TIPS for throwing a FUN Murder Mystery Party or Dinner Theater Show
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1. Avoid a SURPRISE Murder Mystery dinner
2. Don’t Crowd Your Program Schedule
3. Select Good Volunteer Actors
4. Correct Table and Chair Setup
5. Don’t Smush Audiences
6. Avoid Standing Receptions
7. PLATED Food versus BUFFET
8. Planning SMALLER Dinner Parties
9. Planning LARGER Dinner Parties
10. Guests Using Digital Devices
Tip 1: Avoid a SURPRISE Murder Mystery Dinner party
Yes…we know! You are shocked when you hear this first Party Tip! Some people get the notion that a murder mystery party will be more fun if it is sprung on their guests as a SURPRISE! Well, we hate to burst anyone’s bubble, but after doing thousands of shows, we have learned that enthusiasm and cooperation will INCREASE when guests KNOW IN ADVANCE about an upcoming mystery party. The key word is “ANTICIPATION”. (But, you can still make it a special surprise for one or two guest(s) of honor. Everyone else will enjoy seeing THEIR reaction when they first learn this will be a surprise that was kept a secret by everyone else!)
After guests receive their invitations, they will spend days or weeks in advance asking other people about it, and wondering if they are going to be the one that gets killed, or if they are going to be accused of murder. We call this advance buzz “water cooler talk”. When the day of the mystery dinner finally arrives, everyone at the cocktail hour prior to the start of the play can’t help but notice some interesting “characters” roaming about and mingling with the guests. These will be both our actors and perhaps a few people supplied by our client’s guest list as well. Maybe what is said during this social hour will later come back to incriminate certain characters? And finally, when screams of “MURDER” fill the air, your guests will be grinning ear-to-ear the moment they see the “stiff” laying on the floor.
During the cocktail hour, our prime suspect actors will be mingling with your guests and establishing their personalities through humorous conversations and quips throughout the whole room. This way, most of your audience will already be familiar with their personalities and no time need be wasted at the beginning of the play to give a biographical background or description of each suspect actor! Secondly, all your guests are going to become a fictional character and they need time to establish their own personalities as well. All this happens before the actual murder and this all makes for a much stronger reaction when the “stiff” is discovered. But none of this will make any sense if the guests don’t have a reason for playing along with it!
Using creative invitations will build more anticipation to make your event look fun, intriguing, and mysterious. Have fun creating an intriguing invitation for a murder mystery dinner that will mentally prepare your guests to anticipate having an exciting time!
Tip 2: Don’t Crowd Your Program Schedule
Don’t attempt to “squeeze in” any non-mystery activities like company speeches, raffle drawings or other routine business matters during the Murder Mystery Play. This will distract your guests from getting into the right mood of “suspended disbelief” that is crucial to setting the stage for a murder mystery investigation. Simply hold-off on your speeches, awards and other business until the play is completely over. And besides, your guests will be primed and ready to finally appreciate your other business activities as the high point, or climax of the whole event (especially when the CEO speaks, or prizes and raffles occur at the end). Trust us on this VERY important Party Tip. We have seen murder play dinner guests lose interest with the interruption of non-mystery business activities, and this “breaks the spell” of the fictitious story they were just getting acclimated to. And, after time is spent being distracted on the business activities, the audience is usually reluctant to re-focus on the make-believe drama that originally began.
Tip 3: Select Good Volunteer Actors
The quality of any play is ONLY AS GOOD AS THE ACTORS! In cases where you supply your own actors (COMBO PRODUCTION), choose actor volunteers with extroverted personalities and some degree of talent. And if they have a good sense of humor and are quick-witted, that is a bonus. Volunteer actors are less effective if they: (1) haven’t rehearsed their script, (2) can’t be understood when speaking on a microphone, or (3) speak too softly and can’t project their voice – even when a mic is used. Foreigners or people with accents are usually okay for speaking roles, unless their accent is so thick that audience members cannot understand them when they speak English. (However this, in itself can lead to some good-natured kidding and laughs at certain times!) Be sure to take advantage of the telephone rehearsal we always offer each volunteer actor. It’s good to have our company provide the detective and at least one actor so that all your volunteers will pick up useful ideas on how to present their own character by watching the two pros in action. No egos intended here, just an honest assessment of how your volunteer actors can be brought up to speed.
