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Old train. PHOTO: Sarah Lofgren

How I Got to Murder People for Fun and Profit

Working the Mystery Train

I spent much of my early 20s showing up to every audition in my city.

I was trying to build a career as a professional dancer, but the city I was living in wasn’t the best place for that, as paying dance jobs were rare. So I supplimented my sizable (heh) dance bucks with a random assortment of gigs that vaguely involved performing or could be loosely defined as artistic.

When I saw the audition notice for the mystery train, I was like “Hell yeah! I can totally do that!”

I was into the whole Sherlock Holmes/Clue vibe, I’d done a little acting in college and I liked trains. Clearly that made me perfect for the gig.

I conveniently skimmed over the part of the audition notice about “improvisational acting experience”. Improvisational acting experience seemed like the sort of thing I could just improvise. Plus, I had improvisational dance experience and that is TOTALLY THE SAME THING. Or close enough? I wouldn’t know until I tried. 😒

The notice said to prepare a monologue for the audition. I went with Wednesday’s Thanksgiving monologue from Addams Family Values. Perhaps an odd choice, but at the time I thought it would make me seem quirky.

Everyone wants to be Wednesday Addams, right?

So, when the date of the audition arrived, I showed up prepared with my monologue and the shaky confidence of someone in their 20s who knows they’ll write about this one day.

The audition was being held at the kind of sketchy building where you could maybe be murdered, but under the circumstances that seemed appropriate. I had to wait a little while in a sort of hallway. It was really cold. I was nervous and sweaty, so my body turned clammy pretty quickly.

Then I was called into a large room where three people were sitting in folding chairs, staring at me. I wished then that the whole thing was a dance audition and I could just pull out some pirouettes and call it a day. Why did I have to try and act? Dancers are always terrible actors. Center Stage is proof of this. Why couldn’t I learn the mistakes of others?

I delivered the monologue. All these years later, I honestly have no idea how I did. It’s kind of hard to tell when you’re “acting”.

The people leading the audition thanked me and asked me to wait around. Later, I was invited to a room with a bunch of other people who had auditioned that day. We’d made the final cut? It seemed like maybe they wanted to hire me? I was confused by this.

Everyone else in the group seemed super into acting. Some of them had dressed up mystery-style for the audition. Tweed jackets and pipes and such. These were the kind of people who will speak in funny accents for no reason and immediately break out into “Lida Rose” if you ask them to sing.

I have a lot of respect for this personality type, but it is very different from my personality type. If you ask me to sing, I will eyeball you warily, ask you what the hell you’re up to and then take a few scoots away from you.

Somehow this did not discourage the people who were hiring me.

They told me that the gig paid $75 a night and included free meals, so I was fully on board (pun intended).

At some point in the whole experience, to really cement my outsider status, I accidentally dropped a glass of water on one of my new bosses.

¯\_(ツ)_/¯

But they still kept me around.

When I showed up for my first night on the job, I discovered that, instead of a script, they had a rough story outline. Ha ha. No problem. I could do this!

Fortunately, in a predictable bit of type casting, I was going to play the villain, a hard-bitten murderer. The story was a little confusing and probably hard for all the drunk customers on the train to follow. But, in order to earn my $75, all I had to do was wear black and run through each train car with a (real, but unloaded) gun, waving it around threateningly.

If I’m capable of doing anything in life, it’s that.

The passengers had a great time acting frightened by my appearance. Each car had a different vibe. Some were super family heavy, while others were filled with red hat ladies (red hat ladies are a gas).

After I’d threatened enough people, I went and hid in the train equivalent of backstage where I ate my free dinner, some kind of pasta.

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Photo by Johannes Hofmann on Unsplash

Later in the night, the train arrived at its destination, a fancy local winery. While the train guests got even drunker and toured the winery, I ran into the warehouse and draped myself across some barrels. When the tour passed people started pointing and whispering. A clue! Someone had killed my character.

I’m still not sure who, but I’d like to have a word with them.

I did a few more murder mysteries. The other actors were very nice to me and I learned a lot from them, though maybe not enough. I played a few different roles. I’ll admit, I could have been better. Improvising murder mysteries did not come naturally to me. I tried really hard, but trying really hard isn’t always the best approach to acting.

There’s another part to this story I don’t tell very often.

Because I still feel kind of weird about it.

But this is a partner story, so those of you who are still reading at this point are going to get the full poop.

At the end of the night, the guests filled out comment cards and left them on their tables. Before we took off, the actors were supposed to collect the cards and turn them in to our bosses.

You can probably see what’s wrong with this plan.

Of course, I read the cards to see what people were saying about me. Everyone did. Wouldn’t you?

Most of them were pretty benign and complimentary. By the end of the night, most of our customers were pretty tipsy and happy. But there was one comment card in particular that sticks in my head.

“The blonde is really hot, but she needs to work harder.”

I was the only blonde in the cast… so… clearly this person was talking about me.

I didn’t know how to feel. On one hand, this person thought I was hot. Was that supposed to be flattering? On the other hand, he (I assume it was a he) didn’t think I was working hard enough. I was working SO HARD. How was that not evident?

Being hot is okay, I guess, but it’s funny how it doesn’t really mean anything. It just feels like ice cubes melting or an elevator dropping down a few floors. I’d rather be good.

And I started wondering if perhaps I’d been cast because they needed some sort of female ingenue and not because I had any talent. And, even though part of me had suspected it all along, having it confirmed really messed with me.

I was a tortured genius. I was a creative wildcard. I was the weird girl. I certainly wasn’t the dumb, sexy blonde.

I wanted to slip that comment card into my pocket, so the bosses wouldn’t see it.

But I didn’t. I handed it in with the others.

I was young.

At the time I thought I was demonstrating integrity. Ugh.

But part of me was also embracing the chaos. I thought I’d just let the cards fall where they may. If my bosses agreed with this customer’s assessment? Well then. So be it.

To their credit, my bosses didn’t let one (maybe sexist?) customer’s comment card stop them from offering me more train gigs. They didn’t say anything about “working harder”. Maybe they thought I was doing a good job, or maybe they just wanted someone around for eye candy. Either way, I stopped being able to come to gigs. And eventually they stopped calling. I’d managed to find actual dance work. The kind of work I’d wanted all along.

So, I guess it’s a happy story. I think that’s how happy stories go.

Sarah is a freelancer who exists on twitter and instagram.

Written by

Engaged in inadvisable wordsmitheries and other creative acts. http://sarahlofgren.com

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