This week’s column is a slight variation of my usual music-based chats. Anyway, back on Dec. 21, I called Augusta to contact Mike Clements about a Murder Mystery Dinner Theatre presentation at the Unity College Center for the Performing Arts. When he answered, I was treated to a strong British accent (“I’ve been here 17 or 18 years now, and I don’t think the accent’s going anywhere!”), a quick, dry wit and a delightful interview. I asked if he was a professor and learned that, for his sins (as he put it), he’s actually an insurance adjuster who travels around the state looking at crashed cars. I began by asking him if he had ever done anything at the UCCPA before.

Clements: This is actually going to be our third one for them.

Q: Do you do a different performance each time?

Clements: Yes, they are made specially for the occasion. The first one I did was based on a historic feast that happened 200 years prior to the date. Last year we did one that was called “St. Valentine’s Day Mascara” — which was a pun on the St. Valentine’s Day massacre. This year we’re going for an ’80s theme so it’s going to be called “When Harry Terminated Sally.”

Q: Being 68 and remembering the ’80s as I do, this is a wonderful thing you’ve got going here.

Clements: It should be a lot of fun, yeah. We are stealing shamelessly from as many ’80s movies as we can. Borrowing characters, borrowing plot lines, and stealing famous lines where we can get away with it.

Q: Now do you pen these yourself?

Clements: I do, yes. I’ve written them with co-writers in the past, but these ones for Unity, I’ve been the writer because my writer moved down to Washington which makes it hard to collaborate.

Q: Yes, I can see where it would. Now, how do you cast it, do you have a troupe that you draw upon?

Clements: Yeah, my troupe is the Hallowell Open Theater Troupe. We are a pretty loose band of a mix of semi-professional and dedicated amateur actors. I usually go for sort of six or seven actors so that there’s enough people to kill and enough people let over to try and have a bit of a competition as to who did it so that it’s not obvious. And then, once I’ve got the script written, I’ll approach people to see if they’re interested in participating.

Q: How long does it take you to put something like this together?

Clements: Ah, well, from start to finish about three to four months. Concept was agreed back in October, the date was confirmed back February/March time. I said, ‘Okay, we’ll figure out a plan.’ I came up with a couple of options and the ’80’s theme was the preferred option. Once we got that established, it was a matter of writing and re-writing and watching a lot of movies that I’ve not watched for 30 years, and tweaking each time. ‘I think that’d be a good bit to stick in there somewhere.’ I’m actually flying out of the country for a couple of weeks today so serious rehearsals start as soon as I get back.

Q: Do you rehearse in the venue?

Clements: Only at the end, up until then it doesn’t really matter. It’s more about getting comfortable with each other, getting a handle on the plot. It’s basically a room full of tables so there’s not a whole blocking thing that we need to worry too much about. With a regular stage play you need to be on this part of the stage doing this at this time. It’s a lot more fluid, the script is not as rigid, there’s a lot more room for improvisation, we can do that anywhere, and then just make sure everybody’s comfortable with the venue beforehand.

Q: My brother did a lot of murder mystery dinner theater at some big hotels in North Conway, New Hampshire, and I went to a few performances. So when you spoke of improvisation I remember Jon and the rest of the cast having to respond to all the things that can pop up when you’re in the middle of a dining room filled with lots of people, you don’t know what’s going to happen. Being able to work around those distractions is very important.

Clements: Absolutely, yes, that’s huge! We want people involved and we kind of have to roll with their questions and see where they take us, and keep things moving in the direction we want them to go. Feeding in little bits and pieces as we go. Our typical format is, we have a cocktail hour where the cast mingles and make themselves known as it goes along. It’s fairly obvious because they’re the ones doing most of the talking to start with about the show instead of, ‘Oh, these treats are nice,’ or ‘These drinks are nice.’ But yeah, we want people to be involved in it. We encourage people to dress according to the period. Last year we had lots of people turning up in their finest ’20s flapper dresses and gangster hats, so hopefully we’ll see a lot of ’80’s clothes turning up for this one.

Q: That’s neat! It sounds like an evening of fun and good food.

Clements: Oh, the food is fantastic, lots of hors d’oeuvres for the cocktail hour, and then there’s the main course and dessert, the reveal’s always done over the dessert, obviously. The catering department there come out with some fantastic dishes and they try to fit the dishes with the script, so it’ll be a feast for the palette as well as the mind.

Q: Well, by the sound of things, you have everything well in hand, and I must say, I really enjoy your sense of humor.

Clements: We want people to laugh and enjoy themselves. If they’re not going to enjoy themselves we’ve gone horribly wrong, so that’s absolutely crucial, yeah.

Lucky Clark has spent 45 years writing about good music and the people who make it. He can be reached at [email protected] if you have any questions, comments or suggestions.

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