Murder She Wrote | My First Stab At Writing A Murder Mystery Dinner

On November 30, 2019, Thames River Community Service hosted its first-ever Murder Mystery Dinner fundraiser.

Thames River Community Service/Thames River Family Program is situated in southeastern Connecticut and is designed to offer assistance for parenting youth (young adults ages 18-24), including working towards stable housing, GED programs, and childcare.

Residents of the program have often been in the foster care system themselves and have experienced homelessness and unstable housing situations.

As stated on their website, Thames River Family Program, “provides safe housing and support services for families experiencing homelessness, domestic violence, substance abuse or mental illness. The agency promotes family wellness, self-sufficiency and housing stability.”

I’ve been involved with the program for many years, so when I was told about their plans to host a Murder Mystery Dinner, I was eager to get involved~even more so when I was invited to write it!

Laying the Groundwork

Prior to planning this event, I did have a little bit of knowledge about murder mystery dinners from one of my favorite episodes of The Golden Girls in which they attend one hosted by Blanche’s workplace, and getting to attend one last year.

The dinner I went to was a 1920s mobster theme performed by a professional troupe, something we did not have access to. While we could have hired a group and purchased a script online, it was not feasible given the amount of time and funding available (which was one of the reasons I was asked to write it).

Our cast would be comprised of volunteers, so we started asking around for anyone who would want in while I got to work.

We knew it would be an amateur production, but we believed that as long as everyone gave it their all, it would turn out to be a great night for attendees.

A Deadly Homecoming

I was given mostly free rein when it came to the concept, just so long as it revolved around high school per the organization’s director.

In about an afternoon, I had my concept: a high school reunion/homecoming week, during which an auction would be held.

The auction itself was a planned thing, as the fundraiser was planned to be a small-scale version of the nonprofit’s major annual fundraiser.

However, this auction would end a little differently, in that somebody wasn’t going to make it out alive.

Enter Rod Sterling, frontman of smash hit rock band Pacific Cutlass.

The premise of A Deadly Homecoming revolved around Rod making a surprise return home just in time for this fundraiser. However, despite and because of his fame, not everybody is happy to see him.

During the auction, Rod’s bodyguard approaches the auctioneer to inform her about a special item: two VIP tickets for Pacific Cutlass’s next concert, complete with backstage passes for a meet-and-greet with the band.

Rod being Rod, he decides to try and take the spotlight, only to drop dead as he approaches the podium.

It is at this point that the audience would be put in charge of solving the murder by talking to suspects and gathering clues to determine who killed Rod.

These characters were as follows:

  • Alex, a former best friend of Rod (and member of the band Rod was in before making it big with Pacific Cutlass).
  • Elizabeth “Lizzie,” Rod’s high school sweetheart
  • Jenny, Rod’s ex-wife (to whom he was married for four months)
  • Dean, Rod’s cousin

Although everyone had their reasons to be angry with Rod, only Alex had the motivation to do it, in that Rod stole his music for Pacific Cutlass and left him with nothing.

This is going to be one of many comparisons I will make between writing novels or scripts and writing a production of this nature, but it is the way I’ve been explaining the process: unlike writing a script for stage or screen where you can say, “I have this many roles, find me this many actors,” the circumstances of writing a murder mystery dinner were more like “We have this many people, write this many parts for them.”

A lot of shifting around happened because of that, notably with Dean being changed to Deana when the role was taken on by a woman, and the character being given a background in dance (think Paula Abdul).

Setting The Stage

I want to take a moment to extend my thanks to Patrick, who graciously stepped in as our director and donated his time to help guide our cast and crew in the right direction.

Patrick has plenty of theatre knowledge having worked with all kinds of groups at every level of experience, so having him join our team was a blessing.

Patrick has a gift of taking the vision and steering conversations where they need to go in order for the goal to be met, doing so in a way that helps expand on the narrative without letting it get too far out of hand. I cannot thank him enough for his guidance.

Along with Patrick, we also had a cast of volunteers:

  • Teena as Elizabeth
  • Dominique as Deana
  • Antone as Rod
  • Mary as Jenny
  • Isaiah as Alex*

Our auctioneer, Sarah, also joined in and played the role of Samantha (former class president, prom queen, alumni committee chair, etc), and she even showed up in a gold tiara for the event!

