When Melanie Roady originally conceived of running a theater company, she thought it would include running a theater, too. And she did for a while, opening a small theater in a storefront on the square in Springfield, Tenn., in 2007. “I enjoyed it, but I didn’t like the overhead,” says Roady. She closed the theater, but after years on the theater scene, she missed some aspects of it—so she decided to change the game.
“I decided to take the actors to the audience,” says Roady. Her particular theatrical passions are for actors and audiences, so bringing them together seemed like the logical next step. Thus the Mel O’Drama Theater was born. Instead of maintaining a space, Roady takes her troupe to venues all across Middle Tennessee–and beyond. Their unique dinner theater events take over a wide range of different spaces, adapting and changing to fit the venue each time. Some locations offer adult beverages or allow guests to bring their own, and some don’t allow alcohol at all, so audience members can choose the space where they’ll feel most at home. The shows, however, are always family friendly with “no profanity or bodily-function jokes.”
On Sunday, April 12, Mel O’Drama Theater will have its Murfreesboro debut with a performance of its murder mystery show Will to Deceive at the Big Bang Bar and Kitchen on the Square. This is an original play by Thomas Mac, who plays the heir to the mansion in which the action is set. He, along with some guests, have gathered to read the last will and testament of the late estate owner, Charlotte Monture. But when the time comes, the will is missing–and the mystery may run deeper than just who has made off with the document.
Roady works almost exclusively with independent playwrights like Mac, a Nashville local.
“I can’t go to a big playwright for what I’m needing. My writers follow a formula, with breaks for dinner and dessert and sleuthing for the audience,” she explains.
Like all Mel O’Drama shows, Will to Deceive is a romping cocktail of scripted show, improv, singing and dancing, plus a chance for the audience to solve the crime, with a prize going to the guest who gets it right.
But though all of Roady’s shows have certain elements in common, the casts and settings change wildly—the next two shows the company will offer feature historically feuding clans the Hatfields and McCoys at a wedding reception and Star Trek fans at a comic-con, respectively. The shows run for a couple of months–Will to Deceive started in January and has only one more performance after the Murfreesboro date.
“While each show is being performed, one is being rehearsed and another is being cast,” explains Roady. She is working to expand the company’s reach as well, recruiting casts in Ohio and Virginia as well as in different parts of Tennessee.
For Layne Sasser, who plays the old-fashioned lady farmer Mrs. Spicketts in Will to Deceive, it is her first Mel O’Drama role. This kind of show is, she says, “exciting and fun.” Though she’s often performed in traditional dinner theater shows at Chaffin’s Barn in Nashville (as well as in plays, commercials and feature films), Sasser says she’s never participated in a show quite like this one.
“You do a scene or two, then stop for the audience to eat, then do another scene or two, then stop for them to eat dessert,” she says, adding “I’ve never done any theater where the level of interaction was like this–we call it breaking the wall.” And she loves it.
The actors in these shows have to go with the flow, Sasser explains. For instance, at one recent performance dinner was served before the cast was ready–but they quickly adapted and just sat down with the audience while they ate. Her advice? “Let loose. Have a good time, and be a part of what’s happening—be in the moment with us.”
And though the travel this winter has been rough, Sasser says she’d love to be part of Mel O’Drama again. “Mel is wonderful. I’m so proud to be a part of working with her. It’s been a joy to get to know everybody—we’re having a blast,” she says.
Tickets for the April 12 show are $20 for adults and $15 for kids 12 and under. The doors will open at 4 p.m., and the show starts at 4:30 p.m. Shows can sell out, so be sure to buy your tickets in advance. Visit melodramatheater.org for more information, more dates and venues, and to purchase tickets.
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