On Stage

Hellingham

A nice night for murder

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Welcome to the town of Hellingham. Please be advised that a killer is on the loose in the normally subdued burg, and he or she will claim three victims in the course of an hour-and-a-half (with a few minutes off for a break during intermission).

Don’t worry, you’re not on the hit list—unless you’re one of the players who sign up to take part in the eponymous “Hellingham,” an annual celebration of murder and mirth that sees the Upfront Theatre transform into a crime scene twice a night every Friday and Saturday in October.

As a former mainstage performer, I can tell you with authority that it’s just about as much fun to play in “Hellingham” shows as it is to watch them.

One of the reasons is because, like the audience, players performing during the improvised murder mystery have no idea who the killer is unless they’re the ones directly responsible for the carnage.

Before “Hellingham” even starts, audience members help come up with names, occupations and quirky hobbies and predilections for those who’ll be playing that night. But although this direction is helpful, their ultimate fate isn’t in patron’s hands—that spooky distinction goes to the “bowl of fate.”

Once players have received details on who they are—and introduced themselves to the audience as such—they must pick from the bowl. If the piece of paper they pluck out is blank, that means they’re safe for the duration of the show. If it’s numbered 1, 2, or 3, that’s the order in which they’ll be offed. If there’s a big “K” on it, that means they’re the one with an axe to grind—perhaps on somebody’s neck.

Players quickly learn just because they’re the killer for the night doesn’t mean they can run around acting insane and bloodthirsty. Like any good criminal, you want to deflect attention away from yourself. To keep the audience guessing, sometimes those who are innocent act not-so-nice, and the killers may or may not be under suspicion.

In fact, at a recent viewing of the format, the guy who came off as the creepiest—a photographer who intruded his lens and his sly ways on the townspeople in a number of ways—was the last to be killed. The seemingly sweet innkeeper turned out to be the unrepentant murderess, and although she gave a few hints during the show that she might not be all sugar-and-spice, she did a good job of deflecting suspicion—even going so far as to accuse others of the crimes.

Since everything in “Hellingham” is improvised, this means audiences who come to see the show can expect a different storyline—and different characters and murderers—for every showing of the format. If you’re looking for a killer way to fill your weekend nights during October, you know what to do.

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