Reading the Audience

Vincent H. O'Neil

“Good morning, Mr. Coleman.” The woman’s voice was quiet, and matched the stillness of the empty theater. She and her partner walked across the carpet near the unlit stage.

The director rose from his seat in the middle of the tenth row. He watched the two detectives come up the aisle and then slide across to his front. They both wore business suits, looked fit, and appeared to be in their mid-thirties. The woman’s blonde hair was cut very short, and she carried a small folio. Her partner, a man with cocoa-colored skin and a light gray suit, scanned the dimensions of the room as he walked behind her.

“I’m Detective Zwillman, and this is Detective Sizemore.” The woman spoke while the director shook their hands. “Thank you for agreeing to speak with us so early.”

“Let’s have a seat.” Coleman waved them down. “After all, your commander did say these interviews were going to be informal.”

“We’re still in the preliminary stages. Fact finding.” Zwillman opened the folio and took out a pen. “The autopsy results don’t necessarily indicate foul play, but they were certainly a surprise.”

The director stroked his gray goatee. “This whole thing has surprised me. He was only thirty, and they initially told us it was a heart attack.”

“He did die of a heart attack.” Sizemore spoke evenly. “But it wasn’t natural. A very dangerous drug got into his system.”


“Basically yes, but we’re avoiding that term because we don’t know how this happened. It may have been an accident, or even suicide.”

“I strongly doubt it’s the latter. Dak Trumbull was a famous actor, and he was very excited about this play.”

“Seems he had good reason for that. We understand the show has become a hit.” Zwillman looked up from her notebook. “Despite the tragic circumstances … congratulations.”

“No need to congratulate me—I had almost nothing to do with it.”

“But you’re the director.”

“Yes. Of a play that I don’t particularly like, which really shouldn’t have opened.”

“Can you tell us more about that?”

“The play’s overwrought and over-written. Swinging for the fences with almost every line.”

“If you feel that way, why did you take the job?”

“You’ve heard of Betsy and Bert LaPlante?”

“They’re the ones who financed the production.”  

“Yes. Our city isn’t New York, and this isn’t Broadway. Betsy and Bert fund a lot of the shows in this town, so when they offer you a job you say yes.”

“It was our understanding that the deceased—Mr. Trumbull—convinced them to back the show.”

“He was a big name, so his interest in a play could get the money flowing. Dak knew the LaPlante’s well, and brought them the script himself.” Coleman leaned forward. “Dak insisted that the playwright wanted to stay anonymous. His story kept changing, however; one moment he said a beloved cousin wrote the thing, the next it was a dear friend from college. But the upshot was he wouldn’t let us change it much. After a while I decided he wrote it.”

“Why would he hide that? Wouldn’t he want the credit?”

“I’m sure he would have come forward if it did well. If it bombed—which I expected it would—he could keep silent.”

Zwillman didn’t look at her notes. “Is that why you said it shouldn’t have opened?”

“Oh, no. I’ve helmed a lot of shows that never should have survived the rehearsal phase. Our problem here was that our leading man died five days before opening night. His name on the playbill was our biggest attraction, so I thought we’d simply shut down.”

“But you didn’t. And the play’s a success.”

“No one’s more surprised than I am. Betsy and Bert insisted that we open, and who knew Nesmith had that performance inside him?”

“That’s Peter Nesmith, Trumbull’s understudy?”

“He goes by Pete, and I hadn’t spent much rehearsal time on him. I’d concentrated on Dak and Val—Valerie Rossiter, our leading lady—and believe me that was plenty of work.”

“How so?”  

“Valerie’s a fine actor, so it didn’t take long before she noticed Dak’s fundamentals were lacking.”

“But he was a big star.”

“And it ruined him. He got rave reviews for one show when he was twenty, and I believe he plateaued right then and there. He stopped growing as an actor.”

“But that was ten years ago, and he was still a huge name at the time of his death.”

"When it comes to celebrity, people often see what was, not what is." Coleman looked at the stage, where the curtain was parting with a mechanical whir. “I’m sure Valerie can give you more detail on Dak’s abilities. In the meantime, I do have an unexpected hit on my hands. Are we close to done?”

Zwillman gave a nod to Sizemore, who consulted a small notebook. “Just one more question. How did Trumbull get along with the rest of the cast and the crew?”

