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THE PLAY THAT GOES WRONG by Annabelle Clarke, Julia Culp, Foster Swartz

Posted by on Tuesday, October 16, 2018 in 1010 blog posts.

On Tuesday, October 9th, 2018, Vanderbilt junior Julia Culp and sophomores Annabelle Clarke and Foster Swartz saw The Play That Goes Wrong at the Tennessee Performing Arts Center. On Friday, October 12th, they made their way to Centennial Park and gather around a shaded picnic table to discuss their thoughts on the production.
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Annabelle Clarke is a sophomore in Peabody College majoring in Special Education and Human and Organizational Development. In her free time, she enjoys listening to Duran Duran and engaging in catfights with other women.

Julia Culp is a junior studying music education at the Blair School of Music. She’s grown up with a great love and appreciation for the arts and is currently serving as the Artistic Director for Vitality Dance Company here on campus.

Foster Swartz is a sophomore in the College of Arts & Science majoring in Theatre and English. He was immensely surprised at how many things went wrong in this play.
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Annabelle Clarke
So, we all saw The Play That Goes Wrong. What were your expectations going into the show about what it was going to be?

Foster Swartz
Well, I actually didn’t think anything was going to go wrong. I thought it was actually pretty surprising that things happened that weren’t planned on.

A
I had seen a few iterations of it before. I had experience with the production company, and I knew that it was going to be a play within a play. Did you guys know that going into it or did it take you a few minutes to adjust to it?

Julia Culp
I didn’t do a ton of background reading before going into it. I read what TPAC was trying to advertise the performance as, so I was a little suspicious I guess when they were describing it as “Oh, people tripping over their lines! A corpse that can’t stay dead!” And I was like, “Okay! This will be interesting.” It wasn’t until you said, “Oh, this is a play within a play” that I got it. And then I think they did a really job at the beginning, even before the actual play started, of giving, or setting the scene with the play with the audience members beforehand and all that.

F
Even with the programs too

J
The programs too.

A
The programs were confusing because the first half of the program was the play within the play and then you had to go look for the actual actors.

F
I meant on the cover of the program – it was wrong as well.

What I have to say about the play within a play thing – I think for me, even if it wasn’t in the conceit of, you know, “oh we’re doing a play,” it would be so meta by its nature that it would be like that. Even if they weren’t actors performing, you know, the fact that things messed up, that things were going to go wrong, it would’ve been undeniable that we were watching a play.

A
I think they did a really job of setting the atmosphere right up front – these personas that were taking themselves so seriously that you could see when they “messed up.” That the “actors”… you could see their hearts breaking a little bit. Especially the one, the inspector.

J
The president, who was also the director, the stage manager… he was doing everything, and he was getting upset. The rest of the crew tried to keep going, but he would get emotional that things weren’t going the way he wanted them to.

F
The only characters that I really knew who they were as people were the inspector and the lighting guy. I know nothing about the guy who played Haversham, the corpse that came back to life. I know nothing about who he is outside of that role.

A
That is a hard one though since he didn’t have that much opportunity.

F
I know but even the baritone seemed only to be comedic thought. The one that confused me the most – the absolute most, it made no sense to me whatsoever – was the stagehand who started off on the stage during the preshow covering her face. Like, what? Does she have stage fright? Does she think the audience doesn’t see her?

J
The door kept opening, and they thought if they looked at the door it would close. So, she was trying to not look at the door.

A
Oh…

F
Are you sure?

A
It looked like she was facing away from the… I thought I heard her say something, when she pulled the audience member up, along the lines of: act like you’re not here, don’t look at them and they won’t notice you. Something like that.

F
Maybe that… but also, still. Her personality completed changed when, suddenly, she wanted to be the star? Like, what?

A
I feel like it’s a poorly written cliché – people don’t understand the theatre until they experience it and then they find out that they’re meant to be actors all along blah blah blah. But yeah, it’s not a very good trope.

I was thinking about this earlier… so, what I know about it from the other production I saw filmed for BBC and using the original cast as examples… The guy who played the director of the company – it’s the same company, supposedly, that’s putting on all these different shows that they have going on. That character (I think his name is Dennis) is always overly serious and always concerned if the audience laughs about him. If we’re supposing that the same company casts the same way – because in the Broadway production and the productions they’ve filmed, it’s the same cast in all of the same roles – they do a lot of the same quirks. So, the guy that played Cecil in this production originally: in the other production I’ve seen him in, he does the same quirk where every time he gets the audience to laugh or applause he really hams it up. Similar with the stagehand not wanting to be seen and the butler reading his lines off of his hand – he’s done that in other productions as well. By that logic, you could think, “Okay well maybe they’re consistent across all realms of the character of Dennis.” But there were also big inconsistencies in that, the guy who played Cecil in this production we suppose is gay whereas in the other production he was in love with Sandra, the girl. So, I don’t know if there’s any merit to that thought but it’s interesting to me that they reuse those same quirks within casting decisions.

