Part 1. Pitching and Writing the Script

Ever been part of some big production and thought, “I can do better.” And then you had to follow through?

Over the past few years, I performed in two murder mystery plays here in Tam Valley. The scripts were purchased online, and I was not the only one unimpressed with them. More than once I said to myself, “I can write something stronger than this.” I might have even said that out loud a time or two.

To our credit, the actors and director in our Tam Valley Players pulled off entertaining shows, adding our own jokes and schticks, and involving the audience in solving the mystery.

Shortly after our short run last spring, I proposed writing the script for the 2017 show — titled “Publish or Perish: Tam Valley Mystery Writers’ Retreat Murder Mystery,” about a mystery writers’ retreat with real murder. I got the green light, and an August 1 deadline. The script was supposed to have roles for 12 to 14 actors.

Scenes from dress rehearsal. Photos by Barry Wasserman.

Then I sat down in front of a blank screen. Yikes! Be careful what you wish for and all that. Where did I get this idea I could be a playwright?

I’d never written a murder mystery play before. More than 30 years ago, I did write (and direct) a political Christmas comedy called “You Better Watch Out,” about Santa Claus fighting a corporate takeover and refusing to hawk military toys, like GI Joe.

But there were only six actors and it wasn’t a mystery.

I had written two novels, one a mystery, the other with a mystery subplot, and read thousands of mysteries over the years, including, back in my youth, almost everything Agatha Christie ever wrote. I’d even played Clue now and then.

I told myself that, daunting a task as this was, a play is all dialogue and that’s what comes easiest to me. Many an early draft of scenes in my novels has just been people talking. I had to go back and aerate the dialogue with setting and internal monologue. That’s not necessary in a play.

And I reminded myself that part of why I wanted to do this was because it was hard. Because I could fail.


Formula + Creative Twists

Though I found a few useful tools online, mostly I started by deconstructing what had worked in the two murder mysteries I’d performed in. The advantage of writing a murder mystery is there’s a formula. That’s also a disadvantage because, well, let me quote from one of the early scenes in the show.

Rooster, a singing cowboy writer, is flirting with Olive, author of a successful series of vegan detective mysteries. “Your books are fun,” he says, “but the plots are so predictable, I mean, the murderer is always the meat-eater.”

So my plan was to use the formula as a starting point, and add my own twists and turns and clever ideas so it wouldn’t be too predictable. Create my own formula.

Here’s what I came up with.

1. Involve the audience.

Audience participation is what makes the murder mysteries so much fun. For our Tam Valley shows, the audience comes for dinner beforehand and sits at a table for ten. Many are longtime residents who’ve been coming for years, and/or family and friends of the performers.

After dinner, we start the scripted show, then comes intermission and dessert, and then, toward the end of the second act, we stop the show, ask each table to discuss among themselves who they think committed the murder and why, and pick a table captain. The table captains report their votes, the accused respond, the play wraps up and the real murderer is revealed.

Involving the audience is risky, because you never know what’s going to happen, but that uncertainty, and the social, community feeling, is integral to the dinner theater experience. The audience doesn’t come to passively watch a show. They come to share a meal and solve a mystery.

2. Closed-room mystery.

The murder mysteries take place at a remote resort, a family reunion, a dinner party — always a closed room of sorts. The murderer, and the victim, are always characters we’ve already met. He or she is never someone who comes in off the street.

3. Lots of suspects and motives.

The more suspects the better, usually, though the characters need to be distinct and the motives clear and plausible. One problem with lots of characters, however, is that the stage can get crowded. We ran into that problem.

Because they all have motives to kill, the characters almost all have disreputable histories and/or secret lives, or at least secrets. What you see is not what you get.

4. Over-the-top characters.

The characters need more than motives. Since I was going for laughs, I wanted big, broad, cartoonish characters — the egotistical showman, the flaky facilitator, the pompous professor, the self-loathing hack.

