Interactive "Art Heist Experience" Turns Audiences Into Detectives

Audience members will search for clues and interrogate suspects to solve a caper based on a real-life theft.
Audience members will search for clues and interrogate suspects to solve a caper based on a real-life theft. Photo courtesy of Art Heist Experience
The producers of Art Heist Experience don’t intend their audiences to be passive observers of scenes and dialogue. Rather, audience members will become amateur detectives, hunting for clues to solve a real-life caper involving $500 million worth of missing art.

The socially distanced, outdoor theater production Art Heist Experience opens at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts and the Broward Center for the Performing Arts on Tuesday, March 16, running through April 4. The show is recommended for ages 13 and up due to mature themes.

“There isn’t the usual separation between the audience and the performers in this production,” says director and writer T.J. Dawe. “The audience takes an active role to interrogate the suspects, asking anything they need to come up with their own ideas of who is guilty.”

Art Heist Experience is inspired by true events in Boston in 1990: A pair of thieves disguised themselves as police officers investigating a disturbance to gain access to the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in the middle of the night. They left with $500 million worth of artwork — including pieces by Rembrandt, Vermeer, Degas, and Manet — and remain at large today. Dawe says the mystery and high stakes surrounding the case make it ripe for theater.

“There’s a real juiciness to the fact that this is still unsolved,” he says. “To this day, there’s a $10 million reward for any information that leads to solving this crime. If someone saw the show and learned something and it led to solving the crime, there’s a reward in it for them.”

A cast of South Florida actors will assume the dispositions of slimy con men, rumpled art-recovery specialists, and one larger-than-life, self-proclaimed Greatest Art Thief of All Time. Dawe says rather than memorizing lines from a script, the actors will improvise and interact with audience questions, creating one-of-a-kind performances each and every show.

“The audience is given certain amounts of information on why certain people are suspected, but the actors are ready to answer anything of any kind,” Dawe explains. “If someone came back for a second performance on another night, it would be a different experience.”

Audiences will be led around either the Broward or Arsht campus as they investigate, an experience Dawe hopes will alter the way audiences view their surrounding environments.

“In going to different locations, we’re spending time outdoors in spaces audiences might have previously taken for granted,” he says. “They might notice a beautiful vista or even a grimy location that has a certain poetry to it. I love the idea of people rediscovering where they live.”

Producer and creator Justin Sudds says 2021 is high time to return to the theater, and Art Heist Experience is a way to do it safely. Measures to ensure the production remains safe from the risk of COVID-19 transmission include socially distanced groups of no more than 35 audience members, mandatory facemasks, and a performance that takes place entirely outdoors. Visitors to the Adrienne Arsht Center can expect touchless digital ticketing, wellness screenings, and temperature checks prior to entry.

“Art Heist Experience is a way for theater to exist safely for everyone in this moment and an opportunity to support the local arts community,” Sudds says. “The arts community has been hit so hard by the pandemic, and not just financially. For most actors, producers, and other creatives, the things we love to spend our days doing and what we’ve built our careers on was swiftly taken out of our hands. Finding new and creative ways to create safe theater performances in the midst of this pandemic has been a bright light in an otherwise dark time.”

Audiences who've spent the past year consuming art by watching television screens and turning book pages will enjoy the opportunity to take an active role in the production. Shows often exceed their intended length because audience members just have one more question. Dawe doesn’t mind, though, as interaction and connection are what this production is all about.

“This show is so interactive that the audience has a direct impact on how each show unfolds,” he says. “We’ve been watching Netflix, reading books, and listening to music. As great as those things are, they don’t change each time you interact with them. Theater is the only medium that is interactive. We’ve all been missing this, even though we may not realize it.”

The Art Heist Experience. Tuesday, March 16, through Sunday, April 4, at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts, 1300 Biscayne Blvd., Miami; 305-949-6722;; and the Broward Center for the Performing Arts, 201 SW Fifth Ave., Fort Lauderdale; 954-462-0222; Miami tickets cost $43 to 48 via Broward tickets cost $39.50 via
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Tyler Francischine is a writer, event planner, and audiophile with dual passions for creating community engagement and telling stories that sing in a reader’s mind. Her work has been featured in American Way, Melted Magazine, and the Huffington Post.