During a recent interview with Scott Naumann, Kim Eastland, and Jerry Wolking - longtime performers with the Quad Cities' interactive-whodunit organization It's a Mystery - the three routinely crack each other up with memories of overzealous audience participants, randy seniors, and that time when one of their performers, dressed in character, was mistaken for a prostitute at the Rock Island Arsenal Golf Club. ("On a positive note," jokes Naumann, "she made about $750 on the side.")
Yet there's one thing the men, and their fellow It's a Mystery players, are deadly serious about: cell phones.
"You can understand if somebody forgets to turn it off," says Wolking, "but then sometimes they'll take the call. They'll sit there and start talking, which is just death."
Unlike, however, the actors in a more traditional stage production, the actors in an It's a Mystery show, when such interruptions occur, aren't forced to grit their teeth and bear it.
"We will punish you if you're dumb enough to leave your cell phone on," says Eastland. "We go down on them like vultures. We take the phone from them, we will talk to whoever's on the line, we'll tell them, you know, 'The lab results are in ... .'"
"Or," adds Naumann, "'I'd suggest an ointment for that ... .'"
Okay, so maybe they're not deadly serious about cell phones.
They are, though, completely earnest about their pride in It's a Mystery's success, and in the 50-plus public and private performances the group presents annually.
"We make good money, there's no doubt about it," says Eastland, author and co-star of the group's current, gangster-themed comedy Whacked at da Wedding. (The show, which also features Naumann and Wolking, will be performed at Bettendorf's The Lodge Hotel on November 14.) "But we all get along so well that it's like someone's paying us to hang out with our buddies every week, and then go out and entertain people. That's a big thing. Because, you know, performing is one thing, but to really entertain people? It's not the same."
Since its debut in 1997, It's a Mystery - co-founded by Naumann and his wife, Shelly - has entertained audiences with a series of farcical whodunits employing a rigid structure: an opening act that sets the scene, introduces characters, and delivers a corpse; a second act that provides clues, alibis, and plot twists; and a third act in which the killer's identity is revealed.
The rest of the production, though, is anything but rigid. Though the shows are scripted, the cast frequently interacts with the patrons, audience members are encouraged to share theories and grill suspects on possible motives, and improvisation always plays a key role. "I'd say 20 percent of every show comes from something that was made up because of some circumstance that night," says Wolking. "Some of the best parts are stuff that we make up along the way."
"We're sort of a real strange amalgam," says Eastland, noting that It's a Mystery falls in that indefinable space between improvisation and theatre. "And not everyone can do it."
It's a Mystery's blend of scripted material and accidental material has proven so popular that, when asked to list venues they've performed in, Naumann replies, "Wouldn't it be easier to name places we haven't? Because I can't think of any. When we began to sell [the shows], I visited every place you could drive, every corporate group, every place that had a room, essentially. It was a lot of work, but since then we've been to all the area country clubs, the i wireless Center, every banquet space ... ."
"The vast majority of what we do we do not do for the public," adds Eastland. "Like 95 percent of what we do, we do for private organizations."
Since 2005, though, It's a Mystery has also found a home for their public performances at The Lodge, which allows audiences to enjoy the evening's mystery along with a three-course meal, and which Eastland says has "worked out extremely well. Extremely well. They're very good to us there, and the food's really good, which is important." He laughs. "You know, you can be really great, but if somebody's dishing out cold puke to the people, you're in trouble."
Beyond its formula, though, Naumann believes the key to the group's continued success lies in its ensemble of regular It's a Mystery performers, among them Whacked at da Wedding co-stars Jeri Benson, Michael Callahan, Barb Engstrom, and Jamie Em Johnson. "From the start, we hand-picked some really great people," he says, "and that was really essential. People who enjoyed working together and could build a great, great product. And that's one thing that hasn't changed. I can't think of one person that's come out of an 'audition,' per se."
And working with trusted performers, says Eastland, certainly has its benefits for the playwrights. (It's a Mystery performers Eastland, Naumann, and Patti Flaherty have, collectively, written the group's last 14 shows.) "So many of us, by now, have been working together for years, so when you write a show, you write for them. Like Jerry. When I write a character for him, I know what he'll do - I know where he'll go and where he'll take stuff - and that's really liberating for a writer."
Helpful, too, considering that the frequent changes in venue for It's a Mystery productions - to say nothing of ever-unpredictable audiences - require performers who not only can but must improvise in character. "The bits we come up with all come from the inspiration of the original writing," says Wolking, "but you have to learn it on the spot."
"There are cue lines that you count on," adds Naumann, "but where that cue's gonna come from in a room, or what the audience will say ... . You can't plan for that."
You can, however, run with it.
"I started this bit once," says Naumann, "and this woman snort-laughed. Everyone heard it. And then a decision had to be made: Opportunity, or obstacle?
"Opportunity!" he concludes with a laugh. "There are no obstacles!"
It's a Mystery's Whacked at da Wedding will be performed at Bettendorf's The Lodge Hotel & Conference Center at 6:30 p.m. on November 14. Tickets are $35, and more information on the group and its productions is available at ItsAMysteryQC.com.