Nearly a month from now, Dickinson residents will attend a circus — and witness a murder.

It's all fun and games, of course. It's part of the 15th Annual Dickinson Public Schools Foundation Mystery Dinner Theater in which playgoers will participate in an interactive murder mystery.

Josh Nichols wrote this year's play, titled "Murder Under the Big Top."

"When the audience shows up, they’re essentially going to be coming to a circus. The general plot point is that the circus tent had some malfunctions and had collapsed, and so they had to move it to the Ramada," Nichols said.

"When the audience first comes in, they’ll have a chance to interact with some of the characters who will be milling about the circus," he said. "I like to do it as though the audience is part of where we’re at. When they’re at the Ramada, they’re at a circus, and the circus performers just happen to be around and they’re having conversations with each other. The audience just happens to be there."

The first act will build character development and establish what the characters' motives might be. As the night goes on and the audience eats their dinner, they'll watch for clues as to who the murderer might be.

"It’s funny how the audience will read into things sometimes," Nichols said. "We’ll have some things that are very mundane like a certain decoration or a certain line, and people are like, ‘We counted the number of balloons that were on the table, and it was less than that’ or ‘Do you remember when we heard that someone dropped a plate? That was to distract us from the murder,’ and that has nothing to do with any of it, so they really get into it and start reading into things that aren’t necessarily part of the show."

During dessert, participants will get to have a Q&A with the cast members.

"As the cast are milling about, they get to ask characters questions and try to interrogate them, essentially," Nichols said.

There will even be pseudo-cirque acts.

"There will be a specific portion of the evening that the circus has started. We have a ringmaster, we have clowns, we have acrobats, we have all that, but just don’t expect too dangerous of acts at the Ramada," Nichols laughed.

This is Nichols' second year writing the play. For the 10 years prior in which he participated in the theater, the plays performed were written by someone else.

"Most of them were from one author that writes murder mystery scripts," Nichols said. "Then we sort of ran out … There’s a lot of people that come every year. We can’t really repeat a script. It’d be different if this was every few years we did it and we could kind of recycle through, but people remember 10 years ago, and some people will bring up characters — ‘Remember when you were this person?’ That was eight or nine years ago!"

Now that they're writing their own plays, Nichols and the cast have more freedom to play with the script.

"We actually have greater latitude with an original script than we would have with a script for which we would have to procure a production license," said Jackie Hope, cast member. "There are parameters one must adhere to with a commercial script, and one must apply for permission for any script changes or additions. Since we have the playwright in our troupe, those parameters disappear and we are free to create and develop our characters under the guidance of our director."

She added, "A play is a living thing, and as such, it grows and changes as it matures into a production.”

Nichols, who also directs and acts in the play, said the cast revises the script as they rehearse.

"They’re adding lines; they’re developing their characters ... It’s almost like we’re workshopping it the first time we do it, and then I’ll go back and firm the script up," he said.

The preparation can be nerve-wracking, said Hope.

"One sometimes thinks, 'This is never going to be ready for an audience to see!' But by some magic, it always is ... That is why we do it. Why we work long hours into the night, why we scream lines until we are hoarse, and why we become people who are strange, beautiful, or even evil. For that magic,” she said.

The mystery dinner has become the Foundation's "showcase event," according to Karen Heidt, the Foundation's director of development.

“I can’t wait for this year’s show," Heidt said. "We have a great cast of volunteer actors. We are so lucky to have so many talented actors and actresses in our area that donate their time to perform each year. It should be a fun theme again this year. We appreciate the support of our community which has helped us award nearly $500,000 in grants since 1989 to enrich education in the Dickinson Public Schools.”

Tickets go on sale Friday, Jan. 17 from 5 to 8 pm and Saturday, Jan. 18 from 10 am to noon at the Roosevelt Grand Dakota Hotel in the Demores room. Murder Under the Big Top will be performed at the hotel Feb. 6-8. Seating is limited, and tickets are often sold out quickly.

The dinner will include a spring mix with with cranraisins, blue cheese crumbles with a raspberry vinaigrette dressing, pretzel breadsticks, chicken wellington drizzled with raspberry sauce on a bed of wild rice, glazed carrots and a surprise dessert.