Actor, director and co-owner of The Dinner Detective, Allison Learned, knows what you probably think about dinner theater: It’s “like where you end your career,” she said. So, several years ago when she was asked to help out on one of the shows, she said “No.” Eventually she changed her mind, played one of the roles and she was hooked.
The Dinner Detective is an all-improv based murder mystery dinner show that has franchises all over the country (Los Angeles, San Diego and Denver to name a few). In each show, there’s a host, co-host, two detectives and a handful of “audience members” who are there to help out with the general mayhem. And no show is ever the same. How do I know? Because I’m part of the cast. For the past year, around one Saturday a month, I’m improving it up with some great people and having a terrific time.
I talked to Allison recently about how she came to be a co-owner of The Dinner Detective, why she loves working with and helping her actors and the challenges of the “flaky” actor.
Tell me about The Dinner Detective. How did you get involved?
Allison Learned: So the way that I found out about it, I was in an improv troupe in Long Beach. Bellflower actually. And we all sort of fell apart because our show times were really late and we were in the basement of the Queen Mary. And so we all sort of disbanded and disappeared.
But a couple of my friends who did improv classes and had worked on main stage at IO West and UCB started with the Dinner Detectives. There was a location in Santa Ana, LA, and Long Beach. And they called me, they were like, “Allison, you’ve got to come and do this gig. It’s an improv gig, paid, you’ll really like it,” and I kept shutting them down. In my mind I kept thinking I did not want to do dinner theatre because in my mind coming from Denver, Colorado as an actor, dinner theatre is like where you end your career. You know? Where you go to die as an actor. So in my mind I was like, “I don’t want to go there. I already really don’t have an acting career,” because I was a new mom. So I said, “No, no, no,” and I didn’t do it.
But then the franchiser, the owner and developer of Dinner Detectives, contacted me and he said, “Look, I just need a woman and I need a warm body and I need somebody who’s reliable and your friends say that you’re that. So can you just come and do one show for me?” There was no pomp and circumstance to it. It was really just that matter of fact. He was like, “I just need a woman and I need you to come do it.”
So I went and I did the First-to-Die role, which as you know is… you go in at 4:15, you die, and you leave around 7:30.
Allison Learned: And I loved it. I saw people that I knew from Main Stage at IO West and Second City and UCB and I realized many of them were doing that show that night that I was there and then rushing off to do their prime time spot at 10pm at one of the major improv houses in Hollywood.
So that intrigued me because here I was seeing improv actors and stage actors that I had known still working very much in other projects and doing other things and staying completely relevant while also doing this dinner show.
And I also looked at it from it was completely different. I had imagined there would be a stage and there would be hokey costumes and we would inevitably be serving food as actors, and none of that was what I’d seen. It was all improvised, no costumes obviously, no stage. I loved the fact that it was interactive with audience members. I thought that that opened me as a performer, opened me up to being able to interact and try different things as far as improvisation. And play different improvisation games without the audience knowing. Just sitting at my table and interacting with them and just ‘yes-anding’ things and really just getting back to the fundamentals of improvisation and what it is at its core and how you can be really successful with it. So it was an awesome experience from that standpoint as a performer.
And then just after about 2 years of performing with it, I just loved it so much and it was something that was so new to the market. There were a couple of competitors at the time in local markets that I wanted to work in. Nothing so big and nothing like the Dinner Detectives. So I asked my husband if he wanted to go in on it with me and invest in it and I was sure he would say “no” because he was not a performer, but he was like, “Yeah, absolutely.” We went and saw a show, which I never thought I’d get him to do either. It’s so just not his thing. We went and saw a show, we saw my friends doing it, you know, these great improvisers. And he was sold. So we opened our first location in San Diego almost 6 years ago and the rest is history. We’ve opened about 2 to 4 a year since.
How much work is it? Is it just a tremendous amount of paperwork and auditioning actors? Is it more work than you would’ve thought? Especially as you gain more franchises?
