The Austin Chronicle

'Murder Ballad Murder Mystery'

Paper Chairs resurrects its hit musical as portable, hit-and-run bar entertainment

By Robert Faires, November 15, 2013, Arts

Usually, when a play reaches the end of its run, it's dead, departed, gone with the wind. Once in a while, though, a show gets pulled back from oblivion, and such is the case with Murder Ballad Murder Mystery, the backwoods musical by Elizabeth Doss (book) and Mark Stewart (score) that scored critical raves and multiple awards when it premiered in 2009. Now, like the ghost-faced killers who populate its swampy setting, it once more walks among us – only this time the show won't be haunting a theatre as it did in its original co-production by Tutto Theatre and Vortex Repertory Company, and it won't be the full-length, site-specific spectacle seen before. Paper Chairs, the company that grew out of that staging, has reconceived the show as a shorter, portable production to be presented in saloons. The new incarnation will debut at three local watering holes, as well as one in New Orleans (for the New Orleans Fringe Festival), and one in Marfa. The cast has been whittled down to eight characters, and director Keri Boyd and designer Lisa Laratta have worked to make the space adaptable to any environment. Playwright/performer Doss explained the show's second life in an email exchange.

Austin Chronicle: Why revisit a show that worked so well before, and why change it?

Elizabeth Doss: The original Murder Ballad Murder Mystery was the first time that many of the now 14 [Paper Chairs] company members worked together, and we've felt a collective urge to revisit our first collaboration. We wanted to refine a show we had built from the ground up. While there was so much we loved about our first stab at this play – its expansive design, the hyperbolized style, and the reckless tone – we felt there was conceptual potential that had eluded us the first time around. In the last year, we've done public readings and workshops to strengthen the characters, simplify the plot, solidify the world, and give the piece a more minimal aesthetic. It will feel familiar to those who saw it last time, but this is really a new play in many ways.

AC: Why reconceive it as portable bar entertainment?

ED: In the last production, we put a lot of effort into creating a saloon-like feel, so it seemed natural to stage this version in the belly of the beast. We love the idea that a play's staging could be flexible enough to adapt to and even build upon whatever environment we find ourselves in. And creating a show in a pedestrian space makes us explore possibilities we could easily overlook in a theatre. We love to expose the labor of creation, and an open bar setting requires this approach. As bars can feel both intimate and unruly, they serve these sometimes heartrending and sometimes terrifying murder ballads. We wanted the host of obstacles touring brings to inform our choices: to make us fully justify each element we introduce and think twice about the whims we normally entertain when a show only lives in one space. Plus, touring affords an opportunity to connect with other communities. We're excited to see how this piece lands with folks who don't know us and how the show was originally staged.

We decided to approach touring with the band-in-a-van model, so being able to drive to a given destination was definitely a factor. As Marfa and New Orleans are destinations in themselves, we're curious to see how the show fits inside these specific atmospheres. Besides, we want the tour to feel like a working vacation, and we had a group hankering for beignets and hot springs.

AC: Did you want to connect with a different audience, a non-theatregoing crowd?

ED: Reaching a new audience was never our specific intention, but it is an added bonus. We're only charging donations at the door so that a bar's regulars aren't made to pay for entertainment thrust upon them. We're curious to see how this piece interacts with the unsuspecting bar patron just out for a pint on a Tuesday. Our workshop at the Longbranch Inn last May was very successful in this way. People seemed bewildered but delighted by our presence in their neighborhood bar.

AC: If this tour is successful, will you continue to tour and look at doing more work in bars?

ED: We definitely want to keep Murder Ballad on the road. We're planning to touch down in other Texas cities throughout 2014, and we'd love to go east, west, and overseas. We're having a fantastic time putting this play together, but I doubt we'll make more bar theatre. This is just a fun way to get us out of the black box.

Murder Ballad Murder Mystery will be performed Wednesday & Thursday, Nov. 20-21, 9pm, at the Buzz Mill, 1505 Town Creek; Saturday, Nov. 23, 9pm, at the Hi-Ho Lounge, 2239 St. Claude, New Orleans, La.; Friday, Nov. 29, 7:30pm, at Scoot Inn, 1308 E. Fourth; Tuesday & Wednesday, Dec. 3-4, 9pm, at Hole in the Wall, 2538 Guadalupe; Saturday, Dec. 7, 8pm, at the Lost Horse Saloon, 306 E. San Antonio St., Marfa. For more information, visit

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