CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- By day, George Snider advises clients about financial investments from his Scott Depot office. At night, he dons a wrinkled overcoat and solves crimes Columbo-style, or he might strap on a holster and cowboy hat to film a western.
Snider acts in the interactive murder mysteries he writes for Murder and Merriment, a group he formed of 88 actors and actresses who ad-lib through Snider's stories. They perform in clubs, private homes, restaurants -- even on trains.
The settings vary, and the productions -- of which there are more than 20 written by Snider -- are spoofs of famous detectives, such as Columbus for Columbo, Jennifer Fletcher for Jessica Fletcher and Philip Merlot for Philip Marlowe. Guests are invited to watch closely for clues to the coming murder and ask questions of the actors as they wander among the guests.
After the murder, the detective roams the room, investigating the scene and invites guests to do the same. "The detective's role can get very difficult if he has to take control of an unruly crowd," Snider said. He often plays that role because as the play's author, he's familiar with all the characters' motives.
After hearing the actors' alibis and explanations, guests confidentially place a vote for the killer. The detective reveals the culprit. The guests who guess correctly win a prize.
Usually, the cast meets about a week before the production to pick up a play manual that contains the details and background of their characters and a performance timeline. The improvised performances require no rehearsals, but sometimes a little background education is necessary, such as for an upcoming production about murder during a poker game.
"We'll have the actors sit down to learn to play poker before the performance. We'll have a poker marathon," Snider said.
Behind the scenes before the performance, the atmosphere is decidedly relaxed. The actors show up about a half-hour before the show wearing costumes they provide themselves, said Snider. They chat a bit, sometimes about the play, or just make small talk. Some have worked together before, while others are strangers.
"This is really where it all comes together," Snider said.
Snider gathers them for a quick briefing, and then they hit the dinner floor running. He goes first, introduces the characters and the storyline and lays down a few rules and suggestions. During a dinner-theater performance, the servers deliver the salad course to dinner guests and the action begins.
The action flows smoothly with actors playing off each other as they follow Snider's story. They improvise throughout the performance, and usually have no lines to memorize. Snider changes the killer's identity for each performance, and doesn't tell the actors who will do the dastardly deed until a few minutes before the play begins. "Anyone can be the murderer. It keeps it fresh," he said.
When their characters are not in the scene, the actors wander through the guests, dropping a gossipy hint about the other characters that might point the finger at or simply create doubt about the others' motives.
"The actor's job is to deflect the guilt off themselves and onto everyone else. You want everyone else to look more guilty than you do," he said.