Meet the Mischief-makers, creators of comic havoc (witness Peter Pan Goes Wrong at the Citadel)

Jonathan Sayer, Henry Shields, Henry Lewis of Mischief Theatre. Photo supplied.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

The three creators of Mischief Theatre‘s Peter Pan Goes Wrong were in town last week to watch the North American debut of their 2013 play unleash theatrical chaos on the Citadel mainstage.

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The trio of Londoners are by now connoisseurs of screw-ups … and irony. “We’ve taken four flights in the last four days — and had issues with every single one,” says Henry Shields, with a certain bemused exasperation.  Baggage gone missing, two-hour delays on the tarmac, and even worse (“we landed, I woke up, and I found I’d slept through the meal!”). “It’s the curse of calling a show … Goes Wrong,” says Jonathan Sayer. “We’ve angered the gods,” says Henry Lewis.

The live theatre — fertile ground for the glitch, the risky choice, the rampaging ego — is their playground. Chief Mischief-makers, the founders of the theatre company, have gathered around a phone speaker to chat about their hit brand of hilarity. Which is to say comedy in which the near-miss, the collision, the lost line, the misplaced cue, the stuck door, the missing prop have reached a dizzying virtuosity. That, and global reach.

The Play That Goes Wrong, Mischief’s breakthrough hit of 2012 in which the earnest members of the Cornley Polytechnic Drama Society bring a 1920s Agatha Christie-like murder mystery to its knees, has visited some 20 countries. It’s about to start another U.K. Tour; its New York run Off-Broadway continues. And a nine-week holdover in Chicago continues into April. 

You can see Mischief being made on Broadway HD. In addition to Peter Pan Goes Wrong, there are two live-television seasons of The Goes Wrong Show where, in the hands of the Cornley forces, weighty dramas — like The Nativity, A Christmas Carol, “a Downton-esque family saga,” a “lamentable tragedy”… by Shakespeare (Simon Shakespeare that is, Colin Shakespeare’s lesser-known cousin), a “rarely performed” World War II tale — go wrong. Way wrong. 

As they explain, Shields, Sayer and Lewis met at LAMDA (London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art) as classical actors in training. “We were there to study Shakespeare, Chekhov — and we came out doing silly slapstick,” says Shields. “Adam (Adam Meggido, the director of Peter Goes Wrong at the Citadel) was our improv teacher,” says Sayer. “And we loved his lessons and found them very inspiring…. We bonded over the love of comedy.” 

They’ve taken improv shows to the mighty Edinburgh Fringe eight or nine times, he says. And improv is why they, like Meggido and unlike a vast majority of their fellow citizens, know the name Edmonton (and are prepared to be charmed, briefly, by snow). “Dana Andersen (the Edmonton improv veteran who was a Die-Nasty founder) “even came to teach us once.”

The transition to scripted shows had a practical side, says Lewis. “In the U.K. improv is a tougher sell. We were looking to grow the company. And that’s when we got our first big hit, The Play That Goes Wrong.”

One inspiration was Michael Green’s The Art of Coarse Acting, a memoir of his time working in amateur companies. “We started writing short ‘coarse acting’ plays,” says Lewis. 

“The little moments that stay in people’s minds are often the moments that things go wrong,” as Sayer puts it, “in the same way that improv feels really dangerous. You feel you’re part of this really special moment, this unique thing that will never happen again…. In the creation, the writing, we wanted to re-create that feeling.” 

And as Peter Pan Goes Wrong vividly demonstrates, going wrong in theatre has a domino effect. “When something goes wrong, everybody starts to panic, and more things go wrong.”

What sorts of genres or styles catch the Mischievous eye? “We look for things that are quite serious,” says Shields. “It’s easier and funnier to something very serious subverted, turned on its head. Shakespeare, Chekhovian drama, Tennessee Williams…. Even with Peter Pan, the production they’re trying do isn’t a silly, frothy panto(-type) Peter Pan. They’re trying to do something really artistic and magical. You always want to have a genre or style you can undercut.” 

“It’s more fun to break a valuable vase.” 

“The other layer,” as Sayer says, “is you get to know the characters,” paid-up members of the Cornley Polytechnic Drama Society. There are continuing rivalries: in the Goes Wrong plays, including Peter Pan Goes Wrong, for example, Chris and Robert constantly jockey for the upper hand; they both want to be the director. There are glimpses of backstage love stories. The show is “less about them being amateurs and more about them biting off more than they can chew and being at the same very unlucky.”

Since the sense of risk and live-ness are crucial to their shows, Mischief’s translation to the screen would seem to be a tricky proposition. “In theatre you want to have big surprises, wow’s for the audience. Television as a medium jumps on more intimate, smaller jokes,” Sayer thinks.

He argues, though, that there’s a certain continuity between TV and Mischief’s origins in small fringe venues, 60- to 90-seaters where the close-up is possible. “The audience can really see what’s going on your eyes, and you can get laughs from a look or a little body movement… There’s almost a televisual quality to that kind of venue. In a way we’re going back to that, back to our roots.”

It has appealed to their audiences. During The Great Pause, Mischief has done livestream movie nights “from our emergency comedy bunker in central London,” as Lewis puts it. “We’d get 8 or 9,000 households (watching) every evening.” 

As for Peter Pan Goes Wrong, after the Northern American premiere here, Mischief has hopes for touring to more Canadian cities or across into the U.S. — and maybe New York. “The only certainty at the moment is Vancouver,” where it’s slated to play at the Arts Club in the summer, says Sayer. “But we’re hopeful!” 

Peter Pan Goes Wrong is at the Citadel through March 20. Read the 12thnight interview with Adam Meggido here, and the review here. 

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