Untrained Heart: If you kill my brother, can he still attend the party?
These events occurred in September of 1985. Fifty invitations are sent to residents in the suburbs of Chicago. There is no name identifying who they were from. A cooperative postmaster receives a box of the pre-addressed invites at his station and mails them. The envelopes arrive at homes with a postmark from Mystic, Connecticut.
On the inside is a card indicating that a special event is happening. The vibe is perhaps a party, but details as to the host are not provided.
There is an RSVP request. The phone number is for an answering service that simply asks for names and the number attending. No further information is offered to to callers, even if they ask. The instructions are to report to a parking lot at 7:00 PM four Saturdays later.
Next to a bus in the parking lot that night stands a young man in a trench coat with a clipboard. As people arrive they are checked in and board the bus. Once all are accounted for the vehicle drives to a house in Deerpath, Illinois. There are no sidewalks in this town, homes are set deep into lots and surrounded by a forest of trees.
Guests mingle. They laugh about the surprising manner in which they arrived at the party. They pluck hors d’oeuvres from trays. They drink margaritas and wine coolers. Women circulate in their bright colored skirts over leggings, begging to be compared to Madonna. Others with finer tastes sport oversized earrings, hoping to resemble Brooke Shields or Christy Brickley.
Mary Hay is an attractive young woman standing with a pina colada she can’t recall asking for. She is talking about her father, who happens to be working as a bartender at the party. Embarrassing. There is an altercation as Mary yells at a young man carrying a tray of stuffed mushroom caps.
Abruptly, Mary begins coughing violently. She slams into a few people as she staggers about the room. Everyone turns to look as the scene becomes disruptive. Mary begins to cough up blood. She puts a hand to her mouth and when she removes it there are red lines dripping from her fingers. She falls over. She is dead.
A young man steps forward and identifies himself as Detective Dick Stone. Everyone recognizes him as the trench coat guy from the bus. He checks Mary’s pulse rate and declares her deceased. He asks for help removing her body from the party. Magically, a few larger dudes appear with an antique canvas and wood folding stretcher. They carry her away.
The detective takes control of the room. He explains that no one is to leave. They will all engage in helping him solve this mystery. He states that from the way she died she was likely poisoned.
“We need everyone here to help us determine who killed Mary Hay,” says Detective Stone.
For the next two hours outrageous conversations take place. Teams of people travel the rooms asking each other questions. Those in attendance with connections to Mary Hay become focal points. Every half hour the detective takes charge of the room and explains what facts have been discovered so far. There are small teams working together, and the larger group gets information as progress is made.
A young man who works for the catering company dated Mary a few years ago. Mary’s father is still at the party, upset. He abandons his post as a bartender to join Mary’s sister at the party and aid in the investigation. Another individual who works with Mary at the bank has a few choice comments about Mary’s agitated state in recent weeks.
An hour later, Mary’s coworker is stabbed. He falls through a doorway, knocks into a few people and yells. All heads turn to the big fellow who drops to the floor. The Detective again pronounces a death and asks for the body to be moved.
At 9:30 PM there are a number of suspects the crowd believes have motive to kill these two people. The truth is revealed as everyone watches the detective put on the pressure.
“The poison was intended for that jerk,” cries Floyd Hay, Mary’s father. “But Mary took the drink by mistake! I hated the way he treated her, and she is never, was never going to get on with her life until he was gone.”
Confession. Arrest. Laughter. More cocktails and the murder mystery party is over.
In 1984, I was working in Chicago at Pegasus Players as the Outreach Coordinator. The job was to bring under privileged individuals to come see the plays and musicals the company produced. This was a noble task for a freshly minted college graduate with a theatre degree. Arlene Crewdson was the executive director and applied for grant funding specifically based on the mission that we serviced a population that would normally not get the chance to see live productions.
For example, I arranged for buses to bring groups, often teenagers from public housing projects. The excited youths were treated to a delightful production of a Sondheim musical. Wonderful. Of course the invited crowd was sometimes too loud, not understanding the sacred rituals of being quiet during live performances. I was called upon to help police the situation some evenings. The job was less rewarding during those times.
One day Floyd May, the managing director of the theatre company, received a phone call from the Holiday Inn in Skokie, a suburb of Chicago. The hotel was interested in finding a group to help them produce a murder mystery weekend. Other hotels had success with the concept to promote a weekend package. Stay at the hotel for one night, have meals and be treated to witnessing a murder.
“If you work on it with me, I’ll take on the project,” Floyd said to me. I said yes and so the journey began.
Among the attendees would be actors but no one knew for sure who were paying guests and who were paid performers. The presentation included loud public “scenes” that would unfold randomly for everyone present to see. The private conversations between guests and actors would happen as cocktails were consumed, a meal was eaten and relaxing enjoyed.
Wait! Another murder! Oh my gosh, yes, there has been a second person killed. But we know more about that person than we did the first victim. And we recently saw who that individual had heated words with and who they were flirting with at the party, event, hotel, whatever the heck this wacky weekend of entertainment can be labeled.
The detective gathers everyone together again. There are interviews taking place within earshot of everyone. The actors have been revealed and these characters are questioned by the detective and guests alike in order to get to the bottom of this insanity.
History of the suspects comes out as the dramatic tension among those present is laid bare for all to witness. Relationships are explored. Details about the current affairs of those intertwined with the victims is placed under review.