“A bit standoffish, but friendly enough. He got in a minor tiff with our costume designer, but she’s a pro and they resolved it.” The director’s face hardened, and he stood. “For the record, I can’t imagine anyone here wanting to harm him.”

“We’re just running everything down.” Zwillman offered as the two detectives rose. The notebooks were closing when Sizemore spoke again.

“We’d heard that Trumbull had a special thermos that he brought to the theater every day. Someone said it was often in the way, in your break area.”

“Yes, it was a big one with a tartan design. He picked it up while doing a show in London, and filled it with this special tea shipped straight from England.” Coleman smiled at the memory. “A lot of people in this business have little rituals they follow.”

“The special tea? That was his?”  

“It was part of it. He told me he brought that thermos to every new show, every day until opening night. And he wouldn’t clean the thing until the first reviews were in. A little superstition of his.”

The director slid off through the seats, and the police officers watched him go. Once they were alone, Zwillman turned to Sizemore.

“So tell me what you saw.”

“He was relaxed, and didn’t flinch when I mentioned the thermos.”

“What else?”

“That bit about Trumbull not cleaning it explains why we found the residue.”

“Very good. What’s your overall assessment of our director?”

“Up-front kinda guy. Didn’t take credit for the play’s success, even said he doesn’t like it.”

“Maybe not so up-front. Almost everything he told us was something we could find out from the others.”

“You think he’s hiding something?”

“I think everyone we’re scheduled to meet knows a lot about acting. Not just the actors.”


“Nice view from here.” Sizemore rested his elbows on the balcony rail, looking down at the stage where distant figures were setting up furniture.

“Should I have a lawyer?” Valerie Rossiter wore casual street clothes, and her brown hair was carelessly bunched on top of her head. “I mean, are you here because you think someone murdered Dak?”

“At this time, no.” Zwillman answered. Seeing this didn’t satisfy the show’s co-star, she continued. “You can include an attorney if you like. We’ll just switch you for a later interview.”  

“No, I’ve got to get ready for tonight’s performance. Let’s go ahead.”

“You worked with Mr. Trumbull pretty closely, didn’t you?”

“It’s not a large cast, and we had the lion’s share of the scenes.”

“Did you detect any changes in his behavior? Especially in the week before he died?”

“No. He really enjoyed rehearsing this play. And he was looking forward to the opening.”

“How was his work? Did he seem distracted?”

Valerie blew out a long exhale. “Listen. His work was the same, no matter what. He was always focused on delivering his lines and moving the way he was supposed to move. That was my problem with him.”


“I was appalled to find out what a sub-par actor he was. It was like rehearsing with a robot—and that’s not how it’s supposed to be. We’re supposed to be exploring real life on that stage, real emotions. He gave me very little to work with.”

“I’m afraid I don’t understand.”

“Well how about this. You’re interrogating somebody and they’re just sitting there. Sticking to their story, and not reacting to anything you say. How would that work for you?”

“Not well at all.” The two detectives laughed.

“Right. It elicits nothing. No feeling. No spark. No back and forth.”

“I can see you’re passionate about your work.”

“We all are. In a way, I think he was too. As I said, he was always prepared. Saying the lines, making the moves. Technically accurate.”

“Did anyone else feel his performance was lacking?”  

“There were a few comments. But Pete—Dak’s understudy—took me aside one day. He’d noticed something Dak was doing that was simply wrong. You see, Pete really worked hard during rehearsal, even though it was unlikely he’d end up on stage. He studied what Dak and I were doing, and it paid off when he had to step in.”

“So what wrong thing did he notice?”

“Something the director should have fixed.” Valerie’s eyes widened with conviction. “When someone other than Dak was delivering an important line, and everyone on stage was supposed to be looking at them, Dak was usually looking somewhere else. It really harms the effect.”

“Excuse me, the effect?”

“On the audience. You see, they look where we point them. If the actors are all looking in the same direction, it subconsciously tells the audience that individual or that spot is important. You have even one player looking elsewhere, it detracts from it. If you have a small number of actors on stage, and the one goofing off is the star, it’s a problem.”

“Had you spotted this flaw? Before the understudy pointed it out?”

“No, but I was often the player doing the talking. And when I wasn’t, I was looking where we were all supposed to.”