J
It’s something similar to what you were saying during intermission. You [Foster] were commenting on the fact that every single thing they were doing was getting a laugh. It’s as if they have a scientific formula or equation figured out for: how can we get people to laugh? And that might have a play in it – we know these characters and these people in these roles can get the audience reaction we want. Why don’t we just replicate it as we can, throughout?

F
A note on Cecil’s sexuality: so, for me, as a heterosexual actor, I, outside of the stage, prefer kissing girls, obviously. But I feel like because you are an actor and you like the spotlight. If that is a fundamental aspect of your personality, you will do what it takes to get a laugh. You will do what it takes for the show. That’s a trademark of somebody who, like Cecil, would be hamming it up and responding directly, being fueled by the audience. So The fact that suddenly he wouldn’t kiss a girl because of his sexuality seemed completely opposing to that he’s a ham and that he loves the spotlight.
J
He made that motion – got a bunch of laughs. But he was okay not doing what his job was supposed to be.

F
It made no sense! And, regarding what you just said about what I just said during intermission…

All laugh.

I think, one act of the play was great because, in that one act, there wasn’t that much room for inconsistencies. You had a confined – this is our act. Things go wrong! I remember saying to Essin, “What do you think they’re going to do for Act Two? Where can they take this?”

J
I had the same question – how are we going to end this thing that’s just going wrong, wrong, wrong?

F
And they just repeated it! They repeated it all, and it got a little louder!

A
But the set fell down in the second act!

F
Whoa, the set fell down!!

A
Actually, that might have been the first act, I don’t know. It happened earlier than you’d think it would.

F
Yeah, I agree with that.

Laughs.

A
I think that there’s some argument to be made, like what you were saying, if they can escalate those points. But they weren’t changing them at all. They were just as dynamic. So, the guy mispronouncing the words, reading off of his hand: he didn’t get worse at it. That didn’t become more of an issue. It was just – every time he read a word and said it wrong and the audience laughed.

J
It was every couple scenes: oh, he’s going to bring his hand back up, what is he going to say wrong now?

A
But it didn’t seem like an intentional escalation. Like okay, it’s going to get heightened and heightened until something happens with this point. It just seemed like a fallback joke.

F
I wish they’d escalated that! I remember at one point he said one word that was really, like he really messed it up. It was like key – a – needy or something?

J
Oh, sigh – a – needy when he was trying to say cyanide?

F
Yeah, and I was like, “Dude. Either commit to this or don’t.” Get to a point in the play where they need the antidote, or they need the password. That’s what it should’ve been! “What’s the password?” And he says the word wrong. And they say that word and they can’t get it because of the fact that this guy is pronouncing it. That would have been, “Oh, we went somewhere with this,” but otherwise, what happened —

A
Or even if he was mispronouncing easier and easier words —

F
Yeah, like “Doge” —

A
Or “Hayve.”

Laughter.

F
That would’ve been funny!

A
But it was the same level of consistency throughout the entire play.

F
It’s like, “Dude, we get it.”

J
I was actually uncomfortable at the beginning of the play, because everyone was laughing at things that I wasn’t finding incredibly humorous… it kind of felt like I had to join in. And then after a while, I guess I felt comfortable with what was happening on stage. It’s like I had to buy into the fact that, “Okay, this is the show that I’m watching, this is the humor that it’s going to be for the entire night. I’m going to just enjoy myself.”

A
Just to self-deprecate us a little bit here, do you think that the reason our group didn’t find it as funny as most of the patrons of TPAC was because we are —

F
Because we’re smart?

A
Yeah, intellectuals, elites; that we hold ourselves to a higher standard, a higher caliber of comedy?

F
No.

J
No, I think it’s because… when I was growing up, when my family went to the theater, it was really like a big deal, an occasion. It was like, “We are going to see Les Mis” — it was an excursion, it was an event. And I guess you always expect to leave those things feeling intellectually stimulated or something, like you got something out of it — whereas this was purely entertainment. They weren’t really trying to send a message, they weren’t trying to get you to walk away with a bigger idea of the world. They were just here to give you laughs.