Tip 4: Correct Table and Chair Setup
When setting the room, make sure everyone seated at the tables for dinner can see everyone else in the room at the same time. If some tables are tucked around a corner or worse yet – in an adjoining room – then those particular guests will lose interest, get bored, and then begin conversing out loud. Once the conversation level raises, the rest of the audience will be distracted and have difficulty enjoying the show.
Our plays are only successful when the audience is paying attention. And they only pay attention when they are all seated during a dinner at round tables (not rectangle banquet tables). We use ROUND table configurations (or ovals) instead of 6 or 8 foot rectangle tables. Rectangle or square table creates “blind sides”. In other words, seating for some guests will block them from seeing the faces of the actors and other guests – except people directly next to them. And when rectangle tables are positioned end-to-end, they put all the guests on your right and left in a single row. And when you turn your head to the left or right to see who is speaking, all you wind up seeing is the ear drum of the person seated on either side of you.
When seated at a ROUND table, you will see OPEN SPACE when you turn to your left and right. This open view gives you a 100 degree range of to see most of the other guests seated in the room! Also avoid “U” shaped table settings as this arrangement is only for speeches and does not encourage spontaneous audience interaction during the play. Secondly, the detective and actors are not free to roam between the tables or to walk behind or in front of all the guests. In short, it is too boring, too regimental. After all , do you want your guests to feel like they are attending another business lecture??? See photos and layouts for table seating.
Tip 5: Don’t Smush Audiences
Sometimes, restaurants or banquet rooms tend to cram chairs and tables together too closely. Murder Mystery dinners need a different approach than typical dinner events. Round tables of 10 persons per table are too crowded for comfort. We recommend 6 to 8 people per 72″ round table. Guests require about 6″ of space next to their dinner plate to jot down notes on half-page sized detective reports. If they are jammed in too tightly against the place setting on either side of them, then all of these guests will be too crowded to take notes during the show. And when guests cannot jot down notes, they will eventually feel overwhelmed by too many facts to memorize. This leads them to a point of frustration where they might stop trying to solve the crime because of overwhelming facts and so they just start gabbing to their neighbors seated on either side of them. If you use smaller tables (round or square); then your minimum should be four persons per table. (Three or less people per table is just too lonely and they won’t feel like they are part of the fun.)
“The One Yardstick Rule”
Allow a comfortable space between chair backs and tables when setting up the room. Stay at least 36″ away from walls with the backs of chairs. The room set-up should be comfortable enough spacing so actors can walk between tables during the show and not have to bump into the backs of guests’ chairs – or have accidents bumping into waiters carrying food trays. Don’t forget to allow a 5′ X 5′ space for setting up the PA control console (microphone mixer and laptop), plus a couple small 3′ square areas in the corners of the room to set up the PA speakers on tripod stands.
Besides the One Yardstick rule, it is okay to plan for 10% guests OVER your actual head count – for the sake of space and table set-up. Sometimes you may have more guests show up for the final mystery dinner event. Allowing a 10% extra seating arrangement won’t get you in trouble. Also, the extra space may allow other guests to use the option to relocate to another table so they will have more elbow room.
See link to “Venues: Table and Chair Layouts”
Tip 6: Avoid Standing Receptions
An event where all your guests are standing and/or roaming the whole duration of the play never has worked well for a successful murder mystery party. Example: cocktail receptions use tall-top tables to give guests a place to set glasses on along with appetizer plates. Tall-top tables fulfill the psychological need for guests to wander about, engaging other guests in brief conversations. These are perfect for cocktail hours prior to the start of the mystery play and dinner. But if the guests are expected to remain at the tall top tables for the whole play (even with stools), they will get antsy and feel the need to walk about.
