When Jerri Wiseman returned to Northern Virginia after a decade abroad, she got involved with community theater and found herself cast in a murder mystery called “Scared To Death” by Loudoun playwright Terry Smith.
Two years later, Wiseman and Smith joined forces to create StageCoach Theatre Company. This month, the company celebrates its fifth anniversary with a revival of the play that started it all.
When Wiseman and Smith met in 2009 during the Sterling Playmakers’ production of “Scared To Death,” they both knew they wanted to do something new in Loudoun: Create a theater company that operated as a business instead of a nonprofit. And with Wiseman’s business background and Smith’s writing skills, they knew they had what it took.
“Terry and I really complement each other, and we can bring the artistic and business parts together,” Wiseman said.
The partners were looking to fill two niches they felt were missing in Loudoun—interactive murder mysteries and dinner theater.
“We made a conscious decision to go with Loudoun County because it is a growing community with a lot of opportunities available to small businesses,” Wiseman said. “We wanted to bring more of the arts and something different to Loudoun County.”
The business partners launched StageCoach in 2011 with their first mystery show and have since performed around a dozen shows each year at locations around the county and in nearby areas. The company specializes in themed murder mysteries. The 1920 themed “Moonshine Murders” was one of the company’s most popular productions to date, Wiseman said, and this year’s “Dead Tuesday” set during Mardi Gras in New Orleans was also a hit. StageCoach also produces children’s theater and cabaret-style musical reviews.
One mark of distinction for the company is its traveling troupe model. Instead of booking a local auditorium for a weekend or two, StageCoach takes its show on the road, performing at area restaurants and wineries for audiences of 40 to 120 people—and there are usually dinner and drinks involved. The company often performs the same show at different locations—spread out over several weekends to allow it to reach as many theater lovers as possible.
This year, the company launched a new partnership with the Waterford Foundation, offering performances at the Waterford Old School, a historic schoolhouse that’s now an event venue. The partnership is in line with the Waterford Foundation’s move to provide more cultural offerings, including concerts, said Foundation Executive Director Tom Kuehhas, and StageCoach has performed both murder mysteries and children’s shows at the venue.
“Each show is getting a little bigger,” Kuehhas said. “It’s a wonderful space.”
StageCoach is also in negotiations to establish a permanent home base venue in Leesburg. And while the company would continue to put on traveling shows, the Leesburg space would house a planned after-school workshop program for middle and high school students slated to launch this fall. Wiseman is waiting until the lease is signed to give out location information, but said information on fall programming for students will be available soon.
Wiseman, who grew up in Guam, was an avid theater-goer but didn’t consider herself a performer until she got recruited to help launch a community theater company while living in Hong Kong in the early 2000s. Wiseman was planning to help with production and finances but wound up getting cast in a lead role.
“I’ve always loved theater—attending theater—but if you’d have asked me 20 years ago was this going to happen I wouldn’t have known,” she said with a laugh.
When Wiseman returned to Northern Virginia after more than a decade abroad, getting involved with community theater was a way to re-acclimate to life in the states. In the years after StageCoach’s launch in 2011, Wiseman and Smith found themselves playing multiple roles—including actor and director. But the company has grown, Wiseman has focused on the producer’s role, and the founders are now working with a cadre of local playwrights and directors for their original productions.
The company, which Wiseman describes it as “semi-professional” is run as a business rather than a nonprofit and hires a mix of professional and amateur actors from around the D.C. region.
“We’re kind of a bridge between community theater and professional theater,” Wiseman said. “Usually, it’s a stepping off point. [Actors] want to go from being in community theater and start adding paid work to their resumes.”
The current production of “Scared To Death,” directed by longtime Northern Virginia actor and director Barbara Carpenter, is an updated reboot of Smith’s original script and takes place on a horror movie set. After a series of “accidents” on set and bickering among cast members, one of the players ends up dead. Audience members, who are given the roles of film extras, piece together the clues to solve the mystery. And with audience participation in the mix, actors know they need to be prepared for anything, Wiseman said.
“We are 90 percent scripted but we allow for 10 percent of improv because any time you involve the audience, you never know what they’re going to throw at you. They need to be quick on their feet and this cast is phenomenal at that.”
StageCoach Theatre Company performs the interactive murder mystery “Scared To Death” Saturday, Aug. 13 at Bungalow Lakehouse in Cascades, Saturday, Aug. 20 at the Waterford Old School in Waterford and Sunday, Sept. 11 at Savoir Fare in Round Hill. For tickets and more information, go to stagecoachtc.com.
StageCoach will hold auditions Saturday, Aug. 6 from noon to 2 p.m. for upcoming productions of its Halloween-themed mystery “Trick Or Treat” and its annual “Naughty Or Nice” Christmas cabaret. Details and requirements are available at the company’s website.