The Artist Murder Investigator: Cynthia von Buhler

Playwright and award-winning artist Cynthia von Buhler uses the power of performance to explore unsolved mysteries.

Published September 25, 2013 4:01AM (EDT)

    (Cynthia von Buhler)
(Cynthia von Buhler)

This is the seventh installment in a new series called Keepers of Curiosity, featuring interviews with intrepid performers, artists, writers and culinary-minded individuals with a thirst for discovery and innovation. The series is brought to you by Hendrick's Gin. To read the other interviews in this series, click here.

What do you do?
I investigate murders, specifically those related to significant events in history. This began with Speakeasy Dollhouse, a look into my grandfather’s 1935 murder. Shortly after Prohibition ended, my grandfather, who was a bootlegger, was shot on the street in Manhattan. No living members of my family know why—and my grandmother took these secrets with her to the grave. When I began my research, nothing was known about the killer, his motive, or the trial.

Since I make dollhouses for my children’s books, I decided to create scenes from this unsolved mystery using my own handmade sets and dolls. Utilizing evidence from autopsy reports, police records, court documents, and interviews, I built a miniature speakeasy, a hospital room, a child’s bedroom, a pre-war apartment, and Ellis Island. I also created lifelike dolls with moveable limbs to live in these sets.

I wrote a storyline for the actors to follow, but in order to achieve a level of realistic spontaneity I invite audience members to interact with the actors. I use these interactive productions to delve deep into the psyche of the characters and their motives. In doing this, I satisfy my own curiosity and entertain people by engaging theirs.

How would you describe your work?
Transmedia storytelling. I like to tell stories using multiple forms of media, with each element making distinctive contributions to a user’s understanding and participation in the story universe. I make living worlds, where even the senses are engaged through sound and smell.

With Speakeasy Dollhouse, I have created my own life-size dollhouse. The actors and audience are my dolls. Each actor is following a script, but everyone is allowed—and encouraged—to improvise. Meanwhile, all of this is happening in a historic building that actually used to be a real-life speakeasy. We even encourage the building’s ghosts to become a part of the action.

What are you most inquisitive about?
I’m inquisitive about everything. I’m constantly asking questions and I like talking with people who are more knowledgeable than I am. My husband is a walking encyclopedia. I’m most curious about living things and the choices they make. This runs the gamut from wondering why a wife might cheat on her husband to why a moth is drawn to a flame. Obviously, they are seeking something. I want to understand every detail of their drive.

What curiosity does your work satisfy?
In the process of investigating my grandfather’s murder through Speakeasy Dollhouse, I have uncovered many details. But every time I uncover something, a new shroud of mystery is revealed. We may never know the truth, and that is OK. The real beauty of being curious is that you always want to keep seeking because you’ll never know everything.

What drives your curiosity?
I’m agoraphobic. I’m afraid and untrusting of people and unknown environments. The more I know, the more I feel a comforting control over my situation. I also think that most people are fearful. If I understand them, I can set them at ease too.

Is your work for now or later?
The plays are for now—but the books and films they lead to are for later.

Where do you mine inspiration?
I mine inspiration from the tunnels and caves of my memory. Specifically for Speakeasy Dollhouse I was inspired by Frances Glessner Lee, who was a key figure in crime scene investigation. To train investigators in assessing visual evidence, Lee created the Nutshell Studies, which were dollhouses that students could examine from every angle. Inspired by these miniature crime scene sets, I decided to create the scenes from my family mystery using my own handmade sets and dolls. This seemed like the perfect way for me to start my sleuthing.

What’s your next project?
I’m writing and co-producing an immersive, historical play about sibling rivalry and the shooting of Abraham Lincoln. The play will be held in a gorgeous Manhattan mansion with strong connections to the murder. It is set in 1919 and will be filled with ghosts, bootleggers, burlesque girls, and circus performers. It opens in February 2014.

How do you keep things curious?
Artists tend to retain a healthy amount of their childlike innocence. Children are naturally curious. I write and illustrate children’s books. Children relate to me as a peer, not as an elder. I surround myself with two kinds of people: those with a childlike curiosity and those who have intelligent answers. My goal is to be both.

Learn more about Cynthia von Buhler and explore her Speakeasy Dollhouse.

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