Ottawa theatre troupe hits the BigTime

by Jeff Pappone The Ottawa Citizen

Company nails contract for NHL all-star game’s gala reception

PHOTO: Chris Mikula
BigTime Murder Productions president Peter Dillon, front and centre, has landed a contract that will see his troupe performing a murder mystery in front of 5,000 people at the National Hockey League all-star game reception in Toronto.

An Ottawa company has hit the big time with an NHL contract to supply the dinner entertainment for Saturday night’s all-star reception.

The deal marks a departure for eight-year-old BigTime Murder Productions, which usually plays to crowds of about 120 people.

But the lure of having NHL stars on the roster helped convince BigTime owner Peter Dillon to mount a three-hour, 1940s-style radio play for about 5,000 people at Toronto’s Metro Trade Centre.

“My focus will definitely be on the production.” Mr. Dillon said. “But if I have the chance to meet some NHL stars, it will be a dream come true. There will be hockey stars, their wives, agents … you can’t buy your way into this event.”

BigTime audience members are persuaded to participate in its productions after “an unexpected crisis” leaves the production short of bodies, he explained. “Just before we go live, we announce that half the cast has missed the bus. There are comedic elements built in, with pitfalls in the scripts and sound effects, so there’s some great laughs.”

While the prospect of working with NHL players was attractive, Mr. Dillon admits he had reservations about staging the radio play for such a large audience.

“We decided if we altered the radio play, broke it down into three acts, and were able to incorporate the hockey stars we would be able to present it effectively.” The NHL event has put pressure on the 30-employee troupe, which has continued with its regular productions while planning the Toronto show. “We’ve more than doubled the first quarter over last year. We’re actually turning down some business.”

The troupe performed more than 100 shows last year and expects to double its performances in 2000. Mystery evenings for small groups of 30 are priced as low as $300, with the cost for larger groups sometimes reaching thousands of dollars, he said.

“We specialize in private-party or corporate shows. We are able to customize it for the client for every show, incorporating their people right into the show. We try to put together an all-encompassing package. We take care of all the entertainment details.”

The company developed the radio-play format about two years ago for a client and continued to perform radio plays because of the “overwhelming demand.”

The cast and crew are getting nervous as the show approaches, he said, but with 12- hour days and little preparation time, they don’t have time to think about it. The company got the official go-ahead only last month.

“We have to make sure the wardrobe is down, so we do look like we’re in the 1940s, and that the accents and lingo are correct. And I think we’re on the eighth draft of the script. I’ve never seen so many people want to double-check what they’re doing so it’s absolutely perfect,” he said. “We know what a big function this is and what a great opportunity it is to impress upon these people that we are the right company to do this.”

The play for the all-star weekend – Dial NHL for Murder – follows the adventures of clumsy detective and a millionaire who puts all his money into an NHL expansion team. The owner’s children are less than pleased with their father’s decision, Mr. Dillon said.

“And then something bad happens.”

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