How did a travelling theatre troupe manage to book a show on a $100,000-a-week superyacht? Sam Brooks talks to the people behind 1920s-themed murder mystery Butterfly Smokescreen.
If you walk down on Auckland’s Viaduct during this chilly winter, you’ll see all the usual suspects: first year students straggling out of Danny Doolans, the manicured regulars at Soul, the giddy golfers at Holey Moley. You’ll also see a superyacht. Specifically, the Sea Breeze III, previously named Ulysses, previously owned by Sir Graeme Hart, and currently playing host to a 1920s-themed immersive murder mystery show called Butterfly Smokescreen.
The show, which runs until August, is a collaboration between New Zealand-based theatre company The Barden Party and Sydney-based Jetpack Theatre. It’s a loose retelling of the infamous death of film producer Tom Ince on the yacht of one William Randolph Hearst (the media magnate upon whom Citizen Kane was based) during a weekend cruise. Also in attendance were Hearst’s companion and actress Marion Davies, silent film legend Charlie Chaplin, columnist Louella Parsons and others whose names are remembered only by the history books and golden age enthusiasts.
It’s a wild story, one that sees the show’s eight-strong cast ably taking charge of period costumes, period accents and period scandals. But a wilder story is how this show even got on board Sea Breeze III to begin with.
Like everybody in the live arts in 2021, the Barden Party found themselves out of work. Company co-founder Laura Irish, who also co-writes, co-directs and stars as Marion Davies in Butterfly Smokescreen, was trying to figure out a way of putting on shows for small groups of people outside, so she could make an income. The best idea she had was to take shows to people’s backyards, starting with her own before moving onto “everyone’s backyards”.
“We chose to do Shakespeare because, firstly, I love Shakespeare, and secondly, there’s no rights to pay,” Irish says. “It was a cost-effective way to get paid and present art when there wasn’t any happening.”
From there, the Barden Party ballooned from a short run of five shows, to 50 shows around the country, to an eight-state tour of the US. This year alone, they’ve performed multiple shows, including Much Ado About Nothing and a two-hander, immersive musical about Edgar Allen Poe and Shakespeare called Cocktales.
Jim Fishwick, founder of Jetpack Theatre and also co-director and co-writer of Butterfly Smokescreen, has had the idea for a 1920s murder mystery for almost eight years. The company, which specialises in immersive, interactive, improvised work, has performed shows in mazes, rowboats, observatories – pretty much any location you can name. “This idea had been on my list since the beginning, but because it would require a yacht, I put it on the backburner,” they say. “It was just staggeringly inefficient to consider.”
It was literally only two months ago, barely a month out from opening the show, that his far-flung dream became a very close reality.
The Barden Party had just finished up Much Ado About Nothing at the Theatre Royal in Nelson when Irish was on the phone with one of their regular patrons and sponsors, for whom they’d done a private show earlier this year.
“I was having a debrief of the season with them because they’re really invested mentally and emotionally in the company, and at the end I asked if their trust would be OK with us pitching for some further funding for development of other works,” Irish says. The patron then suggested they start to ramp things up. Irish joked that they did have an idea for an high-budget immersive show, but they’d need a yacht.
This patron’s response? “Get me the numbers by the end of the weekend.”
The next few days were filled with “industrial quantities” of spreadsheets, a hastily pulled-together pitch deck and a lot of stress. The patron agreed to pay for the development of the show, which would be paid back with ticket sales (pretty quickly, probably – tickets are between $177-$230). The only thing left was to find a boat.
They got on the emails to try and find a yacht, and ideally one that fit the 1920s concept of the show. Sea Breeze III was their Hail Mary option, due to its unique design. The boat is available to hire, for the cost of US$65,000USD a week (around NZ$100,000 – for context, chartering a superyacht can run you anywhere from $48,000 to $420,000 a week).
Charlotte Devereaux, the boat’s current owner and founder of EGG Maternity, wrote back within 10 minutes asking for a Zoom call.