F
Here’s what I’ll say: I love slapstick, I love raunchy stuff — I mean, there are some things that are so gross that are only funny because they’re gross, and I still laugh at them — it’s just that, approaching this production as an English major, as a writer, I was just a little bit disappointed they didn’t do more. I don’t know if it’s just because I was an elite saying “I only want intellectually stimulating media;” it was more like “I think they could do more with this, and I’m upset that they are not, that once again the set’s all falling down.” I mean, they did all that business of “We’re reconstructing the set! We’re reconstructing the set!” And then the first beat of act two is the set all falling down. It’s like, “Okay! Just knock down the whole set a few more times, then! That’ll get a huge laugh!”

J
You could definitely see where it was going. I predicted from the beginning the entire set was going to fall down at some point. And it did.

A
So, what I’ve been ruminating on for a while is: how I feel the play ties into current society is kind of why I don’t think I found it as funny, personally. Because I think it was a true return to form of slapstick comedy, like you were saying, Foster… like for so long, decades ago, physical comedy was like the “it” humor. And then it became a lot more sitcom-y and conversational in nature, and then this year, it’s gotten very witty, fast-paced, and full of references —

F
Also darker, I’d say.

A
Darker! And so, the tone of comedy has shifted, but I think that — outside of television and a lot of media, in Vine and even America’s Funniest Home Videos — this whole “fail” culture has become really popular.

F
Fail!

A
It’s funny for people now to watch other people mess up. I think old-school physical comedy was very planned: you could tell that he was going to slap somebody, that guy would duck, and he’d hit the other person, instead. Whereas in recent years, there’s this idea that “Oh, he didn’t mean to fall, but he did, and that’s what makes it funny.” has become really in. I think that’s what they were trying to do — this idea that things go wrong but they’re not planned, as much as they can pretend that they’re not planned. It’s kind of that fail culture, that it’s funny to watch things go wrong. I personally never found that type of stuff funny, so when I watched this play…

F
Yeah, I just got mad. I mean, at one point I said, “Everyone on this stage just fall over already, the audience will poop their pants!”

Laughter.

A
And that’s more or less what happened!

F
Yes, but like… this one guy fell over twice, and I was like, “How many more times do you think that will get a laugh?”

A
Or the stepping on the hand, or the door hitting the head. Almost every time someone would open the door, it would hit someone on the head, and they would either pass out or — actually, it was very inconsistent whether they would fully pass out —

F
Or just go “Oof!”

A
“Man, that hurt!”

J
And it was the same sound effect.

A
Same sound effect, same setup every time, where someone was behind the door, they’d open it, they’d get hit. And it got a big laugh every time, which is kind of ridiculous.

F
I would like to say something now about why this is a play that is not meant for now.

Laughter.

F
This play’s treatment of women was atrocious, in my opinion. And I’m not someone that thinks every play has to have every demographic represented; but in this play, the main girl is literally on stage, I think, only for people to look at her butt. I mean, that’s what people were doing when she was in her underwear for no reason, and when she was knocked out, and when she was treated like an object… And then when she’s awake, suddenly she just wants the spotlight — her one characteristic is that she’s an attention whore, and that’s it. I was disgusted by that.

J
And then they wrapped the other woman into it, as well. This lady who started the show off working hard and getting everything prepared shifted into the same “I want the spotlight! I want the spotlight!” And then it ended with them having a catfight upstage, when everyone else was downstage doing the main thing. It was just —

A
I think that if you’re going along with the play-within-a-play conceit, if the female character in the murder mystery was supposed to be overdramatic, then you could say it was a satire of these roles for women. But the fact that the actress character, Sandra, was such, for lack of a better word, an attention whore, and that it wasn’t the character focused on flashing her body around but the actress: that’s what made it cross over the line into blatant sexism, I think. And the catfight was just absurd.

J
And it just kept going and would not stop.

