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ACTING CAN BE MURDER
A Como Lake Players Mystery
(Como Lake Players Mysteries Book 1)
BY BOBBIE RAYMOND
The Phrase “Dying On Stage” Takes on a Whole New Meaning
After fleeing a failed relationship in New York, actress Leah Sexton finds herself as the new Executive Director of the Como Lake Players–a small community theater nestled in a sleepy St. Paul neighborhood. The initial calm of this new position is shattered immediately when a local critic–who had just panned the theater’s latest production–is found murdered on the show’s set.
On the heels of this grisly discovery, the show’s lead actress tumbles down a flight of stairs–or was she pushed? In order to keep the show running and the theater afloat, Leah offers to step into the leading role. The arrival of her ex-boyfriend amid anonymous threats against her and the show require Leah to act as if her life depends on it. Because it does.
“How embarrassing would it be if we got lost down here? I mean, here I am in charge of the theater and then I go and get us lost while giving a tour. Nutty, right?”
Leah turned to see how her witticism had landed, recognizing immediately that the wisecrack had fallen on the far side of flat. The young man stared back at her blankly, and on that unlined, expressionless face she read nothing but judgment. And not positive judgment. This was a decidedly negative assessment concerning her, her abilities as a tour guide and was probably inspiring a rising conviction that she was unqualified on all levels.
In short, the tour was not going well. And they were only five minutes into it.
Leah wished, not for the first time, that she had dragged Betsy along. The long-time administrative assistant had been a godsend on the last two theater tours Leah had spearheaded. And now she was questioning her decision to handle this one on her own.
However, as the recently-hired Executive Director of the Como Lake Players, Leah felt the time had come to dispense with the handholding and conduct an actual tour on her own. The interview portion with this candidate had gone fine, although she sensed that he was underwhelmed with the prospect of directing at the theater and was just going through the motions. To be fair, she was a little underwhelmed with him as well.
The appointment of a director for the last show of the season—a production of The Importance of Being Earnest—wasn’t exactly near the top of her ever-expanding To-Do list, but it had felt like something she could knock off quickly to give herself an easy—and early–win.
This was the third interview she had conducted to fill the position. The first one had been with a cheerful, middle-aged woman named Nancy, who had a long list of children’s theater credits on her resume. Leah had barely needed to ask even one question, as the woman had started talking as soon as she walked in the door, was still talking at the end of the tour, and continued chattering as Leah showed her out of the building.
While it was hard not to be impressed by Nancy’s resume and enthusiasm, Leah had been unnerved by one portion of their conversation. On the subject of her rehearsal process, Nancy had casually mentioned her use of “recordings.”
“I’m sorry,” Leah had said as she looked up from the voluminous notes she had been taking. She had tried to capture the key points from Nancy’s long-winded and rambling answers and felt she was coming up short. “Recordings?”
“For the lines,” Nancy had said, as if that was all the explanation which was necessary.
“Recordings? For the lines?” Leah repeated.
Nancy nodded. “For the actors. The poor dears, they need so much help. So I record their lines for them. So they can listen to them. Over and over. And over. To get them right.”
“I see,” Leah said as she set her pen down. “Well, that may be necessary when working with kids, but I’m not sure our adult actors would require that. Or even permit it.”
“Oh, the adult actors need it more than anyone,” Nancy said with a shudder and a sigh. “If I didn’t tell them how to say the lines, they would just say them any which way they like, the silly dears.”
It took a moment for this to settle in. Leah blinked.
“You record line readings for certain lines in a show…?” she began, but Nancy cut her off with an agreeing nod.
“Not just some of the lines,” she said emphatically. “I give them the correct reading for each and every line. All the inflections. Every pause. Every breath.”
“Every breath,” Leah repeated.
“It really improves the show. To hear every line, said correctly. You’d be amazed.”
“I’m sure I would be,” Leah said, still trying to wrap her mind around Nancy’s bizarre and creativity-killing process.
She quickly completed the interview and turned the walking tour over to Betsy, following along with the older woman’s practiced recitation while she tried to imagine what it would be like to provide line readings for every line in a show. As an actress, she found the idea appalling and she was glad there were other options for this position.
The interview with the second directing candidate had gone better, if only because it was less of a monologue and more of a dialog. Unfortunately, the candidate—a recent MFA graduate from a small college in Illinois—concluded every sentence she uttered with a nervous laugh, giving Leah the false impression their conversation was far funnier than it actually was.
Again, Leah completed the interview and let Betsy lead the tour through the old building, as the elderly Administrative Assistant pointed out all the nooks and crannies in the converted church which had housed the community theater for years.
The third candidate Leah interviewed—Jason, also an MFA graduate, but from a much more prestigious school out East—had provided pitch-perfect responses to every question on her list, sounding nearly as practiced as one of Nancy’s well-trained actors.
Jason had done his graduate work on Samuel Beckett (“Working from the French texts, of course!”) and had plans to start his own theater company in the Twin Cities, once he found the right location. “I’d love to create interactive shows and theatrical experiences,” he’d explained, “working out of a condemned building of some sort.”
