The last time Nate Oddy’s mother had him killed he learned an important lesson.
“That’s when we found out not to use fake blood capsules in our mouths,” says Oddy, an actor in the Murder by Design interactive theater troupe.
“Oh, yeah,” agrees Lisa Grace, Oddy’s mom and casting director for Murder by Design. Grace and Murder by Design founder Ken Davis write the troupe’s murder mysteries and decide who will die during their events. She’s killed off her own son three times. The last time, which involved a stabbing, required Oddy to chomp down on a fake blood capsule right as the knife made contact. “They taste awful,” Grace says. “It looks good, though.”
“You’re using the wrong stuff if it tastes bad,” argues actor and fellow troupe member Paul Kriner. “You have to make your own with corn syrup and red food coloring.”
“No, that won’t work,” replies Grace. “It’s the red dye that gets you.”
At this point, a full-table discussion bursts out among seven members of the Murder by Design improvisational acting troupe, which offers monthly murder-mystery dinners at Henderson Castle, in Kalamazoo, and special events throughout Southwest Michigan for private parties and companies.
Grace turns to a visitor as the red-dye debate continues. “You’re sitting in a room full of theater geeks,” she says.
She’s right. Over the course of the interview, the actors demonstrate how to make a stabbing look real, how to die on command and other tricks of the trade. Experience with such theater techniques is helpful for troupe members, but strong improvisational skills are a must, says Davis, who founded the group five years ago. He looks for actors who can settle into murder dinner theater and adapt to changes in the “script.”
“This type of acting is easier for me than real theater,” Grace says. “You don’t have to memorize lines, and there’s not a lot of rehearsing.”
The events are mapped out to a degree. Each person attending the dinner — whether actor or guest — receives character and background information and clues they need to share with the others. The guests, who act out their own characters while trying to solve the murder, aren’t allowed to make up new facts, but no one is scripted. And each person, actor or not, is an intricate and improvisational part of the whodunit.
That’s the beauty of the dinners, Davis says, and why the Murder by Design troupe prefers to involve guests in the drama rather than act out the drama by themselves — a quality that sets Murder by Design apart from other troupes.
Many of the actors met through the Kalamazoo Civic Theatre. Kriner, for instance, plays Alfie Doolittle in the theater’s current production of My Fair Lady, and Kriner and Grace starred in Imaginary Invalid. Grace also teaches classes in improvisation. The troupe is made up of serious actors, and it’s clear that they all are invested in the murder-mystery shows. But, the troupe says, so are the guests.
“We have about 18 stories, and we do the same stories over and over, but it’s never the same show. We always have different guests, but we don’t always have the same actors,” Grace says. “Each person’s take on a character is different, and you pick up on the guests and go from there.”
As she explains the different takes on one character she often plays — Betty Bendova, a madame — Grace shifts her accent from a Southern belle to a New Jersey self-made woman. Her stance and gestures change as she explains the differences in character. The martini she’s been drinking is actually water, but to illustrate what an effective lush she can play, Grace drops right into character, bumping a chair and slurring her words. It doesn’t take long to feel as if an alternate reality has set in.
“Some of the guests just go hog wild,” Kriner says. “It’s a lot of fun.”
Guests are invited to dress in period clothing and many of them do — in fact, The Timid Rabbit costume shop offers a discount for rentals used at Murder by Design events. Some guests bring their own fake weapons and props.
“Bawdy, but not raunchy” is how Grace describes the humor, storylines and characters. The troupe adjusts the bawdiness level based on the age of the attendees.
Henderson Castle, on West Main Hill, was the first place Davis put on a Murder by Design event. The decor of the Queen Anne-style home, which was completed in 1895, lends itself to the monthly events, Grace says. And the staff at Henderson Castle has gotten used to the melee sometimes produced — the maître d’ even knows to check who’s collapsed before calling 911.
“Once a guest saw me drop dead and told him (the maître d’) to call the ambulance,” Grace says. “He came in, saw me dead on the floor and told the guest, ‘Oh, it’s just Lisa — she’s fine.’”
View or register for Murder by Design events (or book your own) at MurderbyDesign.com.