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September 9, 2016

Make Sure You’ve Got The Right Coffin: Producing FINNEGAN’S FAREWELL In A Funeral Home


Two days before opening night, the cast of Beaverton Civic Theatre’s production of Finnegan’s Farewell are gathered around a gigantic conference table in the corner of the public library.

At the head of the table, co-directors Amanda Clark and Josh Pounders are going over the final details of the show – when the actors will arrive at the venue and where they will sit, where they will gather when the action starts, what topics they will talk about with the audience, and so on.

Finnegan’s Farewell is a dinner show that requires significant coordination on the part of the actors, there is little room for error. Everyone needs to be crystal clear on where they’re supposed to be and when, they’ve only got one chance to get this right.

Further complicating the matter is the fact that nobody besides Clark and Pounders have been inside the venue yet. Aiming for that extra edge of authenticity, BCT contacted Young’s Funeral Home in hopes of putting on the show in their banquet hall. Although Young’s enthusiastically accepted BCT’s offer, the demands of the business precluded rehearsing in the actual space until opening day. So the cast drags around the tables in the conference room to approximate where the walls, doors and seats will be for the show, and takes their places for a quick read through.

Audience interaction is a key point ofFinnegan’s Farewell, attendees need to feel that they are participating in the story as opposed to merely observing it. In order to sell a few more tickets a few key characters will be left without a seat, helping to feed the improv conversations during the meal.

“We’ll sit most of the actors at the tables with the guests and coordinated their movements around the room so that guests will get different perspectives on the same story,” says Clark. “It’s very important to immerse the audience in the experience of being at an Irish wake. They need to have a sense that they are active participants, even guests of the deceased.”

With the room set up the cast do a final read-through, complete with enthusiastic renditions of Irish standards like “Danny Boy” and “Rattlin’ Bog.” Pounders and Clark make small corrections here and there, but are mostly content with what they see.

As with many dinner shows,Finnegan’s Farewell requires a level of teamwork between actors that goes well beyond what would be expected in a traditional production. Due to the nature of the show, the directors reached out to performers they already knew and trusted from previous BCT shows rather than holding an open audition.

“We relied on seasoned actors who had worked with BCT previously,” said Pounders. “We needed cast members who we could trust to do lots of work on their own and who would bring fun, positive, creative attitudes to the project.”

“There’s a greater need to create and memorize made up details about the characters, their relationships, and past events,” he adds. “An actor has to have lots of material at their disposal with which to respond to questions and situations presented by the audience…additionally, it’s important that the actors get the details straight among themselves so that their stories are consistent.”

After finishing the read-through the cast does several scenes again until the directors are satisfied, then start cleaning up. On opening day they will run through it one more time inside the funeral home; with luck they’ll be able to finish up in time to scatter before the audience arrives. There is a slight air of trepidation as everyone files out the door –Finnegan’s Farewell is the first dinner show put on by BCT and nobody really knows how it’s going to go.

The idea for the show came from a conversation with the Beaverton Lions Club about a joint dinner fundraiser with the theater. The Portland area has a multitude of murder mystery shows, and the theater knew it would have to offer something unique to be successful. Clark, who had worked on a production of Finnegan’s Farewell at the Sandusky State Theatre in Ohio, knew the show was just the thing to bring people in.

“The show was a ton of fun and I thought that it would be a great fit for this fundraiser,” says Clark. “And how cool would it be to do it in an actual funeral home? Luckily, Young’s Funeral Home was very excited to be involved and everything just fell into place.”

Opening night comes, and the room is packed. The show sold out several weeks ago, there’s not an empty seat in the house. Although the actors were able to practice their audience interaction bits on a small group of BCT volunteers and the cast’s family members, it’s a poor substitute for the mass of people occupying the banquet hall in Young’s.

“This is the first show I’ve directed where actors interact with the audience to this degree,” says Pounders. “It creates a whole new realm of possibility, but also comes along with a degree of uncertainty: you never know how an audience member is going to react or where that will take things. This show is very different in that regard.”

Pounders’ uncertainty was quickly laid to rest however. The show went off near flawlessly, and by the end of the night it was obvious the event was a complete success. The show made money for both BCT and the Beaverton Lions Club, and the theater is currently working to schedule more performances with the funeral home.

“We learned a few things about the logistics of the performance and event, namely the need to communicate very clearly any expectations of the venue and caterers,” says Pounders. “More importantly, we’re more familiar with the intimate details of the script and feel there would be lots of opportunities to continue adding layers to the characters and their relationships, the plot, and the interactive elements of the event. Can’t wait to do it again!”

“We reached our fundraising goals, the audience loved it, and the actors had a great time playing,” says Clark. “I’d call that a success!”

Finnegan’s Farewell will have an encore performance on September 24. For tickets and details, click here.

To purchase a copy of Finnegan’s Farewell, click here, and to learn more about licensing a production, click here.