Photography by Richard Simpson/Vancouver Police Museum.

Can You Crack a Murder Case that has Stumped Vancouver for Almost 100 Years?

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By the time Alice, the Vancouver Police Museum’s immersive theatre murder mystery opens, it will have been the product of more than four years work—and nearly 100 years of history.

“It’s been so long now that I can’t even remember exactly how it started,” laughs Catherine Rose, the show’s co-creator. “It was a game, originally; I figured it would be fun to have people participate in an interactive murder mystery, like those out-of-the-box ones you’d buy in the ’80s, but based on an actual Vancouver murder. And because it was based on real life, it had to be an unsolved case.”

The case in point is the 1924 murder of Shaughnessy nursemaid Janet Smith. One of the city’s most high-profile unsolved homicides, it has fascinated Vancouverites for almost a century, having sparked countless conspiracy theories, and involving lurid tales of bootlegging, gangsters, and even the Ku Klux Klan.

Alice Vancouver Police Museum

Photography by Richard Simpson/Vancouver Police Museum.

Alice is just the latest exploration of the Smith murder; over the years, the case has been the subject of numerous books and magazine articles. But what makes this show unique is its interactive nature. In addition to the eight actors on site, audiences will have the opportunity to crack the case on their own, leafing through mounds of evidence, including crime scene photographs, notebooks, and even a vintage radio broadcast (voiced by Vancouverite and Broadway legend Jeff Hyslop).

“Jeff just does that old-timey feel perfectly,” notes director Bill Allman. “So, we wrote a bunch of copy for him with that sound in mind, and threw in ads for old-timey businesses that people would recognize. There’s one in there for Woodward’s for example. And we gave him an old CJOR jockey’s name. And he just knocked it out of the park.”

For Rose and Allman, attention to detail was crucial. While some characters in Alice are amalgamations of historical figures, others are based on real-life 1920s Vancouverites (including singer Ada “Bricktop” Smith, and Chinatown gangster Jim “Salt Water” Goon). Even audience members will be given a character and backstory to play with—all of them named after deceased Vancouverites.

“We wanted to help people get into participating,” Rose explains, “and they can choose to run with that backstory or not, if they want. People will get out of it what they put in.”

When it came to crafting Alices intersecting narratives, Rose was singularly qualified; in addition to being a historian and author, she is also a crime analyst. However, as she quickly discovered, building a timeline is quite a different endeavour than writing a theatrical script.

“I didn’t have any experience with fiction,” she admits. “If it’s a real case, I can put together a timeline that would hold up in court. But if I wanted a work of fiction to make sense on a Saturday night, I had no idea how to do that.”

Which is where Allman came in. A director and producer with decades of experience, he was tasked with transforming Alice’s complex series of motives and characters into a coherent, and entertaining narrative.

“I was out for drinks with Bill one night, and just said offhand, ‘Hey, do you know a scriptwriter who might be interested in working on this incredibly complicated project?’” Rose recalls. “And Bill just went, ‘That’s literally what I do.’ And then, I took over Bill’s life.”

“It’s perfect drama, really,” Allman adds. “You have all these different factions, all of whom have it in for each other. No two people are actually going to get along, and they all have their own potential motives.”

Even before they got started, the show had built-in production value. Set on-site at the Police Museum (originally built in the 1930s to house the Coroner’s Court), there was already a morgue and an authentic autopsy suite to play with. From there, the team involved artistic director Richard Simpson, who helped build the show’s world, including its crime scene evidence, and even an unsettlingly realistic corpse.

Alice Vancouver Police Museum

Photography by Richard Simpson/Vancouver Police Museum.

“[Simpson] is just the most unbelievably creative guy in town,” Rose says, “and he has this mind that makes me wonder: ‘How does he do all of this, and why am I not afraid of him?’ He works on major feature films, and he’s an incredible photographer. He did our crime scene photos, for example. And then, he also helped us take a $30 plastic Costco skeleton, and used latex to add skin, and built us the corpse of Alice.”

Previewing on October 17 and running until Halloween, the show has, Rose notes gleefully, already begun to sell out. Period costumes, Allman adds, are encouraged. And while the pair still have rehearsals and final touches to get through, both are excited to share the product of more than four years’ hard work, and allow curious Vancouverites the chance, after nearly a century of history, to definitively answer the question: Who killed Alice?

“Some of the talent that has contributed to this is really impressive,” Rose says. “We’ve recreated actual police evidence from the ’20s and ’30s, based on materials in the museum’s archives. We have so many talented actors. We have an actual autopsy suite.”

She laughs.

“Let’s just say there won’t be any time for people to be bored.”

Alice: An Immersive Murder Mystery opens at the Vancouver Police Museum on October 24 and runs until October 31.


Learn more about local history in our Hidden Vancouver series.

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October 16, 2019