Recently a few reviewers posted some reviews of the most recent Poison Ivy Mysteries show (the second run of Justice at the Gold Dust). The reviews were all over the map, but one of the reviewers in particular was criticizing the show for being simply a bunch of stereotypes strung together; in her words, “[the script] seems to be constructed over a thin veneer of tired wild west tropes – the lusty barmaid, the crooked mayor, the ingénue, the tomboy, the leading man, and the town drunk are all present.” Annelise’s rebuttal to this sentiment – that the characters were flat and boring simply because they were easily recognized – states, in essence, that the types of murder mystery shows she writes can’t get too complicated or the audience will get lost. Annelise has also said elsewhere that PIM has actually attempted to do a show where the characters were a lot more complicated and three-dimensional, with the end result being that most members of the audience had no idea what was going on (I believe the show she was referring to was Club Mystique, our 1940’s detective show). I’m not going to rehash her arguments here, but one of her points was that murder mystery dinner theater shows put on by Poison Ivy Mysteries are meant for pure entertainment, and should not be compared to works that strive to do anything more. This has been true so far. But it got me thinking: could we?
Would it be possible to produce a fun, entertaining murder mystery that also speaks to the human condition, or whatever else this particular reviewer was looking for? Can we write a show that is also considered “art”?
What is art, anyway? The broad definition is basically any work expressing the imagination of the creator, which could be almost anything, ranging from the illegible crayon drawing a six-year-old made that he says is a car, to Cristo putting up fabric in Central Park just because it looks cool, to Stanley Kubrick telling a story about human evolution that takes as much effort on the part of the viewer to understand as it does the filmmaker, to a story about an overweight plumber rescuing a princess from a fire-breathing turtle king. However, I believe that when people ask the question “what is art?” they are more likely referring to what makes “high art” or “true art.” Or, in other words, what defines a work that people can say have had a significant influence? What rises above the 90% of everything else that is crap (it’s a law, look it up) to stand out as highlights of their respective mediums? What separates Citizen Kane from Transformers? The answer to this question is multi-layered and complicated (and changes radically depending on the medium being discussed), but for my purposes I will say that true art will make the audience think. And not simply think in terms of comprehension or analysis of plot elements (or following the bits and pieces of a murder mystery), but challenge an audience member’s conception of the world around them and make some sort of connection.
Take the Calvin and Hobbes comic strip I posted above. This strip was published in the Calvin and Hobbes Tenth Anniversary Book, along with this comment by Bill Watterson: “I would suggest that it’s not the medium, but the quality of perception and expression, that determines the significance of art. But what would a cartoonist know?” The great irony in this statement coming from that source is that I think most people today would consider that Calvin and Hobbes demonstrates some of the very best qualities of newspaper comics, and even now, nearly twenty years after its last strip, is still hailed as a standout among its peers. It’s not just good, it’s art. Bill Watterson and a few others, such as Gary Larson and Charles Schultz, took a medium that most people considered to be nothing more than pure entertainment and elevated it as a form of expression.
What defines the quality of perception and expression of a theatrical piece? Some may say it’s novelty. Others may say it’s tackling important issues. But I believe it has to do with one important concept: how well can I connect to these characters? For Poison Ivy Mysteries in particular, it comes down to avoiding the Eight Deadly Words:
“I don’t care what happens to these people.”
We are lucky that, because of our chosen murder mystery format, most people want to pay close attention to the plot and characters simply because they actively want to solve the crime. Video games have been getting away with this for years because the level of audience participation means that less care can be given to fleshing out characters, plots, and settings than in a typical passive medium such as a movie, play, or TV show, while still leaving the participant satisfied at the end. Most people care what happens to our characters because they want to figure out the mystery at the end, not necessarily because they care about them as characters. But that doesn’t mean we can’t pull a Portal 2 and make a fun game with great audience participation that also happens to have engaging characters in it. (Portal and Portal 2, by the way, I would consider “high art,” though I know plenty of people who would dismiss them due to the medium.) I would say that the more we can get the audience to care about these people, the better the shows will be.
Poison Ivy Mysteries scripts have been fun, witty, well-plotted affairs with clever interactions and wordplay, with interesting mysteries to solve. They are good, if not excellent, shows. However, it is true that most of our shows have been pretty shallow in order to facilitate understanding for the audience. And I’m not going to pretend that Justice at the Gold Dust is an exception to that rule. It’s not. The characters and setting are old wild west tropes and little else. (Which is not a condemnation; Tropes Are Not Bad. A relevant quote from that page: “Indeed, a trope, however unrealistic, can be a convenient shorthand when played straight; setting up aversions or subversions for it can be more wordy than is needed to get on with story.”) It’s gotten to the point that internally we’ve begun referring to each show by a truncated name, based on what stereotypes it embodies, Friends-style. The Sci-Fi show. The Western. The Hollywood Show. The Medieval Show. The Wedding Show. I like all of these shows (some more than others), but I don’t know if anyone would consider them art. However, there is one show we’ve done, and two characters in particular in that show, that demonstrate that it is possible to do more complex characterization that challenges the audience to face some of their preconceptions and maybe even think a little, thus turning this show into my favorite out of all the Poison Ivy Mysteries shows so far (yes, even more than the sci-fi show).
