“What can go wrong?”

Talking with “The Play that Goes Wrong” Director Jeffrey Bleam

Episode Transcript:

Keenan: Have you ever watched a show and wondered, “How did they do that?” There’s a story behind it all, and that’s what theatre is all about: Exploring and reflecting on humanity through shared stories, and bringing people together. From the talent onstage to creative collaboration backstage and community building on all levels, we’re here to share with you how each story becomes part of our greater story, how theatre brings our community together and makes it greater. Welcome to HOW GREAT: The GREAT Theatre podcast.

Breana: Today we’re talking about The Play that Goes Wrong with the director, Jeffrey Bleam. The Play that Goes Wrong will take the stage at the Paramount Center for the Arts September 9 through September 18.

Keenan: A little bit of backstory on this show… So The Play that Goes Wrong was written by Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer and Henry Shields in 2012. So it’s a ten year old play. The three writers are each directors of Mischief Theater, a theater company based in the UK. Mischief Theater started out with improv comedy… While the real theater company is called Mischief Theater, they invented a set of characters in a fictional theater company that can really never get anything right. Over time, that developed into a running joke, And the fake theater company is called Cornley Drama Society. The Play that Goes Wrong is an example of the Cornley Drama Society’s work, along with other shows like Peter Pan Goes Wrong and a TV show “The Goes Wrong Show.” The Play That Goes Wrong opened in 2012 at the old Red Lion Theater and was very successful, moving to the West End in 2014 and Broadway in 2017. In September, The Play that Goes Wrong will be in St. Cloud at the Paramount Center for the Arts, and the process of crafting that show is already underway.

Breana: To that end, we’re excited to talk with director Jeffrey Bleam. Jeffrey has designed and directed with GREAT in the past. He’s also worked with the Pioneer Place and done costume design for Mixed Blood Theater in Minneapolis. Jeffrey is also a professor in the Department of Theater and Film Studies at St Club State University, and his score on ratemyprofessor.com is really very good.

Keenan: Hi, Jeffrey. All right, so let’s start by getting a better idea of what this show is. Some of the shows in this upcoming season, just by the name, you can kind of tell what they are, but The Play That Goes Wrong could be about just about anything. So how would you describe the show?

Jeffrey: Well, I would say that is really all you need to know about it. The premise of the show is we’re watching a theatre company perform their opening night production of their British mystery play The Murder at Habersham Manor. Really, the specifics of the murder story plot are not that important to the play. What’s really important, as the title says, is everything starts to go wrong during this. Things fall off walls. Actors mess up their lines. Some lines go in this terrible loop, and we’re really just watching chaos and watching this show fall apart bit by bit during their performance. And that’s really what drives this show. I think, for the most part, a lot of the audience will stop really caring about who the murderer is and start to realize that’s not really the point of this play. We do find out who the murderer is, but by that point, so much stuff is going wrong and that it’s more about the chaos than the story.

Keenan: Sure. So the plot takes a backseat.

Jeffrey: It absolutely does. It’s just there to string all of these other moments of calamity together.

Keenan: Perfect. Would you mind describing your director’s concept for this show?

Jeffrey: Yeah. And this is something I’ve been speaking with the designers about and the cast about. To begin with, the word director’s concept is a very loaded term that can often be confused… it changes from show to show. If you’re doing Hamlet, you have a director’s concept of what themes are important to you, where are you setting this place in time or location where you sort of overlay a directorial idea onto it.

Keenan: Okay.

Jeffrey: This show, it would be wrong to try to overlay something onto it because everything is already there. But I do have a guiding principle and approach to it, which might sound a little oxymoronic, but my approach from the beginning has been realism.

Keenan: Okay, sure.

Jeffrey: I’m encouraging the actors to really do some old school actor method work on their characters, their motivations, to really clear up the moment to moment reality of what’s happening. And there are some things in the script that almost appeared like magic tricks, and that, for instance, is something that we’re not doing because I don’t see a room for magic in this world. That everything is real, everything is believably happening to this cast of characters at every moment. And to me, that’s where the comedy is. That’s where the truest laughs come from. That it’s not playing the schtick, or we don’t just rely on something falling off a wall to create the laugh. Sure, that’ll be funny. But where the laugh really comes from is seeing these actors, their realization of what’s happening and their minds working… okay, now what do I do? How do I cover for this and really develop what is going on inside these actors heads as these things are going? That we don’t take anything at face value, we don’t rely on a site gag in and of itself, that everything is grounded in a sense of, boy, what would really happen with this? And one of the nice things that has come from that and the conversations I’ve been having with the cast is we’ve been able to use their own experiences, that very often will have conversations where things will come up in rehearsal, where they will say, oh, my gosh, this actually happened to me once, or something similar happened, and it was terrifying. And here’s what we did to try to cover it. And so we’re able to sort of work in a lot of those real world things from the cast’s own experience doing theater, which I think helps, again, that sense of, yeah, this is real. This could really be happening to these people. And that’s where I think the comedy comes from. One of the things that we talked about in early rehearsal, we generated a list of all the cliches that you learn in high school theater or community theater. What are the basic this is how to act. And the chaos came up with lots of all sorts of things they had heard. And obviously, one of the big ones is stay in character. No matter what happens, stay in character. When you’re actually seeing these actors trying to stay in character, again, that’s where the comedy comes from versus just breaking character every time they get a laugh so that they can milk the audience. We’re always seeing the actors in their character and not as performers engaging the audience.