“Must have been frustrating.”

“I took it to Coleman, but he didn’t do anything. He didn’t expect much from this play.”

“Did you?”

“At first I did. I was thrilled to be working with a big name, in a show backed by real money. Then, once I got to see Dak in action, I realized we’d probably get shut down opening night.” She looked at the seats below. “This is awful to say, given what’s happened, but I was  

afraid I’d get blamed for it. Sometimes the critics won’t beat on a big name when there’s a smaller one available.”

“So why didn’t you quit?” Sizemore asked.

“When you take the King’s coin …” she murmured.


“Just an old saying. If you want to keep working in this town, you do not quit on a Betsy and Bert production.”

“Sounds like you felt trapped.”

“I wish that’s all I felt. When I heard Dak had a heart attack, my first thought was ‘My God, he was only thirty.’ And my next thought was, ‘I’m off the hook. The show’s not gonna open.’ I know it’s terrible … but it’s the truth.” Valerie dropped her gaze to the floor.

Sizemore raised his eyebrows at Zwillman, but the senior detective shook her head.

“Thank you for meeting with us.”

The actor nodded, and headed for the exit. Sizemore whispered, “I think we should have asked her about the thermos.”

“It’s important to change up what we do, in case they compare notes. If we bring that up every time, it tips our hand.” Zwillman glanced at her notebook. “And don’t forget why we arranged the interviews in this order.”


“Looks like we don’t have to guess what you do around here.” Sizemore called as he and Zwillman crossed the stage. The lights were on now, and in the larger of the two wings a red-haired woman looked up from a garment she was mending with needle and thread.  

“I figured I’d get a little work done while I was waiting for you. I’m Lynnie Wooten.” She pointed a thumb behind her, at a rack of clothing. “I’m the costume designer.”

“I’m Detective Zwillman, and this is Detective Sizemore.” Zwillman looked around. “When the show was in rehearsal, I understand there was a break area set up back here.”

“That’s right.” Lynnie went back to sewing. “That long table off to the side had drinks and snacks on it.”

“Is that where Mr. Trumbull put this oversized thermos we’ve been hearing about?”

“That thing really was a monster. I had to move it out of the way a couple of times, when I needed part of the table.” She noted their quizzical expressions. “This is a small theater. You work where you can.”

“So it was important for everyone to accommodate each other.”

Lynnie’s hands stopped. “This production’s been a tough go, right from the start. I was surprised we pulled off that opening the other night, and never dreamed we’d be a hit. We put in a lot of late nights after Dak passed, to make that happen. It’s a good group of folks.”

“But didn’t Trumbull ruin one of your costumes? Took it home when you didn’t want him to, and spilled ink on it?”

“Oh my.” Lynnie smiled and went back to work. “Some little bird thought you needed to know that. Did they tell you I’ve been in this game twenty-five years? One thing you learn early in my job is never let an actor take a costume home. And the next thing you learn? When the star says he’s worried about not being able to move properly in a costume, you let him take it. And then you make a second one.”

The two detectives smiled, and Sizemore asked, “So that’s what you did?” 

“It wasn’t an easy job, but we had time back then. And Dak did have a point. It was a big coat with tails, a high collar, and rows of brass buttons. Takes practice to move normally in a rig like that.”

“So the ruined costume didn’t bother you?”

“I’m sympathetic to the actors, because I know they’re under a lot of pressure. Me, I deal in real things. Material things. A dress fits or it doesn't. An outfit complements the color scheme or it doesn't. But the players are dealing with all sorts of squishy stuff like foreshadowing and subtext. And they’re the ones who have to go out on that stage in front of all those people. I like to help them as much as I can.”

“What did you mean, when you said you had time ‘back then’ to make a second costume?” Zwillman asked.

“I was referring to Pete’s costumes when he took over the role. Dak was three inches taller than he is, so when they announced we were still doing the show, I had to do a mad scramble.”

“The understudy doesn’t get costumes?”

“I’d outfitted him well enough, believing he’d never get on stage. Normally an understudy gets the full rig, but this production was different. I didn’t expect the show to make it past the opening, so there was no danger of Pete having to do matinees. And if you’d told me this show would open without Dak, I would have laughed at you.”

“But it did.”

