By turns a screenwriter, off-Broadway playwright, and local children’s theater author, Peter Ryan found his latest creative sweet spot at the Holiday Inn on Fifth Street.
“This is theater for people who get restless during normal theater,” he said of his latest show, The Club Ritz Caper, which performs in the hotel restaurant during dinnertime. “It’s really 3D theater, happening all around you. Then a crime is committed and you’re asked to solve the crime, like you’re in a detective movie, and you’re the detective.”
A double UVA MFA graduate in fiction and playwriting with a penchant for playing guitar, Ryan developed the show after many years of adapting fairy tales for children to rehearse and perform with after school programs. “I’ve written maybe 80 children’s songs,” he said, “so I thought I might want to do something adult again.”
Adult includes two musical numbers, stage combat, and characters at home in a 1920s speakeasy—mafia dons, a nun, a reporter, a nightclub hostess, and a corrupt cop—couched in a whodunit mystery. The Club Ritz Caper features a rotating cast of local actors billed as the The Cloak Mystery Players, a troupe founded by Ryan and veteran performer Aaron Hale. Show attendees are encouraged to dress in Gatsby-era costumes and engage with the performers.
In some cases, they can’t help but be part of the act. “There’s the crazy sister who’s actually sitting at someone’s table,” he said. “A mechanical spider crawls out from under a bowl. You’ll even have jewelry stolen from you, though I should add that we provide it.” Success is measured not by how accurately the mysteries get solved—though actors do give prizes to the most interesting audience solution—but rather by how entertaining and wholly engaging each production proves to be.
For Ryan, community-powered creativity is the reason he writes scripts in the first place. “Theater is wonderful because you get to be with real people who are speaking the things you wrote,” he said. “You get lots of feedback so you can see how well your writing works. I write movies, too, and film and theater are about getting other people’s voices down. In fiction you have all that description, so you get to have a personal voice, but it’s definitely a longer, lonelier process.”
Ryan’s writing career began in theater, when a show he co-wrote with his UVA professor went to off-Broadway in 1976. “It was intoxicating, my shot at the big time,” he said. “We spent two years raising money to get it on stage, and it was a full equity, $100,000 production. Of course I would probably do everything completely differently this time around.”
Ryan later partnered with a New York-based choreographer to produce an off- Broadway showcase called Karate Tango. When he produced and directed the show for a second time in Charlottesville, local filmmaker Brian Wimer worked to turn it into a movie that’s due out this fall.
“I always had an idea for a two-character musical about a couple who are in show business. Their marriage starts falling apart, and they start playing games with each other to try to get it back together,” Ryan said. “It really shows how hard it is to make it in the arts.”
To that end, the playwright said he hopes The Club Ritz Caper becomes an anchor for local theater. “Boomie Pedersen did a version of this show in Waynesboro last year that was very successful. We’re trying to keep it going into something permanent, and we pay $20 per show to the actors. Ultimately, we hope to found a new theater troupe in Charlottesville. We want to make this something that supports the community.”
The Club Ritz Caper will perform Fridays through Sundays at the Holiday Inn on Fifth Street from May 9 through June 8.