In each of our scripts we have roles where new actors can start with minimal risk. Our murder mystery format involves a scripted start and a scripted end but the middle bit, where teams question the suspects is all improvisation. For some actors this is a real challenge; some like improv and others are wary of it.
When actors have a few shows under their belt they really get to know the story and they can settle in, but for the first few shows we will put a new actor in a ‘safe’ role. Typically they will be playing an outsider who does not have a two way relationship with the other suspects. As an outsider they are still a suspect, and in some ways even more suspicious, but there are no stories that can get them into trouble when they are being questioned.
The main rule of acting in murder mysteries is that you do not invent as story involving one of the other suspects which they do not know about. Obviously if you do it may trip them up when they come round to meet that team or table. You can use known stories, or you can create a complete red herring using characters that you make up. Many actors are extremely good at doing this.
The characters in a murder mystery typically start out as respectable members of society. They may be solicitors, aristocrats or industrialists. As the plot unravels they are like onions that are peeled away to reveal a character capable of murder. This involves a journey into a characters dark side. With that comes tricks that can be employed to get out of trouble, an alcoholic will have black outs, a solicitor can claim client confidentiality and an industrialist can say that they have people who deal with such trivial matters. It is a matter of deflection. Then they can discretely check with their team leader to see what angle they should take. However, those attendees who are on the ball may not accept a brush off, and this is where the game becomes interesting. If the other actors see this happening they can move in to help their team mate out of a corner. Some of our best evenings feature this sort of sparring with some very impressive people.
So there are tricks that can be employed when improvising, but the real trick is teamwork from the actors themselves. Some of us have a few hundred shows behind us and when we have a really competitive and, it has to be said, intellectually combative group it can be an extremely fulfilling evening for the actors as well as the clients.
Tip: When improvising really get to know your character and have some plausible escape routes. You may not need them, but it will really build your confidence to duck and dive in this way.