Breana: A lot of this production, the hilarity comes from reaction, right? And it was just a lot of action on top of action on top of action. But it seems to be such a daunting task, as an actor, to have so much of your driving force be reacting. Are there certain techniques or ideas or other things you’ve talked about to get into that mindset that you are reacting? That is your role in this. You have the set and lots of things going wrong, and then you are playing off of that rather than trying to, I guess, supersede it or overlay, I guess.

Jeffrey: One of the things that I started to talk to the cast about, and we’ll be working more with this later, because right now we’re just focused on where are you onstage? You have to be standing by the door so the door can hit you and you get knocked out. How do we get you to the door? When do we get you to the door? So we’re really focusing on that right now. But one thing I started to talk to them about, and this again, is just a basic sort of fundamental approach to acting, is to really keep in mind what we call the internal monologue, because we all have an internal monologue going through our heads, and characters have that as well. So once you’ve got those lines down, once you have the blocking down, then you focus on keeping that internal monologue going. And when you’re focused on your character, what your character is thinking, that helps ground you into, oh, my gosh, this fell down, or, oh, my gosh, you just skipped three lines ahead. And I don’t know where we are, which happens in real life for actors, but these actors, obviously, are expecting it because that’s worked into the script. But you still have to keep that going on in your head. And so much of it is in the eyes that we see the internal monologue happening, when the eyes shift left and right, when that moment of, oh no, what do I do now? What do I do now? I’ve got an idea. Let’s do this. And if you can keep that locked in, which is very challenging in a play like this, then that leads to that through line and that sense of focus with it. But it’s not easy work.

Breana: Which is why I did not audition. That seems really hard. So it sounds like a lot of the show then, is comedy, and specifically physical comedy. So what are some things you have to keep in mind when you’re directing physical comedy, as opposed to maybe something more dramatic or something more situational comedy?

Jeffrey: Well, let’s start with comedy in genera, which is a lot harder than drama. And that’s actually a good segue because I had just talked about the actor’s internal monologue of what their characters are thinking. And if you’re doing a realistic drama, you can afford to really live in your character’s head. You always have to have that actor awareness at the same time of what if someone does skip ahead two lines, or what if a prop actually does malfunction? But by and large, you can devote yourself to that focus on the character and that internal monologue. In comedy, you’ve got an audience, and sure, you have an audience in realism, but they will likely be polite and attentive. In comedy, they’re going to laugh. And it’s like the audience becomes another actor on stage and a very unpredictable one. You try to keep your characters thoughts going, but you also have to be hyper aware of where you’re getting laughs. Because if you start to just talk through those laughs, the audience will eventually stop laughing, thinking they’re going to miss something. And every audience is different. You might get a very quiet audience. You might get a Friday night audience that just laughs hysterically at everything. So as I said, they’ve become this other scene partner and you’re always having to be focused on your character, yet hyper aware of what the audience is doing and how you ride those laughs. It’s almost like surfing. Where’s the crest and then when do you get back in? And that’s what makes comedy exciting and challenging, because you’re almost inventing that relationship every night with the audience. Physical comedy then takes that all a step further because things happen. You might get hit with something, you might hit somebody else, you might fall down, something might collapse on top of you at some point. So there’s that other level of awareness. And this is the challenge of directing physical comedy and why I’m so grateful to have a member of the Fake Fighting Company, Mason, working with the show because he’s certified for that sort of work. And I’ve got a sense of, hey, this will be funny, but I don’t have that certification. Safety must always be the number one focus. It is so important often exactly where you’re standing, exactly what your arm’s reach is, if you are slapping someone or get hit by something. So there’s this whole other level of technical awareness when you’re dealing with physical comedy and obviously the safety. And it’s got to look like it is happening for the first time and no one has expected it. It cannot look like we’ve practiced this dozens and dozens of times before the audience comes in. The actors will go over and practice before each night the complicated bits. We’ve got a sword fight in this show that’s going to have to be run before every performance so that it’s always fresh in the actor’s mind.

Keenan: You mentioned earlier, keeping your character’s thoughts and your actor’s thoughts. I can imagine how much harder that is when your characters thoughts are like, okay, responds to… he just picked up a sword. Now I need to pick up a sword, find the sword. When it’s that physical and that choreographed, it would be really tough to keep.