The cast met weekly to develop their characters and become more comfortable with acting.

The tricky thing about writing a murder mystery dinner is that there really wasn’t as much writing to be done as I first anticipated. I often compared it to trying to write a renaissance faire, in that it would be heavily-reliant on improv. With a stageplay, there is a script; with this type of thing, our characters were going to be walking around and interacting with guests so their dialogue would be shaped by those ongoing conversations.

For such reasons, Patrick led acting exercises to help our performers warm up improving in character with each other, as well as with guests.

As I’m looking back on this, I’m reminded of some of the comments I made regarding film adaptions in my log chronicling my experiences with taking an online course on Jane Austen (which you can find here). Essentially, it’s impossible to get a perfect adaption that will please absolutely everyone because what one individual reader envisions while reading a work of fiction is guaranteed to be different than another’s. For example, if a protagonist is described as having “dark hair,” one reader might picture him as having black hair while someone else might picture him with dark brown hair.

If that book were to be adapted for film, what is presented is often a culmination of what is in the mind of the author, the screenwriter, the director, the cast portraying the characters, the editors, and frankly anyone else involved with the production.

Adaptions are often interpretations.

As such, it is very likely that not everything will match up to what a viewer had in mind when they read the book.

This is something I was running into with planning A Deadly Homecoming. Trying to convey my thoughts to the team and where my head was at was sometimes difficult and frustrating. But I will say everyone made a point to make sure I wasn’t feeling like I was getting “steamrollered” as one of our cast members phrased it.

Additionally, when a change was proposed, the reasoning behind it was explained.

As Patrick explained in our last meeting before the big night, “You have to let the baby walk.”

By that, he meant that he understood this was my brainchild, a story I had created, but in putting it out into the world I had to step back and let it stand on its own rather than hold it too close and prevent its growth.

On the Case

In the week leading up to the big night, I was starting to feel the nerves.

This event is the first time anything I have written was put out into the world beyond a classroom setting. Although I was looking forwards to it, I was also feeling a bit of (retrospectively unnecessary) pressure.

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Rod being interviewed by Patrick, featuring TRFP’s director Kathy in the role of Rod’s agent

As with any event, there were a few hiccups. Our floor plan didn’t quite match up to what we had in mind so we had to rework a few details like the reveal of the killer (which I think led to a little confusion in the reveal of Alex having poisoned one of Rod’s many drinks with arsenic).

*Our other technical difficulty came with a last-minute cast change. Isaiah, who was set to be our Alex, felt too under the weather to attend, but he arranged for an understudy unbeknownst to us and his brother, Reggie, stepped into the role.

On that note, I want to extend a personal thank you to Reggie for taking this on so suddenly and being willing to play along ~ especially in the role of the murderer. On behalf of everyone involved with A Deadly Homecoming, we are all so appreciative.

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Yours truly with our Elizabeth and Rod

But also as it goes with fundraisers, for all the chaos behind the scenes, there were just as many, if not more, great moments.

Our auctioneer was so proud of getting a write-in accusation framing her for the murder. The crowd seemed to enjoy it, some even asking if we’re going to do another one of these. I survived five hours in heels.
But above all, we were also able to raise a good amount of money for TRFP, which was our whole purpose for the evening.

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A square-off between Rod’s ex-wife and his high school sweetheart
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Auctioneer turned Prom Queen/Class President/Alumni Committee Chair

Case Closed

Before I sign off, I want to take some time to thank the incredible team behind this production.

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Our wonderful cast, to whom I owe oh so much | From left: Sarah, Mary, Yours Truly, Teena, Patrick, Antone, Reggie, and Dominique

Thank you to our volunteers who helped bring this idea to life and jumped aboard this crazy train of a scheme.

Thank you to Patrick for helping conduct said crazy train.

Thank you to our cast for bringing these characters to life and taking this leap of faith.

And lastly, thank you to TRFP for giving me the opportunity to push myself out of my comfort zone with a completely new form of storytelling. For more information about the program, you can visit their website through this link.

This was an incredible learning experience, and I cannot wait to implement these new skills into future projects.

Same time next year?
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