The other reason why standing receptions and tall-top tables limit the success of a play is that guests are all on a “peer level”, looking eye-to-eye with everyone else’s heads throughout the room. Unfortunately, they will be visually impaired when trying to see each suspect actor talking: a sea of human heads are all in the way! And then, once your guests lose touch with seeing the actors speak, they quickly lose interest in the whole play and begin talking to their closest neighbor. What happens next is predictable: a room full of assorted conversations is very distracting and rude to others, and this is literally the WORST scenario for conducting an effective Murder Mystery Play. If a standing reception is the only configuration you can use, then a Murder Mystery play is just not for you. If this is the case, you should re-consider using a different entertainment format…however, talk to us first and maybe we can offer a solution.
Tip 7: PLATED Food Versus BUFFET
FOOD Buffets DO NOT WORK FOR over 30 guests at MYSTERY DINNERS. It is impossible to start a Murder Mystery Play in the middle of all the chaos of 150 guests standing up in long lines waiting to fill plates of food. Our plays last from 70 minutes to 100 minutes. In buffet situations, the first group of guests stand in a buffet line, get their food, and then sit down to eat. BUT, after they are done eating, they still have to wait another 15 to 30 minutes for the rest of the buffet guests to wait their turn in line, get their food, and then they all sit down to eat.
Unless you have 30 or fewer guests, Buffet lines are L-O-N-G and S-L-O-W and they can waste up to 45 minutes. Here are the problems that can result:
(1) Too many guests are standing and deeply engrossed in conversations in the food lines and at the tables. Too much noise pollution means Actors cannot be heard – even with amplified microphones. (2) When the last half of your guests finally sit down to eat, the first half of guests are already done eating and they get restless and want to stand up, go for a walk, send a text message or take a bathroom break, etc. (3) When our actors stand up to perform their dialogue, the buffet line of guests waiting to be served will visually distract the audience from paying attention to just the actors. (4) Food sugar “highs and lows” sets in with the first half of guests who ate 30 minutes ago and they are the first group to get drowsy before the play’s action can even begin.
Tip 8: Planning SMALLER Dinner Parties
Small, private murder mysteries of 10 to 20 people are always fun events among close friends, work associates or relatives. But note: the key word is “CLOSE”. In other words, people that know each other well are more prone to being outgoing and uninhibited when it comes to asking questions, or making funny wisecracks (which are always welcome …in fact encouraged!). Small gatherings of strangers tend to be more reserved. Case in point: funny moments in a script that usually generate laughter from most audiences may go by without any kind of reaction when strangers are too shy to laugh or contribute adlibs of their own. One remedy is to use the Sodium Pentathol affect (truth serum) – in other words, serve “cocktails” for added “lubrication” of outgoing personalities to rise to the surface. Table and seating can be much more flexible for smaller parties. Often times, these take place in a private home in a living room or on a patio. The rules for table and seating layouts can be relaxed, although we still recommend using round top tables and space between guests’ place settings. Whether a large or small party, guests don’t like to be squeezed together too tightly like sardines in a can! Although round banquet tables are always the preferred type of table for mystery shows, rectangle or square tables are okay for groups of up to 20 people.
If you would like some good ideas on how to break the ice with these type of smaller parties, call us. We have “ice-breaking” techniques that warm up audiences before the play gets under way.
Tip 9: Planning LARGER Dinner Parties
The first good point is that with larger audiences, there will be plenty of guests with outgoing personalities that will contribute life and humor to the play. Extroverts don’t care if they say something in front of 10 people or 250 people, and that’s a “beautiful thing” in this business! Ask any comedian if they would rather have 20 or a 100 people watch their show and you know what their answer will be: MORE PEOPLE! More people means a bigger laugh when something funny happens. But, the drawback with larger events of 175 or more people is that your guests tend to lose the intimacy connection with the actors whom are seated several tables away – or as much as 150 feet away. In this larger scale setting, guests who see actors stand up and speak can barely see their faces and expressions beyond 60 feet away.
