I worked for several years at a murder mystery dinner theater, with multiple locations in Irvine, Orange County and Riverside. We put on numerous plays over the years and I played a large variety of characters, even within the same show (casts tended to revolve, and it behooved an actor to know all the parts in a given production).
Guests arrived at a restaurant and were immediately greeted by the characters, who would improvise with them while doubling as service staff. There was a scripted show, usually three acts, and between the acts we would serve dinner and dessert, always in character, always interacting with each other and the patrons, always keeping the story going and immersing the audience in the world of the show. It was fun.
Like Shakespeare in the Park, but without the dignity.
I ended up leaving the company under a dark cloud, but recently I rediscovered a list of anecdotes that I'd submitted as part of a proposed (and later aborted, owing to poor planning and general apathy) anniversary party for the company. It tickled me to recollect some of these merrier moments, and I thought I'd share them, for theater lovers everywhere. (More to come later).
There’s Just Something About Me
In preparation for my first performance, I came to one of the shows to take down blocking notes. I was alone at a table in the far corner near the kitchen, my script out in front of me, dressed in a dark red shirt, my long hair tied back in its typical ponytail.
Near the end of the dessert break, just before act three, I was summoned by one of the actors to step out of the dining area into the adjacent bar, where Tom Royer (playing the detective) had the guests’ sleuth sheets, on which they'd written their theories as to who the killer might be. It is at this time during a performance that the correct answers are separated from the incorrect, and two or three highly amusing wrong answers are selected to be read out loud after the show.
“Do you want to join the company tonight?” Tom asked, and then handed me one of the sleuth sheets. Under Who Dunnit, in lieu of any of the characters from the play, the guest had written, “Man in back corner in red shirt and ponytail,” and under Why Dunnit, had stated, “Because he’s a murderer.” Apparently, even sitting in a corner and not saying a word, I have a commanding presence.
So, during the post show, Tom handed me the corresponding sleuth sheet. Pretending to be surprised, I read the guest’s name. No one answered to it. I read the guest’s answer. It got a huge laugh.
Afterwards, as guests posed for pictures with the actors on their way out, the woman who had written me in as a suspect approached the cast and asked who I was. Apparently, she honestly felt there was something sinister about me, sitting in that corner and writing down notes like some sort of note-writing Nazi. (I'd hate to imagine her in an English class. She’d probably have an epileptic seizure every time they had a spelling test.) They assured her that I was a new cast member and that I was simply recording my blocking.
Anyway, the thing I took away from this experience is that no matter how inconspicuous or innocuous I behave, and even if there’s a live show going on in the room, people can’t keep their eyes off me.
This Show is Not For You
Our shows created an immersive experience where the audience was included in the unfolding mystery, and the characters directly engaged the patrons on an individual level. While this form of theatre appeals to a large number of people, there are some who would fail to appreciate it. Agoraphobics would probably be at the top of that list.
"The actors are coming for me."
And yet, there was a man who thought that our humble little production would be just the thing to help bring his agoraphobic wife out of her shell.
In fairness to the gentleman, I don’t imagine he really understood what our show entailed; I doubt he was trying to perform some sort of sadistic shock therapy on his wife. This does not change the fact that his choice of venue was really, really poor. The unfortunate couple wouldn’t even accept a bowl of bread from me, let alone allow any of the actors to sit down and chat with them. To their credit, they were very polite. The woman didn’t run screaming for the exit (though that would have been hilarious). The husband wasn’t belligerent, though he did ask us not to engage them, and we honored that request.
Sadly, our proximity to them was apparently still too much to bear, and they left during the dinner service, taking their boxed meals with them. I feel a little sad to think that, whatever progress the woman had made toward recovery over the past several years, we managed to destroy in less than an hour; that now she probably won’t even leave her bedroom and has to take meals through a slot near the bottom of the door.
On the other hand, it was her idiot husband’s bright idea.
A Place Where Everything Is For Sale
Once, while playing petty black-market-dealer Cairo, I offered to find a pregnant woman a buyer for her unborn child. I did it with a half sense of apprehension, as some people get touchy regarding such issues (but thought the idea was too amusing not go for it anyway). Fortunately, this young woman was very game, and said she’d be happy to sell at the right price. I kept returning to her periodically throughout the evening, informing her that there were several interested parties competing for her baby, which seemed to please her immensely. These are the audience members that made doing these shows worthwhile.
The Gag That Would Not Die
Another, slightly less successful Cairo transaction came when I was serving a table during the pre-show. As Cairo, I liked to wear an eye-patch, which often prompted people to ask what happened to my eye. “I was desperate for money and someone offered me ten bucks,” was my go-to response. This led one of the patrons to offer me ten dollars for my ear. When I showed some reluctance, the customer handed me her butter knife and waited for me to start cutting. After some haggling, we agreed that I would go in the back and cut half of it off, then return and collect the money before I hacked off the rest. So off I went to the kitchen, where I grabbed a handy ketchup bottle and slathered the red stuff on my hand and the knife. I returned, clutching my ear, and begging for the money. The customer informed me that she didn’t have any on hand. “NOW was not the time to tell me that!” I wailed as I retreated from the table, followed by the sound of howling laughter.
Before the show proper began, I hurriedly formed a makeshift bandage for my ear out of some paper towel and tape. During my first scene in the show, I made my way to the center of the room and slowly turned the damaged side of my head to the table where the botched transaction had taken place, which caused my little party of sadists to erupt with giggles.
This table continued to be a blessing and a curse come the dinner service, asking me for other body parts which I refused to give them. Finally, the original buyer handed me a ten dollar bill for my troubles, but insisted that I do a dance for her in return. What the hell, I thought. She did just give me ten dollars. So I started improvising a little jig. But the lady was very particular, and under her unsettlingly specific direction I began doing a strip tease. Once my coat and tie were off, I began desperately thinking of a way out of the situation, and started to act woozy. “Still a little…weak…from loss of…blood,” I groaned, and slowly sank to the floor. Even once I was on my back, the young lady continued to direct me. “Thrust the pelvis!” she demanded. “I’m thrusting,” I moaned, gyrating my midsection feebly as I lay on the floor.
Eventually, the table decided that I had earned my money and released me with a round of applause. I thanked them, and then crawled my way pathetically out of the dining room, passing other tables as I went and asking them from the floor, “Does anyone need anything here? No? Alright, then.”
And people tell me I have trouble committing.
Stay tuned for more.