Acting at a murder mystery dinner is a very specific skill and not one possessed by all. Some very talented actors blanche at the thought of performing in the midst of a live audience, with no fixed script and with the knowledge that the audience can, and will, ask them anything. Others relish the idea and thrive on walking the thin line between controlled improvisation and total chaos. Although a lot of a performance is improvised, there is a key difference between a mystery event and that of a pure improv performance – mysteries have a plot and characters that must be followed, otherwise the logic of the solution breaks down and the story doesn’t work. It might be fun to suddenly announce “Actually, I was born a woman and raised by wolves” at a comedy improvisation show, such an outburst would usually cause total confusion during an investigation and force everyone to back-pedal to keep the story on track.
We’ve therefore defined a few rules that should be followed by actors at our mysteries, and it’s worth mentioning a few in case you are considering hosting your own party.
- Stick to the plot – there are certain key events that must happen at a certain time and in a certain way. Often they are key to the logic of the solution, so, for example, if you are asked to leave the room at a particular time – do so. It may be that your character needs to have the opportunity to kill someone, and if they die whilst you are in full sight of the guests, we’ll have a tough time convincing them that it was you.
- Stick to the character – as with plot, there will be several key facts about your character that will be vital to the story, and you should make sure these are revealed consistently. You should be in character from the moment that you’re in the room with guests until the moment that you are sure you cannot be seen or found. Guests often ask things of you, the actor, rather than you, the character, and you should always answer as the latter. A question such as “So how many of these [murder mystery] things have you been to?” should be answered with something along the lines of “My granny’s funerals? This is my second.”
- Improvise what you don’t know – within reason. It’s practically impossible to predict everything that guests may ask a character and they often ask things that having nothing to do with the plot. It’s important, however, when creating a fully rounded suspect to appear to know the things that you would be expected to know, such as your birthday, the names of your parents etc etc. If it’s not in your character profile, then it’s fine to make it up, but sometimes the information you give will be something that other suspects will be expected to know, so you need to get that information to them if not agreed in advance.
Consider the case when you are playing Lord Fawfaw and another character is playing your sister Lucy Fawfaw. Your parents are both dead, but their deaths have nothing to do with the plot.
“So how did your parents die?”
BAD ANSWERS “I don’t know” or “I forget” – unless you are playing an amnesiac or a goldfish.
BETTER ANSWER “I really don’t like to talk about it, it left me so emotionally scarred – I’m surprised you could be so heartless as to bring it up.”
BETTER ANSWER STILL “Oh, I remember it like it was yesterday, don’t you Lucy? I can see them now, waving at the shore as their little rowing boat plunged over the waterfall. Their screams still haunt my dreams, don’t they Lucy?”
- Engage the audience from the outset and be dynamic and expressive if your character is meant to be. If you’re sullen and depressive, be actively sullen and depressive – murder mystery is usually more pantomime than Pinter, and few are written as serious character studies.
As with any rules, there are exceptions and the odd occasion when it might be appropriate to acknowledge the fact that the whole thing is not real, but unless you’re very sure about this, stick with them and ensure that everybody enjoys themselves.