Jonathan Sayer is an Olivier award-winning writer and the company director of Mischief Theatre. He was trained at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art (LAMDA). Sayer spoke with The Hofstra Chronicle on March 9 after the first preview production of his show, “The Play That Goes Wrong,” in which he plays Dennis.
Hofstra Chronicle: What made you write “The Play That Goes Wrong”? How did you and Mischief Theatre create this idea?
Jonathan Sayer: It goes back to when Henry [Lewis] and myself were living together in London in about 2012. We’d come back from the Edinburgh Festival doing our improv show, which is how our company started as an improv group and we kind of wanted something to do that didn’t really have a plan to it. In London, improv tends to be something you do for a little while but we wanted something we could do for longer. So we started to think about things that made us laugh and this is a recurring theme. The three of us all had different ways in. Henry Lewis had worked with a guy named Michael Green who wrote a book called The Art of Coarse Acting, which is all about how to be a bad actor. He wrote these small plays where things go wrong, so that was a really good starting point for all of us. Then on top of that, I’m totally into the wrong side of comedy. We transposed some of the bigger visual gags onto stage; it’s something I thought is really fascinatingly fun. It seemed like a good platform and a good base where we could write in jokes and characters that we felt comfortable writing.
HC: I’ve worked in theater before, so some of the gaffes I was expecting but some caught me totally off guard.
JS: There are some really surprising moments in the show. That is a big part of the story of the show. As well as making you laugh, it has the capacity to make the audience gasp and a bit fearful at times.
HC: I couldn’t tell when some of the things were actually going wrong or were scripted to go wrong. Last night, were there any mistakes of things that weren’t supposed to go wrong that did go wrong?
JS: Yesterday was pretty much how it should have been. There was the moment when the top of the globe fell off. That wasn’t [supposed] to fall. Other than that it was pretty much as it should be.
HC: Did you ever envision it to be so successful?
JS: No, of course not. The play was done in a little pub theater with a capacity of seven people in the audience. I think the only goal we’ve ever had was to put a show on and we’ve been really lucky that we’ve been offered these fantastic opportunities and do the best job we can. It is amazing to be here, it really is a dream. But not in our wildest dreams did we predict we’d be here right now.
HC: Of course, I’m glad you made it here. How did readjusting from London to New York go?
JS: I’ve only been here for about eight days, so I haven’t had a huge amount of time to adjust. I’ve been in the theater in the technical rehearsals or I’ve been at my apartment eating and sleeping, catching up on emails and writing promotional bits and pieces.
HC: I heard some Hamilton jokes in there. I’m assuming those aren’t in the London production.
JS: No, the Hamilton joke at the top is actually “Mamma Mia!” in London. We felt like we needed to say a show that was actually running in New York.
HC: How did you think of some of the technical gaffes in the show? The upper level mishaps are really great.
JS: We just sat down and did our best to come up with good practical jokes. I don’t think that there is a method. We just imagine and just try to come up with stuff. We tend to do a lot of doodles of the set so that as we are writing it we can plot back to make the stage directions really detailed and dense so we can get what we are aiming for. I think with the upper level, the conversation was more about how can we make it really difficult for someone to retrieve a series of objects and we worked backwards from there. We talked about ways to make passing a pen difficult and thought of a seesaw idea.
HC: There were some scenes where the audience would clap and the actors, mainly Cecil [played by Dave Hearn] would react accordingly. Does the cast pick up on the audience reactions?
JS: Yeah, I think that is the beauty of the show. It is all very, very carefully scripted, but the moments of audience reaction differ from night to night. It all depends on how the audience behaves and what they are going for. Dave has free range to feel those moments, slightly because of his character. He is like the kid in the school play who always waves at his parents. If people are laughing at me, then you try and find moments where it is a little different. It changes depending on the audience.
HC Is the audience in New York different from those in London? I know it has only been one performance.
JS: It is hard to tell because it is very early on, but I can say that the New York audience] are more receptive from the very beginning. I suppose there is a stereotype. British people are slightly reserved and Americans are less so. From last night, we found that people were very quick to laugh from very, very early on, almost as soon as Henry Shields’ character went on stage. There were people cheering and laughing at that. It felt like an absolute party last night. It was so much fun to do.
HC: It did. The people in the crowd yelling, they weren’t planted, right?
JS: No, that just happens sometimes. Again, that differs from night to night. Sometimes people shout, sometimes people don’t. Sometimes people shout an incredible amount.
HC: It is quite funny to see the interaction. Is there any show other show on Broadway you’d like to star in when this one is all said and done?
JS: [Laughs] Star in? I’m just thinking about this show at the moment. I’ve only just arrived. I’ll focus on our show before I steal anyone else’s job.
HC: What about Mischief Theatre? A new show in their sights?
JS: Yeah actually. We have two other shows right now in London: “Peter Pan Goes Wrong” and “The Comedy About a Bank Robbery.” “Peter Pan Goes Wrong” is the direct sequel to this show. That would be amazing to bring out here, if the audience loves this show. “The Comedy About a Bank Robbery” is actually set in Minneapolis in 1958, so that’s not a show that goes wrong. It is a screwball farce – a mixture between a more old school British farce with misunderstanding coupled with a Marx brothers’ screwball comedy with a kind of “Ocean’s Eleven” stunt gag. We are working on some TV right now, and hopefully a new play eventually as well.
Interviewed by Joshua Ringler