So you want to be an actor? Detective Fiction’s Advice on Working in the Theatre

Already this week we have had advice from Agatha Christie on how to have a safe holiday and advice from Golden Age detective fiction writers on the perils of staying at a country house. This time around it is career tips, mostly culled from Golden Age mystery novels, to keep all aspiring actors and actresses safe from being harmed whilst on the job.

Tip No. 1: Always double check the stage props.

Enter a MurdererOne of the easiest ways to murder someone in the cast is to switch the stage props, exchanging that safe retractable dagger and empty revolverQuick Curtain for the real thing. So check the script. Is there a part where someone stabs or shoots you? Better check the props. Or better still make sure your character is the one who handles the weapon. Granted there is a chance you could get framed for a murder, but that is probably better than being the corpse. The murder victims in Ngaio Marsh’s Enter a Murderer (1935) and Quick Curtain (1934) by Alan Melville would certainly vouch for that.

Tip No. 2: Avoid acting in Shakespeare plays, especially Macbeth.

Detective fiction is littered with Shakespeare plays gone wrong, with at least one person coming foul of a murderer’s plot. Such plays also provide your would be killer with many prop switching opportunities. Macbeth though, is not only an unlucky play to mention in a theatre, but it also seems to be an unlucky play to star in, as demonstrated in What Bloody Man is That? (1987) by Simon Brett and Ngaio Marsh’s Light Thickens (1982). So if I was you I’d stick to Ibsen or Shaw. Shakespeare is too much of a health hazard.


Tip No. 3: Beware of cast rivalry

Unfortunately in some theatrical casts, competitiveness, jealousy and spite are rife. This of course can lead to painful pranks such as a nail concealed in your grease paint, a problem Jimmy Sutane faced in Dancers in Mourning (1937) by Margery Allingham. Solutions? Well keeping on the right side of everybody can be unachievable sometimes, so I’d get a padlock for your makeup bag.

Dancers in Mourning

Tip No. 4: Insist on electric heating in your dressing room.

This may seem a picky or overly trivial demand for someone just starting in the theatre, but it is best to start as you mean to go on, and I mean that quite literally, as ignoring this advice, like the victim in Ngaio Marsh’s Opening Night (1951) could mean you yourself won’t go on.

Opening Night

Tip No. 5: Never agree to be the accompanying pianist.

Acting isn’t the only dangerous job in the theatre, as even the accompanying orchestra are at risk. Though my favourite example is in Ngaio Marsh’s Overture to Death (1939), where the pianist for an amateur theatricals performance meets a grisly end from an unusual murder method.

Overture to Death

Tip No. 6: Keep an eye on what is happening above you.

They Do It with MirrorsNot only do you need to watch what is happening to the props, but youVintage of Murder also need to be aware of what is happening in the fly or theatrical rigging system, as death can also strike from above. From concussion, to serious injury and death, a “frayed” rope can do a lot of damage when it’s meant to be holding heavy equipment, as shown in Christie’s They Do it with Mirrors (1952) and Ngaio Marsh’s Vintage Murder (1937).

Tip No. 7: Don’t stay late after the performance has finished and everyone has gone home.

Death at the DolphinIt doesn’t matter what your reason is, be it a romantic tryst, an urge to Measure for Murderprank the night watchman or to find a quiet place to write in, the theatre after hours is a dangerous place to be. So don’t be there! Both victims in Death at the Dolphin (1967) by Ngaio Marsh and Clifford Witting’s Measure for Murder (1941), are wishing they had taken this advice and gone home to bed instead.

Tip No. 8: Keep your ego in check

Enter Sir JohnIf you are very lucky you might get a big part, possibly even the lead part in a production. But be careful. Such a situation may give you an inflated ego, which in turn could affect how you treat those around you. But as Simon Brett’s What Bloody Man is That?, Clemence Dane and Helen Case of the Gilded FlySimpson’s Enter Sir John (1928) and Edmund Crispin’s The Case of the Gilded Fly (1944), could tell you, such a course of action could be fatal to you, as a popular murder victim in theatre based murder mysteries is the malicious, antagonistic and/or insufferably arrogant actor or actress that the rest of the cast can’t stand. So you may think you are the cat’s whiskers and even the bee’s knees but keep it to yourself.

Tip No. 9: Stay in company whilst behind the scenes.

In horror or thriller films, going off on your own is always a bad idea, as it means the killer can easily pick you off. A similar problem can also be found in the world of the theatre, back stage. Although during a performance there will be people milling about, being back stage is still a risky place to be by yourself, as who knows what is lurking in the shadows or behind a stage prop. With everyone’s attention on the performance and an array of loud sound effects, just like in those scary movies – no one will hear you scream. There are quite a lot of examples of such deaths in mystery fiction, but my most recent read was Elizabeth Daly’s Unexpected Night (1940).

Unexpected Night

Tip No. 10: Don’t be an understudy.

Being an understudy is a great way to learn the trade from the best, but it is not a position without some risks and in fact Kelly Roos’ Made Up To Kill (1940) and Jane Dentinger’s Murder on the Cue (1983) would actually say it was very bad for your health. The position of being an understudy is at its most deadly when the understudy is required to act in lieu of someone else at short notice, causing havoc with a prospective killer’s plans and leading to the wrong murder. Other possibilities include understudies being murdered or framed out of jealousy or even murdered, but in such a way that it looks like the other actor or actress was the intended target.

Made Up To Kill

After all that you might have changed your mind and decided to stick to just being in the audience, but even that isn’t safe, as Margery Vane in Panic in Box C (1966) by John Dickson Carr can attest to. Heck even standing in the queue outside is fraught with danger, as shown in Josephine Tey’s novel, The Man in the Queue (1929).


Got any more tips for a safe time at the theatre? Let us know in the comments section below.


  1. Another excellent and very funny post. I know we’re more firmly in Ngaio Marsh country for this one but I would just add a tip for retired ballet dancers, this time from Agatha Christie; Be careful if you’re staging a comeback, it may reopen old wounds and you could end up on the scrapheap (Harlequin’s Lane, from The Mysterious Mr Quin)

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Mirrors seem to be a bad thing too, based on my vague memory of Agatha Christie’s ‘They Do It with Mirrors’ and Patrick Quentin’s ‘Puzzle for Players’? Or perhaps, it might be best avoiding haunted theatres, as per Christopher Fowler’s ‘Full Dark House’. I would love to throw in a rule based on the two Kindaichi manga mysteries inspired by ‘Phantom of the Opera’: don’t stand under the chandelier…?

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Hilarious! There’s an excellent Helen McCloy in which the dead man on stage turns out to be really dead and – nobody knows who he is! I don’t know what lesson we get from this – don’t do a play in which the rest of the cast don’t know the corpse from Adam….?

    Liked by 1 person

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