“Since acquiring Sea Breeze, I’ve always envisioned creating unique and memorable experiences on board, and hosting a mystery seemed like the perfect fit,” Devereaux says. “It felt as though the stars had aligned, and I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to help bring this intriguing and incredibly special theatre experience to life on our gorgeous vessel.” She has since seen the show, even worked the bar during performances, and describes it as “mind blowing”.
So one Zoom call later, Irish, her eight-year-old daughter and two of the other actors packed up their entire house, got in the car, and drove to Auckland. A week later, others flew in from Sydney. Now, they had to actually make it.
The experience of attending a performance of Butterfly Smokescreen is uniquely delightful. My companion – an avowed fan of Agatha Christie stories – and I were ushered onto the boat, given a pair of slippers each to wear, a glass of champagne each (we were given the “Hollywood” experience), and encouraged to mingle with the other guests.
The first thing that strikes you is not necessarily the cast, but trying to figure out who the cast even is. Audience members are encouraged to dress in theme, which is something I was initially wary of, considering my wardrobe is squarely in the 20s of the wrong century. But on the boat it plays into the show’s immersive nature: if everybody looks like they’re in the show, it’s a lot easier to believe that you’re at the party.
As the show plays out – no spoilers here, apologies – the intrigue is less in figuring out the mystery, and more watching the cast navigate each other, and play up the best known features of this famous group of characters. Julia Guthrey, as the scruple-deficient Louella Parsons, is a particular delight, with the plummiest 1920s accent you’ve ever heard, and a fur turban to match.
“With these sorts of shows, you’re solving a jigsaw and designing a box, and also designing a jigsaw at the time,” explains Fishwick. “You’re just constantly moving things in towards the middle.”
Both Fishwick and Irish have strong backgrounds as improvisers, and so are comfortable working without a lot of information, but a murder mystery needs a ruthless amount of structure to work. The show went into an intense, albeit short, writing process – they divided up the scenes, finished their first drafts, swapped scenes to rewrite the second draft and swapped back again for the third, which took them right up until a week before opening.
This murder mystery, however, also has to work around a literal structure: a boat with four levels, several staircases, multiple outdoor areas, and rooms with very little breathing room.
“With the size of the space, you have to be conscious because you’ve got audience members following you,” says actor Ollie Howlett, who plays a Chaplin far more charming than the real one ever was. Boat hallways, even ones on superyachts, are not designed for 10 people to be walking through at the same time. “As an actor, you have to really clearly define where you’re going and when you’re going there, so that the audience can follow you even if they can’t see you anymore.”
Fishwick calls Sea Breeze III the “ninth character” of the show. “The space is so exquisite that it does a lot of the work of suggesting the world of the show for us.”
The tenth character, then, is the audience. The show doesn’t exist without us, and while it invites us in, it’s really up to the audience to decide how they interact with the show. You can pretend to be a 1920s screenwriter, as I may have done, or you can simply be an anachronistically dressed, oddly quiet guest, observing a zippy retelling and the past. Either works.
“If you wanna sit back and watch things unfold, we’re so happy for you, we’ve got space to do that,” says Howlett. “But if you want to get in there and have a conversation with Charlie Chaplin about what his life’s like, we’re there to meet you as well.”
“It’s finding a balance between interacting with the audience and giving them freedom, making it immersive and respecting the story we’re trying to tell as well.”
Toddling off Sea Breeze III, pretty close to midnight, I looked over at the Viaduct and saw people behind the barriers, peering oddly at the superyacht. A mere 20 metres or so away, the cast slipped in and out of character, having taken their bows. To bystanders, it probably just looked like a fancy party. To me, it was an experience I won’t likely have again. And more’s the pity.
“This isn’t the sort of show that comes to New Zealand,” says Howlett. “I might be biased but I think it competes with the biggest shows overseas!
“It’s just the ten of us making this on a boat. It’s crazy.”
Butterfly Smokescreen runs until August 6 on the Sea Breeze III. You can book tickets here.