“Wasn’t the only thing I got wrong. Pete went out there and performed brilliantly.”

“Was he surprised that the show opened without Trumbull?” 

“We all were. We only had five days between Dak’s curtain coming down and the show’s curtain going up, but Pete pulled it off. I really shouldn’t have been surprised, given the effort he put in.”

“He worked hard to be ready?”

“He’s very dedicated. Every rehearsal he was standing right here where we are, mouthing the words and making notes about any changes. Of course he did have to step in every now and then, when Dak was on a break or when the director was playing around with the blocking—”

“Excuse me, blocking?”

“That’s a theater term. It just means the movement of the players on the stage. It can get very tricky, and blows a whole scene if it’s not done right.”

“So the understudy was ready to jump in, even though he thought it was highly unlikely?”

“Like I said, he’s dedicated.”


“Hello?” A male voice called from center stage, and the detectives turned in place. “I’m Pete Nesmith. I’m next on your list, so I’ll be waiting over here when you’re ready.”

“Actually, we’re done.” Zwillman waved at Lynnie, and crossed the stage with Sizemore. “I understand congratulations are in order.”

“Thank you, I guess.” He absently ran a hand through thick black hair. “I wish it was under different circumstances.”

“You were fond of Mr. Trumbull? Spent a lot of time with him?”

“No, actually. I approached him early on, asking if I could pick his brain as rehearsal progressed, but he turned me down. He said he didn’t want to mess with my process.”

“But you were his understudy. Weren’t you supposed to follow his process?”

“At first. You see, as rehearsal goes from table reading to run-throughs, everybody’s making choices. That includes the set designers, Lynnie, the lighting folks, you name it. The whole group is discussing things like what this scene means, what’s the emphasis at this point, who’s walking from Point A to Point B at moment C. So yeah, if I jumped into that without knowing all the choices they’d made I’d just be in the way.

“But I’m not supposed to be a carbon copy of the star, either. That’s mimicry, not acting.”

“So your performance was different from the one Mr. Trumbull was rehearsing?”

“We had just enough time, between his passing and opening night, to work me in. It was non-stop, and at first I was playing most of it the way I’d seen him do it. But this cast and crew is really great, and they reacted to my adjustments.”

“You felt there was something lacking in Mr. Trumbull’s performance?”

“Absolutely not. I learned a lot, just studying him. But no two actors are alike, so of course I was going to make changes.”

Zwillman looked at Sizemore, and found his eyes already on her.

“You respected him as an actor.”

“Totally.” Pete stepped to the edge of the stage, putting his back to them. “When I walked out here opening night … I told myself I was going to do the best job I possibly could, to honor Dak Trumbull.”

He turned in profile, his chin down but his eyes on them.

“Did you know we sold out, just hours after the news that he was gone? And that people were requesting tickets for later performances before the first night’s reviews came out, when we didn’t even know if there’d be more performances?”

Zwillman glanced at her notes. “From everything we’ve read, the show was a winner before the final curtain. You didn’t know you’d hit a home run?”

“Oh, you do know.” He turned again, facing the empty theater. “When you make that connection with an audience, there’s an energy in the air. It’s electrifying … and the best part of what I do.”

He stepped over to them. “But you can never tell what the critics are going to say. That’s what I meant about later shows.”

“Tell me, was there any friction on set? Anyone who might not have enjoyed working with Mr. Trumbull as much as you did?”

“There were minor disagreements, and he did wreck one of Lynnie’s jackets, but I thought everybody got along pretty well. I’ve been doing this since I was fifteen, and I’ve been in shows where they were at each other’s throats.” He paused. “You don’t really think someone poisoned him, right? At least not one of us.”

“We’re still sorting through all the possibilities.” Zwillman tapped her pen against her lips in a special signal to Sizemore, and then watched Nesmith closely while her partner spoke.

“We do have one piece of evidence that points here, though.”

“Really? I’m shocked.”

“It’s not conclusive. But we found traces of the chemical that killed Mr. Trumbull on his thermos. They were on the threading where the top screwed on. Like someone spilled the powder while pouring it in with the tea.”

Pete looked down, as if considering the new information. When he looked up, his face was troubled. “I can’t believe anyone here would do something like that. I mean, why? What’s the motivation?”

“Might be none at all. It’s still possible this was just a terrible accident.”