“Well, if you’re looking for a condemned building, you’ve come to the right spot,” Leah had said with a laugh.
Jason had merely nodded and glanced around the small Boardroom where the interview was being conducted. Like the rest of the building, the room was a bit on the drab side, dusty around the edges and in need of at least one good coat of paint.
“Let me give you a quick tour of the building,” Leah said as she straightened up her papers. She stood up, signaling the interview portion was officially concluded, then opened the door to the Boardroom. She followed Jason out, turning to give the room one last look.
Yes, it could definitely benefit from, at a minimum, one coat of paint, she thought. And then she led Jason down the stairs to the lobby.
“Do you need my help on this one?”
Betsy called to her from the small work space behind the box office as Leah led Jason through the sunny lobby.
“No thanks, I think I have this one covered,” Leah said with a smile and a wave, suggesting more confidence about the layout of the building than she actually possessed.
Leah understood the old church had been an ideal location for the small theater when it was originally founded. The structure was centrally located, had its own parking lot, and provided enough space on-site for not only building sets, but also storing the countless props and costumes from nearly twenty years of community theater shows.
However, even though she’d been on the job now for almost three weeks, she still got turned around in the labyrinth of rooms and cubbies in the basement. She often found herself in Prop Storage when she had intended to be in the Costume Shop. Or vice versa.
Nevertheless, she did her best to project confidence as she led Jason through the building. Although she hadn’t intended to go directly to the scene shop, that’s where they ended up. So she went into a short speech about how the unique layout of the building allowed them to bring large items through the overhead garage door, into the scene shop and then right onto the stage. She then steered him toward the steep stairs to the basement, the whole time extolling the virtues of the volunteers who made the theater’s shows a possibility.
“It takes a village,” she said as she turned left, thinking she was headed toward the Green Room and finding they were now in Furniture Storage. “The theater actually only has two paid positions: Executive Director and the Administrative Assistant. That’s me and Betsy,” Leah added with an unnecessary laugh.
She turned to see if Jason had joined in, but he was looking at the exposed beams in the ceiling. The look on his face suggested he wasn’t entirely convinced they were providing the needed structural support. He turned and gave Leah a weak smile.
“Plus the directors,” he said. “You pay the directors. Correct?”
“Well, yes,” Leah agreed. “It’s really just a stipend, and we keep it low enough so that it’s unlikely to have any real impact on your taxes. You’re welcome,” she added with a forced smile.
Jason just nodded as he considered all the couches, tables, beds, chairs and desks that were piled haphazardly throughout Furniture Storage.
He turned back to Leah. “Can I see the stage?”
It took three tries, but Leah finally found the right combination of switches to turn on the lights in the auditorium and on the stage. Granted, she was only able to find power for the flat and unflattering work lights; mastering the light board in the Tech Booth was on her To-Do list, but would require some hands-on guidance from the current show’s Stage Manager, a frighteningly-efficient young woman named Kanisha.
Once the lights popped on, she once again marveled at the beauty of the set. The volunteers—led by a very talented Scenic Designer who was moonlighting from his corporate gig—had created a stunning multi-level set: a late nineteenth-century Victorian-style mansion, complete with detailed flowered wallpaper, a bay window and window seat, and a sweeping staircase which led up to a row of doors on the second floor.
Although she’d had literally nothing to do with its creation, Leah looked at the set with pride, convinced it was work like this that made her decision to come back to the Twin Cities the right one. She folded her arms and smiled, turning to see if Jason was sharing in her delight at the accomplishment. Instead, the thin, pale young man was pursing his lips.
“What show is this for?” he asked, sounding only a teeny-tiny bit interested in his own question.
“We’re doing Arsenic and Old Lace,” Leah said, wondering how he had missed the oversized sign announcing that show on the theater’s front lawn. “Of course, it looks even better with the stage lights on it. The volunteers we get for the lighting design here are amazing.”
“Arsenic and what?” he said as he walked toward the stage.
“Arsenic and Old Lace,” Leah repeated, saying the words more slowly in case she had raced through the title too quickly the first time.
Jason turned back, clearly not impressed with whatever he was looking at on the stage. “I’m afraid I don’t know it.”
“Oh. Okay,” Leah said.
Jason noticed the steps at the side of the stage and gestured to them, visually requesting permission to mount the stage.
“By all means,” Leah said, perhaps a bit too enthusiastically, as she followed him up to the expansive living room set. She stood center stage and watched him as he prowled the space, searching—or so it seemed—for something, anything, to capture his interest.
“I’m really surprised you’ve never heard of Arsenic and Old Lace,” Leah said, trying to sound casual. “It’s sort of a staple of community theaters. I even did it in Summer Stock once, back in the stone age. It’s very funny and has a large cast. Plus, fortunately, only one set,” she added, gesturing unnecessarily at the set around them. “All the things we look for in a good community theater show.”
Jason looked over and shook his head. “Sorry, I guess I’m not as well-versed in popular theater as I should be.”
