Guests dine as mystery troupe's plots thicken
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.
In a recent premiere production of "Another Fistful of Bullets" at The Greenhouse of Teays Valley, a tyrannical director attempts to push the production of a western, despite cast infighting, a mixed bag of actors, a schedule- and budget-obsessed executive producer and an extravagant costume mistress. Everyone has a motive for murdering anyone else who's holding up the film's production.
Snider departed from his more common role of detective to play a cowboy who disrupts production by bumbling into scenes and muffing his lines. Colin Westwood, who teaches elementary school in Kentucky, played Detective Ellery King. Westwood has acted in community theater before and approached Snider six months ago with a request to join the Murder and Merriment crew.
"He asked me a lot of questions -- I think to see how quick I was on my feet," Westwood said.
Megan Mace, who played the lovely but high-maintenance star, is an information management specialist for the 130th Air Lift Wing, West Virginia Air National Guard, in Charleston. This was her first leading role after joining the troupe in April.
"I was in the audience at a performance and thought it looked like fun. After the show, I talked to George about joining," said Mace, who had performed in many productions in high school. "It's so much fun. You get to be someone you're not. You step out of reality."
The actors come from many different professions, usually unrelated to theater. Teachers, business owners, a funeral director and university employees all act with his troupe. The impromptu performances fit well for people who enjoy acting but don't have time for the long hours of rehearsal required for traditional theater productions.
The actors are paid for their performances but say they do it for fun. Hosts pay Murder and Merriment based on the size of the audience. The troupe performs for fundraisers, corporate functions and eclectic groups. Amazon.com recently booked them as a team-building tool. Employees were divided into groups of three and competed to guess the murderer.
Snider encourages hosts to serve dinner or heavy hors d'oeuvres.
"People like to eat and drink. It makes a fun, well-rounded party," he said. Although the food sometimes distracts the guests from the action, "We have actors intermingle and keep them engaged."
Snider formed Murder and Merriment in 2010, but has acted in murder parties for 20 years. He and a group of friends held dinner parties at each others' homes and improvised murder mysteries together. He first acted when he was 6 years old and enjoyed community theater roles for years after.
He's also written five movie scripts. Only one is a murder mystery, but Hitchcock-style mysteries remain his favorite genre, in part because audience participation occurs naturally.
"We consider the evening a success if people are laughing and having a good time. They can forget their problems or the day they had at work," he said. "Murder parties are a great first date and are better than an office party where everyone talks about work. We just want you to sit back, enjoy and have fun."
For more information on Murder and Merriment, call 304-634-8581 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Reach Julie Robinson at email@example.com or 304-348-1230.