During my college days in the early 90’s and for a few years after, I worked as an actor in order to pay for art school. Mostly musicals, as I could sing well, but my acting skills weren’t phenomenal enough to get me cast in serious plays. Instead, my plays were a little more comedic in nature and I soon found myself working for a production company that produces mystery dinner theatre. For those unfamiliar with this concept, it’s a show where the audience sits at tables while the actors perform and serve them food, all while revealing some sort of murder that must be solved before the evening ends. This is the only time I’ve waited tables and I’m rubbish at it, but thankfully it’s done “in character” and so I always sought to get the rather dumb character. This way, nobody was disappointed when their coffee came out looking like a diet Coke. Once, when the playwright had a conflict, I was asked if I could write and direct the next show and said, of course, before remembering that I’d never written a play before or actually directed anything at all yet.
I’ve done things like this my whole life. If something sounds like something I would do then I automatically assume it’s something I could do. So I was determined to be a playwright and I only had a week to both create a script and figure out how to hell to write one. More than that, the title of the show had already been advertised so I had to write something that would fit it. The title was “Coffee, Tea, Or Murder!” and the original premise was that it was to be set on an airplane. I had no clue how to make people sitting at large round tables eating chicken spiedini feel like they were in a cramped airplane cabin. It just didn’t work. So, I changed the setting to a coffee shop instead, which solved the first problem. Next, I needed characters and so I created an odd menagerie of personality certain to argue at some point in the evening. Lastly, I needed a murder and someone to do it. This seemed easy at first as I could just choose a character, slap them with a motive and call it done. But in these shows, the audience is meant to vote on who they think the killer is, and the audience is always right.
This meant that the show needed to have eight different conclusions that all made sense in a surprising yet inevitable way. I realized I was probably in over my head, but then thought about everything I learned from playing Clue and watching Murder, She Wrote (ironically, over a decade later, one of Jessica Fletcher books based on the series got the same title as my play! That author, however, does take the airplane approach). Suddenly, my hands were flying across the keyboard and my play was soon brimming with murder weapons, motive, opportunity, and a bit of misdirection. It was no literary masterpiece as none of my writing ever is, but it was fun and the audience seemed to really enjoy it! The show was performed by other groups in Raleigh, Chicago and Omaha. I was invited by the director to see the show in Omaha and found it rather enjoyable, albeit wondering if it’s weird to laugh at your own jokes, even in that context. Not all of these impulsive decisions I make turn out that well, but I think jumping in and going for it is always a rewarding experience in some way. We all know more than we give ourselves credit for, and simply doing is always the first step. Whether it’s quickly painting some coffee and tea or convincing yourself that you’d be great at writing a mystery.
About the Doodlewash
Sennelier L’Aquarelle: Quinacridone Gold, Perylene Maroon, and Ultramarine Deep. Lamy Safari Al Star pen with Platinum Carbon with black ink in a little red cloth hardbound l’aquarelle journal I found in a Paris shop.