Saturday, May 10, 2014

Mystery Dinner Theatre for Episcopalians: Post-Mortem

Curse of the Waffling Bishop
Parishes thinking of creating their own mystery dinner theatre pieces, or interested in recreating ours, may be especially interested in my reflection on the process of creating our original murder mystery dinner theatre production at St. James' Episcopal Church, Marietta, Georgia.

To raise funds, the Episcopal Church Women staged a $50 - a - plate dinner, an auction, and, as a draw, a murder-mystery-dinner theatre.   For the second time, the script was based on characters and situations imagined by members of the parish, shaped into a script by yours truly.  Staging our play in the parish hall, we set the action in a parallel universe, the parish hall of "St. Martin's - by - the - Chicken" Episcopal Church -- a nod to a local landmark, KFC's three-story animated bird. 

Two years ago, we'd created Desperate Church Women, a risky venture after years of using out - of - the - box scripts from other sources.   We were able to build our scripts on concerns of our own congregation, making light of things that sometimes irritate members of the church.  Last week, audience laughed loudest at the things that may have bothered us most: restricted access to the "security code" on church doors, organ malfunctions, defiance of signs in our parking lot that "no skateboarding is allowed," and perennially sluggish payment on pledges.  (see my essay about the first play, and answers to the question, "Can murder be a laughing matter -- at a church?")

The ideas for this play had been around since the previous play, when  Mary Nimsgern missed a rehearsal to attend a Civil War Round Table meeting.  Then an evening service was distracted by the local "ghost tour" company, when the guide walked by with lantern.  Both ideas seemed like a good starting place when we had our first meeting in August.

[Photo: Kneeling, Emma and DeeGee; L-R, Susan, me, Will, Suzanne, Mary, Jim, Tonya, Leslie, Scott]

Once we had our basic situation, we wondered, what would we like to see happen?   We imagined a Civil War ghost, a seance, and a buried treasure.  We drew upon the history of our own town and church, located on a street named for Bishop Leonidas K. Polk who truly was a CSA general.  He did truly gather silver from the Parish to replace what Sherman's troops stole.  Tragically, he was truly bisected by a cannon ball.   We truly have an organ from those times.  Someone suggested an ice sculpture, and someone else suggested that it would be great to have a body frozen in the ice. Would this be a "sequel" to the last play?  We decided to make this play as if the previous one hadn't existed:  "same universe, different story" said our actor Scott Thompson.   

The key moments in creating the script happened when we were able to combine ideas.  Instead of having a reporter investigate the discovery of a corpse in ice, we froze the reporter solid.  Instead of the ghost of the Civil War - era Bishop General speaking to us, we channeled the late reporter through -- who else? -- the ghost tour guide, as she suddenly goes into a trance.  ("Why not?" asked actress Mary, during a script session. "I've gone into a trance at church meetings many times." We used that in the script, natch.)  Since the ice sculptor would necessarily use a chainsaw, we made that instrument integral to the plot.  Because the true nature of the conflict between Confederacy and Union is still (!) fraught with controversial modern-day resonances, we shifted focus from war to "Gone with the Wind" and our national church's centuries-old reputation for "waffling."

After I pieced together a first act, we had a read-through.  After each read-through, we repaired to a local restaurant to imagine what each character would do next.  When I asked, "What is your character hiding?"  the answers supplied us with the material for our "interrogation" act.

When I started a draft of Act Four, we still didn't know who had committed the murder.   We "discovered" that in the way that our fictional detective does, by walking through the comings and goings of the various characters and seeing who must have run into whom, and who must be lying.

I counted jokes that "landed" from my vantage point as house pianist.  My aim had been to give each actor some set piece that would give him or her a chance to show off, and these worked well.  There were, all told, only a few "jokes";  the rest of the laughs emerged from character and situation, as when the socialite Marilyn DuVain Gross protested that, having stolen a valuable auction item, she had to be innocent of the murder:  "Two felonies in one night?  What kind of woman do you think I am?"  I loved the moment when our two teenaged cast members, as outcast skateboarders, began to argue about opera:  "I love Tosca with all that bullfighting crap." "No, you're thinking of Carmen."  Our Sixties' ex-hippie Daphne Dillard, recreating the bisected Bishop General's deathbed prophecy made "as he lay dying, there and there," intoned "I see a bad moon a - rising / I see troubled times today."

I'd like to mention the music.  Violinist Karen Heffron played a mashup of Ken Burns' "Ashokan Farewell" with a cartoon theme and commercial jingle, not to mention eerie ghost music and the grand theme of a certain Civil War movie.  Between acts, we were joined by saxophonist Bill Van Dyke who improvised choruses for standards.

If you're a member of some Episcopalian parish interested in doing a dinner theatre, contact me.  We have two scripts available now; with the success of The Curse of the Waffling Bishop, we expect a third one in two years.  

[Poster image:  clockwise from top left:  DeeGee Reisinger as Vera Rivera, reporter; Scott Thompson as Sean "Skeeter" Wheeler; M. Susan Rouse as Daphne Dillard, tour guide of Ghost 'n' Garden Tours;  Suzanne Swann as Sylva Candler-Stycks, Altar Guild Captain; Jim Chester as The Major, Supreme Verger;  Mary F. Nimsgern as Marilyn DuVain Gross, socialite, and a mash-up of the real Bishop General Leonidas K. Polk with Jim Chester to create our fictional Bishop General William Bancroft Tween.   Not pictured:  Leslie M. Thompson as Serena Nightingale, Tonya Grimmke as Addie Haden; Emma Grimmke as Hot Wheelz, and Will Eubanks as Dawg.]

1 comment:

George said...

Fascinating "post-mortem," Scott, which should be helpful to other Episcopal parishes interested in producing their own "dinner theatre." Wish we had been in town to see it.