Curse of the Scarab, on the surface, seems to be simply another show filled with stereotypes, this time from the 1920’s, and in particular the Egyptology craze that was going on at the time. The characters seem to be your basic stock characters: the eager cub reporter, the stuffy curator, the wealthy dowager, the “legitimate businessman” (aka mob boss), the adventurous tomb raider, and the somewhat nerdy researcher/assistant to the curator. The gimmick of the show, however, is that partly through the evening, an ancient Egyptian curse starts striking members of the group at random, causing strange and often debilitating effects upon them. Most of them are just plain silly and a lot of fun to see. The mob boss suddenly becomes scared of everything, the curator has to walk backwards, the dowager regains her youth, and (my personal favorite) the researcher suddenly has an unseen barbershop quartet repeating everything he says. These are all fun to watch, but by the end these characters are all pretty much the same going out as they were coming in. Not so for the final remaining two characters.
The adventurous tomb raider is a woman who has been trying to make it in a man’s profession in a man’s world (especially considering the time period in which this show is set). She’s also involved in a love triangle with the reporter and the researcher (she likes the researcher, the researcher ends up liking the reporter, and the reporter just wants the scoop!). However, her curse ends up turning her into a man (in a very fun song). This, of course, complicates the love triangle to no end (represented in another fun song), but more importantly, suddenly she/he has fulfilled one of his/her wishes: being treated like an equal by men. In fact, the curator, who up to this point had been belittling her to no end, suddenly has great respect for the man she has become. This is interesting for two main reasons: first, usually the gender-swap plot goes male-to-female, not the other way around, so it’s already got a bit of a twist to it. Second, while some of the typical gender-swap tropes are present (up to a point; it’s a family show!), such as complaining about how she’s now balding, her focus is more on “will being a man *actually* help me gain the respect I wanted from my peers? Or did I already have that respect from those that matter? Is there truly anything worth doing as a man that I can’t as a woman?” An intriguing question for the 1920’s, but even more relevant in modern times (especially since the character was written by a successful female businessperson).
It’s a question to think about.
How does her character arc end? More importantly, how will she change as a person through this experience? I can’t answer these questions without spoiling the ending of this particular show, but rest assured that even though her time as a man is temporary, she comes out a changed person.
The cub reporter, for much of the show, is still pretty one-note. She’s looking for the scoop, trying to write a great story that will land her a career as an actual successful journalist (currently she works for Vanity Fair), oblivious to the flirting that the researcher is throwing her way. However, her curse (which is the last one of the evening) is to be unable to think anything without saying it out loud. In other words, she begins repeating her inner monologue. And this inner monologue, while still concerned with landing that big story, also begins rambling about her mixed feelings toward the researcher, her doubts in her own talents as a reporter, and her fear of what the evening is turning into and the danger they’re all in. In other words, the opposite of everything the character had been portraying so far. And with these revelations, suddenly she becomes so much more interesting, not just as a piece in the mystery, but as a character. She’s not a stereotype anymore; she’s a person, and while her personal plotline never really gets resolved by the end and it’s not clear whether she’s been changed by the experience like the tomb raider was, the audience can feel like they’ve gotten to know a person and all that comes with her, instead of just writing her off as another stereotype.
Does this make Curse of the Scarab “art”? Maybe, maybe not, but it certainly takes some steps in the right direction. These two characters illustrate some pointers that I think will help PIM murder mystery characters become more than stereotypical tropes put together.
1) Introduce interesting issues that the characters need to grapple with. These needn’t (and probably shouldn’t) be the focus of the show, as that may quickly complicate the murder mystery part to the point of hopeless confusion (a la Club Mystique). The tomb raider’s core issue had nothing to do with the main plot of the Egyptian curse and the later murder (though the love triangle part may have been either a clue or a red herring; I won’t reveal which), so the audience members who didn’t really pick up on it didn’t have to in order to get the main point of the evening. But raising some of these issues on the side will make certain members of the audience sit up and take notice, and have something to think about on the ride home apart from “whodunnit?”
