Acting techniques – Improvisation

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.

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Little House of Horrors

Little House of Horrors is one of our most popular scripts. The occasion is a film launch of a cult film that is part horror and part 50 Shades of Grey. The audience seems to find that mix very amusing and it lends itself to dressing up in costume.

A successful film producer is murdered. There a four suspects, each with a motive. The audience must examine the evidence, question the suspects and reach a conclusion as a team; Method, Motive and Murderer.

The actors come onto the stage and act out the first scene. The murder takes place in front of your very eyes!

A terrible crime has been committed and, for now, no-one can leave the building. However, don’t despair because food and drinks are available.

The local CID, efficient as ever, arrive quickly and explain what happens next. The teams are given evidence packs including bank statements, contracts and love letters.

Teams then have the opportunity to visit the suspects in position around the venue. They can question them on their theories and build up their evidence.

Everyone in the main area gathers for a final scene. The best, and worst, team verdicts are read out before the true facts are revealed.

Find out more about this Murder Mystery plot.

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Murder Mystery at The Troxy

Actors on a murder mystery event.

Many were surprised when the boss’s speech was interrupted by someone claiming to be Jay Troxy, owner of the fabulous venue where the Gala Dinner was being held. There was no less surprise when he apparently dropped down dead at the top of the stairs.

When another character removed a wig and moustache, having been posing as a member of the waiting staff, it became apparent that a Murder Mystery was in play. This character introduced himself as DI Willie Catchem of Aldgate Police and he explained that the building was in ‘lock down’ while the crime was investigated.

The suspects were the victim’s wife, Myrtle, a dancer called Tiffany Charms, Troxy’s assistant manager Seymour Betts and a mysterious money man called Herbie Ravioli. As the details of the case emerged clues were found, and teams were assisted by a nosy reporter and a solicitor’s clerk who were both sharing documents.

Teams needed to investigate the three Ms; method, motive and murderer. How was Jay Troxy murdered and why would lead to the murderer?  Documents revealed that he was divorcing his wife, who would get nothing, and he was having an affair with the dancer, who was going to have a baby that she claimed was his. Meanwhile he had just discovered that Seymour Betts was embezzling the business and was on the verge of exposing Ravioli’s Mafia connections. All in all there was a lot for the the investigators to check out.

In the end eleven teams, including CSI, thought that the murderer was the wife, Myrtle. Only two teams thought that it was Herbie Ravioli, with table 22 thinking that he did it in cahoots with Myrtle. Five teams, including Damian’s Detectives, thought that Seymour Betts committed the crime. Three teams correctly identified that it was Tiffany; Suspectors Red thought that she did it in partnership with Myrtle while The Mexican Cartel thought that Tiffany and Myrtle were having an affair. Only Table 21 correctly deduced that the poison was in the chocolates and that Tiffany had intended to kill Myrtle and Jay mistaking them for a birthday present for him.

In addition to the official suspects two teams named their boss as the murderer, and he took this in good spirit when accused by DI Catchem, and another team thought that another manager, with his Prohibition black market shenanigans, had taken his criminal career one step further.

All in all it was a fun night and the Murder Mystery actors commented that they had had a lot of fun with investigating teams who had asked some great questions with many of them playing the game in character as investigators themselves. Find out more about our events on our website.

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Advice from Sherlock Holmes

Sherlock Holmes' pipe.

Sherlock Holmes is known as one of the great detectives, even though he was a fictional character. Perhaps the better detective was Sir Arthur Conan Doyle who wrote the famous books, although we do not know whether he actually solved any crimes.

Holmes offers his advice on how to solve crimes. He says that it takes dedication and practice of the following skills:

You have to be able to see things that others do not

This is critical for the detective. Everything potentially has a story, how things are placed at a crime scene could explain what happened. This is one of Holmes’ key skills – an ink stain on a gloved finger indicates that someone is left handed, for example.

You have to know where to look for clues

The first clues that you see in an investigation may tell you what to rule out, so you must not assume that everything is a positive clue. In one episode of Columbo a cuff link falls into an umbrella and a murder scene and he manages to find it, thus placing a suspect at the scene.

You should have a knack for wearing disguises

This is perhaps more important in the Holmes stories than it is in real life. However, observation can be an important aspect of a case. You might be surprised to find out how much access you can gain with workmen’s overalls and a clipboard, particularly if you can get some plausible ID. Now, do not get into trouble!

