You don’t need any acting skills to see Ghost Hunting: The Musical Murder-Mystery this weekend, but if you’re in the crowd, you’re part of the show.
It’s one of the reasons actress Cathy McKay thinks audiences will love the NH Theatre Factory’s premiere production at the Derry Opera House: The imaginary “fourth” wall separating the audience and players will disappear. Viewers play a distinct character in Artistic Director Joel Mercier’s original play, and partway through the show, they’ll vote to determine the play’s ending.
“We might have a different ending every night. None of us will know it until then [when the audience votes] … I think audiences really like to be pulled in, and I think the fourth wall likes to be broken,” said McKay, who plays a “kook” psychic medium named Eva Jeanne Gebler.
She says the special effects will be fantastic, too.
“We have a great lighting designer and a great sound designer who will make it look, sound and feel very real. There are some parts that are a little scary, that will make the hairs on the back of your neck stand up, but it’s very comedic and very fun,” McKay said.
The production, which shows at the Derry Opera House this weekend, is the first part in the theater company’s “Jumpstart the Factory” series, a collection of programming specially designed to build awareness, partnerships and funding for the Factory’s first full season of operation. Ghost Hunting, written by Joel Mercier, is meant to be a teaser of what’s to come.
“We didn’t want to do something that was super well-known, so I decided to create an original piece. Plus, it goes hand in hand with our mission, to produce not just the same old show everyone knows, but in supporting new works,” Mercier said in a phone interview. “We toyed around with two or three different ideas and ended up with Ghost Hunting. My fiance [Katie Proulx, who plays the Spirit of Florence Blackwood] and I love watching those awful ghost shows on TV. It’s our guilty pleasure. … That’s how it was born.”
The result is a story about a low-budget TV show called Spirit Sniffers, a knockoff of the more popular Ghost Hunters. The producers are taping an episode in front of a live audience on location at the Blackwood Opera House. (Which, come Friday night, means the live theater audience at the Derry Opera House — again, if you’re an audience member, you’re part of the show, too.) Two paranormal investigators, the show’s “sleazy” producer, a crackpot psychic and a nasty nun try to make contact with the spirit of Florence Blackwood, who, according to rumor, has been wandering the house since 1946, when the theater closed after a series of murders, culminating in her own suicide. While they do catch sight of Florence, the taping doesn’t go as planned — in fact, it ends disastrously when someone winds up dead.
“It’s a musical murder mystery comedy. There’s a little bit of everything, and it’s only an hour and a half,” Mercier said. “And the audience gets to pick the murderer. There’s a moment in the show, after we’ve gotten to know all the characters, when we ask the audience for who they think did it. Then we have a secret way of cueing the cast to let them know who the audience picked,” Mercier said.
For cast members, Mercier chose people he worked with who fit the roles he wrote, including Proulx, McKay and George Piehl, who’s won our annual Hippo readers’ poll for “best local theater performer” multiple times.
When Mercier called him to join the production last spring, Piehl was very happy to oblige.
“One of the most interesting things, I think, is to be involved with an original script. I always tend to, as a performer, to make the characters my own. … I’m proud of what I do with Scrooge at the Palace Theatre. But when you have a piece in an original musical, you have a character that nobody else has done before,” Piehl said.
The only downside? “When Joel wrote the part, he was thinking of me, the kind of character I play. … Not that I’m too into myself or over-conceited, but he’s pretty puffed up and self-aware as a character. I haven’t had to do a lot of exploration,” he said.
Piehl thinks one of the show’s strengths is its original music.
“Joel’s musical ability is exceptional, his ability to compose and arrange … he has a tremendous talent. The story of the haunted opera house is cute, the characters are different, and I think audiences will enjoy the story, but what I see as the show’s strength is its music,” Piehl said.
Mercier is happy with the cast of characters he recruited as well.
“Some of them I worked with as a director or a musical director or as a fellow actor. One of them I’m engaged to! It’s a very interesting group, and it offers a really neat vibe in the rehearsal hall. … The New Hampshire Theatre Factory will absolutely hold auditions in the future, but this season is a little different. There’s not a lot of time,” he said.
The show is rated PG-13 for a bit of scariness, a little bit of adult humor and language.