One thing this area has classically lacked is a good dinner theater. Particularly popular during the ’70s and early-’80s, dinner theaters not only provide the promise of a meal and a show but gives actors a forum to both act and interact in a way traditional theater rarely allows.
It was this draw that led Tracey Lease to form the Plates & Plots Dinner Theatre with Heather Adams.
The two met at a dinner theater event that took place at the Old Mill Brewpub. That theater group dissolved after the flood shut down the building in 2015. Adams — a long-time stage performer in the area, whose past experience includes the Columbia Marionette Theatre — met Lease toward the end of her time with that organization. Lease’s motivation and enthusiasm for doing dinner theater inspired them to pursue it.
“We would do like private events, restaurants, and that sort of thing,” Lease says. “Just the two of us mostly. That worked for a little while, but people wanted to come see the theater on the weekends. If you worked in a restaurant or go to the restaurant they don’t need you to come in and work and help with sales. They are already busy. We did do some private events for businesses and that sort of thing, which was fun, but, you know, we wanted to do this a little more than once a month.”
Soon after coming together, the duo became a trio with the addition Jennifer Simmons, who they lovingly call “the other woman,” who brought an array of skills to the team, from script writing to performing.
“The three of us are very different people,” Adams offers. “We’re very different from each other and somehow balance each other out, which is great.”
Using murder mysteries as the central theme of their shows, the team is always working, rehearsing upcoming shows and preparing new material for the next show. And unlike traditional theater, there’s the added dimension of constant interaction with the audience.
“You are just kind of a character, not unlike at Disney [parks] where your performance is 360 degrees where everyone is around you and talking to you while you are in character,” Adams describes. “I’m naturally very shy and introverted and it’s almost like therapy to talk to people. Just the idea of doing theater and stepping down from the stage while still in character to talk to people is really, really fun. It sort of forces me to connect with people where otherwise I would be in the back hiding.”
While the theater is the passion of the group, the food is also key. The team partners with A&J catering out of the Columbia area to provide a three-course meal with each performance. The meal includes a salad, a choice between two entrees, and dessert.
“One of the nice things is that it is all in one,” Lease reasons. “When you go out at night, you want to have a whole night. What’s great about this is you go out to dinner and you see a show, too.”
Though the evening is broken into four acts, the show never really pauses, with the actors staying in character while serving each course. Completely unscripted in between acts, they aim for an immersive experience.
“You have to explain to somebody new [that joins the cast] that the script is there, but once the show actually happens during the show can be totally different,” Lease offers. “You never know what’s going to happen and that’s the fun of what we do. We are with the audience, there’s no fourth wall here, there’s none.”
“We all have a tendency to feed off the audience and incorporate things from the audience,” Simmons adds. “We had situations where someone might shout out a guest’s name and they’re like, ‘Bob, Bob,’ and we’ll figure out ways to reference Bob. You really have to be willing to think on your feet and improvise a lot.”
Plates & Plots remains an afterwork passion for the trio as they continue to grow the theater. Simmons is a full-time theatre teacher, Lease works at a local school cafeteria, and Adams is a longtime actress at the Renaissance Festival in Charlotte.
Lease hopes to keep building to the point where the endeavor can become a sustainable business.
“It would be good,” Lease says of the possibility. “I really like my job, but it’s a job. If I could do something I love all the time it would be great. I would love to have shows scheduled every weekend and spend my time on the phone dealing with food and having this place set up. That would be really great.”
What: Cupid’s Arrow
Where: Plates & Plots Dinner Theatre, 101 C Summer Duck Trail
When: Feb. 14 and 15
Price: $40 ($75 per couple)
More: 864-832-PLOT, platesandplots.com