A woman from the Ashland Theatre explains the rules of the Murder Under the Big Top game played as a fundraiser for the theater on Thursday, Nov. 16. Credit: Dillon Carr

ASHLAND — The inside of Ashland’s historic theater became the scene of a classic whodunnit mystery on Thursday. 

Around 120 people showed up to The Ashland Theatre’s first live theatrical performance where actors interacted with the audience in an elaborate scheme, and all worked independently to solve the “Murder Under the Big Top.”

The evening’s main plot went like this: A family-owned circus has just finished a performance in Ashland. On this night, they gathered in a theater to have a going away dinner celebration following a successful production. 

There’s a circus ringmaster, a trapeze artist, a clown, a lion tamer, a knife thrower — even an FBI agent, among other characters. They’ve all gathered, along with the audience, to celebrate. But then the unthinkable happens: someone is murdered.

It’s up to everyone to solve the mystery. 

Here’s the main subplot: Thursday’s event was also a fundraiser for the real-life Ashland Theatre. Each of the audience members paid $50 for a ticket that included dinner and a non-alcoholic beverage. Cocktails by John Moser — the man behind “Cocktails Out of Quarantine” — were available for purchase. 

Tickets also came with some Monopoly-like bills, which the audience members could use to buy information from the actors. The audience competed not only for the truth, but for the title of richest person. Meanwhile, the actors also hustled for money.

Just like real life, there were a lot of moving pieces.

‘This is very pretty’

“This is going to be a fun show,” said Tammy Milne, an audience member moments before the performance began. She came with her “work daughter,” Caileigh Kropka, 22.

Milne, 57, moved to Ashland from Cincinnati, where live theater thrives. She had never been to the newly-renovated theater.

“But this is very pretty. I love the ambience … I hope more people find out about this and come here to support it,” she said.

The nonprofit, Ashland Schine’s Theater Inc., was established in 2015 to raise money to restore the historic playhouse. 

The organization raised $4.3 million to renovate the structure that sat empty for years.

Renamed “The Ashland,” the theater on Center Street reopened its doors to the public on May 5 after showing its last movie in 2010. By then, the theater’s carpet had become sticky, said Glen Stewart, Ashland’s former mayor. 

Stewart, 85, was one of the audience members Thursday night. He kept using the word “awesome” to describe his feelings as he looked around before the performance began. 

“The people who thought of this, they’ve got an open mind and they’re thinking well for the future,” he said.

Kay Pauly, 82, remembers going to Schine’s decades ago with her brother to see “Howdy Doody.” 

“He won a Howdy Doody puppet,” she said. “I just hope everybody now supports it.” 

Live entertainment

Thursday’s event, Skinner said, is an example of the versatility of the new theater. With three screens, he hopes the large main stage and the retractable screens on the balcony will cater to the live theater crowd. 

“That’s always been another aspect. We’re trying to attract the theater going folks who don’t prefer coming to see movies — but they like live shows,” Skinner said.

Ashland native Todd Riley brought his “Perfectly Inappropriate” tour to the theater in September. The event marked the revamped theater’s first live performance. 

“So you see it’s turning into the versatile venue they envisioned when they were trying to put it back together,” Skinner said.

Even murder mysteries masquerading as fundraisers.

Oh, and whodunnit? 

Well, you’ll have to come to the next event to find out.

The Life section is supported by Brethren Care Village in Ashland.

Lead reporter for Ashland Source who happens to own more bikes than pairs of jeans. His coverage focuses on city and county government, and everything in between. He lives in Mansfield with his wife and...