You must study evidence closely

Study the evidence and keep an open mind for as long as possible. Once an opinion is formed the inexperienced investigator might be prone to adapting everything to fit that theory. The longer you can keep an open mind the better. In our murder mysteries we advise people to seek method, motive and then murderer. The evidence is like a jigsaw puzzle, and every piece must be examined.

Knowledge of people, and their curious ways

This is class Holmes terminology. At the core of this is the advice that you should never assume. People have all sorts of motivations and they are not always predictable. However, there are personality types and understanding these can help you to understand motivations. These are worth understanding.

Times have changed, and solving crime using forensics has made great advances since Sherlock Holmes’ times. Yet we should not depend too much on technology, and the understanding of people and observation are still just as important as they were then.


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Murder Mystery Options

Here are our most popular plots:

The Reading Of The Will

This is a traditional Murder Mystery which is set around an aristocrat’s will reading. The characters are his wife, wayward son, money grasping brother and a solicitor. The reading is interrupted by DI Willy Catchem who has found a body in the grounds of the hotel.

This can be contemporary or 1920s (Downton / Gatsby). We also have a three actor version where the characters are DI Catchem , the solicitor and the family’s maid.

Little House of Horrors

The setting is the UK launch of Little House of Horrors, a cross between a horror film and 50 Shades of Grey. The film has been a cult hit in the USA and the producer is now launching it in the UK. He is the victim and he dies in front of the audience, coming back after a cunning costume change as DI Willy Catchem. The other characters are his wife, a one famous actress, a young starlet, a gangster financier and a write who claims his script has been stolen. This script is great fun and clients can dress black tie or in horror costumes.

Conference Chaos

This is for larger conferences and we need a stage. It can be run as an afternoon or over dinner. The Six Sigmas are a conference act who bring Japanese management techniques over to the UK. They introduce themselves in a high energy opening which has the whole room joining them in a rousing rendition of ‘If You’re Happy And You Know It, Clap Your Hands’ before their leader keels over, dead. The rest of the group, which includes a hypnotist, a Japanese language specialist and a health guru are all suspects.

This is designed to be a surprise for the audience. The start becomes increasingly ridiculous and the audience will start to cotton on.

James Bond / Spy Theme

It’s the annual Spy Of The Year awards. 007 is absent, away on a mission. M is hosting, assisted by Pocketmoney, and 006 and 004 are present, both up for this prestigious award. Visiting on a friendly exchange from Russia we have their top agent, WD40.

When WD40 is murdered M is looking at an international incident. A friend of the service, DI Willy Catchem, is sent for so the mystery can be wrapped up discretely and an incident averted.

Who Killed Father Christmas?

This is the festive show. Camberwick Toys have had a very successful year and are about to reappoint their Father Christmas, a role which carries a £20,000 bonus for the member of staff who takes it on. Hugh and Phyllis Pugh run the company assisted by Cuthbert Dibble, marketing director. Barney McGrew is the firm’s handyman, and he wants the Santa gig that is currently being held by John Grubb, who is the victim of the night’s murder.

So the characters are Phyllis Pugh plus Hugh Pugh, Barney McGrew, Cuthbert Dibble and one of them killed Grubb.

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Acting in Murder Mysteries

An actor in a murder mystery talking to a guest.

Acting in murder mystery dinners is very different to other forms of acting. The typical format has a scripted start and a scripted end and it may contain some scripted interaction in the middle, but the main element is role play and improvisation – interacting with the audience. So the start may be five to ten minutes long and then end may be of a similar length and then there can be a couple of hours of improvised work between them. So, having rules is important.

The characters can go on as many red herring stories as they like in creating their character. The one rule is that you must never involve another character in a story that they don’t know about because they will be questioned about it and won’t know. This is critical.

Actors should avoid talking over each other. This is particularly important during the opening scene where the audience is new to the experience and they can be overwhelmed. There is a lot of information that needs to be passed over, including the murder itself, and the atmosphere should not be more confusing than the script itself.

Only the murderer can ‘lie’, which they do to protect themselves from suspicion. Everyone else must stick to the key facts around the known story, which is documented in the script and the clues that the audience see. These include love notes, bank statements and newspaper clippings. Any actor connected to a specific clue must know about it, including any key times, dates or interactions with other suspects.

