girdle, although not murder. And it was a story worthy of a comic stage play.
"Some guy had broken into a house along the beach, breaking a plate-glass window in the process, and cutting an artery in his arm," Forsythe explains. "The house was owned by an elderly woman, not home at the time, who evidently still wore girdles, and the thief grabbed the nearest thing to hand, the girdle, to try to stop the severe bleeding.
"He then had made his bloody way along the beach to the hotel, where he saw the men's room, and sought to clean his wound before making his escape into town. He was caught the day after we left."
So, Forsythe avoided incarceration, the true criminal was caught, and the mystery party was a huge success, but through the weird series of events, he learned something very important: "For me, it was a lesson in allowing myself to acknowledge that there may, indeed, be circumstances when the show did not actually need to go on."