Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Mike Hayes - Man of Science and Mystery

What compels a man of science and technology to focus his endeavors on the more artistic side of things? Ironically, in the case of Mike Hayes ─ mentor, team leader, and fundraiser for FIRST ─ it is precisely because of his passion for science that Hayes has turned to the Arts.

By day, a supply chain quality process leader for GE Transportation in Erie, Hayes spends part of his free time writing, directing, producing, and performing murder mystery dinner plays, whose profits are used to support local FRC teams. During the past 11 years, this labor of love has raised over $100,000 for the organization.

The mechanical engineer cum playwright, who has been a volunteer with FIRST since 1998 and a mentor of Team 291 since 1999, has discovered a satisfying and lucrative way to combine his love of science and art. How exactly did this man of science get bitten by the acting bug? Hayes says when he initially arrived in Erie in 1991, he connected with the Erie Playhouse, a community theater group, and soon after got involved with a local Murder Mystery Dinner troupe. When his colleagues at GE discovered his theatrical bent, they asked Hayes to help with recruitment dinners for the company. His first drama-related assignment at GE was to entertain about 60 potential hires.

How did Hayes become skilled at actually writing the plays? He says when the company asked him to put pen to paper, Hayes suggested a professional outfit. However, when the price tag was deemed too steep, GE wondered if he would consider writing the script himself.

Initially, Hayes was reluctant. But, not long after, he had a “eureka moment” when a co-worker jokingly commented that another co-worker was “Mr. Pressed and Starched”. Just like that, Hayes had found his main character ─ complete with corny name (Preston Starchd), which is often a hallmark of the murder mystery genre ─ and the idea for a script was born. Since then, he says he basically follows a structured process progressing from premise all the way through to a finished script.

Making it sound simple, the engineer rattles off the necessary steps to the process like a Hollywood playwright on some back lot in LA. According to Hayes, the format is fairly straightforward. He says each script gestates for about eight months, during which time he is able to develop the characters, figure out the plot, assemble the relationships, make sure the clues are airtight, and ensure that the mystery portion of the play is logical.

“First, you need to establish the premise for the play, then develop the characters and the sequence of events. The mystery needs to be solvable ─ not too easy, but not too hard ─ and the clues need to be believable.” After the initial ideas have fermented, Hayes estimates he needs about 30 hours to put his thoughts on paper. That’s when the fun begins.

The group does one production a year, typically giving four performances over two weekends. There are usually ten, 90-minute rehearsals to perfect each play. Although the 15 scripts are all mystery oriented, there’s quite a variety of subjects, including politics, the Internet, and the nightly news. Hayes admits he enjoys concocting the titles of his plays like A Killing in the Kingdom of Kockenbull; Luxury Liner Lunacy: Mania, Marriage, and Murder on the High Seas; and Sabotage at the Simpson School of Sciences. As well as the latest one he’s working on now, tentatively titled Zootsuits and Zipguns.

The “actors” are often a combination of GE employees, FIRST students, and people who just want to get in on the fun. Hayes says it’s not too difficult to corral the players. Typically he needs about seven per play, but is quick to add that an acting background is not a prerequisite. “All you need is a sense of adventure, a good sense of humor, and a knack for improvisation.”

“The formula that works best for us has been the mystery play/dinner combination,” adds Hayes, explaining the pattern of each performance: in between each act, a portion of the dinner is served. This allows for the audience to grill the actors a little and for the actors to tease the guests a little, too.

As for marketing the play, Hayes says it’s a fairly simple sell. “It makes for easy marketing when you know that the Head of IT is going to play the part of the sheriff, or that a friend of theirs from Human Resources, is cast in the role of a Hollywood starlet.”

According to Hayes, the technical requirements for each performance are “fairly straightforward. You need a room, a copier, some envelopes, some pencils, and a little food.” However, after reviewing the document detailing everything from printing tickets to setting up the room, the process seems a bit more complicated than he lets on.

To help make that process more turnkey, Hayes provides a Mystery Dinner Kit to fellow FIRST folks who want to try their hand at raising money through theater productions. The kit includes detailed instructions on how to arrange the seating; how the cast members should be positioned for optimum interaction with the audience; and how to spruce up the performance area, whether it’s a school cafeteria or an auditorium.

GE is the major sponsor for Hayes’s productions, underwriting the food and providing the facility for the performances. Often the dinner theme dovetails with the play’s theme. What’s on the menu? Usually it’s some combination of salad, chicken, pasta, vegetables, beverages, and desserts.

Hayes says his group performs an average of four times a year, typically for about 130 people each night. Tickets cost $25 for both dinner and the show, and, on average, each show nets a little over $3,000, or about $12,000 a year.

Team 291 – Creativity In Action, or CIA (the team that Hayes helps to mentor) also hosts golf tournaments and comedy club outings as part of their fundraising efforts. Hayes says, “All of our major fundraisers have a common theme: find things that people are willing to spend money on, and suggest, if they're going to do that anyway, why not do it on behalf of FIRST?”

No matter what venue Hayes is using in his fundraising efforts he tries never to lose sight of the ultimate goal: raising money for FIRST. With that in mind, he recommends that a robot is present at the performances so that “people can see what they are supporting by their attendance.”

“The idea of solving a mystery and the task of conquering a design challenge aren’t really all that different,” Hayes says. “Both present you with a puzzle that is solvable, but only by paying attention to the details. And in both cases, it’s an awful lot of fun to know that you’ve solved it.”

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