If you tell one team something then you need to make sure that you tell all groups the same thing if they prompt for it. If they don’t ask a specific question then it’s perfectly okay not to tell them that detail. After all, the objective is to actually solve the mystery.

When it comes to the script don’t worry about delivering the lines verbatim. This is not Shakespeare and none of the audience know what to expect. So focus on getting the meaning across. With more experienced crews the actors will often help another actor out by covering any key points that they miss. In our murder mysteries we have a specific character in each of our plots which is suitable for a new team member. This character is a suspect but is not the murderer and he or she has limited past history with the other characters. This makes them a viable suspect, an outsider is always suspicious, but there are fewer traps. This means that we can bring new actors into our troupe and give them experience without too much risk.

The main advice is to have fun, to relax and enjoy the experience. The atmosphere at a murder mystery is always fun and people just want to enjoy themselves. If you slip up, keep going and between you and your team of fellow actors you can build in any missed clues fairly quickly. Improvisation is a specific and very demanding form of acting. The two hours that the event takes fly past and during that time you will have been a completely different person. It can be almost as though you suddenly step back into your own life after a short break and the last thing that you can remember is standing outside the room waiting to go in.

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The Plot of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs

There’s no-one better than Walt Disney for taking someone else’s story and making it feel like their own.  Most people would incorrectly assume that Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Disney’s first full-length cel animated feature film released in 1937, was an original work from the House of Mouse, but they’d be wrong. The story is actually based on a German fairy tale by the Brothers Grimm written in 1812.

It may be classed as family entertainment with its beautiful hand-drawn animation but the story has darker overtones which belies its colourful characters and catchy, sing-a-long musical numbers. The film has all the hallmarks of a traditional fairytale. A wicked step-mother / queen, a charming prince and damsel in distress waiting to be rescued. So far, so good but at first glance Snow White might not have seemed like a typical character a country under the cloud of austerity could get behind, but get behind her they did. When the film was released, America was struggling under The Great Depression. Unemployment was incredibly high, society was seeing authority getting tough under increasingly harsh conditions and food was in short supply. They shared a bond with our heroine that has lasted ever since. Despite being a princess, Snow White was suffering under her own hardships. Living under the tyranny of her regally wicked stepmother, she had to fight for everything as was forced to work under very difficult conditions.

As the film begins, the Magic Mirror that the Queen consults on a daily basis to reinforce her own self esteem delivers some bad news. She is no longer the ‘fairest of them all’, that honour now belongs to her step daughter Snow White, so named as her “skin is as white as snow”. To remove this problem she instructs her huntsman to take her into the forest and murder her, returning with her heart in a bejewelled box. So far, so dark. Thankfully, he can’t go through with it and orders her to escape into the forest. Lost and alone she finds comfort in a variety of woodland creatures who lead her to a cottage. This is no empty, deserted house and she wrongly assumes, due to the number of small chairs she finds, that it belongs to seven orphaned children, much like her.

In fact the chairs don’t belong to children, but to 7 working-class, mining dwarfs with names that illustrate their characters or traits. They appear uncivilised with a lack of etiquette and one is so uneducated he can’t even speak. From the token fool (Dopey) to the brains of the operation (Doc) they are wary of Snow White to the point that one remarks that “all females are poison”. Despite their initial scepticism, they soon warm to her and roles are reversed, laying down rules as any parent would to their children; don’t speak or take things from strangers and to be wary of any tricks her step mother might play on her. She doesn’t listen and, whilst in the woods, soon takes a cursed apple from a mysterious stranger who, unbeknown to her, is the Queen in disguise. The Queen still wants her dead and her jealousy is making her blind to right and wrong.

Of course, it’s a Disney movie so we know good will always triumph over evil in the end. The prince reappears for only the second time in the film and lays a kiss on Snow White’s lips. The curse is broken and, naturally, they all live happily ever after, unlike the original story. What does it tell us? Well, despite the dark times, hope and belief in good things will ultimately see you through. Whether it’s the broken country struggling under the depression era or the broken family within the story, love will conquer all. The film is now considered an animated classic and has been enjoyed by countless people since its release.

Children love Snow White but there are darker undertones to the story and it is a plot that gains significance when you consider the time in which it was set.

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