A few of our alumni have performed in or are working on the hit West End comedy show The Play That Goes Wrong. Among them are Milo Clarke and Jack Stacey (ALRA South 2019) in the West End, Benjamin McMahon (ALRA South 2017) and Elena Valentine (ALRA South 2015) who were on the UK tour, anddirector Sean Turner (ALRA South 2008).
We got in touch with Milo, Jack and Sean to get the low-down on life working on The Play That Goes Wrong, how they got there, and how they’re feeling now during the Covid-19 pandemic. First up, Milo who plays Max, and Jack who understudies the characters of Chris, Max, Dennis, Jonathan and Robert.
Can you tell us about your auditions for the show and what you prepared in advance?
The auditions for TPTGW were so much fun! Definitely the most fun and most comfortable I’ve felt in an audition, especially the second round. There were three rounds altogether: initial audition, first recall and final recall. I had come off the back of having a lot of screen auditions and this was only my second theatre audition since signing with my agent, so I was excited to be able to have a whole play to read and talk about when in the room. I prefer theatre auditions for these reasons, because I feel like your opinion on the play and your choices can be challenged but also championed, by being able to talk about them openly with the audition panel. An important part of the audition process was that the casting director and the team encourage you to see the play beforehand - the play is so unique that you really want to know what you’re letting yourself in for when you walk into the audition room!
I had ten bits of script to prepare as I was being put up for two characters initially; Max, who I play, and the Butler, Perkins. The first thing I did was learn the lines, because after watching it, I knew I would have most fun in the audition if I was able to keep my energy fully in the room without looking at the script in my hand. The first recall was a group audition, which was a breath of fresh air, as it allowed you to feel at ease and much more comfortable in the room. We began with a group vocal and physical warm up, followed by a series of improvisation games. It was great to start channeling the energy of the room into something creative that resulted in a lot of laughter. The day then ended with watching each other's scenes, andbecause of the time we had spent together, it was really exciting to watch others perform. It felt really supportive because everyone just wanted to carry on the good time we had been having.
I had to prepare a couple of scenes for about five of the characters. That meant learning the lines and coming up with my own take on them. I’d seen the play a few times by then, so I was taking what I saw and putting my own spin on it. I tried to get as off-book as I could, but I’ll admit that as soon as you start playing with the scene and taking direction, the lines go right out the window.
What was the rehearsal process like and how long was it?
The rehearsal process felt quite special. A huge advantage, and a part of the uniqueness of it, was that we were able to perform with the set and on the stage from very early on, because the show is already up and running. It massively helps with a show like this, because so much of the action is so physical and it’s great to start exercising that muscle memory and being comfortable with parts of the set you interact with, making it almost second nature by the time the show goes up. We also had five weeks of rehearsal, so that time allowed everything we worked on to breathe and meant we could be very thorough.
We had to work on two plays: TPTGW and the play within that play, ’The Murder at Haversham Manor’;the journey that informs and underpins everything that happens in TPTGW. We rehearsed ’The Murder at Haversham Manor’ first and very quickly realised it is not funny. The comedy comes from the flaws of the actors breaking through the action, or their unwavering commitment in pushing through and carrying on. One of the initial things we also did was to start rehearsing the end of the play first, because it is mental! That sections needs to be deep in your muscle memory in order to be free to explore and have fun with your character; also for the fact that if you are unsure of anything that happens in the final moments, it could be extremely dangerous. After that section is in your body, it is one of the most fun to perform.
We had a month of rehearsals, the first block of which we were in a studio at the Dominion Theatre. Then, we quickly moved onto the set on the West End. This is important in a show like TPTGW because the set acts as another character and the interaction with it is so important. First of all, we rehearsed the play within the play, ’The Murder at Haversham Manor’, so that our characters knew what was supposed to be going right. That was fun; it was like doing the Mousetrap.
What are you learning from this experience and from the other members of the company?
I am learning so much more about comedy, as I have never been funny, so still very confused as to how I got this job. I am also learning how to keep things fresh and alive well into a long run, because the longest run I have done before this was seven shows of ‘Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass’ in my first term as a third year at ALRA and now we have surpassed one hundred and twenty five in TPTGW. You really begin to understand the importance of being alive to everything happening on and offstage and reacting truthfully, because if you become complacent after so many shows, the performances will become a bit stale and robotic.
A huge thing I am learning is how to connect and play with an audience as if they’re another character in the play. The audience reaction is great and something new comes from it every time. From the other members of the company, I am learning how to talk to other actors more openly about people’s choices without being so protective of my own, because sometimes you have to let your own ideas go and trust that that will be the best decision for the play as a whole. I am learning how to become a more selfless actor in that respect, as we all have a very open and honest dialogue. The most important thing I have learnt from them is how to have fun and stop putting so much pressure on myself. At the beginning I was so focused on trying to do the best I can and make good impressions due to it being my first job, that I forgot to just have a laugh, which is invaluable.
