Murder, They Improv

Murder usually becomes headline news and in the case of the Murder Mystery Co., rapid interest has made the Grand Rapids-based company the most popular of its kind in the nation.

The Murder Mystery Co. originated as Grand Rapids Improv 10 years ago, evolving into a lucrative entertainment business. The high demand of the company has led to rapid expansion and the creation of branches all over the country. In addition to Detroit, there are troupes in Columbus, OH, Chicago and Los Angeles, with new troupes opening this month in San Antonio, TX and North Carolina. While Grand Rapids hosts about 20 events a month, the Chicago troupe performs shows every day of the week.

Creator Scott Crampton, who titles himself the Director and Thought Leader, graduated from Grand Valley State University with a degree in theater, but never expected to be running a successful theatrical business.

"[I thought] it could never be a full time job," he says, "but now it's a full time job for a lot of people."

Initially, Grand Rapids Improv began with a basic idea when a friend doing publicity for the now-closed nightclub Drink Ultra Lounge approached Crampton about putting together a murder mystery. Actor Michael O'Hair helped Crampton come up with some of the preliminary ideas, and is the only remaining member of the original cast. O'Hair has since focused on his own successful show, the Knotty Bits Sideshow, which he runs with his partner Jacqueline Joy, also an original member of the Murder Mystery Co.

As interest rose, Crampton received an increasing number of phone calls about booking shows, but it was the Internet that really boosted business.

"In 2007, I came up of one core concept (based on the question of) how are these people getting a hold of us?" Crampton says.

Crampton saw that the company website was buried on page 10 of a Google Search and wondered how much business he could generate if the company site was the top hit when searching for a murder mystery show.

"I started reading about search engine optimization [SEO]. I started working every day on SEO marketing and started getting more and more calls," Crampton says. "We get 100% of our clients from the internet."

Quickly, word spread beyond Michigan. "We were eventually getting called to Chicago all the time, and I called a high school friend of mine, Justin Issa," he says. "He was a banker at the time."

Now Issa runs the Chicago troupe full time.

Murder Pros

"We're called Murder Pros," says actor and Training Director Philip Anderson. "Although," he jokes, "I prefer assassin or hit man."

Along with his wife, Sarah Anderson, also an actor and training director, Mr. Anderson joined the company when it was Grand Rapids Improv. The Murder Mystery Co. is still rooted in improvisational acting.

"There are similar aspects in every show but, as far as whatever comes out of [the participant's] mouths, we have to adapt to. One character may be meek but is played by a loud, boisterous guy," says Mr. Anderson. "(Sarah and I have) done stand-up (comedy) for so long that we have a lot of jokes that are good for those situations."

Offering an array of packages including custom-made events, the Murder Mystery Co. provides entertainment for special occasions like small, private parties and scavenger hunts up to enormous corporate retreats.  

"The small party packages are the most popular now," says Mr. Anderson. "It's totally interactive."  

Entertaining groups of about 40 to 50 people, the small package provides two actors who enact set skits, reveal clues to participants and keep the comedy going. Custom events are available for all group sizes. They've done Sweet 16 and bachelorette parties and even wedding-themed shows booked for actual weddings.

"Overall in [traditional] theater, my belief is this: we completely alienate our audience," says Crampton, citing outdated classic shows as being out of touch with modern experiences and interest. "We make sure it is interactive theater. The Murder Mystery shows are about the participants. People walk away with stories and memories."

The appeal of the Murder Mystery Co. lies in the unique framework of theatrical entertainment that is largely improvisational and encourages audience participation.

"I feel like it's theater for people who usually get dragged to [the] theater and don't enjoy theater… it's really fun to see people getting into theater who wouldn't normally do it," Mrs. Anderson says. "People sometimes say 'oh, I used to act in high school.' A lot of peoples' dreams come back alive."

Beyond turning people onto to the magic of theater and providing artistic outlets for participants, local talent is able to prosper in towns that are far from Hollywood.

"It's possible to make a living being an actor in Grand Rapids (and other cities) because of this company," says Mrs. Anderson, something considered remarkable feat in the current economy.

The Murder Mystery Co. continues to grow daily, and long-term expansion is already in the works.

"In 2011," Crampton says, "we are opening (troupes) in Atlanta, Florida and in Texas."

Crampton's goals are also global. Plans for 2012 include establishing shows in Europe.

To experience the macabre fun and suspense, weekly shows are held in Grand Rapids at Brann's Steakhouse (401 Leonard St. NW) and are open to the public. A three-course meal and the Murder Mystery will only cost you $27.50.

Other regular events are held at the Charlotte Dinner Train, or you can book your own private event.

Audria Larsen, freelance writer for REVUE Magazine, is the founder of Audacious Hoops hula hoop company, teaches Hoop Dance Fusion classes, heads the Atomic Hoop Troupe, performs with Super Happy Funtime Burlesque, is headmistress of Dr. Sketchy's Anti-Art School Grand Rapids, produces Shimmy Shack Burlesque and is an occasional model. She's also a full-time student at Aquinas College.




Murder Mystery Co

Photographs by Brian Kelly -All Rights reserved
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