The good news is that there ARE Solutions for bigger events. First, you can always consider dividing your total guests into two separate groups for two performances (either one right after the other, or one day after the next). But, in most cases, you can ONLY do one show. There are theatrical tricks and techniques so a larger audience can still hear and see well. INTIMACY is the key to a successful mystery play, otherwise we risk losing the audience’s attention. Review the “Party Tricks” below to help your large event:
Large Party Trick 1: Consider using live video playback with one or two camera people strolling about the entire room during the play, and zooming in on the actors for close-ups so even the furthest seated guests can identify with each actor. Place one or two projection TV’s aimed at 10 foot BIG SCREENS so everyone has a good vantage point to view the action.
Large Party Trick 2: Add a couple of “Microphone Runners” so that the microphone can be handed to each actor from the closest Mic runner. In large ballrooms, this will save lots of wasted time waiting for a microphone to be hand delivered to the actor from the detective. They can be standing by the room perimeter in two different locations and patiently awaiting the need for someone to gain access to a wireless mic. The runners can be dressed like C.S.I. police personnel.
Large Party Trick 3: Add another two to four PA speakers to encircle the seated dinner guests. These will diversify the amplified sound and give everyone’s ears more clarity at less volume. That way, the guests won’t feel detached from the main action of the play and won’t get bored and start talking at their tables which are located too far away from the speakers. Adding more speakers ALSO avoids having to turn up speakers TOO LOUD, thereby disturbing the guests seated closest to the speakers. And, a side benefit is that the chance of microphone feedback is greatly reduced.
Tip 10: Guests Using Digital Devices
Sometimes, an annoying distraction with Mystery Show audiences is the RUDE habit of “TEXTING”! In performing our plays, it is always obvious when certain audience members disengage from the fun of the play by bending their heads down with their thumbs typing like mad. Most business professionals understand this is “RUDE” behavior. Texting will also be perceived as an insult to the party host who invested much time and expense in planning the party. When “TEXTERS” choose to shut out the world around them, the overall crowd reaction, applause and laughter is negatively affected. When they selfishly disengage from their co-workers and the fun others are having, they come off as aloof and a loner. This is far from the “TEAM BUILDING” morale that a murder mystery dinner event is highly noted for!
There is a remarkable exception for times when texting NEVER SEEMS TO BE A PROBLEM! That’s right, just as surely as the Sun rises in the East every morning, there is never a problem with texting WHEN GUESTS PAY THEIR OWN TICKET PRICE for a dinner and show! When it is THEIR money at stake, they want to get all the entertainment they can get. But when their boss or company pays for their dinner and professional entertainment, they don’t realize how disrespectful they are being when they actively twitter during the entire event.
We recommend addressing this potential distraction when sending your dinner invitations. Also, you could display a placard at the check-in table on the night of the event. On this placard, you can display your “rules” in a simple and respectful way. Here are a couple of examples of a polite placard:
For the maximum enjoyment of our Murder Mystery Dinner Show…
AND as a courtesy to your fellow guests, we request that you
kindly turn off and ignore your digital devices until the show is over.
Thanks for your cooperation!
PLEASE BE COURTEOUS…
and refrain from using ANY DIGITAL DEVICES DURING THE SHOW. Thank you!
The tips and suggestions listed above are guidelines for you to follow when booking your event. If you ignore these tips, there is always the risk for “Murphy’s Law” to intervene might detract from the full potential of the play’s success. HOWEVER…we also believe there are times to compromise when booking our events. Our primary goal is to make you look good to your guests by running a highly SUCCESSFUL event. Call us for more information so we can give you the added tools to assure positive results!