Understudying is great. It’s hard work and you’ve got to know a lot of lines and tracks (movement of the show, props, etc.), and you’re not on-stage every night, but it gives you an opportunity to watch your fellow actors at work. You take all the best bits and you do it your own way, too. Also, being a recent graduate, I’m learning a lot from the more experienced actors about the industry as a whole. Professional experience is so informative, so I’ll ask any questions I have, because the chances are, they’ve come across it before.
What specific aspects of your ALRA training are you using on and off stage? It’s a very physical show that depend on excellent comic timing – how do you keep all of the movement and timing sharp?
Vocal warm ups, vocal warm ups, vocal warm ups. My voice would not be able to sustain what it goes through in this show for more than a week if I did not do a vocal warm up. I am gaining a more acute awareness of my voice and when it isn’t at its best, all because of a thorough warm up. Suddenly, rolling around the Great Hall for what seemed like nothing has all clicked into place…
A physical warm up is as equally important as the vocal for this show, because there are so many stunts that require so much energy that if done without a proper physical warm up can easily lead to injury. Sun salutations is something I incorporate into my warm ups and I have become slightly more supple because of it, which is allowing me to feel much more comfortable moving onstage.
The training at ALRA has taught me that to have longevity in a job or this industry, the foundations of your training are too important to push aside. In order to keep the movement and timing within the show sharp, we have a fight call every day for one of the fights in the play that I’m involved in and once a week we have a call for another fight in the play, which is the aforementioned crazy final section. Whenever someone has something they want to go over, we always have time after warm up to go through these things to make sure everyone on and off stage is happy. Everything that looks dangerous is rehearsed as often as we need to or when any of the props or set changes, just so everyone is happy and the show can carry on looking as dangerous as it possibly can.
Movement training plays a massive part on-stage. We use a lot of circus skills in play, like tumbling, stage combat and swinging, which we had special trapeze training for during rehearsals. Staying fit is important and you do your best to be warm physically and vocally so you don’t injure yourself. Clowning is also a key element; what status your character is and how they interact with others and the audience. Playing the truth is also very important. The audience can smell it if you’re not being in the moment and some of the best experiences on stage come when things happen that you’re not expecting. You have to be on your toes, so improvisation is a skill which we used a lot at ALRA and definitely plays a part every night. Vocally, it’s hard work, too. It’s quite a loud show and the audience can be incredibly raucous, so you’ve got to be able to carry your voice right to the back of the dress circle. ALRA gives you a bunch of new skills and tools, and I'm sure that when the time comes, I'll be grateful for having learnt a whole heap of them.
What are your fondest memories of your training at ALRA?
There are too many to recall. One memory in first year that will stick with me forever was putting together the band for the first time, because rehearsals were the most fun. The weather was beautiful, everyone was so talented and we were straight to the pub afterwards, so it was perfect. Sports day has to be a contender too. It was so great knowing that we were going to be teaming up with other year groups in the school to compete in some wacky sports; it definitely brought a lot of people closer in the school, so it was a lovely time. A time I’ll never forget is being able to represent ALRA in the Sam Wanamaker Festival at The Globe with my friend Corrina Buchan. It’s an incomparable memory and I’m still so shocked to this day that I was able to perform there. It was the best feeling seeing so many of our friends from ALRA and family there to support us. But honestly, there are so many memories and smaller moments that just ended with us all in complete hysterics that are definitely amongst my fondest memories.
I loved the work we did with Gareth. The Lecoq technique he taught was so much fun and really opened me up as an actor. ALRA was also an amazing space to devise and create - they offered us space and help whenever we needed it. Aly and Jane were big supporters of the shows we would take to other fringe theatres around London and up to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. Taking our third-year show 'Dying For It' to Bucharest was an incredible experience, both creatively and personally. Really, my fondest memory is my class. I made friends and collaborators there that I’ll have forever.
What advice would you give to prospective students who are thinking about auditioning for drama school? What would you have liked to know or be prepared for?
There isn’t necessarily a correct way of doing things, but be confident in the pieces you have prepared and have opinions on everything you bring. Everyone wants to see that you are interested and that this actually is your passion, so take that time to be able to show them that you are and it is. It is your time. If you need a moment to yourself before you start to get yourself into character or to acclimatise yourself to the audition room, take that moment. One thing that helps me is knowing that everyone in that audition room wants you to be the best thing that walks in that day, and that’s a fact. The most important thing is just being you, which is probably annoying to hear. It’s annoying because there isn’t a bit of magic that will help you, it’s as simple as being well prepared, having opinions and being a very truthful version of yourself.
