Arts & Culture
Acting UpAn Emerald Coast Community Theater Group Brings Suspense to Supper
By Christy Kearney
Miss Scarlet, Professor Plum and Col. Mustard don’t stand a chance against the kooky clan of characters introduced by Act4Murder, a local troupe of professional actors who entertain diners in an interactive and engaging game of “whodunit.”
Act4Murder, created and produced by Renaissance woman Paula Hilton, partners with local restaurants to host comedic murder-mystery dinners throughout the year. The professional dinner theater company also works with businesses and nonprofit organizations to customize private parties, team-building events and fundraisers.
Each show offers a host of quirky characters who may or may not be the guilty party. As the show progresses, the audience is asked to participate and take their best guess at who the killer is. For those who pay close attention, clues are planted from the moment they enter the venue.
From beginning to end, an Act4Murder show is carefully thought out and meant to make you smile.
Murder, She Wrote
A software engineer by day and murder-mystery producer by night, Paula Hilton straddles the line between two very different worlds. She writes, produces, directs and even occasionally acts in all of the shows staged by Act4Murder, which she founded in 2002.
When she moved to the area from California, Hilton said she was surprised at the limited activities available for adults. In California, she performed with a group called Mystery by Design for 10 years, not to mention forays into singing and painting – all while holding a full-time job in the technology sector. Instead of complaining about the lack of entertainment on the Emerald Coast, Hilton decided to do something about it and created Act4Murder. She now has 11 shows that she produces locally and sells to murder-mystery groups throughout the country and even in Canada, Australia and England.
“I’ve discovered, whether it’s California or Florida, people love to be entertained, so the response to this alternate means of adult entertainment has been overwhelming,” Hilton said.
Although she had written and acted in shows before starting Act4Murder, Hilton had never produced or directed one. With a healthy serving of self-confidence, she said “I can do this” and approached her sister Julie, who worked with Horizons of Okaloosa County, about doing a show as a fundraising event for that organization, which assists developmentally disabled individuals in the area.
“We did a fabulous show and sold out the tickets, and it’s been up and running ever since then,” Hilton said of her first official production.
For Hilton, the title of her shows is the first piece of the puzzle. Once she decides on the name of the show, she begins developing the characters – and characters they are, with playful, telling names such as Ben Evolence, Tom Katz, Barbie Duhl, Jesse Abelle, Nancy Ann SeAnsee and Arty Fischal, to name a few.
“All of my characters are a little bit of me,” Hilton confessed. “All the scenes are a little bit of what I’ve done, but of course it has to be a big exaggeration. The relationships in most of the shows are a little twisted.”
“Paula’s characters are always complex,” said Chris Manson, a writer in his own right who has performed with Hilton for the past four years. “I don’t think she gets enough credit for that.”
Hilton said she enjoys the creative process of writing the shows.
“It’s so cool when I get it done, and I can see that I tied it all together and it all works and all my clues are planted,” she said.
When asked about her favorite shows, Hilton has a hard time deciding, but settles on her holiday show “Murder Under the Mistletoe” and her musical “Murder on the Rebound.” For Hilton, who hopes that the audience finds the same joy in her shows that she does, the best part is sitting back and hearing the audience react.
“When they get my jokes, I just love that,” she said.
All in the Family
The Act4Murder ensemble is like a family, and Hilton has cultivated an intimate environment for her actors, who come from all walks of life. They have diverse experiences, ranging from “The Dean Martin Show” and local television and commercials to community theater and college productions.
Hilton’s cast has told her, “You’ve grown a family here.”
The family ties are bound a little tighter for Hilton, who has recruited her own family – parents, sister and daughters – to assist with the productions.
Manson says his time with Act4Murder has been one of the most rewarding periods of his life.
“Paula really goes out of her way to create a fun environment during the rehearsals and performances, too,” he said.
Kay Yarbrough, who was in Hilton’s very first show and now drives from Montgomery, Ala., to participate, feels that the most rewarding part is being able to do something she really enjoys and being able to do it with very talented people.
“The cast members are some of the most talented and funny people I have worked with,” Yarbrough said.
Hilton debunks any misconceptions about the quality of acting in murder mysteries.
“My actors are very experienced and very professional,” she said. “We’re actually professional actors with a ton of experience. The experience these people bring into my group is amazing.”
Eat, Drink and Be a Detective
“When I came here, there wasn’t really much to do for people who live here if they didn’t want to go to the bars at night,” Hilton said. “Not that there’s anything wrong with that. I just wanted to offer something different.”
Hilton and her cast create a relaxed, playful environment for the audience.
“The shows incorporate eating and drinking and laughing,” she said. “We are right over their tables, and in most of my shows there are things the audience gets to do with the actors.
Sometimes there are parts for people. We give them an envelope and they have to read something or ask a question.”
“We perform amongst the tables,” Yarbrough said. “The lines are snappy and funny and the characters are always over the top.”
Act4Murder performs at French Quarter Grill in Niceville every six weeks and at Hotel DeFuniak a few times each year. Shows also can be scheduled for private functions and fundraising events.
“We’re always looking for new places,” Hilton said.
For those who think Act4Murder is just like every other theater production they’ve seen or maybe tried to avoid, Hilton encourages them to give her productions a try.
“I think there are a lot of people who don’t go to the theater because they have a preconceived notion of what theater is, and it doesn’t sound fun,” she said. “Theater is this whole other realm of imagination that people should experience.”
Hilton takes pride in the shows and promises something the audience has never seen before.
“It’s totally entertaining from the moment you arrive,” she said.