Playwriting is not always a serious affair. After all, it has the word “play” in it.
That’s a fun lesson local theater artist Patti Heying is learning as she trades her performing and directing hats for a pen as the playwright for this weekend’s production of the “Mayflower Murder,” at Columbia’s Steakhouse, by Bluegrass Mystery Theatre.
Now celebrating its 10th anniversary of “bringing murder and mayhem to the Bluegrass” with dinner theater-style murder mystery plays, Bluegrass Mystery Theatre offers audiences side-splitting mysteries to solve, with new, often kitschy themed plays rolling out each month.
For Dana Edison, founder of Bluegrass Mystery Theatre, that means coming up with 12 fresh scripts per year.
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Like most of Bluegrass Mystery Theatre’s work, the process of writing a murder mystery is both fast and loose while also necessarily formulaic. What’s more, the theater company makes the most of the resources they’ve got.
“I wrote both her October show this year and this November show,” says Heying. “For October she said, ‘hey, I was going through my costumes — I have three witches costumes, can you do something with that?’”
“For this one, it was, ‘hey, I’ve got a male and female pilgrim costume, so can you work something about pilgrims in?’” laughs Heying.
Using Edison’s costuming requirements as a starting point, Heying came up with a humorous Thanksgiving play about a hostile takeover of the Mayflower Meatpacking Company and the characters with motive to kill, all taking place during the superbly ridiculous annual 5K Gobble Trot fundraiser. Audiences members vote on their pick of “whodunnit” at the end of act two for a chance to win a prize.
Heying says that composing the plays are like solving puzzles.
“You want to drop a certain number of clues, but you’ve got to have some red herrings,” says Heying. “You have to have enough people to have a motive. Often I will know I’ve got to have five characters and so many males and females.”
Heying says it helps that she is so familiar with the cast. Before turning playwright for Edison, Heying had performed in the troupe since 2013 and can write scenes tailored to the strengths of her former castmates.
Take Leif Erickson, for instance. Heying knew his penchant for comedic timing, so she wrote his character as the 5K race’s master of ceremonies as a wannabe stand-up comedian armed with a streaming riff of cringe-worthy jokes.
“He has all these one liners,” says Heying, who says she looked up bad racing jokes for the role. “I knew that he would have a good time with those.”
Having a good time is what keeps audiences and players coming back for more.
Heying, who will direct shows at Woodford Theater and AthensWest Theatre later this season, says that while the shows are serious fun to write, perform in, and attend, they are also good training grounds for actors, particularly in the art of improv.
“It’s a different style of acting,” says Heying. “There’s some improvisation to it and you never know what a person in the audiences will say or do.“
“I also like that we’re in different venues all the time. We’re on a dinner train or we’re at Boone Tavern, so the shape of the space is going be different. There’s never any blocking. You just have to adapt to the space you go into.”
“The people I use are not only really good actors but they’re quick on their feet,” says Edison. “They’re great at improv. I throw things at them all the time. I always try to get info about the group and tailor the show to them. I’ll get last minute ideas and sometimes I throw them at the actors and say can you do this and they do it and are incredible.”
Heying is busy with directing projects in the coming months, but says she will always find time to play with Edison’s group either as a performer or playwright.
“It’s been fun because it helps me to hang onto some of those skills which I wouldn’t use in probably any of the other shows I would do anywhere else,” says Heying.
If you go
The Mayflower Murder
When: 6 p.m., Sunday, Nov. 25 at Columbia’s, 201 N. Limestone, Lexington.
Cost: $29.99. Includes a three-course meal and show.
Tickets: (859) 494-2877
When: 7 p.m. Tuesday, Nov. 27 at Sidelines, 688 University Shopping Centers, Suite, 1, Richmond.
Cost: $38 for three-course meal and show.
Call: (859) 575-1216 or (859) 661-0146