Make sure you have researched (and visited, if possible) each drama school you are thinking about applying for, because they all have extremely different feels and because of the type of training you will be doing, this can massively affect your decision. I also did the ALRA NorthFoundation course - they give you such an accurate insight into a BA course and can strengthen your desire for acting, or if you realise it’s not for you, there isn’t as much on the line if you decide to do something else. So if offered a Foundation place because tutors may think you need a bit of extra training, I implore you to do to it! They see huge potential and want to see that supported with technique.
Be prepared to make mistakes. I think when you’re auditioning, especially if you’re young, you’ve probably come from quite a small pond and you might feel like a pretty big fish. When I arrived, I realised I was good at some stuff but I had (and still have) a lot to learn, which is really exciting. Just be nice, be open to trying new things, and be yourself. I think I had a lot of preconceptions about what an actor was supposed to be like, but you learn that the best thing you can be is you. Also, take it seriously, but have fun. They are called ‘plays’, not ‘seriouses’.
How are the cast dealing with the strange situation of Covid-19 and staying ready to return to the show when it is back on?
It’s such a strange situation and I just hope everyone is staying safe and keeping sane! We’re all staying relatively active as a cast, but an initial rest was also extremely helpful, especially a vocal rest. I know a lot of us are doing home workouts to keep fit and healthy and make sure we’ll be ready for when the play recommences. After realising that this is going to go on for longer than anyone may have expected, there has been talk of doing line-runs via video call. The timing of the lines is so important, so this will be so much help as we can hopefully jump straight back into it whenever we reopen. Something that is helping is doing things we have wanted to do for a long time but may not have got round to, and this is just helping to make us happy. I think it’ll be much easier when we go back to a cast of happy people because everyone is feeling fulfilled with what they have been doing with their time off, whether that be yoga, reading, writing, or Sims 4.
It’s a hard time. The theatre industry, and all other creative and self-employed industries, are being hit very badly. We've been keeping each other up to date on WhatsApp and we’ve had Skype calls with equity and our producers about what the next steps are. Hopefully, the show, and the rest of the industry, will be back up and running soon.
We then spoke to Sean Turner, who is the Director of The Play That Goes Wrong West End production, UK tour and International tour.
How did you first join the team as Director for The Play That Goes Wrong?
I was lucky; I just went for an interview with the show’s creators and they liked my work. We spoke a lot about comedy, what we thought made shows like this work and, conversely, what kills them. That was a few years ago now and my first task was to head across the world to rehearse and open the show in Australia.
Has the play changed at all over the years you've been working on it? If not, how do you help the cast keep it fresh?
The show has its roots in clowning traditions and we encourage each new actor who takes on one of the clowns in the show to create them afresh, drawing upon their own natural tendencies and abilities. So, for me, the show is entirely renewed every time we get a new cast. Their interpretations of the characters inevitably offer new moments to the show and I try as hard as I can to include those whilst maintaining the original vision of the production. I’ve been lucky enough to direct versions of this play all across the globe and I can honestly say no two versions are the same and I’m yet to get bored of watching it!
How long does it take to get a new cast ready?
About 4-5 weeks. If I am working on the show in the West End it is a little quicker as we have an incredible stage management team who all know the show really well too, and they help speed things along. Our cast includes a number of excellent understudies who all have to get up to speed soon after that and I (along with the Resident Director) am constantly watching and assessing the show to make improvements right up to the last few weeks of the run. This kind of comedy is extremely fragile and requires regular attention to keep it fresh and exciting.
What specific aspects of your ALRA training do you use in directing?
Honestly, all of it really! I was very lucky to have such a wonderful grounding from the team at ALRA. I got to work with so many great directors who taught me vast amounts - lots of tricks and tips but also lessons on respect and morality which I have found to be such a large part of the directors’ craft. It is my fast belief that training as an actor is a terrific head start for a director; knowing a performer’s needs and understanding the difficulties they are facing leads to more fruitful working relationships. With every new production there are still things that as a cocky twenty-year-old I thought were pointless, that now suddenly make sense and prove invaluable!
We were really lucky to have you back at ALRA to direct third year shows over the last few years. How are you dealing with the strange situation of Covid-19?
Like everyone, I had every contract and future project cancelled as soon as the theatres closed. I’m filling my time with plans for theatrical domination when the West End returns,and in the meantime, finishing my first novel. I love working with the students at ALRA and I hope to be back in the future.
You can follow Milo, Jack and Sean on Twitter to keep up to date with their latest work. To stay in the loop with more ALRA alumni, check out the latest articles on ournews page and sign up to our newsletter.