First to die
"weird people out, then die". a day in the life of a murder mystery theater actor.
“Wait, so even for, like, big shows, no one gets paid?” I asked, backstage at the Hideout Theatre, my dreams of becoming a rich improviser fading before my very eyes.
This was Austin, 2011, and everyone was laughing as if I’d just asked why volunteers don’t get paid to hang out with old people. It’s community service - you should be honored to stand in front of a crowd and do make-em-ups for 25 minutes based on the suggestion of “Dick Dynasty.”
“The murder mystery dinner dudes are always hiring,” one veteran of improv, not war, said, adjusting her bright blue tie in the full-length mirror that stretched the entire wall of the green room that itself was bright green.
Imagine if Sleep No More and that weird escape room that shares a bathroom with a porno store moved to the suburbs. Throw in some nice baked salmon for dinner and there you have it: murder mystery theater.
The setup is simple. About 45 people show up, find their seats, and mingle until — what’s this? The man at table eight is screaming, he’s bleeding from his tummy, omg…
Two detectives run out and tell everyone to relax - it’s going to be okay, ma’am, but no one can leave until we figure out whodunnit, because it was someone here whodunnit, they explain. It could be anyone. You, sir, or you, grandma. The murderer is here among us.
Over the multi-course dinner of chicken or fish, salad and bread rolls, more people die, clues are revealed, and finally the guests have to all guess who did it and why.
Everyone has a name tag on, and you can put your real name or assume an entirely false identity. That way no one knows if ‘Dale’, the ‘accountant for the mafia’ is actually a plumber from Round Rock, TX or an actor who might actually be the murderer.
Over the course of the night, there’s time given to walk around and see who’s up to no good, uncover clues, and figure out whotheheckdunnit.
It’s the type of thing that’d make my Soviet parents go ‘huh’ and my grandpa very angry. ‘They’re pretending? That something bad happened? So they can solve it?”
But for Americankies, as my grandpa would say, it’s a fun atmosphere to let loose, slurp wines, and cosplay as Columbo.
I’d moved to Austin about a year and a half ago. Enough time to figure out both how much I wanted to act and how hard it would be to actually do so. At this point, I was still sending people this photo as my headshot.
For anyone not in the industry, a headshot is generally supposed to, oh I don’t know, include your entire fucking face and not have at least 40% of it covered by a tiny towel! Of all the decisions I’ve made in life, this is surely one of the funniest. ‘yes hi i’d like to be in your movie here is a photo to help you make this decision I will not show you my mouth because my mentor is the dude from Home Improvement whose face you never saw on the other side of the fence. ‘
All this to say: it was a goddamn miracle that Mike, the guy in charge of Dinner Detective Austin, responded to my email and invited me to a rehearsal a few days later.
I came ready to audition. To improvise. To Act. There was nothing that mattered more than this single opportunity, and I could not blow it.
Which made the two hours of me just standing there, watching and nodding overeagerly, particularly brutal. Was this the audition? How was I doing? Should I laugh more? Less? Different? HA! ha. Heaha!
Two hours later, Mike came over and asked me if I was free next week for a show. Hell ya I was.
My first show was at a Marriott outside of Austin. There were seven of us - two detectives, a ‘waiter’, three ‘dinner guests,’ two of whom would die over the course of the night and one who was the murderer, and finally, the first-to-die.
The ‘first-to-die’ was, well, the first to die and the catalyst for the detectives to run out and get to work solving the mystery (with ample time for goofs thrown in). Newbies to the company would always start by playing first-to-die, and I was no exception. I’d get paid the least, but I’d also be there for the least amount of time: just enough to die, really.
I died pretty well the first time around so they asked me back for a second rodeo, which again, I killed (lol).
I died pretty nice the second time around, too.
I was a first-to-die machine, boasting a 100% success rate. If you needed a guy to come and die right away, I was the guy.
Word must have spread, because a few days later I got a text from Mike asking if I’d be game to do a private party. It’d be different from the norm, but he thought I could handle it. In fact, he thought I was perfect for it.
The client was one of those quintessential early 2010s tech darlings called ship&handle. They’d ship anything, especially weird stuff — boats, pianos, tombstones — which apparently made them rich.
“They want us to come do a show during their holiday party…but, yea, it’s a strange one.” Mike explained, “You’re gonna be playing a guy named Jamie. I’m emailing you the description now.”