Jeffrey: In that character and to know at the same time, I need to be standing exactly in this place and pick the sword up with the same hand each time. So you’ve got that whole third level of things happening.

Breana: We have to give our actors superfoods before everything just so that they have the mental capacity to do everything.

Keenan: So we’ve talked about some of the challenges, but what are some of the things you’re most excited for in crafting this show?

Jeffrey: I’m a little bit of a geek, and I like puzzles, especially spatial puzzles. In fact, the reason I almost forgot this podcast today, was because I was getting really absorbed in the script, doing staging work in my head, because this script is so challenging as far as the staging goes. And the script itself gives you very little and is very often filled with contradictions and mistakes in the stage directions. And it’s things like suddenly the stage directions will say, well, Perkins offers them all a tray of glasses. Okay, where do the glasses come from? When did he get those glasses? What happens to the glasses after he’s done this? And that is something that’s really specific about working with farce in a drama or just a sort of witty comedy. You can be a little more flexible with a farce. That depends on physical humor. Everything has to be really precisely timed, and there’s really no room for actors to just sort of do something a little different one night as you might in a drama. So it becomes this, like, jigsaw puzzle of, okay, when does this person move there? And some of those are awkward, like, well, this character needs to be here at that moment and they’re on the other side of the stage. It’s just going to have to be some awkward cross out of nowhere that gets them there. But the nice thing about this show is they’re supposed to be bad actors in a poorly directed show. So finally I have the freedom to do all this terrible staging work that I would never do in a production. I get to break all of the director rules. The main thing is actors don’t ever stand in a straight line. That’s not interesting. People don’t do that. It’s like, oooh, with this show, I get to do straight line. We get to do all the things we’re not supposed to do. I’m like, yes, get in a straight line, make it look ugly. And so that is something. There’s the puzzle aspect of moving bodies around, and the opportunity to be a bad director, or to stage like a bad director and break these rules and do things I would never do in any other show. So that’s kind of freeing and exciting and creative.

Breana: Yeah, definitely. The Play that Goes Wrong. Subtitle: Jeffrey Bleam goes rogue.

Jeffrey: Yeah, exactly. The actors are really enjoying that, too, because it’s been really fun for them to also break out of how for years, the things they’ve been trained to do, like don’t upstage someone. Don’t stand directly in front of another actor. With this show, it’s like, oh, yeah, stand right in front of that character. Just boom. Really? I can do that? Oh, yeah. In this world you can. So they’re excited, too, being able to break the rules of their training.

Keenan: That’s awesome. That’s super fun.

Breana: Can you talk a little bit about some of the characters in this production, for those who aren’t familiar with it?

Jeffrey: Yes, I’d love to. That is still an ongoing exploration, which is something that makes this play really nice and unique because there really are two sets of characters. They are the characters of Murder at Haversham Manor, which, yeah, they’re pretty straightforward. There’s not much depth in the characters of the British mystery. But then there are the true characters, which is what our chaos is, playing the actors who play these British characters. And the script as written doesn’t give a whole lot of character development or information about who these actor personas are. Some are fleshed out a bit more than others. One actor, you can sort of sense a throughline, they’re usually the most optimistic and always think everything’s going just fine. Another actor character is the one that always is trying to get things back on track and always trying to help other people. The rest of them, there’s not a whole lot written in there. So it’s a wonderful opportunity to work with the GREAT actors in this, really discovering who is this actor character, how good are they? How bad are they? What are their bad habits? Why are they part of this theater company? Why do they enjoy being on stage? Do some just really relish in the spotlight versus, do others just, is their whole goal just to get through the show and remember their lines? And do we see that? So it’s a wonderful opportunity to work with actors in crafting that and finding that throughline of the characters, which is, I think, one of the things that’s going to make this production unique and different from other productions that people may have seen of it.

Keenan: Jumping to this question… There are two different script versions for this play, the original British one and another specifically for US American audiences. What are some of the differences between them, and which one are you going to use for your production?

Jeffrey: That’s an interesting question. And we will be using the Americanized version. One of the reasons is, in my mind, this is an American company performing a British play. And that also gives us a lot of things to play with in terms of British accents. That’s true. How good are they? How bad are they? How inconsistent are they? When do they just drop away completely in this show versus having to really come up with a cohesive and believable dialect throughout the cast? And I had started by reading the British version. I just fell in love with it. And then I realized, oh, no, we’re doing this Americanized version. Let me read that. And there were a lot of differences that lead me to question what the British authors think American audiences want. One of the big differences is in the American version, there’s a lot in the script that really opens the door for and suggests a lot of audience interaction. Talking to the audience, getting responses back from them. If they laugh, they say, hey, if this person laughs, then bow and do it again and get them to laugh more. But if that’s what you’re looking for in this production, you might see a little of it. I’m telling the cast, let’s not say it’s forbidden. If an audience member yells something, then react to it. We don’t have to ignore the audience, but let’s not pander to them. Let’s not make that its whole thing.

