Acting on a stage in front of a live audience is not for the faint of heart. Acting for up to four hours a night, five nights a week, on a moving train built in the 1930s for up to 200 people (all who are eating a five-course meal) takes unparalleled bravery, an admirable constitution and—most importantly—incredibly good balance. So, I decided to give it a whirl.
When I told friends that I was going to act on Seminole Gulf Railway’s Murder Mystery Dinner Train, they were wide-eyed with shock. “Aren’t you scared?!” they asked.
“Certainly not!” I answered with all the stage presence of Meryl Streep. “I’m an actress.”
And, yes, over the past 20 years or so, I’ve happily acted in a number of plays on the stages of Southwest Florida. And I’ve certainly had a few adventures on them: a gun that was supposed to “fire” but didn’t, a wig that slipped off in the middle of a scene, and lots of times when I went blank on lines that I’d recited hundreds of times. So, I assumed that there was no way I could get derailed acting on a train. But I was about to find out that I am not exactly the little engine that could.
First, I got in touch with Wende Bowman, a tiny but mighty creative dynamo who not only has been the artistic director of the Murder Mystery Dinner Train since 2005 but also writes many of the shows, acts in them and is the costume designer. Plus, she owns and operates a vintage clothing boutique in Fort Myers called Vamped Up Vintage—suffice it to say, Wende is a force.
It was fairly easy to write me into her modernized send-up of Alice in Wonderland, titled Wicked Winter Wonderland. I would play the usually never-seen murder victim—the rabbit. Wende put together a brilliant costume that was more Johnny Depp rabbit (velvet jacket, top hat with rabbit ears, bowtie, vest and giant stopwatch) than Easter Bunny rabbit. I liked it.
I arrived at the train station just off Colonial Boulevard in Fort Myers at 5:45 p.m. to meet the rest of the cast and tour the train. There were veteran train actors John Repa and Troy Nelson, who have been performing on and off again with the train since the ’90s. Plus, Sue Dohan, who’s been acting with the troupe for about eight years, and relative newcomers Holly Hagan and John Granatino. All of the actors have worked professionally on other stages, but, as most of them told me, the train is good, steady work—and they have fun with it.
There’s a script, but there’s a lot of improv and bantering with the audience, too, so it’s important to be quick on your feet—and I mean that both figuratively and literally. There are five cars on the Seminole Gulf Railway, including a kitchen car. There are 10 scenes, and the actors must split up because the “stage” is a just a narrow aisle in each car. So while a scene with three actors is performed in one car, another scene with three actors is performed in another car. The scariest part is getting from one car to the next, which involves stepping onto a metal grate that connects each car and opening (very) heavy metal doors as the train chugs its way from Fort Myers to Charlotte County. As the doomed rabbit, I was wearing fuzzy slippers. However, Wende (as the Red Queen), Holly (as the White Queen) and Sue (as Alice) were in elaborate full-length gowns and sparkly high-heeled shoes. While I was terrified for myself, I was far more terrified for them. But they took it in stride. “Oh, trust me,” said Sue with a grin, “we’ve done shows on the train in much higher heels than this.”
Wende elaborated, “You learn to use your balance. You have to find your footing and use the muscles in your core—especially when there are high winds.”
The train itself is a history buff’s dream. Family-owned and -operated by Robert Fay, the fleet of rail cars dates back to the 1930s and has been well-cared-for. Somewhat updated, the train retains its charming vintage feel. And even though the actors are running from one end of the train to the other, the diners are comfortably seated at tables enjoying the view outside and the show inside, as they sip cocktails and socialize. Being a diner and audience member looked to be a pretty relaxing experience. This rabbit was envious and wished she had a cocktail to sip, too.
But, the show must go on. At the beginning, I ran the length of the train ad-libbing all the way. In the kitchen, I nearly plowed into the chef who was carrying a steaming cauldron of soup. Being in between cars was the most hair-raising experience of all, but when I started to chicken out, I reminded myself that the other actresses were gliding between cars in 4-inch heels.
Because my character was being pursued, I moved as fast as I could and in the process learned that my core is not nearly as strong as those of my fellow railway actors. I was dizzy and exhausted after the first scene.
As the diners enjoyed their first course and began to collect clues about who may have been my murderer (winners get a souvenir), the cast took a short break. We retired to the car that served as our dressing room where actors chugged water, adjusted costumes and checked their scripts. Wende asked me if I wanted to keep acting in scene two, but as I tried to catch my breath and fanned myself with my script, I told her that I’d pretty much gotten the gist of the adventure and that perhaps I’d learn more by sitting and observing. Wende responded with a knowing laugh as she adjusted her Red Queen crown. “I get it, girl—it’s not easy!”
But for Wende and her experienced cast with their excellent balance and core muscles, the night was clearly a blast. The audience loved them, laughed tons and applauded every scene. These performers were pros, and they knew how to put on a show—I think even Meryl Streep would be humbled. As I took off my top hat and bow tie, I vowed to do more sit-ups and to start jogging while wearing high heels—because if I ever act here again, I’m going to need to train—hard.