From Boston, went to Deerfield for Boarding school College at Brown – came from Financial Industry – looking for a career switch since the markets have imploded. Lived in London for 3 years – knows EU well. Also worked the Asia desk for two years. Will be working with me to analyze new markets, and model launch plans.
So a douchebag from Brown.
Little did they know that I’d spent the last four years method acting as a douchebag undergrad at Brown University for this very role. Sure, I studied screenwriting and psych instead of the whole Morgan Stanley dipshit thing, but that was mostly because I couldn’t understand any of the math stuff those guys had to do (macro economics is the big stuff, micro is the small stuff, what more is there to know?)
I’d been in Austin for less than a year and this was far and away the biggest ‘gig’ I’d ever booked, so I was trying to keep it cool, stay professional, and appear like I was a hilarious actor comedian named Alex Dobrenko instead of the scared, eating-carrots-in-my-car-while-waiting-until-I’d-made-myself-late-to-places-because-of-NERVES sort of first-to-die kinda guy.
“They want someone to come in and work a full day before the event starts,” Mike explained. And explained again, because it made little sense.
These maniacs wanted someone from our cast to show up in the morning, pretending to be a new employee coming in for their first day. That person would spend a full day in the office pretending to work while weirding everyone out, and THEN be the first to die at the cocktail party that night. And if that wasn’t enough, no one at the company would even know a murder mystery was going to happen that night: it’d only be revealed once that first person died.
“You’ve got this ‘fuck it, I'll be a weirdo for a day’ confidence,” Mike continued, “that makes me want to throw you in the mix. So…you in?”
In other words, and also not in so many words, they wanted me.
Unfortunately, I was busy that night.
Jamie Moreland, on the other hand? Jamie was free.
Welcome to the team!
The show started at 5:15 pm for the rest of the cast, but my call time was 10am.
I was nervous as shit. They call this going ‘method’ - living your life as if you were the character. In that case, I’d been method since I was born. From the auditions to the real money jobs I’d had since I was 15 to support my habit of ‘doing art,’ including the job as a Content Writer that moved me to Austin in the first place, I’d perfected the unstable art of being nervous on your first day.
But was Jamie a nervous guy? Or would he not be nervous because he was crazy?
I stared at the doors to ship&handle and wondered about this until it was 1015 and I — no, Jamie — was late.
Walking to the front desk but still too far to initiate conversation, I sorta screamed,“Hi I’m, uh, Jamie – Jamie Moreland! Yes, uh, yea so I am, well I’m here for - is Rebecca?,” the blend of confidence and terror flowing out of me, much more Alex than Jamie.
I knew I had a couple of contacts on the inside – my handlers – but I didn’t know where they were nor how to find them. Everyone else, including the woman at the front desk, was clueless. I wondered what to do if she wasn’t cooperative. Eliminate her, of course. Surely we could fold one more murder into the whole murder mystery thing, right? When I died later, someone could find the body of the receptionist and go, “There are more bodies!” I was sure my comedy detectives would figure it out.
“Ah yes hi!” she answered, having no idea her life has just been spared. “Let me ping Rebecca.”
“Awesome,” I said, an absolutely classic thing for Jamie to say.
My handler Rebecca arrived, "Jamie, hi Hi! I'm Rebecca," she said, waving her hand.
Whether or not that is her real name I will never know.
She walked me past the reception area and whispered, "Hi Alex, nice to meet you."
My first test… answering as Alex could get me fired on the spot. Goodbye and see you never to Jamie’s promising new life at ship&handle and Alex’s meteoric rise as an actor in Austin.
Also adios to my 135 bones, the pay for the gig (we’re talkin’ an inflation-adjusted $147.26 in 2023).
Thinking quickly, I responded simply: “Hi.”
She smiled and kept talking. I’d passed the first test.
Next up: the boss
I was escorted through an office with exposed brick walls and quirky tchotchkes that made me wish I did actually work here. Maybe if Jamie did a good job, they’d keep him around? Ya know, as sort of comic relief but also maybe he could really contribute?
Rebecca took me into an office to meet the big sorta muscly CEO, Martin, and his right hand man, the more clean cut COO, Frank. They are the masterminds behind this entire thing, and now they are looking at me, the guy, their guy, Jamie Moreland.
“We want you to be as weird as possible,” the CEO said.
“Not right away,” Frank jumped in, “But over the course of the day, you’ll get progressively weirder. Then at the cocktail party, go nuts.”
“Right,” I said, “Easy.”
It would not, in fact, be easy.
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