Keenan: It’s kind of a hat on a hat at that point.

Jeffrey: Yeah. The other thing is, in the second act of the play, there’s some physical violence and some hand to hand combat between two of the female characters. When I knew that was there, and I was like, okay, we’ll see what we do of this, what we don’t do of it. But, oh, my gosh, in the American version, that violence is so notched up.

Keenan: Well, they do know American audiences.

Jeffrey: Exactly. It’s like someone moves out of the way and a character gets kneed in the groin. And I’m like, again, are you writing for an American audience that loves those home videos? Where you see people getting hit by baseballs in the groin or falling over? That stuff makes me flinch. And I want to make sure our audience is always laughing and never flinching. That, I think, is not a reaction I want from this audience. But again, reading the American version, I was like, this is so violent.

Breana: Violent and attention seeking.

Jeffrey: Violent and attention seeking, absolutely. So we’ll be toning down the violence. We’ll be finding some other creative things to do in its place. And it will be funny. And the audience shouldn’t have to flinch at it.

Keenan: I’m sure they’ll thank you.

Breana: Well, once you’re concerned for an actor’s safety, then it’s just not fun anymore, for sure.

Jeffrey: No, it isn’t.

Breana: Such an interesting show now that when I’m thinking of it. Because things going wrong in a theatre production is the most terrifying thing to happen to you as an actor. And this is just so fun.

Jeffrey: Yeah. And it’s the ability to tap into that terror. And I think anybody can really enjoy this show. But I think people who have been involved in theater will have a special enjoyment of this show because they will recognize things that have happened to them in productions they’ve been in. One of the things that we talked about early on in the cast is one cast member expressed this particular terror of always making sure his fly was up when he was on stage because it happened once to him and it always sort of stuck with him. That that’s sort of his phobia. And I’m like, well, great. Your first entrance in the show, your fly is going to be down.

Breana: Awesome.

Jeffrey: We can play with it that way. So it’s a matter of tapping into those fears and then having fun with them and owning those fears.

Keenan: Yeah. Liberating, in a sense.

Jeffrey: It sure is.

Breana: I had a hoop skirt fall down once in a production that I was wearing. That was always a fun one.

Jeffrey: Well, let me make a note of that. We’ll see if we can work it in.

Breana: Yeah.

Jeffrey: We don’t have any skirts, but I can talk to the costumer.

Breana: I also had a phone prop once and I forgot the phone, so I used my hand as my phone.

Keenan: Was it a big enough venue?

Breana: That was during a GREAT theater camp.

Jeffrey: There are quite a few missing props in this show where another prop, a very different random prop gets picked up to serve in its place. And there’s a whole string of bits surrounding that exact same thing. You reach for the prop and it’s not there. What do you do?

Breana: So just when in doubt, tap into Breana’s past. You’ll have another gag there.

Jeffrey: So we might have to have trigger warning for anyone who’s been on stage.

Breana: Know what it’s like.

Jeffrey: Connect too much with some of these things.

Breana: So just bringing us back to GREAT specifically… So you’ve directed a number of productions in a number of settings from school, the cities, et cetera. What stands out about directing GREAT shows specifically, if anything?

Jeffrey: The team, the amount of volunteers, and also what has grown into a very robust administrative team and support system. Very often when I direct, I feel like I don’t always have support, so I end up doing a lot myself just because it seems easier that way, and it’s better than calling someone, seeing who’s going to do this. But there’s such a support network in place, and especially working with Kendra as the Artistic Director has just been very comforting to me, that I know I’m not alone with this, that there’s a wonderful team that’s supporting this. There are people doing all the marketing. I don’t have to think about marketing. And I know GREAT’s marketing mechanism is top notch. There’s so much I don’t need to think about, which really just allows me just to direct, which is a really wonderful and liberating feeling. Yeah, come and see the show and it’s going to be funny. It’s going to be nothing but funny.

Breana: I’m very excited.

Keenan: Me too.

Breana: It’s going to be a good time. So come check out The Play that Goes Wrong. Thank you so much, Jeffrey, for joining us.

Jeffrey: It is absolutely my pleasure.

Keenan: For 25 years, GREAT Theatre has been transforming lives through the power of the arts. As a 501c3 nonprofit organization, GREAT Theater is known for its Broadway musical performances at the Paramount Center for the Arts, as a leader in youth arts experiences throughout Central Minnesota, and for its commitment to community partnerships. It’s the generosity of our community of volunteers, donors, participants, artists and audiences that make great possible. To learn more about GREAT Theatre, visit GREATTheatre.org.