Allison Learned: Yeah. Initially when we started I did think it was gonna be just a small side project, a small side gig. Because having one location I didn’t think it was gonna be that much work. But my husband and I both worked in real estate before this, and we are the type of people that when we take on a project we go all in. We really wanna make sure that we’re doing the best with it and we’re cultivating ticket sales, cultivating the right products among the actors, making sure that it’s a good product that we’re putting out. So what was supposed to start out as 5 hours a day maybe turned into definitely a 40-hour a week gig.
Allison Learned: Yeah. And my husband did it for a while by himself. I stayed in real estate and he ran our business, the Dinner Detectives business, by himself. And that worked until we got to about 2 locations and then I left real estate and we started to grow pretty rapidly after that once we had both hands on deck just to hustle it.
What’s the best part of this for you?
Allison Learned: For me it is, I love working with the actors. I love doing the auditions, doing the rehearsals, the training. I also like creating an experience for the actors, just a professional setting where they know they’ve got a reliable gig, they know they can count on a solid paycheck when they work. And then also making them feel secure enough and bold enough to keep going and doing more things.
I always tell the actors that my goal is for them to come to me one day and say, “I’m moving to Hollywood. I’m moving to New York because I got this great gig.” They’re moving on to something bigger and better. And so I really try to create that culture among the cast of get out there and work and play as much as you can in this industry and let’s just make you huge.
And I love the fact that the actors network with one another. I mean in San Diego… I brag all the time because our San Diego location, the 48 Hour Film Festival, when we first started was kind of a blip on our radar. And now it’s to the point where we can hardly have a show the weekend of the 48 Hour Film Festival because all of our actors are in the 48 hour film festival.
And I love that because, I mean, this last year, Ryan Casselman and his group, which was primarily Dinner Detective actors, they won for best film I think and they won a couple of other awards. The year before that, Devin Hennessy had a whole cast of Dinner Detective actors and he was of the upper echelon of all of the films that were produced from the 48 Hour Film Festival in San Diego.
That is really what I love to see. I love to see the actors branch out and do more because of starting with the Dinner Detectives. For me, that’s the best part.
You know, our model is that we have our host as our director for the evening. Our co-host is sort of the stage manager for the evening. They understand the parameters, but we want them to play with it and then from there we let them create the show that is current and relative to their location, to their city, and relative to their actors, and making sure that everybody feels like they have something that they’re getting to put into this and it’s not just some scripted piece of material that gets old and they do it over and over again and it gets tired. We want it to stay pretty fresh.
You also jump into a cast if you’re around too, right? You’ve done it a bunch of times.
Allison Learned: Yes. Yeah, in fact, every time we open a new location I play detective with one of the brand new hires. So they always get to see me up on my feet once and show them that, hey, I can do it too. Let’s all get in and get our hands dirty.
I want to talk about or ask you about bad actors. And not bad actors as in, “That guy stinks,” but people not showing up. I know you’ve had problems with that occasionally.
Allison Learned: Yes.
It’s gotta be completely frustrating to you. But I’m sure it’s happened over and over.
Allison Learned: Right. So if the best part of this business is the actors, I would say that the worst part of this business is the actors as well. [laughs]
One bad actor can make it so, so difficult. It doesn’t just kill it for me, I mean, it weighs on the entire cast because everybody’s picking up slack.
I feel like it runs the gamut of why people do it. Most of the time in general, and I hate to generalize in this way, but I really do find that many, many actors can be very flaky.
And they don’t quite understand because this isn’t a 9to5 job, it isn’t a restaurant job. And by job I mean acting as a whole. Just being an actor in the industry, it’s not a normal job.
And so I think a lot of actors sometimes will let themselves become complacent to the professionalism that they need to show. And they start to think, “It’s just an acting gig. I’ll get another one. So I’ll flake on these guys.” And what they don’t understand is that with a “normal job,” if you no-show somebody, word is gonna get around.
