Teen-made murder mystery 'A Laughing Matter'

Eve Smyth, co-director of Ashland Children's Theater, has been teaching drama to kids for 15 years &

three of them at Oregon Stage Works. "But I've never done anything like Children's Mystery Theater before," she said.

In fact, it's possible no one has &

CMT is an entirely new concept that allows kids to control every aspect of a play, from conception to performance.

"We said to a group of 13- and 14-year-olds: 'We want to create an old-fashioned murder mystery on stage, using characters you've created in a play you've written with you as the actors,'" said Kate Sullivan, Smyth's co-director. "We had no idea how they'd deal with it, or what kind of effort we'd get from them. But they turned out to be enthusiastic, persistent and really talented."

The result is "A Laughing Matter," a classic whodunnit that takes place in a 1940s nightclub. The play will have its world premiere in a staged reading at OSW at 7 p.m. Monday, June 11. (The recommended age is 9 and older.)

"I hope plenty of mystery-lovers come out to see it," Smyth proudly said. "These kids deserve a good audience. The play is quite entertaining, and, of course, each actor is perfectly cast, since each of them invented his or her own role."

"I love my character," said Ryan Mills, whose alter ego is an off-duty cop named Charles Johnson. "I've always wanted to play a police detective &

and it's especially cool that I get to have him say and do whatever I want."

Drew Wood, aka "Benny the busboy," added: " It's not only making your character your own, but having others build on it with their characters that makes the play so interesting."

The CMT project was inspired by the longest-running drama in history &

Agatha Christie's "The Mousetrap," which has been staged more than 20,000 times since 1952. "An Ashland parent saw the play with his family in London," Smyth explained, "and came back pretty excited. He said, 'Why not put together a kids' theater troupe that does mysteries like that?' He even provided funding to make it possible."

Smyth and Sullivan thought it was a great idea, but they weren't sure how to proceed. Still, Ashland is famous for innovative stage work, and Smyth is an adventurous teacher. So she plunged in, recruiting eight enthusiastic drama students from Ashland Middle School as her "guinea pigs."

"Our approach was to make the play character-driven, rather than plot-driven," she said. "Instead of saying, 'This is the plot we want,' we let the kids develop the characters find out what they wanted those characters to say, and then find out what mystery the characters were in."

That's an ambitious idea, but exactly how do you pull it off? "Well, it was all sort of hit-and-miss at first," Smyth admitted. "The class used improv to explore standard mystery characters &

the damsel in distress, the tough private eye, the sidekick, and so forth. Then the kids came up with their own. Over a period of two months, they wrote biographies of various characters they'd created and introduced them to each other. Finally, we settled on a few and focused on their relationships: What were the secret connections between them? What had they done to each other? What might they do to each other?"

The kids really enjoyed this approach. "You can get into the character more when you're the one who's creating it," explained CMT member Zach Markovich, who plays Jacques, a French thug.

From there, the CMT troupe began exploring the mystery genre itself. "We talked about clues, and plot," Smyth recalled, "and how to mislead an audience with dialogue, or a gesture on stage." Then they all sat down at a table and began developing a plot and script. This was the most challenging, stressful and probably the most educational part of the project. "One thing we all learned," commented Sophie Javna, who appears as a nightclub singer named Veronica, "is that you need a real work ethic to collaborate and write a play."

Smyth agreed. "It wasn't always easy to have eight young teens sitting around a table writing together for two-hour stretches," she said with a laugh. "The collaborative process is tough no matter how you do it, and these kids had no experience. But they were surprisingly capable."

The group came up with a murder, decided who "did" it, and then each of them went off to write scenes involving their characters. Every week they came together and read their parts, critiqued them and decided what was missing. They would then repeat the process. "It was really impressive to see how they worked things out among themselves," Sullivan says.

The students all agree it's been a great experience. "We learned that there's so much more to the theater than acting," offers Anglelica Florio, who plays Margie, a woman searching for her missing ex-husband. And Aurelia Grierson, a flighty waitress named Kitty, summed it all up: "It's hard to collaborate, but it's incredibly rewarding. When you're done, you've got something to really be proud of."

As for Smyth &

well, she's hoping the troupe stays together, and might even add a few more CMT classes. "It's a privilege to offer these kids a chance to channel their creativity, to bring it to the stage in our theater," she said. The kids feel the same way about Smyth. "Eve," Angelica said with a laugh, "is the bomb-diggity."

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