After successfully pivoting her live events company during a global pandemic – all without dipping into her savings – Traci Connaughton is confident she can tackle any obstacle thrown her way.
Nineteen years ago, while living in Bensalem and studying for her master’s in arts administration at Drexel University, Connaughton founded Without A Cue Productions, which quickly became known for its murder mystery dinner theater.
“Over those 19 years, it’s grown into a company of 50 actors, two full-time people, an office space, the whole thing,” said Connaughton.
Audiences at Fishers Complex in Bensalem and Peddler’s Village in New Hope could participate in the immersive experience by putting their sleuthing skills to the test and choosing cast members’ next actions. However, when the COVID-19 pandemic hit and such events were prohibited, Connaughton was forced to switch gears.
“I think all of us leading up to when the shutdown happened, we were all kind of in a state of denial about it. At least I know I was,” she said. “But it was within two days of everything shutting down that I realized we weren’t coming back at least until the summer.”
When Connaughton was informed that her children wouldn’t be going back to school in the fall, she knew Without A Cue’s summer season – and possibly the fall – was lost. So, within two weeks, she and her team created murder mystery Zoom parties, including “Murder on the Titanic,” that groups could enjoy from the safety of home.
“We did that really quickly. We tested one idea and it didn’t work, so we scrapped that entirely. We wrote an entire new mystery, built an entire website for it because it has all of these things that go along with it that you access online, clues and videos,” said Connaughton.
The Without A Cue actors recorded videos at home in front of greenscreens, happy to still have employment.
“We just worked really hard to create whatever we could initially with the Zoom games. We just wanted to work in some way,” said Connaughton.
But the Zoom mysteries weren’t going to be enough to sustain Without A Cue for long. Soon after, Connaughton crafted socially distant, mystery walking tours in both Peddler’s Village and in Cape May, New Jersey.
Most recently, she launched one in Philadelphia.
“Your tour starts at the crime scene. You can study the crime scene more closely by scanning a QR code to look at the clues that are laying about on the crime scene. And then, your tour guide wakes up because they’re deceased, and they’re trying to figure out who murdered them with the help of the audience,” said Connaughton.
Over the span of an hour, the group walks to four stops. At each, they meet an actor portraying one of the last people the deceased saw before they were murdered. Attendees learn about possible motives and collect more clues. At the end, they reveal who they believe is the culprit. The winner receives a prize.
“It’s a fun, different twist on a historical walking tour,” said Connaughton. “During the tour, we give weird historical facts about whatever time period we are in. Philadelphia is so fantastic for history, and it’s local. We’re working on getting these rolled out to as many cities as we can.”
As COVID-19 restrictions ease and full capacity is once again allowed in most venues, Connaughton is excited to resume Without A Cue’s signature shows. She expects them to be back in “full force” sometime in July. Since the walking tours received such positive feedback, these will continue and possibly expand to more locations. The Zoom parties will also continue, though Connaughton may adjust this offering if there’s less demand.
When looking back on Without A Cue’s determination to survive over the past year, Connaughton feels a sense of pride.
“It is a huge confidence boost because prior to this, I really played everything very safely. Now, I feel like it would take a lot to put us under. One mistake, one thing that doesn’t work out isn’t going to be the thing to do it. If we could ride this, without even having to touch our savings, we’re fine. We can make it through a lot of things.”
But she’s not getting too comfortable just yet.
“We’re in a constant state of unsettled, I feel like. We know that everything’s opening back up again, but then, what are people going to choose to do? Are they going to go out? And is what we do on their list?” asked Connaughton. “So that’s the next hurdle.”
Visit withoutacue.com for more information.
Samantha Bambino can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org