When a storm delayed her trip home from a winter vacation a few years ago, Ottawa actor Jasmine Bowen was struck by a lightning bolt of inspiration that set the stage for an unlikely global business.
Instead of flying back to Canada from Bermuda on that Saturday back in late 2014, Bowen toured a museum. At a certain point, it dawned on her that she was the only visitor there.
“It started the gears turning,” she says.
After reading an Economist feature on the industry’s struggle to attract visitors in the United States, Bowen was convinced there was a business opportunity in reinventing the museum experience. The University of Toronto theatre grad set to work figuring out how she could use her stage training to rekindle the public’s interest in the historic places she loved.
“My grandmother used to take me to museums every weekend, but they all had a problem all across the world. Attendance was falling,” she explains.
"I’m going to find a way to use my theatre degree to bring people back into museums and show them history in a whole new way"
“I come from a family of entrepreneurs, and I was like, ‘I’m going to find a way to use my theatre degree to bring people back into museums and show them history in a whole new way.’”
Early in 2015, she launched Live History, building her own website and emailing museums across Ontario and the northeastern U.S. to see if they’d be interested in hosting live mysteries set in whatever era the venue wished to recreate.
Bowen ended up doing six shows that year, three in Canada and three in the U.S., with a small crew of two or three actors.
Just as she’d hoped, the concept continued to gain traction.
Now with a troupe of about two dozen performers, Live History is slated to host more than 50 productions in 2019, including several in Britain, Australia and New Zealand.
Over the past five years, Bowen’s Ottawa-based group has also taken its act to museums, churches, libraries and other historic sites in Ireland and Bermuda, one of her favourite destinations. She now has an administrative staff of five, including four full-timers, and is so busy she often runs two separate tours simultaneously.
Live History caters to audiences of up to 30 people. The company crafts its stories around seven basic themes, most of them the whodunnit variety – although never murder mysteries, Bowen notes.
In a unique twist, the audience is part of the show. Actors wander through buildings and around historic sites along with the museum patrons, searching for clues and asking questions, all the while shedding light on what life was like back in the day. Shows can run for up to eight hours, with new audience participants coming and going throughout the day.
“It’s like they’re stepping into our world,” Bowen explains. “A lot of people get very scared by interactive – they think they have to jump up on a stage and present to all these people. But really, they’re just stepping into our world and we’re having conversations with them.”
Bowen says the concept has been a hit with historic sites from the get-go – particularly on the Prairies.
While the group will spend most of the summer in Ontario, including a handful of dates in the Ottawa area, it will head west later this fall to perform a series of shows at off-the-beaten-path venues in places such as Davidson, a community of about 1,000 people an hour’s drive southeast of Saskatoon.
“Especially in small towns, they’ve never had the chance to have this experience before, but they’re having the same problem as museums all over the world – their attendance is falling,” Bowen says.
Entirely self-funded from the start, her venture has “never been in the red” and has seen its revenues jump 300 per cent since 2015.
“This is really different,” she says when asked to explain Live History’s popularity. “There are companies that go into museums and do site-specific theatre like we do and there are companies that run escape rooms in museums, but there is no company that runs the two of them together and is able to produce a customized historical show in as many venues around the world as we are in as short a time.”
Bowen and her team thoroughly research each site before arriving and require only a few hours to set up a production, she says.
“We encourage them to tell stories that aren’t normally told,” she adds, noting that when the company performed at Laurier House, the home of Wilfrid Laurier and William Lyon Mackenzie King, its shows focused on the servants rather than the famous political figures who lived there.
“We want to tell the stories (that are) just off-centre.”
Bowen says the company plans to start staging productions in French later this year, with the aim of growing its audience in Quebec and francophone European markets such as France and Luxembourg.
If that goes well, she says the group will add other languages to its repertoire. Bowen is also looking at introducing overnight packages where guests can stay at historic sites and take part in 24-hour “immersive experiences.”
Bowen, whose father James has taught entrepreneurship at universities across Canada and in Europe and helped create the Startup Canada Awards, credits her family’s influence for inspiring her to turn her passion for acting into a successful business.
“I think that really helped,” she says. “Everything just came together to start the company.”