F
And of course, an extension of that was the homophobia, rooted in “Ok, now the big, buff lighting dude is gonna say lines that are feminine, and everyone’s gonna lose their minds — they are gonna pee in their pants this time — because it’s so funny to see a guy read lines that are meant for a girl.” It’s very Shakespearean. It was just so lowbrow — and again, I’m okay with slapstick, because even that takes some work to make sure that this falls at that time and that you are there at that time — but just being like (*deep voice*) “I love a man. *looks at audience with disgusted face, audience goes wild…”

A
I think another thing that is important to note, just in the context of the play, is that the company is owned by and written by three white men, who operate all aspects of their company and who star in every show. The original cast is, I believe, all white, as well, so there was a little more colorblind casting in this version of it; but that doesn’t excuse any other negative behaviors they exhibit throughout it. In that idea that it’s like a return to form, the way it was advertised and the way it set out to be understood — I was under the impression that yes, they were going to do this physical comedy thing, but it was going to be done in a way that was more intellectually stimulating. Like, I think there are ways to do that that can still be funny and intellectual at the same time, where they don’t have to resort to clichés and stereotypes and repetition of the same old jokes. So it had a lot of potential in that regard, and it just did nothing with it.

J
I think there was a bright point in the production when they started making references to Nashville. The audience appreciated when he was joking about the Grand Ole Opry and country music. I think I enjoyed it because there was variation. It was different from what was happening.

F
Also, what the hell is Duran Duran? And why was that the thing that they chose to be like, “oh, Duran Duran, get it?”

A
It’s an old eighties band. They sing “Hungry Like The Wolf”.

F
I don’t know what that is! I just think if you’re going to try to be topical, and you’re going to reference Nashville, and we’re assuming these kids are in college, do something like One Direction! Do something that I know.

A
I think it goes along with the idea that you were saying how it’s funny when that big manly stagehand said girly stuff. I think Duran Duran is one of those “I’m a man, I listen to cool eighties rock” bands.

F
Is Duran Duran cool and manly?

A
I think so. It’s classic rock. I’m really embarrassed that if I’m wrong about this, someone is going to read the transcript and be like, “you know nothing about Duran Duran”. Here’s a new question. What do you think is the longevity of a production like this?

J
You see it once, and you never see something like it again.

A
Because they have written a number of different shows, the Mischief Theatre Company, and they’re all currently running on West End.

J
That’s what I don’t understand!

F
Do they all go wrong?

A
Yeah, it’s Peter Pan Goes Wrong, it’s The Play That Goes Wrong. Peter Pan Goes Wrong is the one filmed for BBC.

F
No way! That is so lazy!

A
That’s what the Mischief Theatre Company does! The idea is that it’s the same college theatre company putting on all these different productions.

F
Oh, I hate that! [all laugh]

J
To be fair, when we were all at the theatre, we were discussing how much effort it must have taken to line up those cues and plan all the mishaps. At the time, we were giving them credit for their efforts. I think now we’ve let it marinate and we’re realizing that we did not enjoy that as much as we wanted to.

A
I think the technical achievements are great.

F
As soon as the first several beats of Act 2 transpired, I lost my taste for it.

A
What else is there to say about it? I think it’s somewhat of a hard play to answer some of these questions about acting and design and all that because it was… a bunch of guys falling onstage the entire time. There was no variation. There was no other level to it. It’s hard to find deeper meaning.

J
It was shallow.

F
Well I would say it’s maybe directly attributed to the acting, the fact that there’s no deeper meaning. In my acting class, we talk about the fact that you have to pursue a goal. There has to be one central thing. What is this guy doing? What does this guy want? I’ll just focus on the character of Big Baritone Man. I don’t know what he wanted!

A
He was definitely the least quirky of all the actors.

F
Who are you? And why should I care? For him, he didn’t do anything. For the others, they were doing too many things. The butler who looks at his hands – why are you so bad at acting? Why are you so bad at pronouncing things? What’s the backstory for that? Do you care about this or not? I feel like if I could identify who cares, I could derive some meaning about how when people don’t do the necessary work, it’s going to go bad. Or sometimes things go bad despite our best efforts. But I don’t know if it was their best efforts! I don’t know if there was any effort, so it didn’t mean anything to me.

A
There were so many aspects that had a lot of potential. I think the technical merits of the play were incredible. I think the acting was really well-done. I think the idea of the play within a play and the way the actors had to portray the actors playing the characters had a lot of potential. If we take the director, for example. He did a good job of playing somebody who was so desperate to have this play be taken seriously. I think it can be difficult for all the characters to truly show insight into who the actors are without completely breaking the illusion that they’re trying to put on a play. I think the writing did a really poor job, with all the elements it had going on, of trying to put meaning into it or trying to find one central goal or trying to add characterization other than the specific quirks.

J
In conclusion, we appreciate the technical merits. We recognize all the hard work of the people onstage, but-

F
Eh, I don’t recognize all the hard work. I recognize some of the hard work of the people onstage.

A
Who did you not think was good?

