Sunday, May 27, 2007

From Zero to Murder Mystery in 21 hours

(reflections following four successful performances of UNDER THE SURFACE, a one-act murder mystery written by the actors and yours truly, their director.)

I've wanted to write a murder mystery since I was a fifth grader discovering "Alfred Hitchcock and the Three Investigators" thirty-seven years ago. Thanks to my eighth grade drama class, I've now had that experience, and it was at least as much fun to create one as it is to read one.

It's my custom to start each eighth grade class by commissioning the students to write their own play, to be around forty-five minutes long, to involve everyone as a character, not to be mere take-offs of movies or other "given" characters, and not to contain elements that would get me fired.

This group quickly gravitated to the idea of writing a murder mystery, the first of my classes to do so. We started with little more than the name of a victim, "Lily," and the notion that she was last seen at a lake, and her body was never found. Soon, we had her social milieu -- twelve friends her age, who have converged on a mountain lake resort town every summer since early childhood. She disappeared at the end of their end-of-the-summer party last summer.

A subset of characters emerged, the "townies" who used to be part of the group, but have been marginalized since the teens grew more aware of social stratification.

Very early on, we discussed the notion of a prank gone wrong. We didn't know what to do with that idea, but we tucked it away. It emerged at just the right moment.

That's all we knew when the class improvised the scene in the anteroom at the funeral home, following the memorial service for Lily. Self-conscious, all the students kept quiet, afraid to say much more than "isn't it sad?" Then one girl startled everyone by saying to one boy, "What are you sad about? You're the reason she's gone!" The play developed from seeds in that one improv.

We filled out depositions on official-looking stationery of the Mountain Lake Resort, NY sherriff's office. Writing as characters, each actor wrote what he or she did on that fateful day in August, in the morning, afternoon, early evening, and at the party. Later, I played "lawyer" for the defense of the prime suspect, and asked for any memories that might exonerate -- or cause problems for -- my client.

I gave my actor / writers some rules of detective fiction:

  • We're looking for someone who has motive, opportunity, and character to commit the crime
  • Everyone is hiding something
  • The prime suspect has to die half way through the story

Actors were asked what they thought about Lily's disappearance, and we made a list of those theories. Students were given the assignment to break into pairs and trios, to select activities at different town locations (tennis courts, barber shop, cafe, cabin, beach) where they would argue their different theories. Every reason had with it some memory of an event, and we added flashbacks for those. I asked actors to come up with solid mementos for each memory, and got a letter from Lily, her cell phone, and a ring.

One pair of actors introduced a plot twist: Lily didn't die, but she faked her death to be able to start a new life far away. But she hasn't called her sister recently.

Still, we seemed not to be moving forward in our process of writing the play. All the scenes seemed to be saying the same things over and over again.

With the whole cast assembled, I blacked out the lights in the theatre, except for one circle of light in the center of the floor. I said, "That's the annual bonfire. Okay, go!" Girls chatted about marshmallows, and it was pretty tedious. But each succeeding "take" suggested a new idea, and soon we had a strong scene that included a ghost story, a prank gone wrong, and the topper: discovery of the prime suspect's dead body.

I won't say that the play wrote itself after that. But things clicked into place. We tweaked earlier scenes to lead up to that bonfire.

As director, I had responsibility to come up with the solution to our crime. We had only one more week to rehearse before our first performance, and we still didn't have a final scene.

I felt like we'd written ourselves into a corner. It helped to ask three simple questions: Where did Lily get the money to run away? Why hasn't she called? And who killed her ex-boyfriend at this year's bonfire?

I'll cherish the memory of our class meeting the next week, when I got to do what countless fictional detectives do. "I know who did it -- and he's here among you." Kids saw the logic in the solution, and we went to work making a final scene that would uncover all the secrets.

The hard part was keeping that scene interesting, since it's conducted entirely in past tense, its characters discussing past events. But there's the excitement of discovery to propel them, and we used the technique of flashback to turn narration into action.

Then I did write myself into a corner. We all agreed that the bad guy should set fire to the house bringing his nemesis down with him. How could I possibly have the stage burst into flames, except through some unconvincing light trick?

The solution was already contained in the dialogue: memory of a bonfire prank years ago, when the college-aged characters were mere eighth graders. When the villain ignites the flame, there's a quick blackout and, simultaneously, an off-stage voice yells, "Fire!" Red light floods the stage, and boys rush on, and we gradually realize we're at that bonfire in an earlier, happier time. The last second of the play was the flash photograph of the whole cast smiling for the camera -- eighth graders giving their impressions of college students' impressions of eighth graders!

Watching all the pieces click into place over the last eight weeks (only 21 hours of class time) was immensely satisfying for me, like doing a crossword puzzle, or like seeing my rhymes fit with music.

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