Appearing Locally recently spoke with Morrie Enders, Executive Director of Lincoln Community Playhouse, and Jamie Ulmer, Managing Artistic Director of Community Players in Beatrice, about their upcoming Agatha Christie show-swap. Additional background information for this article has been provided by Scott Clark, an avid Christie fan, member of LCP’s show selection committee, and the actor playing Hercule Poirot.
AL: Thank you Morrie and Jamie for sitting down with us. So what is a show-swap?
ME: Basically, we do a show in each other’s theatre.
AL: How did you decided to do a show-swap? Is this a new concept?
ME: I’ve never heard of it being done. I joke that we may find out why! Will it be a success? It’s a mystery!
JU: We’ve talked about finding ways for our organizations to collaborate for a couple of years. The idea just kept sitting on our mental back burners and evolved into what we’re doing now.
AL: Why did you choose to do Agatha Christie titles?
ME: We were looking for titles by women as part of Lincoln Theatre Alliance’s “A Celebration of Women in Theatre” and Agatha Christie is one of the most popular female authors (and a prolific playwright though most people only know about three of her shows).
JU: There’s also a built in name recognition with Agatha Christie. It’s said that only the Bible and Shakespeare are more widely read than Agatha Christie. Doing these two mysteries in October is another great hooks, because it’s the time of year we all are in the mood for thrillers.
AL: A Celebration of Women in Theatre – what is that?
ME: Lincoln Theatre Alliance has a unifying annual theme. We are so many different theatres, so this gives us a bonding moment.
JU: The theme is particularly appropriate this year, with the national dialogue focused on gender equality and empowering women.
Agatha Christie (1890-1976), “as a playwright, was considered to be something of a proto-feminist, developing strong female characters and addressing topics that might otherwise have been considered taboo for most playwrights of her era” says Scott Clark. Indeed, she fought Victorian literary conventions, which were often male-focused. Before her intellectual female characters, the frivolous female characters in detective novels were almost always there just for decoration. During a time when there were very few female writers, let alone female crime novelists, writing was itself a feminist act.
AL: Back to Agatha Christie – she was very prolific. Was there much collaboration in deciding which titles each theatre would do?
ME: We first had to choose among shows that had a similar set because we were planning on building the same set in two theatres. So that knocked out multiple set shows like Witness for the Prosecution. We had to find the “remote mansion in the country” shows and fortunately she wrote several of those. As we looked at the shows, there were a couple with Miss Marple and one with Hercule Poirot. These are her most famous detectives so it seemed a good idea to do shows with them. We looked at a second show with Miss Marple (“dueling Marples”) but the rights were no longer available.
JU: Then Morrie and I arm wrestled to decide who was going to do which show. Okay maybe not. But fortunately as we were reading shows we both ended up being drawn to a couple of the same shows, it then came down to which shows appealed to each organization the most. It was a surprisingly easy process. After reading so many Christie shows, though, I would advise anyone thinking about crossing us to be careful because we know all the tricks for committing and hiding a crime now.
SC: Eight of Christie’s 16 plays feature sets that were similar enough to be considered for the play swap, however a few of them, like “Spider’s Web” featured elaborate set elements, like secret doors, that made them less worthy of consideration.
AL: How does the process of show swapping work in reality – are you all moving sets, props, having to reprogram lights? It sounds very daunting.
ME: It’s so daunting, I’m trying not to think about it. At the Playhouse, we’ve rented a van so we can load up our furniture, set dressing, costumes and props. Kathy Turner, our set designer, had to do double duty and one set needs one more door than the other one does (and it’s important that the one set doesn’t have that door), so she designed a bookcase insert for when we have to go doorless.
JU: At the same time it’s been fun to collaborate with different design teams and bounce ideas around to work for both shows. The biggest challenge was certainly the set design, as identical sets are going up in both venues. It was a little bit of bizzaro world, to walk into another theatre and see the same floor plan taped out but the furniture is in different places. Kind of like walking into an apartment or house with the same layout but someone else living there. Fortunately both our organizations have experience with taking shows on the road, through our participation in the Nebraska Association of Community Theatres, and American Association of Community Theatre festivals so a lot of that planning mindset has really applied.
AL: Do you find the cast members excited about the show swap? Is there a different approach in directing when the show moves to a new location?
ME: Several of our actors auditioned specifically because the show swap was something different and intriguing.
JU: I know both casts are excited about travelling to a different venue, it was definitely a draw for several people who auditioned. Nothing is that much different as far as directing. As always it’s focusing on the acting, especially in shows like these where everyone is hiding secrets from everyone else. We’ve been concentrating and finding all these “second time watching” moments – once you see the show and solve the mystery you go back and see where all the subtle clues and hints are hidden. It also makes a great excuse to see both shows twice in the different venues.
AL: Are these shows family-friendly?
ME: Yes, but they are more adult oriented because you have to really follow along and work your way through the red herrings in your head.
JU: They are Agatha Christie crime thrillers, so they take a certain amount of focus to figure out. At the same time despite the body count that she racked up throughout all her books and plays it was never about the gore, it was always about the people in her stories and what motivated them to commit their crimes.
AL: What can the audience expect?
JU: In addition to seeing two compelling whodunits, audiences will get to see a great example of how two of the area’s organizations can collaborate. It’s not about competing against each other, it’s about working together and bringing more opportunities for southeast Nebraska to see and participate in some great theatre.
AL: How do audience members buy tickets?
ME: Each theatre is handling the tickets for the shows being performed in their theatre. So people can order Black Coffee and A Murder Is Announced tickets at the Playhouse at lincolnplayhouse.com or 402-489-7529. If you want to see Black Coffee and A Murder is Announced at Beatrice, you call their box office at 402-228-1801 or order online at beatricecommunityplayers.com.
A Murder Is Announced runs October 12-14, 19-21 at Beatrice Community Players & October 26-28 at Lincoln Community Playhouse
Black Coffee runs October 19-21, November 2-4 at Lincoln Community Playhouse & October 26-28 at Beatrice Community Players
Photo Credit: Jamie Ulmer; pictured are Diane Kahnk as Miss Marple & Scott Clark as Hercule Poirot.