On Friday, April 1 TMCC Performing Artists, the TMCC Foundation, Culinary Arts students and other guests will come together to answer the question: “Who did it?” for the college’s first-ever live murder mystery performance Murder Mystery at the Disco. Performing Arts major Colton Ward, who plays the part of Tony Tuscadero, is one of fourteen actors and dancers who have been hard at work crafting characters—and a script—through a workshop process similar to that which produced the well-known play Rent.
Through the workshop and rehearsal process, Ward has created a character who lives in Brooklyn, eats pizza, frequents a disco dance studio and works at a paint store. “My character doesn’t really know what the future holds… but he does know that every Saturday he and his boys can go down to the [disco] and have lots of fun with the Bee Gees,” he explained.
Ward, who was originally majoring in dietetic technology, has switched his major to performing arts. The process of not only learning lines but creating his character has been a lot more work than he thought—but it’s work that he finds highly rewarding. “I’ve been focused on watching Saturday Night Fever, the show my character is based on. I’ve had to learn how intricate of a character he really is. This is everything: his mannerisms, speech patterns, his accent. I’ve learned that you really have to go deep into character analysis in order to see what the real story is really about,” he said. “But this is teaching me a lot about my emotions.”
Creating characters from the ground-up has been a challenge for all the actors in the production, said Director Holly Natwora. “This has definitely been a new experience for everyone. This workshop experience… that’s been a lot of fun for the students, and it definitely gives the students a sense of ownership over their roles and their work,” she said.
However, this is also the magic of theater and why the production comes at a much-needed time. Since March 2020 and the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, many theater spaces have been largely unused, forcing the performing artists to find new ways to share their gifts and passions using virtual formats. Murder Mystery at the Disco will be the first time since 2019 that TMCC’s Performing Arts department is returning to what might have been a pre-pandemic norm: an in-person performance.
And yet, it’s not just any regular performance. Murder Mystery at the Disco will create an atmosphere inviting audience participation in the 1970s-themed “who done it” that, Natwora promises, will not be easily solved.
The event, which will begin at 5 p.m. with an hour of social mixing with cocktails, will invite participants to interact with the actors who reveal “clues” about their characters, motivations, interests, and—perhaps—flaws. “The first scene happens during the appetizers, and is inspired by a show from the 1970s called Laugh-In,” Natwora explained. “We’ve written it in a way that each character will reveal what could essentially be a presumable motive.”
Honoring a Long Legacy
2022 marks TMCC’s fiftieth year in supporting student success across academic, vocational, and artistic pursuits. TMCC’s Performing Arts program officially began in 1992, where it was located in what is now the Culinary Arts kitchen in the Red Mountain Building on the Dandini Campus. The main focus of the program then was what it remains today: student education that fostered both inspiration and learning that could be used as a solid foundation to carry students forward into their academic and professional futures.
Theatrical spaces have also been places where students can find their futures alongside a sense of community and belonging. For Murder Mystery at the Disco actor Avalee Swaffar, learning that she belonged in theatrical spaces has changed the trajectory of her life. A part of that journey has been discovering more about her character, Dalan Doogart, who has evolved over the course of workshops and rehearsal time. “At first I was playing this renaissance character, although now he has become a bartender... He’s very dorky and can’t speak to anyone,” she said.
This will be Swaffar’s second semester formally studying acting at TMCC. It’s a journey that began due to her love of creating art and spaces. “I remember seeing my classmates in middle school going into the theater. I was in the art program–and I was like, that’s cool. I can paint a background, so I decided to try theater,” she explained. Swaffar ended up being cast in a live role and the experience of being on stage has changed her perspectives on what is possible for her to achieve.
“I love being around people who are in the theater. I really do see myself—if I’m not on stage and in front of the camera—I can work the spotlight, either in front of it or behind it. That’s my whole thing. I just want to be involved,” she said.
In addition to learning about her love of performing on stage, Swaffar insists it's the community she’s become a part of that truly matters. “We have such a great community together. I don’t think I’ve ever been in a show where the characters actually interact with the audience, so that will be totally different and totally new.”
In addition to mingling with actors like Ward and Swaffar, guests of Murder Mystery at the Disco can expect to be served up scenes along with each course, prepared by students in TMCC’s Culinary Arts program. Appetizers are paired with teasers and red herrings, while the main course features a 70’s-inspired disco dance number choreographed by TMCC dance faculty Mig O’Hara, in which the murder takes place. As the plates are cleared, guests can fill out a card with their best sleuthing. Dessert brings a sweet lemon curd along with the bittersweet confession of the unexpected murderer.
