Monday, November 24, 2014

Murder Mystery Event: How It All Turned Out

The murder mystery event was a success! (For background, the previous post on this topic is here.).

Quick recap: As a fund-raiser for a local history museum, I wrote an audience-participation murder mystery set in our town in 1920. Along with a core group of actors who carried the story, each guest was assigned the role of a specific townsperson: a pharmacist, a car salesman, a schoolteacher, etc. Throughout the evening, actors and guests mingled and clues and red-herrings were shared. Guests could then vote by ballot for whoever they thought committed the murder. At the end of the evening a winner was drawn from all those who had chosen the true murderer.
Chautauqua Performer meets Suffragette

Here are some tips for doing something similar to promote interest in the history of your town:

*Start with your local historical society and/or public library to read about the history of your town and determine a time period/theme for your story. In our case, the 1920s were a time when a lot was going on, locally as well as nationally.

*Research, research, research. Go through local newspapers, archives, and histories of the period and make note of interesting things that happened. While your story will be partly (or even largely) fictional, sifting in as many true facts as you can helps your audience learn real history.

*Stick with a classic storyline and broadly-drawn characters: heroes, villains, allies, enemies, etc. Go for comedy and old-fashioned melodrama; this is not the time for nuanced subtlety, a depressing story, or incisive commentary on the human condition. People are coming to have fun.

Sheriff and Train Conductor
* When casting roles, let actors play to their strengths and interests as much as possible. Got a guy with an interest in trains? Cast him a conductor! Encourage participants to research their own characters and help them find the resources to do this.

*Have fun with the time period. Since Prohibition was in effect in 1920, we enjoyed calling the wine "punch." A surprising number of people were seen carrying hip flasks. We also urged people to support the Nineteenth Amendment giving women nationwide the right to vote (women in Idaho already enjoyed that privilege--another fun fact unearthed in our research).

*Be respectful of the people you portray and their descendents. Even if the true-life characters in your story lived a long time ago, observe the same standards regarding slander and libel that you'd observe with a living person today. When in doubt, assign an evil deed to a completely fictional character. At the end of our production, we had the actors give a short summary of which parts of their characters were true and which were made up for the story.

Here are a few other miscellaneous lessons I learned from the process:

* It takes a village, or rather an eager team of people willing to take charge of various aspects of a

"Intrepid Girl Reporter" and Sheriff
production of our size. Not only did we need the actors (who in turn rustled up their own props and costumes), but as with other fund-raisers, we needed a venue, food, decorations, music, silent auction, etc. In our case we put someone in charge of the drama/story/theatrical portion (me) and someone else in charge of everything else (the museum director, who did a bang-up job but was also mighty tired), and lots of willing volunteers. Next time, we'll let some of those volunteers take a larger management role.

Obviously a smaller mystery party held in a private home would need less coordination. But at an event on the scale of ours, one or two people could burn out trying to manage all the details.

* Grown-ups still love to play make-believe. I was impressed by how many guests really got into their roles. In spite of being given only a line or two about their character plus a few tips on 1920s culture, slang, and fashion, many guests played their parts with great enthusiasm, and seemed to have fun doing it.

* Guests had fun AND learned something. Not only were funds raised for the museum, but another goal was achieved as well--each guests left the party knowing more than they did before about the history of our area. Mission accomplished!

I hope this series on planning and writing an audience-participation mystery party has been interesting to you. If you have any questions about our event or the process followed to put it together, please post it in the comments.

1 comment:

Jennifer Rova said...

What a marvelous undertaking! You and your team did lions' work with the ultimate burden being on you. I am sure you developed a depth of writing skills available to only those who stretch their talents and give so generously of their time. To raise money for the historical society was the icing on the cake. The community is lucky to have you counted as a resident. Thanks for sharing it all with us. I learned a lot!