“But you do know Beckett,” she said.
“Him I know,” he agreed.
“Well, you should check out this show sometime. Feel free to come this weekend, if you’d like. As our guest,” she added quickly.
“That would be nice,” Jason said. If there was a way to say it more noncommittally, Leah couldn’t imagine what it might be.
Jason continued to explore all the elements of the set, while Leah did her best to not look as uncomfortable as she was beginning to feel. She paced quietly on the stage, watching him as he examined some of the minor props, taking a long moment to look at the faux grandfather clock against one wall. At one point Leah was so caught up in watching him that she nearly stepped off the front edge of the stage.
“What’s sort of interesting about Arsenic and Old Lace,” she said as she stepped back from nearly tumbling into the first row, “is that it started out as a drama and was later turned into a comedy. Same story, same set-up, but all it took were a few alterations to make it into a farce.”
“Comedy’s funny that way,” Jason said, for some reason now closely examining the construction of the mantelpiece over the fireplace. “Beckett said in Endgame, ‘Nothing is funnier than unhappiness.’”
“It’s a wonder he wasn’t invited to more parties.”
Jason looked up from his inspection. “What’s that?”
“Nothing,” Leah said with a quick shake of her head.
Jason looked out at the empty rows of seats in the house and then once more took in the set around them. “So what’s the theme?”
“You know, what facet of the human condition does this play explore?”
This question brought Leah up short and so she took a moment to consider it. “Well, there’s a lot of death in the play,” she finally said. “It’s not exactly Hamlet, but there are a couple bodies on stage before the final curtain.”
“The critics love that,” Jason said. Leah couldn’t tell if he was being sarcastic or insightful.
“Well, some critics do,” she said. “I wish the same could be said of our local reviewer.”
“A harsh critique?”
“Brutal. The headline was something like, ‘Arsenic is Dead On Arrival.’ It was all downhill from there,” Leah said.
“A hatchet job?”
“Yes, quite literally as it turns out. The critic’s name is Ronald Hatchet.”
Jason laughed. “Looks like that poor lad’s career path was set at an early age.”
“Just our luck. And I thought the critics in New York could be harsh. They have nothing on Ronald Hatchet. Which is a shame,” she said, “because the cast is great and they’re funny and committed and the audience loves the show.”
“Ah yes, the final arbiter. The dreaded general public,” Jason said as he moved upstage to check out the doors, first the one to the cellar and then the one to the off-stage kitchen. Leah watched him, unsure of what the next best step might be. She took another quick look over her shoulder, to make sure she was a sufficient distance from the edge of the stage. Falling off was one way to get out of this interview, but she thought she’d consider other options first.
“Well, we’re looking at several candidates, so unless you have any other questions for me…” she said, letting her words trail off.
“’All life long, the same questions, the same answers,’” he said as he moved over to the window seat.
Leah took a stab. “Beckett?”
Jason smiled, pleased with her alleged depth of knowledge. “Indeed. Endgame once again.” He pulled back the curtains, looked out the window and then absently opened the window seat.
“Yes, well,” Leah said as she glanced at the nonexistent watch on her wrist. “Anyway …”
She started to head back to the stairs that would take them off the stage and, with any luck, bring an end to this interview.
“One quick question,” Jason said.
Leah turned back. He was standing over the open window seat, holding the lid with one hand. “Who constructs your props? This is fantastic.”
Leah moved toward him, completely unsure of what he was talking about.
“We built one of these when we did Joe Orton’s Loot back in prep school,” he continued, “because of course you have to use a dummy for that show. But it didn’t have near the detail of this one. Which was, I think, Orton’s point. As I remember.”
Whatever was in the wooden box, it was by far the most impressive thing Jason had seen since coming into the building.
Leah crossed the stage and looked into the window seat. What she saw in the box was so out of context to what she had expected, it took her several long seconds to understand what she was looking at.
And when she finally did, she couldn’t help but let out a yelp.
The sound was so sudden and sharp, it startled Jason, who let go of the box’s lid, letting it slam shut. He looked at Leah, who had gone white.
With a trembling hand, Leah reached down and clasped the edge of the lid, slowly re-opening the window seat. She was hoping against hope that what she thought she had seen had been some sort of optical illusion.
But it hadn’t been. Leah looked into the box for a long moment as she felt her mouth go dry.
“It’s the critic. Ronald Hatchet,” she said, her voice coming out in a rasp. “And he’s dead.”
Like her fictional hero, Bobbie Raymond also abandoned life as an actress in New York City and returned to the Twin Cities to start anew. While she didn’t take over a non-profit community theater, she did jump back into the non-profit world, where she happily spends her daytime hours.
Bobbie lives in St. Paul, not far from where the Como Lake Players theater would stand—if it actually existed. And on rare occasions, she still finds herself treading the boards with other local community theater actors.
She lives in a cluttered old house with an endlessly patient life partner and way too many cats.
Links to Bobbie’s website, blog, books, etc.
Thanks, Bobbie, for sharing your book with us!
Don’t miss the chance to read this book!