The Murder Mystery Dinner elevates catharsis to a new level. “After all, theater really is a journey that you take with other people you can’t get anywhere else,” said Natwora.
The Value of Performing Arts
Proceeds from the live event will benefit scholarships that support students in the performing arts, culinary arts as well as the new EastView project, an innovative and collaborative space that will include new spaces for technology, culinary, arts, hospitality and tourism and the performing arts, the latter a unique degree that offers the student a holistic view of the human experience.
“Theater is actually the most well-rounded degree if you pursue it correctly,” said Natwora. “It’s the study of the human experience; psychology, sociology, anthropology, history, art, sculpting, painting, photography, dance, literature… I think out of all the arts, a theater degree has so much to offer, and also an understanding of yourself that you won’t necessarily find in another degree because it is so introspective.”
In a world in which many other collaborative learning opportunities have been canceled due to safety and funding concerns—sport programs, for example—theater can offer lessons in what it takes to work together on a project with the performance being a common goal. “There’s nothing out there like participating in a play. There’s a trust you have to have in working with the other cast and crew, and the encouragement that you have to give each other. Most importantly, theater teaches empathy, and how to put yourself into somebody else’s shoes… to have an understanding of somebody else, to see another perspective and maybe to change your mind about what you thought was right,” said Natwora.
For Murder Mystery at the Disco Stage Manager Ryen Brown, working with the actors as Natwora’s assistant has offered up plenty of challenges while offering what many students crave: a sense of belonging. A STEM major, Brown is a second-year student who plans to transfer to UNR to continue their pursuit of a degree in science and a career in research. Theater is something that they, simply, love.
“Being a Stage Manager is really hard,” they said. “I’ve had to be the most organized I’ve ever been. And yet, it’s so fun to create something and watch it come alive. Also, I feel like I get to experience a bit extra, because I’m helping to write the script, I’m helping with lines, I’m helping with tech–because this is more than a normal play,” said Brown.
Although Brown is pursuing a degree in science, they participated in the theater program at their high school, along with band and ROTC. Although they found value in the material they learned, they never felt as though they belonged. “I was never invited to anything, the parties—I was never asked to hang out or to study. It was always ‘Hey Ryen, can you do this for me?’ I was always the outcast—probably the most ‘outcasted’ I have felt for my entire life.”
The opportunity to serve as a Stage Manager fulfilled Brown’s remaining required elective credits while also offering them the opportunity to have a positive experience. “And I finally walked into something that could be really good for me. It was terrifying—I only knew two kids in this production. I barely got to know [the director], Holly and literally the first day I walked in, and yet… people ask me how I am doing. I feel accepted and I feel safe here,” they said.
This, said Natwora, is why performing arts programs are vital for students who are both majors and non-majors in the field.
“This program really needs our community’s support, at TMCC especially,” said Natwora. “TMCC Performing Arts was hit so hard by the pandemic and is in greater need than more traditional academic programs like Math or English. These students are putting their heart and soul into this production. They are so brave. Anyone who gets up on stage is brave to do so. It’s a wonderful thing to witness when you see someone who has the courage to get up and reveal themselves through creativity.”
For this cast, the journey from rehearsal to performance has required them to create their characters, to get to know them, to breathe them to life and, on the day of the performance, create a live experience—a mystery—that will not be easily solved.
For student-actors and stage managers like Ward, Swaffar and Brown, the future of theater in their lives may not be crystal-clear, but their love of the stage, of the lights and what they learned this semester all shine brightly.
“Whether I move to Hollywood or I become a theater teacher, I am achieving a dream... a big dream,” said Swaffar.
Tickets and Event Sponsors
This event has made possible in part to the generosity of event sponsors, which include: Cashman Equipment, Charles River Laboratories, Core Construction, Meadows Bank, and NOW Foods.
Tickets are still available for TMCC’s Murder Mystery at the Disco, and are $150 a piece. If attending an in-person event is not possible, donations are welcome; please contact the TMCC Foundation for alternative methods of expressing your support.
For more information about the Performing Arts at TMCC, contact the Visual and Performing Arts department at 775-674-7610.