“Murder 101” is a theatrical whodunit designed to keep the audience on the edge of their seats, while dinner is served. The interactive comedy murder mystery is set at a high school class reunion with old rivalries and new alliances. It is billed as an “academic whodunit you won’t want to fail.”

What makes this production so entertaining is that audience members, while dining, are encouraged to take notes and ask questions during the performance to help solve the mystery. Audience members are encouraged to dress up like they did back in high school and get in on the fun.

“Bringing back good and bad memories from high school is what makes this play successful,” said Annette Sanders, Support Coordinator, Survivor Outreach Services at Aberdeen Proving Ground. “I played the librarian. We were allowed to play it happy, grumpy whatever. I played it ‘sassy’, who wants to play dull and humdrum?”

The production casts volunteer Soldiers, spouses, retirees and DOD civilians in five to 15 roles within a murder mystery play. A professional team funded by Army Entertainment puts on a one-week workshop to develop that production, which results in one or two ticketed performances at the garrison. The garrison benefits by learning how to establish a dinner theater event at their club, and how to build on success for the future.

“It’s a huge success from the customer’s perspective and an all-around good time,” said Carrie Poore, Marketing Account Manager, Soldier and Community Recreation, Installation Management Command G9. “Not only can guests enjoy a great show and a nice dinner, but they are supporting members of their community who have an interest in the performing arts.”

“We had civilians, retirees, teens, stay at home moms as well as active duty participating,” said Sanders. “I’ve never seen so many people at one event. This allows the garrison to get the whole family out into the community.”

No performance experience is necessary and no cast members are asked to memorize lines. The workshop teaches the actors how to reveal the story line and unfold the plot and clues to the audience. It also teaches performers how to develop voice, body movement, characterization and performance techniques.

There are roles for everyone interested in attending the workshops, including the Prom queen, the Glee Club member and the football hero.

“I was the Naughty Nurse,” said Adriane Foss, APG News Editor, USAG Aberdeen Proving Ground PAO. “All I needed to know was my ‘history’ with the other cast members, and the rest was just fun.”

The workshop is fun, but it also trains the garrison staff on theatrical techniques and terminology as well as simple set design and production. Depending on the level of success, the garrison may elect to continue and expand their program locally, and even establish their own community theater for amateur actors and enthusiasts.

At Aberdeen Proving Ground, some of the cast are already putting together a production of “Arsenic and Old Lace” modified to include show tunes, said Sanders. “We have a director modifying the script in a way that will make it fit what we already started in Murder 101.”

“After the show wrapped, we all decided to form a Theater Club,” said Foss. “A lot of people like theater, but can’t afford or are not able to travel an hour and a half to the city. It’s a great opportunity see a really fun performance and have dinner.”

The 2011 season runs through December with scheduled performances at Fort Bliss, Dugway Proving Ground, Fort Hunter Liggett, Fort Hood, Joint Base Lewis McChord, Presidio of Monterey, Fort Sill, Yuma Proving Ground and Fort Wainwright. The dates can be found at www.ArmyEntertainment.net.

The program is the result of a pilot in 2010 run in ten locations: Aberdeen Proving Ground, Fort Belvoir, Fort Buchanan, Fort Bragg, Fort Jackson, Fort Lee, Fort McCoy, Picatinny Arsenal, Fort Rucker and Fort Stewart. The pilot program was a huge success and nearly all performances were sold out.

Fort Stewart experienced an “opening night” surge at the door. Picatinny had a waiting list for tickets. The sellout at Fort Rucker required the performers to act as ushers to help the audience members find their table assignments. Fort Bragg recruited members of the cheerleading team to add authenticity and excitement to their sell out performance. Aberdeen got a spike in ticket sales by advertising at the new-comers town hall. Fort Buchanan in Puerto Rico provided translators for their bilingual audience, and Fort McCoy had to find a way to reposition tables in order to accommodate their capacity crowd.

“It was an income generation event, which we don’t get often at our garrison,” said Sheila Peterson, Community Activities Manager, Fort McCoy. “Murder 101 made people happy, gave us something to look forward to, it was out-of-the-box and left them wanting more.”

The pilot involved 161 community volunteers and was such a success, all of the performers expressed interest in participating in future productions of live theater events at their garrisons. Of the volunteers, 25 were active duty including two recovering wounded warriors, 11 retired military from the Army, Navy and Air Force, 40 DOD civilians and 34 military spouses, 32 youth and 19 individual members of the surrounding community.

The theatrical workshop was developed by Ken Freehill and Darryl Allara.

“Participation in the project is like taking a mental vacation that you don’t have to pack for,” said Freehill.

“It’s really a short course in laughter,” said Allara.
Freehill and Allara, who provided the training during the pilot program, said all participants were thrilled with the project.

Sanders agreed.

“If I could have used the smiles and the laughs-out-loud to give the play a rating I think on a scale of 1-10 the play would have received a 15,” said Sanders.