On March 18, 1990, thirteen works of art, estimated to be worth $200 million at the time, were stolen from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston. The thieves, posing as police officers, spent 81 minutes (4,860 seconds) looting the museum after tying up the museum’s guards. Despite a $10 million reward for information leading to the art’s recovery, the case remains unsolved, with no arrests made and no works recovered.
Fascinated by the theft after a visit to the museum, Toronto’s Falling Iguana Theatre co-founders Ian Ottis Goff and Alexa Higgins wrote 81 Minutes, a speculative depiction of the robbery told in real-time.
Initially presented in July 2021, Falling Iguana is taking the show on the road with a stop at the Alderney Landing Theatre in Dartmouth on April 24.
We find out more in this Q&A with Falling Iguana’s co-artistic director Ian Ottis Goff.
This interview has been edited.
Tell us about 81 Minutes. What can audiences expect?
We like to describe 81 Minutes as a cross between Oceans 11, The Importance of Being Earnest and Night At the Museum. Falling Iguana Theatre loves theatre that excites, and we strive to make every moment onstage crackle with life. We have chosen to use the exact amount of time that the real-life thieves were in the Gardner Museum, 81 minutes, to count down the play’s action. When the clock ends, the play ends – no matter what. 81 Minutes is funny, touching, surreal, mysterious and all-around exciting.
The play is speculative about what happened. Is it based in any reality?
A great deal of the play is based on reality. I and co-artistic director Alexa Higgins spent nearly two years researching the events of March 18, 1990. We used two biographies of the founder Isabella Stewart Gardner and several other sources for the events of the heist and the subsequent hunt for the stolen art. In 2019, we travelled to Boston to visit the museum, where the empty paintings still hang. This research has allowed us to blend reality and fiction playfully onstage and infuse the play and characters with numerous real-world details.
81 Minutes isn’t just about the art heist. What can you tell about the second storyline featured in the play?
The play has two timelines. The first, in 1990, follows the two thieves, the two guards and the art detective trying to solve the case. The second timeline follows Isabella Stewart Gardner, who founded the museum in 1903. Isabella was an extremely interesting figure in the turn of the century Boston. She was known for breaking societal norms, hob-knobbing with some of the most famous creative figures of the day and causing many scandals throughout her life. As an art collector, she managed to amass one of the most amazing private collections in North America, sometimes using ethically dubious means.
Do the stolen paintings make an appearance in the play?
Maybe. 1 Vermeer, 3 Rembrandts, 5 Degas, 1 Manet, 1 Govaert Flinck, 1 Pierre-Phillipe Thomire and an ancient Chinese vase. We swear we don’t know where they are.
What was it about the art heist that got you excited enough to create a play?
According to experts, most heists take about 3-5 minutes, tops. You get in, get what you came for, and leave. This heist took 81 minutes. The museum isn’t very big, so we wondered what the two thieves could have been doing for so long? This is also the largest unsolved art heist in history, so who better than a couple of Canadian theatre artists to try and solve it?
Why present it in real-time?
The first answer is that we believe the audience shouldn’t be punished for attending a play. One hour and 21 minutes without intermission is a great amount of time to see a play, and no one has to hold in their pee.
The second answer is that at our premiere in Fredericton in 2021, we found that the time limit of 81 minutes created a very interesting tension for the audience and the performers. Our stage manager is told that the play ends with a blackout when the clock hits zero. No matter what. Plays breathe and stretch with each performance; some run long, some run short, creating another element of tension within the space. We have several time contingencies to help us gauge how our pacing is proceeding on a given night.
The play also incorporates movement, text, and music. How do these elements add to the story?
Falling Iguana Theatre specializes in physical theatre, an umbrella term for theatre that uses a performer’s full physicality to tell a story. We play with scale, and body-based character work to build the world of the play in interesting and humorous ways. In addition, the story jumps back and forth between the two timelines, and each of our five performers portrays multiple characters, so physicality is key in guiding the audience through these transitions.
Why should someone come to see 81 Minutes?
We think that the fine folks of the HRM will find 81 Minutes to be a highly enjoyable and compelling evening of theatre. This show is fast-paced and truly entertaining, and we believe that the story behind it is of interest to pretty much anyone. Besides, who doesn’t love an art heist?
Falling Iguana Theatre presents 81 Minutes at the Alderney Landing Theatre (2 Ochterloney St, Dartmouth) for a single show on April 24. Visit alderneylanding.com for tickets and information.