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The simple art of murder: Mystery dinner makes the leap to stage

By Carrie Humphreys
For the Observer

The Swamp Fox Players introduce two new actors in the cast of “The Fatal Fifties Affair,” a mystery/comedy opening Friday. Claudia Thompson and Helen Thomas read about the casting call and attended the play’s open audition early this winter. Director Inge Ebert, never having met them before, took a chance and cast them in the laugh-filled production. “I had a hunch they would do a good job, the way they were reading and getting into it,” said the veteran director. “We try to be open to new people. Those two ladies are absolutely fabulous.” “The Fatal Fifties Affair,” a classic dinner theater mystery, reworked to omit the dinner, focuses on the cast of a 1957 family television show, “Make Way for Winky,” who reunite years later for a TV talk show where they update viewers on what is going on in their lives since the conclusion of their successful show. Murders abound and the audience is asked to help determine “Who Done It.” Those in-the-know are asked not to give it away. Others among the tried and true cast: Laura Bannister as Carolina, Blake Wilson (Elvis), Jo Camlin (Aunt Cora), Robbie O’Donnell (Daddy Beans), Robin Hearl (Sissy) and Vince Triana (Len Goodwin). The women were nervous when they showed up to read for a part in the play, they said. Although both were experienced in community theater, neither had appeared on stage in a very long time. Seated in a circle on stage for the audition, surrounded with seasoned Swamp Fox thespians, Ebert asked each to read different roles from the script. “Inge is so kind and encouraging and so very funny,” said Thompson. Ebert cast her as the bubbly and bouncy Winky, the eternal Fifties girl in pigtails and poodle skirt. Thompson first performed on stage as “Winnie the Pooh’s” Piglet at age 9 and as a child spent summers attending Stagedoor Manor performing arts camp in New York. “I got the acting bug very early,” she admitted, noting she continued acting in children’s theater until age 18 and was cast as Sally Bowles in “Cabaret.” For a while she sang with bands, she said, but hasn’t done much performing in nearly 30 years. She moved to this area from Duchess County, N.Y., just a year ago. Thompson, looking considerably younger than her 52 years, said the biggest challenge in coming back to the stage is “fitting into a small community theater group who has been doing this for a very long time. But I wanted to meet new people and thought this might be a good way. I’m the new kid on the block and I’m getting my feet wet.” Thompson loves acting. “It’s fun, but I’m rusty. I used to have a method to memorize lines, but I don’t remember what it is. I do a lot of walking on the beach saying my lines out loud, or my mom does lines with me, or occasionally I go to rehearsal an hour ahead of time and Barry (Charles Wells) will go over them with me.” The cast must be available for all rehearsals, a minimum of three times a week for six weeks. Quite a commitment and the reason why Helen Thomas, who travels often, never tried out for the Swamp Fox Players before this play. Until now, Thomas, 69, a former school administrator who retired here from Michigan, never found the time to get involved locally. In Michigan she was very active in theater, she said, appearing in more than a dozen community productions, including “Lend Me a Tenor” and “You Can’t Take It With You,” but has done nothing recently. She was the right type and age to play Mom, according to Ebert. Taking a hiatus from her travels, Thomas has embraced her character. Thomas recalls her first acting role in high school and she admits that dialogue is a bit harder to memorize these days. “Not only do you have to learn your lines, but you need to know your cue lines as well, who is speaking before you. You have to listen to what is being said.” Her method of memorization: “I make a tape. I read the line just before mine and then I let some time, a space go by, and then I read my own lines. Then I play it back where ever I am, in the car or anywhere. I respond to the cue and fill in the empty space saying my lines.” Both Thompson and Thomas said that they wouldn’t hesitate auditioning for a Swamp Fox Players production again if the show suited them. Thompson might consider a musical. Thomas prefers farces and making people laugh. “There is something special about community theater,” Thomas said, “getting together on stage there is sort of an instant camaraderie, you have to rely on each other and trust one another. We are all dependent upon one another.” If you go What: “The Fatal Fifties Affair” by Eileen Moushey. When: March 10-11, 16-18, 24-25 at 8 p.m. and March 19 and 26 at 2:30 p.m. Where: Strand Theater, Georgetown. How much: $18. Call 843-527-2924 for tickets. What to wear: A prize will be awarded to the audience member in the best 1950s costume.

The simple art of murder: WHS students hunt for clues and cash

By Nikki Best
Coastal Observer

It was a dinner to die for.

The third annual murder mystery dinner presented by the Waccamaw High School Competitive Speech Team took place last month at St. Paul’s Waccamaw United Methodist Church. The event, held in Georgetown for the last two years, catered to 100 ticket holders its first year in Pawleys Island.

“It’s nice to be in town,” Ree Lawson, the team’s coach, said.

The Murder Mystery Dinner “Strictly Come Murder,” is the Windtalker’s largest fundraiser for the year. The 16-man team travels to compete in speech tournaments and for scholarships.

Money from fundraisers covers hotel rooms, travel and entry fees for students to compete. Most speech tournaments the team attends are in the Upstate, but some are a bit farther.

“We do better on the national circuit,” Lawson said. “The highest placings we got this year were at Yale and George Mason.”

The students began rehearsing before Christmas and continued sporadically until right before the show. The team’s schedules have been crazy this year, Lawson said.

The dinner portion of the evening was put together by chef Alex Lawson of the Pawleys Island Tavern, with assistance from volunteers Tom Sellers and Bob Pender.

More traditional routes are followed for other fundraisers. Coffee and pizza sales happen annually, but the need always arises for more. The least expensive tournament the Windtalkers attend costs around $1,500.

“And that’s because parents volunteer and drive,” Ree Lawson said. “The parents put gas in those vehicles they’re driving.”

Each murder mystery dinner is directed by a student. This year, senior Sam Averette took the challenge of directing and being a cast member.

“This is Sam’s third year [doing the show],” Lawson said. “He wanted to just direct, but he’s just that loud (and good).”

“Directing the show has been a tough journey,” Averette said in his director’s notes.

“Strictly Come Murder” takes place during a dance competition. There’s more than one kill and no thought is given to a happy ending, just solving the murder.

“Everything falls apart into chaos,” Lawson said.

The performers are not confined to the stage during the show. They’re out in the audience, in character, answering questions and helping the audience conclude how the mystery will be solved.

“The audience votes for who the murderer is,” Lawson said.

The Windtalkers compete during the high school speech season, which runs from the fall semester through the spring. The national competition is held each summer in a different city around the country. The 2017 National Competition will take place in Birmingham, Ala., in June. Students typically qualify for the national tournament by collecting points through the year and competing at the district tournament.

The team took first place as a Class AAA school at the South Carolina State Tournament, held last week in North Charleston. Top finishers include Michael Phelan, Samuel Averette, Damion Patterson, Alexandra Jaouiche, Tatum Tarte, Samantha Jaouiche, Evan Carter, Derek Rollins, Riley Sollars and Zachary Rosenberg.

Windtalker students received more than $2,500 in scholarships by competing in speech contests by the Optimist Club, Sons of the American Revolution and the American Legion Public Speaking Competition.

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