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Ottawa murder mystery theatre company forced to reinvent itself

When COVID forced theatres to close, Pete Dillon responded. "If the audience can't go to the theatre, we'll bring the theatre to them."

As the founder of Big Time Murder Mystery Theatre, Peter Dillon has solved a lot of pretend mysteries of the last 30 years, but it's the mystery of 2020 he's most proud of.

That's the time he managed to rescue his theatre company from the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Overnight we went revenue neutral,” Dillon, 52, says. “We had to come up with something completely new. I knew the need for live entertainment during lockdown was bigger than ever. The challenge was how to work.”

Unable to play to a live audience, Dillon's solution was simple: If the audience can't come to the theatre, then the theatre would virtually go to the audience via Zoom.

“Anyone who's attended a Zoom meeting knew streaming a taped performance in Zoom wouldn't work,” he explains. “It's too easy to turn off the camera and do something else when you're on Zoom. We needed it to be live, interactive.”

The solution was to use the technology to create a highly interactive murder mystery, where the audience, or in this case, the viewer, played parts in the performance. The viewers become cast members.

And so, Zoom Mysteries was born, billing itself as "an HR friendly employee engagement activity."

Dillon created a new show called "Ace in the Hole." Set at a millionaire rancher's birthday party, suspects and police are played by guests, with a company member directing the action, using some of the best bits from previous shows.

“It's the most engaging show – live or virtual - we've ever done,” Dillon says. “The audience loves to interact with the actors.”

Pre-COVID-19, Big Time used to do about 170 shows a year. Last year, it did 229 Zoom Mysteries, making it the busiest year the company's 30 history. Like pulling a rabbit out of a hat, Dillon and company had taken a substantial existential threat, and turned it into a positive.

“The past year showed us that to succeed, you have to be versatile. It's what being an actor's about. It applies to business too. We're always looking for new opportunities, to reinvent ourselves.”

Reinventing himself is something Dillon's made a career of. Growing up in the Glebe, a young Peter knew he wanted to act, but he also knew he wanted to be his own boss. He was still a kid when he started entertaining on “Big Time Comedy” and later, the CJOH series “Denim Blues” with Sandra Oh.

As much a capitalist businessman as he is a stage and film actor, Dillon created Big Time Murder Mystery Dinner Theatre primarily for corporate clients in 1992.

“The corporate market was the way to go,” he says. “It was always about growth, creating bigger, better experiences for the client. I love that sense of excitement, being open to all opportunities.”

It took 10 years to build the business, but by the 2000s, Big Time Theatre was established well enough that requests for gigs came from all over the globe: St. Maarten, the Firestone Golf and Country Club in Akron, Ohio, resorts throughout the U.S. and Bermuda, and an original show based on a vintage radio broadcast for the NHL All-Star Reception's 50th Anniversary. In 2003, the Canadian Army flew the company to Dubai to entertain the troops.

Back at the home base in Ottawa, the company moved into it's current home, in a small room upstairs at the Prescott Tavern, in 2016. That came with a whole new set of challenges, space and logistics serving food while performing being foremost.

“We took dinner theatre and turned it on its ear,” Dillon says. “Preston Street has lots of great restaurants. We didn't want to compete with them, we wanted to compliment them. So, we stopped offering dinner and turned it into popcorn theatre, with shows for the after dinner crowd. It worked. We've been a sell-out for five years.”

Indeed, Big Time was voted one of Tripadvisor's top tourist attractions in Ottawa five years in a row. That is, until COVID came to town in 2020. Shuttered until further notice, Dillon doesn't know if or when they'll be able to perform live again.

“We can't wait to get back to entertaining audiences,” he says with some frustration.

“Big Time has given me a spectacular life,” he admits. “Yes, I wanted to be financially successful, but it wasn't always about the bottom line. It's just as important we create new, original material you can be proud of. Whether you're an actor or entrepreneur, my advice is the same. Don't be afraid to try new things. Fear's a liar. When opportunity knocks, always say yes.”

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