F
It was not a matter of who was good to me because it’s not fair for me to apply my Theatre 1611 rules to somebody just trying to get a laugh. The corpse- when he came out onstage and started talking at the end, I couldn’t understand what he was saying! His diction was not on. I didn’t know what he wanted. I couldn’t tell anything about him. Anyway, I’m so sorry I cut you off when we’re trying to leave! But I respect some of the acting. Go on and wrap it up. I’m sorry for mansplaining everything!

J
We blame the writing, but thank you for the free tickets!

F
Thank you so much!

A
Thank you, and take us to see Waitress next time!

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The Play That Goes Wrong National Tour_ Photo by Jeremy Daniel (4)(1)


4 Comments on “THE PLAY THAT GOES WRONG by Annabelle Clarke, Julia Culp, Foster Swartz”

When I think about the comedic merits of this play, I agree that it almost was not of our time. I find that a lot of recent comedy is very self-deprecating or targeting certain types of people, and this play lacked these elements. I was hoping for the play to be more intellectually stimulating as well, but as I started to reflect on the question of “why now?,” I began to think about the notion of going to see theater as a means of escapism. In a country where the media is constantly blasting hateful and unsettling content, it is almost relaxing to laugh at something so blatantly stupid. It’s comforting to know that there are people out there whose lives are less together than yours. However, I think that if this is what the writers are going for, they miscalculated something else crucial. We see so much idiocy and buffoonery in the media that we are conditioned to see that as normal. It’s not funny or special anymore. It’s just the U.S. as a culture at this point.

Rachel Platt on October 16th, 2018 at 7:21 pm

To be honest, I was not expecting what I experienced first going to the play. I looked up the play online and knew that it is more or less categorized as a comedy rather than a serious piece of theatre. But still, it felt more like going to a movie. The play itself plays on the idea of “going wrong” and centers its performance on creating “disastrous failure” on stage, which is contradictory to “not breaking the fourth wall” doctrine of theatres of any kind. Because of the focus of the play, it is sometimes heavily criticized because the play can be very shallow. On paper, the plot of the play can be summarized in one paragraph and the only reason that it lasted two hours is that actors keep dancing back and forth like a clone and destroying the stage quite literally. However, I start to think that since when we don’t accept silliness in theatre productions? Strange enough, I felt guilty after watching this particular play in the same way when I finished a large bowl of ice-cream. And just like ice-cream can be a viable food option, “The play that goes wrong” is also a proper play. In fact, the majority of the audience laughed quite wildly during most of the play. Then I realized that theatre is a mean of entertainment after all. Just as pop-corn movies are legitimate movies, this play is also a legitimate play no matter how ‘shallow’ it is.

Yuxuan Jiang on October 22nd, 2018 at 1:24 am

Conversely to this blog post about the performance, I believe the play was very good through all of its moments and enjoyable for the audience. I don’t believe the intention behind some of the actions was to be innately homophobic or sexist, but it did express certain stereotypes that could be conceived to be that way. I think the problem with viewing a play like this and expecting something intellectual is that this humor was not something that was meant to be read into very deeply. The women fighting to perform was not to intentionally meant to be a commentary on women, but rather an archetype of performers always wanting to perform and be the center of attention. I think today’s society is very cautious and socially aware of the implications of saying or doing certain things which is very admirable. However, it limits artistry by setting boundaries based upon what one perception could be of a certain action. I recognize that I have a certain bias because I find that humor could be applied to all aspects of life and removes the seriousness of every day life, and I also recognize and respect those who feel that some topics should be off limits. However, I believe that it is important to look at the intent behind this show versus what actually came to fruition. The set was incredibly impressive and skill to make sure that everything goes wrong in the right way is astounding. The plot may be lacking but there is so much more that goes into a theatrical experience beyond that.

Jermaine Leonard on October 24th, 2018 at 12:02 pm

I think this play did exactly what it set out to do, which is to take a genre which most audiences will be somewhat familiar with, and twist it around and play with it. It very cleverly exploits every fear that people involved in theatrical productions have: sound/light cues being wrong, the set and props failing, actors forgetting/repeating lines, etc. It was like watching a Monty Python sketch where you think you know where it’s going, and then all of the sudden the framework collapses and you’re left with pure, silly chaos. I had a great time at this and it was nice to see a production which perfected low-brow comedy, and I don’t mean that as an insult. Not every joke has to be absolutely intellectually stimulating, humor comes in many forms and watching an expertly-crafted theatrical disaster was a ton of fun.

Matthew Tuggle on October 29th, 2018 at 6:06 pm

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