In Spotlight On, we take a closer look at a company, artist or venue that excites us here at Theatre Bubble.
Mischief Theatre is the slapstick-comedy company behind the Olivier-award winning The Play That Goes Wrong, and Olivier-nominated Peter Pan Goes Wrong. Both are returning for another year in the West End, at the Duchess and Apollo theatres respectively. Expanding their anarchic rule over London Theatre, their new show The Comedy About The Bank Robbery opens tomorrow night at the Criterion Theatre. In advance of this, Theatre Bubble caught up with core company member Nancy Wallinger to talk about what makes Mischief Theatre unique, and what it means to be part of the company.
TB: How did Mischief Theatre begin?
NW: We all met at LAMDA – we were an improv company for years, having been taught by Adam Meggido (Showstoppers, Extempore Theatre) on the Foundation Course at LAMDA. He’s basically the reason that we are a company, because he brought us all together from different year groups and classes. A few years later we did Lights! Camera! Improvise! – and for years we took that to the Edinburgh Fringe every year, and we took it to the Soho Theatre, and to Poland, and to lots of different places.
Henry Lewis (one of the company’s writers, along with Jonathan Sayer and Henry Shields) had written a tiny tiny draft of ‘A Play That Goes Wrong’ at a workshop at Questors Theatre when he was eighteen, and so he brought that draft of a script in. It was the first bit of The Play That Goes Wrong, and it became the first scripted piece we did as a group. It’s been this explosion of craziness that no one saw happening – a group of friends who made each other laugh doing this play because we thought it was really funny. When we were younger we used to just throw ourselves around the stage, so the slapstick in The Play That Goes Wrong was so dangerous and so bold for what we were doing we didn’t even really realise that it was something special.
TB: Have there been many injuries?
NW: Oh god yes. Though not so much now – the West End versions are really really safe. We have to rehearse things so much to get it past all sorts of restrictions.
TB: Does this mean there is less room for improvisation in Mischief’s current shows?
NW: But that’s kind of the best thing about Mischief’s shows. We’ve got the writers and the people who developed it in the room. They really trust us and we really trust them. It’s amazing because if you improvise something in a show – normally, any slight changes need to be approved by a lot of different people to implement that change – in Mischief’s shows, if you want to change something you can ask the writer who is stood next to you in your dressing room, performing in the show, a friend of yours of ten years. It’s an amazingly creative place to be in, and keeps everything really fresh. It’s an incredible way of working and I feel very lucky to have a job like that.
Find people you like to work with. If you enjoy the work, that’s all you need to be doing.
TB: Do you think a drama school training is important for young people trying to get into theatre?
NW: I didn’t train at LAMDA – I only did the foundation course. I gave up trying to get into drama schools – I tried for four years to get in, everywhere. But Mischief liked me – I was a girl doing improvisation which wasn’t happening much when I was eighteen or nineteen – it a wasn’t cool thing to be doing but I was doing it. When I read the script for The Play That Goes Wrong I said to myself – alright, I’ll do this play, and then we’ll see what happens, but this will probably be the last show that I do. And now I feel like an idiot for thinking that. Because I’m absolutely in the right place now. I want to work with this company for my entire life – It’s like having a group of your best friends, who you love, and who make you laugh, and you get to work together and someone’s paying for it! It’s the dream.
What really helped me was the National Youth Theatre – I did that for a long time, and I consider that my training. That’s where I learned how to act onstage. That’s where I learned how to talk to the technical staff in theatres. On the other hand, I’ve learnt a lot of things through other people’s training at drama school. I’ve had my training from everyone I’ve worked with.
TB: Do you have any advice for actors at the start of their careers?
NW: Find people you like to work with. If you enjoy the work, that’s all you need to be doing. There’s no point in becoming an actor, living a life of no money and struggling, to do jobs you don’t enjoy. If you want to do a job you don’t enjoy, go sit in an office and do admin. Don’t do a show just because you feel like you should be in a show because you’re an actor. I’ve always believed in the work I’m doing – I believe in Mischief Theatre, and I believe in falling over and slapstick so much! I believe in it so much I don’t believe I could do it without that level of belief in what I’m doing.
TB: If you could you change one thing about the theatre industry what would that be?
NW: If you could change anything, it would be just being able to be paid for Fringe Theatre better. It’s a real shame because you see amazing companies do amazing work in tiny theatres for no money and there is no difference between the talent and the creativity and the imagination of those people and people working in the West End.
TB: What’s the difference between The Play About A Bank Robbery and the other shows you’ve worked on for Mischief Theatre?
NW: It’s massively different – it doesn’t go wrong! So that’s a big difference. It’s a play, and a farce, in the same style of comedy – but there’s a fourth wall. The audience aren’t the extra character in the show this time. There’s a lot of music and a lot of singing, and there’s a big plot twist at the end of the show and it gets quite dark, actually. Part of the difference is we wrote this show as adults – when we were making The Play That Goes Wrong, we were in our early twenties. The writing reflects that – its a bit more grown up, but with the same heart as all of Mischief Theatre’s shows.
TB: I’ve always thought of these plays as indivisible from the company…
NW: I feel like we’re almost harking back to rep companies because a lot of people who are in our improv company are now in the current cast of The Play That Goes Wrong, and those guys came from the tour of Peter Pan Goes Wrong. We feel like a big company, a big family – there’s about twenty of us, and we all come together to do the improv show because that’s where it all began.
Core company member Nancy Wallinger has worked with Mischief Theatre since 2009. She was in the original cast of both The Play That Goes Wrong and Peter Pan Goes Wrong, as well as Lights! Camera! Improvise! (Soho Theatre, Trafalghar Studios, Duchess Theatre, Pleasance Edinburgh and International Performances). Her television work includes The Royal Variety Performance 2015, Frankie and Emma, The Improvised Ad Break Live, Wilder (pilot), Welcome to Neverland, Stupid and Bus Life. Directorial credits: Dying City (Gatehouse)