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When Poison Pen Players casts actors for a new murder mystery show, it can't tell them when all of the performance dates are.

Yet the Florence-based traveling theater group has little trouble getting their availability for subsequently scheduled shows.

This group has one key advantage that sets it apart from other local theater troupes: A payroll.

"We're not a community theater," said Melanie Heard, who founded the company with her parents, Mike and Ellen Jacobson.

"We're a professional organization and pay our actors. All of our shows are original, written by either my father, my mother or myself. This is a family business."

On stage tonight

The group's latest show, "Things That Go Bump: Adventures in Paranormal Stupidity," will be presented tonight in Reedsport.

It's the second time the group - which has been performing regularly in Florence and Eugene for two years - has brought a show to Reedsport, after "The Last Ride: Slaughter on the Siuslaw" appeared there in June. And Heard is looking for potential venues in Coos Bay, North Bend and Bandon.

Though Poison Pen Players is a relatively new group, Heard and the Jacobsons have 12 years of experience in murder mystery theater. They worked for a murder mystery company in Southern California for seven years and then founded one of their own there before moving to Florence two years ago.

Audience solves crime

Since then, they've accumulated a company of 14 actors, using six or seven for each show. They do four or five productions a year, with about 10 performances each - some as far away as Astoria.

"Our shows typically sell out," Heard said.

At Three Rivers Casino, the group's home base, that's 250 people per show. At the Reedsport Community Building and most other venues, it's about half that.

The audience is divided into teams that compete to solve the crime, with prizes for the winning team. There are several endings for each play, but the audience vote doesn't determine which one will be used.

Poison Pen's nine shows to date vary in theme - an Italian wedding, the wild West, a karaoke bar - but follow a similar structure around a three-course meal. While the first and third acts are scripted, the second act relies on improvisation and audience interaction.

The improvisation requires specially skilled actors, Heard said.

"An actor has to not just learn their lines but learn how to interact with the audience in character," she said.

Good comic timing is also important.

"We like to make people laugh," she said. "There's enough drama in the world."

The play

Six misfit ghost hunters make up the staff of Paranormal Hauntings of Oregon Inc., or PHOOI.

There's Bernie Snodgrass (Larry Spencer), the inventor of ghostbusting tools such as the specter collector and telepho-antiplasmanator; obsessive germophobe Dexter Heckleman (Mat Alexander Korso); Goth girl Elmira Mephistopheles (Melissa Anderson); dumb blonde Alexandra Ortega (Victoria Seitzinger); narcissistic womanizer Harold Diggins (David Lauria); and Roxanne Payne (Judy Adams), an undercover investigator who has infiltrated the firm.

When Bernie turns up dead, the question arises: Did one of his colleagues kill him, or was it a ghost?

Entertainment Editor Chip Dombrowski can be reached at 541-269-1222, ext. 243, or at


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