I have spoken before in this space about how every spring I twist my drama students’ arms offer my drama students a wonderful opportunity to create their own GAD-styled mystery plays! or else! This year is no exception. After whetting their script-writing whistles on the Peter Ustinov version of Evil Under the Sun (nobody in either class figured it out!), I have turned them loose to create their own scenarios, which will become scripts . . . which will become performances. The group that does the best job of creating a fair play mystery and fooling the most audience members with their solution (everybody gets to “play detective”) wins a prize. The prizes are stacked up on my coffee table at home, and I can’t wait to deliver them to the lucky winners.
The rules of play are simple:
- The group must select a year far from our own and incorporate the history, styles, slang, and names as inspiration for their plot;
- The group must create a place that allows for a “closed circle” of suspects;
- Every mystery must have a victim, odious or otherwise, and a detective, eccentric or otherwise;
- Every actor must create his or her own character that fits into the plotline;
- Plays are divided into three acts: first comes the set-up, introducing the setting and the characters and leading up to the murder; next comes the investigation, by the end of which all the significant clues must have been presented to the detective and the audience; there’s a pause, during which the audience fills out a ballot, selecting their choice for the killer and – this is important – explaining their reasoning for this choice; and we end up with the solution, presented by the detective to the suspects.
The five-act mystery is for advanced students!
We are at the very beginning of the project, which culminates on finals week (May 28 – 30), but I thought I’d tease you with the scenarios they have begun. When the students actually embrace this project, as many this year seem to be doing, I get such a kick out of what they’ve come up with. So here we go:
I’ve got so many creative minds going on in this class, and as they share their Google docs with me, I love how their mysteries are developing.
Title: Fool’s Gold
It’s 1848, and we are at Jedediah Richard’s plot of land in the gold country. Jed has invited to dinner three miners who are each looking for a lucky strike near his property: Kenway Fern, Hunter Woolley and Mason Mills. I can tell you that at least one of these miners has a VERY big secret!!!! Also present is Jed’s penniless cousin Narcissa “Cissy” Fawcett, who has arrived to beg Jed for a handout. When murder strikes, literally (the weapon happens to be the lucky pickaxe belonging to one of the miners), Detective Ronan Pearce is called in to investigate.
Title: Spirits in the Night
It’s 1920, Prohibition has begun, and Clara Celestine, a wealthy spiritualist, has invited a variety of guests to a party at her mansion. The liquor flows, and when everyone wakes up in the morning, bootlegger Eduardo K. Oakley is found murdered. All the guests’ tires have been slashed, and the nearest town is nine miles away. In a nice stroke of fate, Eduardo awakens to find out he’s a ghost, and using Clara’s psychic abilities as a conduit, he attempts to solve his own murder!!!!
This one reminded me of that delightful mystery-comedy Topper Returns, where Joan Blondell makes the fatal error of attending a weekend in the country and has to solve her own murder. Highly recommended!
Title: Murder in New York
It’s 1938, and Detective Scarlett is called to the Manhattan brownstone of spoiled millionaires Guadalupe Martinez. Despite the fact that her friends and acquaintances have been ruined in the Depression, Guadalupe has spent a million dollars to erect a statue of herself in public. Someone is so outraged that they make the statue a posthumous honor!! I don’t know the murderer here yet, but one of the suspects is named Bernard Ikeilder (“I killed her.”) Red herring? Or not?!?
Already, this group’s synopsis shows an affinity for hard-boiled fiction. Here’s Detective Scarlett: “It was 1938 – the days were cold, and the nights were colder. She walked in like she did five years ago, and I can’t help thinking about the last case when she stuffed an old man into a tuba. Seems like history is repeating itself over again.”
Makes ya proud, doesn’t it?
As I mentioned when I wrote about this project two years ago, not all classes are created equal. Sometimes the post-lunchtime malaise makes something of a sludge of the creative juices. My afternoon class is also a mixed bag in terms of motivation, but . . . well, you’ll see:
Title: Crime in the Crapper
Yup! That’s the title . . .
It’s 1857, and we’re in the remote Western town of Lost Hallow. Corrupt mayor Earl Webster has a gambling habit and isn’t afraid to steal from the local bank or the local miners. His wife has just found out about his affair with the maid, and it comes as no surprise when Sheriff Watson finds the Mayor slumped over in his outhouse, dead from poison.
I did make a point of telling the class that a good title can make or break a mystery. As my friends Kemper and Catherine at All About Agatha recently pointed out,Towards Zero is a much more effective descriptor of that excellent novel than Come and Be Hanged! But the kids just love “crapper” . . . at least it’s alliterative.
Title: Murder on the Black Diamond Express
The Black Diamond was an actual train that ran through New York. It’s also the name of the fabulous necklace that rich young Audrey Hedford is wearing as she travels on the train toward Michigan in 1932 to take up an important position in her father’s company. In the same car are a motley assortment of passengers, including Betty Jones, whose university education has been cut short by the Depression, Charles Anderson, an expert pickpocket, and the Valentino Brothers, bootleggers desperate to unload their inventory before the end of Prohibition. Theft and murder take place but fortunately the conductor is also an amateur detective.
Any similarities to Christie are pure coincidence!!
Title: Elected to Die
It’s 1963 – November 22 to be precise – and a politician named Jeffrey Stevenson is winging toward Washington on his private plane to plot against Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson, who has just assumed the presidency. Stevenson wants that title in the 1964 election, and he’ll stop at nothing to get it. He might have a better chance if didn’t behave so monstrously toward his wife, his assistant, his bodyguard or the stewardess.
(True story: I was seven years old when President Kennedy was assassinated. We were all sent home from school for a couple of days; my parents were off work as the nation tried to figure out what the hell had just happened. My family sat in the den, glued to the TV, watching non-stop coverage, including Oswald’s arraignment. My mother asked me to get her a glass of water. In the kitchen, I took a glass down from the cupboard – and heard a terrible commotion from the den. To this day, I’m not sure if my missing the murder of Oswald on TV was a bad or good thing. All of it rocked our world for a long, long time.)
Title: Disco Death
It’s the 1970’s, of course, and a big Los Angeles dance club is sponsoring a competition where Parker Dennel, local champion and all-around douchebag, is facing off against Leonide Toft. After antagonizing the beautiful bartender, the darling DJ, and his gorgeous girlfriend, Leonide is found in the men’s room with his head stuffed in the toilet. (Do we sense a theme in this class???) It’s up to Detective Theotimos Bonanza to solve the crime.
(Yesterday, these characters were named Fred, Velma, Daphne, Shaggy and Scooby, so I’m grateful that things are advancing in a better direction.)
So there you have it: the 2019 entries! Who will stump the most audience members? Who will win the prize? And, most importantly, will anyone here find themselves taking up a, hopefully, lifelong habit of reading classic mysteries after they have created their own?
Keep your fingers crossed!