Pilfered Paintings Performance: Festival hopes to catch a thief with walking theater

Pilfered Paintings Performance: Festival hopes to catch a thief with walking theater

In the spring of 1990, half a billion dollars worth of art was stolen from Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in what remains the world’s biggest art heist. The 13 pieces disappeared without a trace and, to this day, not a single artwork has been found, not a single suspect arrested.

Thirty-one years later, as part of the Walton Arts Center’s Artosphere Festival, Arkansans are invited in to the investigation. You’ll be given background and aided by experts; you’ll meet and interrogate the suspects. And if you can crack the case, you could win the museum’s outstanding $10 million reward for helping recover the works.

“Art Heist” is an interactive walking theater experience that immerses the audience in the real life case. Of course, the actual suspects in a three-decades-old robbery won’t be wandering the streets of Northwest Arkansas — in fact, some are deceased. But actors portraying those real people actually will be at five different walkable locations where audiences — in the role of new recruits to the FBI’s art recovery division — will interact with each suspicious individual to determine who they think is the true culprit.

“It’s somewhat similar to an escape room, or a scavenger hunt,” offers TJ Dawe, the production’s co-writer and director. Unlike a book or movie or listening to music, Dawe says, the medium of the show makes the audience an active participant, and that will affect how the encounters unfold.

“We really turn up the stakes on that with this show … the audience is asking the actors questions, the audience is discussing, ‘What do we think of this person? Do we think that they were lying? Do we think that their story holds up?’ And at the end, ‘Who do we think is most likely to be involved in this?’ And something that’s become apparent to me as I’ve been working on the show in different cities is we’re starved for interaction. This show gives people a chance to have new conversations with new people about new things.”

With last year, the year Dawe worked on creating the performance, being the robbery’s 30th anniversary, it made the story a fortuitous subject for a play. But the outdoor, walking nature of the storytelling is what sold the project. It was like finding the loophole to offering live entertainment during covid, Dawe says. The format keeps audiences distanced — and often requires masks even though the performance is outside — and the actors are never in close contact with each other or the “investigators.”

“It’s also accessible to all ages, because the Gardner heist was a completely bloodless crime,” Dawe adds. “So we have had audiences that include little kids, and sometimes kids can be the most dogged and clever interrogators of the suspect. And just a hint, if anybody’s thinking of doing that, our actors love when people ask them clever questions that nobody ever has before!”

If you’ve never heard of the heist before now or feel like you might be behind on the story, don’t worry. The experts along the way give you everything you need, Dawe promises. And, in fact, coming in without researching or in-depth prior knowledge is actually a major asset, Dawe assures.

“The advantage that the audience has coming in is the advantage of a fresh perspective,’ he says. “It’s very much like the phenomenon of when you’re just going nuts looking for a pair of scissors or your glasses or your phone and can’t find them, and then someone points out it’s been in your hand the whole time.

“So come on in with your fresh perspective and see if you can spot the thing that even experts haven’t seen. Because sometimes the answer is right in front of us, and it’s hiding in plain sight.”

Artosphere 2021 Schedule

May 11

Off the Grid

Local musicians will be perform at businesses within the Outdoor Recreation Area in downtown Fayetteville. Performances will be staggered so guests can attend them all. Those who complete a “passport” by attending each performance can turn it in at the end of the night to enter a drawing for “Art Heist” tickets.

“Normally, Off the Grid utilizes the orchestra members — we’ll set them up in various bars or restaurants and encourage people to dine and move from location to location enjoying the music,” Zazal explains. “Well, this year, we’ve changed a little bit. We’re working with three locations, kind of stretching up Block Avenue to the Town Center Plaza. It’s very walkable.

“I think the sunset is at like 8 o’clock that night. So it should just be a nice night outside in the middle of May.”

Performances are free and open to the public, but parents, be aware: With some performance taking place outside bars, the atmosphere may lean more toward that of a pub crawl.

• 7-8:30 p.m. — Willi Carlisle, Maxine’s Tap Room

• 7:30-9 p.m. — Christian Serrano, The Vault

• 8-9:30 p.m. — Route 358, The Experience Fayetteville Stage at the Fayetteville Town Center

“Art Heist” is an interactive outdoor theater experience that will open the 2021 Artosphere Festival on May 6. Performances will begin every 30 minutes in the allotted time slots Thursdays through Sundays and will take place at the Fayetteville Town Center (May 6-9); the Rogers Historical Museum (May 13-16); and a Bentonville location TBD (May 20-23). Tickets are $25-$30. 443-5600, waltonartscenter.org/artosphere. (Courtesy Photo)

May 15

Artosphere Film Series

The four films in the Artosphere Film Series are all family friendly, with a PG or G rating. Each of the films has a strong Earth or sustainability theme, Zazal shares, to fit into the wider Artosphere programming, and they are often very artistic, she adds. Showings will take place in Baum Walker Hall at the Walton Arts Center and are free with reservation.

• 2 p.m. — “FernGully: The Last Rainforest”

• 7 p.m. — “Boy and the World”

May 16

Artosphere Film Series

• 2 p.m. — “Mia and the Migoo”

• 7 p.m. — “Welcome to the Space Show”

May 18

Dover Quartet: Live from Walton Arts Center

• 7 p.m. — Baum Walker Hall at the Walton Arts Center. $20

Artosphere’s resident quartet and internationally lauded musicians Dover Quartet return to Fayetteville for one of their first public performances since before the pandemic. Annually, the Artosphere Festival Orchestra performs at Crystal Bridges Museum in Bentonville once during the festival, and the concert is aired live on Fayetteville’s NPR affiliate station, KUAF. In lieu of the AFO performance, KUAF will air Dover’s Tuesday night show on 91.3FM.

May 19

“Strings Attached” screening

• 7 p.m. — Walton Arts Center. Free with reservation

Director Bruce Boder helms a new documentary about the lives — on and off stage — of the four superb musicians who have become one of the world’s most in-demand ensembles as the Dover Quartet. The screening is one of the documentary’s first public showings, and some of the foursome’s previous Artosphere visits can be seen in the film.

May 20

Jayme Stone’s “Folklife”

• 7:30 p.m. — Walton Arts Center. $32-$52

Another festival favorite, Juno Award-winning composer/banjoist/instigator Jayme Stone returns to Fayetteville following the release of 2020’s “AWake” and his acclaimed 2017 album “Jayme Stone’s Folklife.”

May 21

Trail Mix

• 5-7 p.m. — Downtown Fayetteville and the Frisco Trail System. Free

Artosphere’s crown jewel, Trail Mix returns to see art take to the trails. Live music and interactive activities will be found at various points along the trail in downtown Fayetteville by Bike Zoo and Jayme Stone, as well as local artists Papa Rap, Melody Pond, Block Street Hot Club, Smokey and the Mirror and more.

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