2) Make at least some of the characters dynamic. The tomb raider had quite a different outlook by the end of the show than she did at the beginning, even though she was still fundamentally the adventurous Indiana Jones-type. Static characters (i.e. those who are basically the same at the end of the show as they were at the beginning) are not bad, but making all the characters static is. And making one character fall in love with another character (with all the associated tropes) isn’t enough to make an interesting dynamic character. Some of the more fascinating onstage relationships to watch are how dynamic characters are changed by the static characters that come into their lives and mess it up. How Oscar is changed by Felix, or how Valjean is changed by the bishop, and in turn becomes the static character effecting changes in others. (Incidentally, Javert is my favorite character in Les Miserables (Russell Crowe notwithstanding), mostly because during the entire show he is a completely static character, but subtly Valjean has been turning him into a dynamic one by the end, and that entire character arc I find fascinating. But I digress.) Other than falling in love, most of the murder mystery characters stay the same throughout most of the shows that we’ve done. This is partly a writing problem, but also partly an acting one, as some of the changes to the characters as written in the script do nothing to change the actor’s performance of said character throughout the night. (Possibly this was better with the tomb raider character because she was played by two different people.) This brings me to my third point:
3) Subtext, subtext, subtext! This is not a writing problem, this is an acting and directing one. The cub reporter in Curse of the Scarab ends up speaking her subtext as regular dialogue, and therefore it fleshes her out as a character. However, it’s entirely possible to give a performance depth by adding subtext to it without the script spelling anything out. Take, for example, the two runs we have done of Death: The Final Frontier (aka the sci-fi show). (Spoiler alert, by the way!) There is a redshirt ensign who, on the surface, seems to be just this goofy guy who’s always trying to impress people but failing miserably; kind of a cross between Guy from Galaxy Quest and Roger Wilco from Space Quest. However, by the end it turns out that he committed the murder and also blew up a planet, simply because he is sick of not getting noticed, and indeed he seems satisfied at the end that, no matter what happens to him, nobody will forget his name. In other words, he turns out to be a John Hinckley-esque psychopath, willing to go to drastic measures just to get noticed. Underneath, he is not a pleasant character. He is not the cross between Guy and Roger Wilco that everyone thought he was the whole time (yet another good example of bucking the stereotype). I won’t name any names here, but both actors who have played this role so far did a great job of being the goofy, lovable ensign. But only one of them had imbued him with a sort of dark and sinister edge during the earlier parts of the show that made the reveal believable. In both runs the reveal made sense in terms of the plot and the facts about the character. But only during one run did the reveal remain true to how the character was portrayed. And that’s what strikes audiences on a deeper level.
Let’s take another example. Hope Hartman is playing Calamity Janet in the current show. At one point in the show, her beau, Jesse Joe James, ends up falling for another woman, leaving her as the scorned lover. The scene and song that ensue (where she tries coming on to him again and, when that fails, seduces the town drunk, mostly to get Jesse to notice her again, who is pointedly ignoring her the entire time) could easily be played just for comedy, with that “crazy tomboy singin’ a toe-tappin’ western tune to a goofy drunk guy”, were it not for the subtext that’s obviously going on. You can see in her performance that she has thought out her reasons for why her character acts the way she does. Once again, there is a dark edge to her that shows her vulnerability and desperation upon losing Jesse that, in the hands of a lesser actress, could simply come across as petulance. This brings her character to life and rounds her out a little bit, enough so that even in that negative review I quoted from earlier, Hope is commended for a strong performance.
Now, a lot of this is up to each individual actor’s abilities and talents. However, there is no talent that cannot be matched by adequate preparation (what I shall call the Batman rule). That is why I also say that the director can solve these problems. As long as the actor is willing to work as hard as they can to compensate for their weaknesses, and the director knows how to train and bring out those qualities (or maybe gets a good acting coach to teach them said techniques if there isn’t time), then the performances of even the most inexperienced actors can be improved dramatically. I was in Fiddler on the Roof at BYU-Idaho back in 2005, which had some top-notch actors and a very good director. I was given the role of the Russian constable, and I did my best to imbue him with subtext, turning him from a transparent bad guy who kicked all the Jews out to a man who did what he had to, regardless of his personal feelings. However, due to both a lack of acting talent/experience on my part and a lack of direction from the director (since he was busy directing all the people who had more than five lines), I don’t think I did as well in the role as I had the potential to. One of the other professors at the university basically said as much, adding that the blame for that was placed mostly on the director’s shoulders. Now, I’m not trying to absolve or condemn anyone with that anecdote, but I was simply pointing out that focus from a director who knows how to get what they want from an actor, coupled with an actor who is willing to put in the time and effort required, can turn any boring performance into something stand-out and memorable, and can change a stereotype into a person. (The problem also comes from actors who aren’t willing to put in the effort, but that’s a whole different topic.)
These ideas may help shows become more memorable and enjoyable, and lift them above Transformers-level entertainment. Now don’t get me wrong; if we’re satisfied with our current level of performance, then we don’t necessarily need to change anything at all just to try to make this more sophisticated. After all, Transformers made a lot of money, and did exactly what it set out to do: provide a few hours of entertainment and a bit of escapism. But we can do more to create characters that will connect with the audience and make them think. Some of our scripts already do this, even if it’s mostly in the subtext. And, with proper attention, time, and care, I believe this can be done without losing the entertaining and fun aspects of our shows. We don’t have to go dark to make good characters. Indeed, we can’t go too dark, since there already is murder involved. However, keeping things lighthearted doesn’t mean keeping them one-dimensional. Even if we are low art, just like newspaper comics, are we content with being Garfield, or do we want to become Calvin and Hobbes?
Will these things help Poison Ivy Mysteries become “art”? Probably not. Then again, perhaps it’s not the medium of murder mystery theater, but the quality of perception and expression of the shows and characters that determines their significance.
But what would a hack songwriter know?