And I find that with the acting industry and with the acting communities within all of our locations, word travels really fast. Faster than in a professional setting if you were working in a dentist’s office or working in a restaurant. Because those guys are competitors and they don’t get to talk, but you no-show on a cast full of fellow actors and it’s like blood and water. Other actors see that and they’re like, “Oh, man. That guy’s never gonna work again and I’m gonna make it a point to let people know I was there when that happened and he no-showed and I had to pick up slack.”
So I think that actors sometimes they take it for granted or they see a bigger, better prize and they think, “It’s one time. I’ll just no show these guys so that I can go and get the bigger, better gig, and screw it. Who cares?” But you just never know. In this industry more than any other, you never know whose eyes and ears are on that.
In San Diego I’m on the Actors Alliance there and I try to get on the boards for Actor’s Alliance in every location that we’re in so that I can become more familiar with other producers and directors around town and become familiar with actors around town. And even with that, even though I do make connections and make relationships networking with other people, I don’t make it a point to drag actors through the mud. But I do hear their names come up from other actors and other directors and I just sort of rub my chin going, “Yup, I’ve experienced that with that actor for sure.” So it’s very… how quickly a bad reputation travels.
You go around and you audition all the franchise actors. Are there any sort of major things you see actors doing wrong that you wish they would do better?
Allison Learned: Yes. Well, what’s so funny is when I was acting more than directing, you would always hear those things that casting directors and directors would say of make sure you look like your headshot. Make sure when you go to an audition you remain engaged. Don’t look bored. Make sure when you go to an audition you’re not the guy who’s screaming things out and trying to be funny and be big. Those are all absolutely true.
The top three things that I see that kill it for actors who audition for me…when they don’t look like their headshot. It’s really difficult. There are people that I’ve intended on casting but they don’t look like their headshot so I forget them and I end up not casting them. So even though headshots are expensive, I cannot stress enough to fellow actors how important it is to keep your headshot up to date.
And if you don’t, a lot of times I’ll have actors who will write me just prior to an audition and say, “Hey, this is my headshot. I want you to know, I did just color my hair so I’m blonde and I’ll remind you of that when I come see you in person.” And even that little thing will help me just click a memory and go, “Oh, yeah. I remember who this person is.”
I do an improv workshop audition, it’s 2 hours of improv games. So it’s kind of everybody up on their feet, everybody talking, playing, but there are portions where we’ll do some scene work and I have people sitting down watching while other auditions are up. And I’ll tell you, I look at those guys sitting just as much as I do watching the guys up playing. If see somebody who really seems disengaged, checking their watch, yawing, crossing their arms, closed off body language, people that I think that I envisioned in the project and I think, “Ok, when it’s rehearsal time are you gonna be disengaged? Is it gonna be hard for my current cast members to elicit engagement from you and elicit participation?” So that kind of kills it for me.
And then there’s always that guy or girl who thinks that’s completely ok to continue to shout out things throughout the auditions. Like I said, one-liners, non-sequiters. I think a lot of people who don’t have a lot of experience in improv think that improv is about dirty jokes and bad words.
So I do preface the auditions for the actors with the fact that I know that they’re smarter and better than going blue right out of the gate. So I tell them to illustrate that. Don’t feel like you have to tell me dick and fart jokes just so you can get a laugh because, I can tell you, that’s not gonna get you cast. I wanna see somebody who can be smart on their feet and be relevant with current events, current with pop culture references, relevant with any sort of high reference material. I mean, the greatest improvisers and the greatest actors I see are the people who know just a little bit about everything and have fun with it. Versus the people who are like, “I’m not smart enough to do this and I’m not quick enough, so I’m just gonna tell a dick and fart joke. Yay.” And it makes me giggle for a second but then I think, “I don’t know. That doesn’t seem entertaining over a long haul for me.”