Wendy Olenik asked that question to a room full of swingers and gangsters on a dark night in October at the DoubleTree by Hilton in Columbia.
As the owner of Whodunnit for Hire, a murder mystery entertainment production, Olenik has entertained a variety of audiences, from corporate team building groups and family celebrations to the general public. Almost all of her events involve audience participation, with a dead body as a prominent character.
“The dead body scene starts the mystery,” said Olenik, who has seen her share of participants nominate their boss for the role. From there, Olenik has volunteers from the audience take on roles of suspects.
“You hear a scream and a body drops to the floor,” said Stewart Dearie, owner of Baldwin’s Station Restaurant in Sykesville, another venue that hosts Olenik’s productions regularly. “People let themselves go. They come in costume and really take on the part.”
On Oct. 19, Olenik hosted a Sinister Speakeasy mystery at the DoubleTree. At the fundraiser she organized for Maryland Public Television, guests arrived dressed as flappers and gangsters and dined on dishes named after characters from the “Downton Abbey” series, including “Lady Mary’s chicken marsala” and “Mr. Carson’s cod.”
“Eighty to 85 percent of the guests come dressed up; that really sets the theme,” Olenik said. “I want it to be interactive. My favorite part is sitting with guests at the table and answering questions.”
For the Sinister Speakeasy, Olenik had only one other cast member – Leonard Gilbert – with her. The rest of the characters were from the audience.
“We provide a great level of entertainment,” Gilbert said. “It’s a very unique show. Everybody usually has a good time.”
Elkridge Furnace Inn has been hosting murder mysteries two or three times a year for years, according to Patrick Rodeheaver, a chef.
Olenik was not always involved with interactive theater. She first formed a traditional theater company years ago with a cast of actors to present a whole play for companies. She discovered it was not what people wanted.
“People kept asking me ... to write one for us,’” Olenik said. “I heard that over and over.”
In 2005, Olenik formed Whodunnit for Hire in Sykesville. Backed by a core group of actors she has had for years, Olenik’s productions typically last two hours and are more like a game than traditional theater, with characters providing clues from a script to each table.
The shows are also meant to be enjoyed, not to terrify.
“My stories are not about gruesome acts but more about crazy characters and zany comedies,” Olenik said. “I never want to scare or frighten anybody. I want it to be a good night out.”
For Linda Nabb, the Sinister Speakeasy was a chance to celebrate her birthday with family and friends.
“This is something I really wanted to do,” Nabb said. “I love murder mysteries. I love to dress up and I love MPT. It seemed to fit.”
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