Pete didn’t answer, and so Zwillman extended her hand. “Thanks for speaking with us, Mr. Nesmith.”


Valerie dropped onto a park bench next to Lynnie just before noon the next day. Although they were hidden by a row of trees, the costume designer leaned in close.

“You heard? The police called Pete down to the station for more questions. With a lawyer this time.”

“Take it easy. They’re chasing the wrong suspect.”

“There wasn’t supposed to be a suspect.”

“There wasn’t supposed to be a show. If Betsy and Bert had just pulled the plug, we’d all be scattered to the four winds now. The police wouldn’t have even bothered to contact us.”

“Yes they would.” Lynnie shifted in her seat. “When they spoke with Pete yesterday, I stayed where I was and heard the whole thing. They found powder on the thermos.”

“You didn’t tell me you made a mess.”

“I was a little nervous, all right? You and the others were right there on stage, and I had to wait until the break area was clear. I was almost done when a janitor came banging through the door. Practically jumped out of my skin, and spilled some of it.”

“Why didn’t you tell me?”

“I thought it wouldn’t make a difference. Stuff wouldn’t take effect for days. I figured he’d wash the thing, and that would be that. Who doesn’t clean a container they use every day?”

“Same kinda guy who spills ink on a borrowed costume and then claims he doesn’t know how it happened.” 

“Remember that?” Lynnie shook her head. “He actually said he didn’t do it.”

They both chuckled quietly, but the designer’s face soon darkened. “I’m worried. They already suspected Pete; that’s why they talked to him last. They asked themselves who would benefit from Dak’s passing, and the answer was the guy who got his job.”

“Come on. We discussed this. If somebody started asking questions, where were we going to point them? At the player who appeared to have motive—Pete. But we knew he’d beat it, because it makes no sense to kill somebody for their role when their death should have shut down the production. Everybody expected us to close, and said so. Coleman, me, even Pete himself. Any half-decent lawyer will have him out of there in time for tonight’s curtain.”

“There’s more. Pete lied to them. He said he respected Dak and learned a lot from him.” Lynnie raised helpless palms to the sky. “How could he forget all the times he criticized Dak, to you and to me?”

“He didn’t want to speak ill of the dead. That’s all that was.” Valerie put a hand on her shoulder. “This is better than we could have hoped. They jumped the gun by calling Pete in, and his lawyer will rip them for it. After that they won’t know what to do. It’ll be easier for them to label it an accident, and walk away. You ask me, this is already over.”

“Why are you so calm?”

“Because I know we had no choice. We were trapped. Remember what this gig sounded like at first?” Her words started tumbling out, with heat. “A new play, a big star, and we’d finally be in with Betsy and Bert. Good deal, right? Nobody told us the star was a dud.”

“Boy was he! You might as well have been working with a mannequin. But you can bet the critics would have trashed your performance when his killed the show.”

“I can take bad reviews if I’ve earned them—”

“Stop that! How long have you and I worked together? I’ve watched you perform your heart out play after play, and not get the credit you deserve. All those lousy roles you took over the years, slogging your way up, and what did it do for you? Made you just big enough to take the blame. That hack was going to ruin you.”

“Well he didn’t. We made sure of that.”

“I like to think we did him a favor. Sometime in the future, somebody was going to see the emperor had no clothes. Then they were going to say it, and Dak Trumbull would have been finished.”

“Instead, we made him immortal.”

“We did, didn’t we? His show is a hit, and now he’s a legend.” Lynnie frowned. “You sure Pete’ll be all right?”

“The cops are looking exactly where we pointed them. You told them Pete always stood in the break area during rehearsal, and I told them he prepared like crazy for a role he’d never play. They listened to us, and now they’ve got the wrong suspect and no case.”

“The audience looks where we point them.” Lynnie murmured, and then squeezed her shoulder. Valerie watched the designer’s back as she walked away.

“They look where I point them.” She whispered to the wind.

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Vincent H. O'Neil | Scene4 Magazine | www.scene4.com

Vincent H. O'Neil is the Malice Award-winning author of the Exile mystery series from St. Martin's Press and the theater-themed mystery novel Death Troupe. More at www.vincenthoneil.com

©2020 Vincent H. O’Neil
©2020 Publication Scene4 Magazine




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