Here’s the kicker. This murder mystery weekend takes place over the course of 16 hours. From six on a Saturday night until ten the next morning the actors play their part and respond to questions. Sure, we all went to bed and slept at some point, but that still left 8 hours of performance.
There was no script that covered this entire time frame. Each actor had a handful of minutes of dialogue that were prepared in advance, with an understanding of approximate times the words should be spoken so as to advance the plot. For the rest of the time the actors were making up answers and improvising conversations with fellow actors on the fly.
The event at the Holiday Inn was a success. Good times had by all.
Then Floyd and I were fired from Pegasus Players. I’ll just say the executive director did not like the managing director, so she fired him. I defended him so she fired me too.
The Holiday Inn wanted to produce another weekend. “It was you two that made it happen so why don’t you guys just do it for us,” management told us.
And so was born my first company, LM Mystery Productions. A partnership between my 22 year old recently minted college graduate self and the 65 year old retired school teacher from Ohio who had moved to Chicago two years earlier to finally lead the life of an adult gay man.
We were opposites, but great business partners. We hired actors every age in between the two of us. This meant that whatever the demographic of guests at a murder mystery event we could assimilate. Older crowd? Then some of the younger actors were employees of the host, working at the hotel or for a catering company. Younger crowd? Just reverse the setup.
As a company we were hired by large corporate clients. McDonalds Corporation once hired us to produce a one hour lunch event for the legal department. The event coordinator requested that the attorneys all vote near the end on who they thought committed the crime. “And could we make sure they were all wrong?” We obliged.
We created murder mystery evenings for private parties. These were hosted in large suburban homes where guests roamed from room to room like any normal party. About 45 minutes into the party a woman would suddenly start coughing up blood and die.
“Don’t panic everyone. I’m a detective. Clear back and let’s take a look at what is happening here. My name is Dick Stone. Can anyone tell me what they saw please?”
I typically played the role of the detective. Yes, I called myself Dick Stone (hey, I was 22 years old). I would step forward to take control of the situation, instructing the crowd to start behaving in a certain way. Then I would ask a couple of “guests” to help remove the body. The dead actor was carted away, and depending on how far away the event was from home the actor would just drive away, or hide in a back room waiting for their fellow actors to finish.
The concentration required was thrilling for the performers. At other points a sense of boredom would creep in if the “audience” was not participating in a big way.
We performed one of our plots so many times it became our go to story. The actors were so familiar with the characters by the 30th time we had used the plot that our favorite activity during the event became the introduction of facts about someone else’s character that would force the other actor to invent something new.
I’m gonna mess with his or her head tonight!
Twisting a fact in a way that made the actor struggle to think of how to respond to a question was considered delicious.
Think about that for a minute. We worked together at our job so much we grew bored at times. We all experience this when doing the same activity repeatedly. As coworkers in this case we had complete faith that each of us knew what they had to do to get the entire job done. And our individual contributions were well worn, expected and delivered accordingly.
The product we were producing was still well received by event participants, but as employees were had now lost the sense of creativity that came with the initial performances of the Hay Day Murder plot line. So, one response we had was to randomly introduce new challenges. We would force an adjustment to the work by adding a new element. We were careful not to throw in a new idea that would change the outcome of the murder mystery were all playing out. None of us tried to be harmful to our common objective. However, we challenged our fellow employee with a fresh problem to solve within the boundaries of the larger story.
The process is exhilarating. An actor (or coworker at any job) is presented with new challenging facts. Their creative energies are engaged as they scramble to invent a response. It is jarring. It is uncomfortable. But if the team members trust each other, which we did because we had all worked together so many times, then this forced disruption is fun. Once the shock and panic of needing to overcome the new challenge dissipate then it was rewarding to invent fresh material in the moment. The company, the product, the service and the team improves as a result.
The larger plot line or mission of the company remains intact. The actors do not force anyone to reveal any fresh items that break the murder mystery being performed. The story line can continue as planned. The activity is just two employees having a little poke with each other.
In a post performance review the actors laugh and acknowledge that the funny new material was injected as a tease to try and “mess up” their fellow workers routine. The effort was done with respect and as a jocular trick.
If I think about it though, this type of sporting challenge can be applied to any work related activity. There is nothing to prevent employees from purposefully adjusting a routine business process just to see how a coworker might invent a fresh way of resolving.
There are elements of change that can be introduced that must be thought through before implementing. I am not saying a joke can be inserted in every process. I am certainly willing to try new ways of approaching a business process, even if we don’t expect it to work. It is the willingness to try and then to fail that brings about the sweetest success on subsequent attempts.
Everyone on the team must acknowledge the potential consequences as well before attempting change.
In the case of murder mystery events this occurred when a host would, inevitably, ask us during the process of hiring us if someone they know could be the one that is murdered.
“Oh! Can you kill my brother? That would be hilarious!”
“Well, sure. We can certainly kill your brother. You understand though, and we all agree, he will have to leave the party once he is dead, right? Once we kill him he can’t show back up at the party as a guest. Or he has to stay hidden for several hours until the mystery is solved.”
“Oh, well, I would love if you could kill my brother, but I don’t want him to miss the party.”
And so went my time as an entrepreneur in the murder mystery event business. We created a product that was well received because we rehearsed. We kept an open mind to learning new ways to approach the work as the customer generated ideas. We found a fun, challenging way to push each other as employees to create fresh material.
That’s an untrained heart.