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Committing Murder for a Living

Backstage With Terry Smith, Playwright, Partner and 'Trouble-Maker' With StageCoach Theatre

By day, Terry Smith is a mild-mannered cyber sleuth for a major defense company. He began writing mystery plays after a long military career and finds the art of tracking a hacker and tracking a murderer, in theory at least, not dissimilar: both require sleuthing and imagination. He and partner Jerri Wiseman founded StageCoach Theatre in 2011 when he was trying to figure out how to sell some of the shows he’d written. He cast her as one of his characters, and the rest, as they say, is history. Though they perform much more than just murder mysteries – holding acting classes and camps in between their productions, doing dinner theatre and supporting an improv team called the Bandits – when asked to describe what they do, Jerri says, “We commit murder for a living.” 

Q: How many plays have you written?

Oooh, 18 to 20. A lot. They’re all different styles: stage production plays, dinner theatre murder mystery plays. We have one style with four or five actors and some audience participation, and another style which is two- or three-person murder mysteries where the audience pretty much drives that show; the actors just facilitate it. That we call scripted improv. There is a very detailed outline they follow but then they are allowed to deviate tremendously based upon what the audience does. We just did one of those yesterday for a retirement community. It was very entertaining.

Q: What would you cite as the high point of your theatre experience?

One of the biggest high points was in 2017 when I wrote a play called “The Hamilton Murders.” It was very different from the style of plays we normally do, based on history. It's more of a conspiracy theory style plot. It was well received and the actors that were in it enjoyed thoroughly being in that show, it wasn't what they call just lighthearted – there was a lot of substance to it. (The show returns to the stage in March.)

Q: What is it about murder that fascinates people?

Over time we become kind of immune to death. We’ve tucked it away, so whenever you have a murder there are clues and puzzles. Humans like to solve puzzles. In a murder mystery we present information and in some cases it's not conclusive. It’s like a real trial. You make an educated guess based upon the information that you're given and in the end you find out if you’re right or wrong.

Q: It sounds like you draw a lot of energy from your audience.

Yes, and that's a risk, I’ll have to be honest. Whenever you allow the audience to participate in a show you do lose control of that show. so your actors have think very quickly on their feet to allow the audience to engage. We believe so strongly in the product that we have and the actors that we cast that we will allow the audience to actively interact with them. You still get the same storyline from show to show... but the audience walks away feeling like they've had a lot to do with the creation of that evening.

[On encouraging young playwrights}

I began to realize that young artists, young playwrights or any playwright of any age, has a very difficult time getting their product actually performed to see what works what doesn't work. We wanted the theatre company to do a lot of original plays. We have other playwrights submit scripts to us, we work with them to get them in a format that we can use. The youngest person who's ever submitted a play to us was 16 and we actually performed it. It was called “A Simple Act of Murder.” And then the oldest person is in there in their 70s.

Q: How has it impacted you to be able to stream your shows?

It opens up the theater. Where before we were limited to 70 people max per show, it allows us to reach nationwide. So instead of just you know 30 to 70 people in the show you could have 100 to 200 people watching. That’s good for the theater because we can become a destination, and it helps our bottom line. There is of course a cost to streaming, but hopefully the audience will build.

Next On Stage:

- December 5 – 19: “Up on the Rooftop, Click, Click, BANG” by Terry Smith, dinner theatre at Oatlands in Leesburg

- December 12 – 23: “A Christmas Story”, adapted by Philip Grecian, directed by Leah Daily, in-theater performances at StageCoach Theatre in Ashburn  

- January 22 – 31: “The Brothers Grimm Spectaculathon” by Don Zolidis, directed by Claire Coker and Joe Campanella, in-theatre and live-streamed performances at StageCoach Theatre in Ashburn

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