What I aimed for was a tricky blend of cartoonish and over-the-top, but with real human emotions, like yearning, like regret. For example, Jake, the murder victim, retreat host and M.C., is a narcissistic con man and philanderer who everyone hates. But he’s also tired of hustling. He longs to turn over a new leaf, be a better person. (Spoiler alert: He’s too late.)

5. Complicated plot with clues and red herrings. But not too confusing.

While my first priority was that the show be fun and funny, I did want the story and mystery to hold together. We know from previous shows that audience members take solving the mystery seriously, and pay close attention to the clues.

Unfortunately, my plot was complicated enough that the actors didn’t understand it even after weeks of rehearsal.

The premise was that Jake and Stormy, the bickering husband-and-wife hosts of the writing retreat, are in desperate enough financial straits that they hatch a scheme to boost attendance for future retreats by staging a murder. Of Jake. A mystery writers’ retreat with a real murder! That is, a fake murder than appears to be real.

Stormy turns the staged murder into a writing prompt, essentially getting the writers, who paid to attend, to generate publicity for the retreat in their blogs and twitter feeds. Pretty brilliant, except the fake murder leads to a real murder and Jake ends up dead. Maybe not so brilliant.

6. Twists and turns.

Here’s one of the jokes in the show: How many mystery writers does it take to change a lightbulb? Two, the first to screw it almost all the way in, and the second to give it a surprising twist at the end.

As with mystery novels, these plays need a twist or two to keep the audience guessing.

I added a couple twists in addition to the fake murder, the main one being that the most obvious suspect committed the murder, but as she says when she’s accused, “Haven’t you ever read a mystery? It’s never the obvious person.”

7. Data Scraper App collects video clips.

In the second act, instead of a traditional investigator running down the clues and suspects, I created an “app developer,” a writer already at the retreat, who is deputized to investigate the murder, and his Data Scraper App, which scours all the security camera footage, as well as videos, texts, and more from everyone’s phones.

Using an algorithm, the app determines which video clips are most relevant to the murder, and the actors are “pulled” into a frame, like a large TV. They enter at fast-forward speed, then slow down to act out the scene.

The actors rebelled against this idea, urging me to consider real video instead of pretend video. But that’s a story for Part 3. Directing — Creatively Exciting, But Herding Cats. (Still a work in progress — link to come.)

8. Greek chorus.

Hiding behind a prop and eavesdropping on the private conversations between retreat workshops is Trixie, Jake’s majordomo — one-part Puck, one-part Quasimodo. Then, like a Greek chorus, shares her take on the proceedings with the audience.

As the play proceeds, she tells the audience that she’s writing her own tell-all mystery — the Tam Valley Mystery Writers’ Retreat Murder Mystery. “Don’t worry,” she says, “It’s fiction.” (One of my favorite parts is at the end when she is handed a package, and pulls out a copy of the book that she has somehow managed to write and publish during the course of the play.)

The First Reading

I made my deadline, and scheduled a reading, in mid-August, at the community center, inviting potential cast members and some friends and family. We got an excellent turnout, enough actors to read all the parts. I read the stage direction.

But it did not play out the way I hoped.

What did I hope for? That there would be gales of laughter and buckets of praise. People tugging at my arm and gushing, “This is brilliant.”

Instead, I heard actors who hadn’t read their parts in advance deliver what were supposed to be funny lines without the funny. The reading dragged, took far longer than when I read it out loud to myself.

And then there was the feedback.

Too many characters.

Too many words.

Too many video clips.

Not enough physical action.

Too confusing a plot.

Characters not clear enough.

The fake murder doesn’t make sense.

It was painful. They didn’t get the plot twists I thought were so clever. There were long stretches with no laughs.

I reminded myself that this was what I wanted. A roomful of actors reading my script and giving me feedback. I wanted to write this script and I did. I put myself out there. Took in what everyone said, acting as if hearing critical comments didn’t bother me. At least I knew not to defend myself.

There’s a note I make in the margin of my drafts when I know something needs to be improved.

Make better.

The day after the reading, I started making the script better.

Next — Part 2. Making It Funny

Front page of program.

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