The-Play-That-Goes-WrongAt the University of Windsor’s Essex Hall Theatre, a whirlwind of laughter is brewing as the University Players prepare to present “The Play That Goes Wrong.” This internationally acclaimed comedy, which has been enthralling audiences since its 2012 debut, promises a unique blend of chaos, slapstick, and unscripted hilarity under the direction of Alice Nelson, Assistant Professor at the School of Dramatic Art. From November 24 to December 3, audiences can expect an unforgettable theatrical experience.

“The Play That Goes Wrong” unfolds as a play within a play, where the fictional Cornley Polytechnic Drama Society attempts to stage a murder mystery. However, as the title suggests, everything that can go wrong does, leading to a cascade of comedic disasters. It’s a testament to the talent and dedication of the University Players, a group that embodies the University of Windsor’s commitment to experiential learning and diverse theatrical expressions.


Nelson, guiding this ambitious project, shares her enthusiasm: “It’s very exciting to bring this play to Windsor—actually, it was the students of the BFA Year 4 class who proposed this play to the Play Selection Committee and pushed for it to be part of the season.” This student-driven choice underscores the University Players’ ethos of embracing challenging and diverse theatrical works.

She describes the play as a community theatre show with a twist: “My interpretation is that this is a community theatre show that has a pretty sizeable budget (which probably should have been spent on some safety precautions).” This perspective adds a layer of irony to the production, as the characters strive to present “The Murder at Haversham Manor” amid continuous interruptions and mishaps, reflecting a hilarious yet relatable human struggle.

Directing “The Play That Goes Wrong” presents unique challenges, especially due to its reliance on physical comedy and precise timing. Nelson notes the complexity: “There are many challenges—the biggest one is probably rehearsing the show without a set. The cast must use their imagination in terms of falling off platforms and spinning around in bookcases.” To ensure safety, particularly in scenes involving slapstick and sword fighting, the production engaged Jamie Treschak of Violence in Motion, highlighting the professional approach taken in this educational setting.

It’s also been a lesson in collaboration and humility. “I’ve learned that the director doesn’t have to solve everything… We are fortunate to have a team of experts working on the show, and they are incredible at troubleshooting and formulating alternative solutions,” she reflects. This collaborative spirit is crucial in a production where timing, physical comedy, and coordination are paramount.

The play’s relevance to contemporary audiences, especially in Windsor, lies in its universal appeal. Nelson observes, “The humour comes from moments of sheer humanity… We all know that feeling.” The community theatre scene in Windsor, rich and vibrant, is poised to connect deeply with the play’s themes and comedic elements.

Casting for the play focused on those who were truly passionate about being a part of this production. Nelson elaborates: “We cast mainly based on who really wanted to be in the show—from that we did exercises in improvisation, clowning, play, and games in rehearsal to bring out a sense of timing and physical comedy.” This approach aligns with the University of Windsor’s educational model, providing students with practical, hands-on experience in a professional-like environment.

The set design, crucial for the play’s comedic ‘disasters,’ was approached with both safety and functionality in mind. Nancy Perrin, the Set Designer and Scenic Artist, played a pivotal role. “First and foremost is safety,” Nelson conveys Perrin’s perspective, “We spent a lot of time in careful consideration about what tricks we could achieve safely with our timeframe, budget, and skill sets.” This careful planning ensures that the set not only supports the comedy but does so without compromising the safety of the actors.

Essex Hall Theatre presents both opportunities and constraints. “The venue has allowed us to do many of the tricks and effects from the original production,” Nelson notes, yet the decision to not use the apron of the stage resulted in a tighter playing space. This limitation, however, turned out to be a boon: “The tight space heightens the stakes for physical comedy,” she explains.

In rehearsals, the focus was on memorizing lines early to allow ample time for physical comedy choreography. “Getting off book as soon as possible is crucial,” Nelson states, emphasizing the need for practice to make the comedic timing appear effortless and spontaneous.

During the rehearsals, real-life mishaps mirrored those scripted in the play. Nelson recounts an incident where a doorknob came off a door unexpectedly, exemplifying the play’s inherent relatability and unpredictability. “Needless to say, the show is very relatable,” she remarks, highlighting the seamless blend of planned and spontaneous comedy.

The dual roles of the actors, playing members of the Cornley Polytechnic Drama Society and their characters in the play-within-the-play, offer a unique challenge. “The murder mystery characters are portrayed by the Cornley Drama Society actors and are entirely serious, but the actor-characters are entirely absurd,” Nelson explains, shedding light on the layered character development process.

Audience interaction, a hallmark of “The Play That Goes Wrong,” is an aspect Nelson and her team are keen to explore. “Mischief Theatre has written in some brilliant moments of audience interaction in the preshow and intermission; we plan to honour that improvised comedy,” she says, hinting at the unpredictability that awaits the audiences.

The play’s relevance to contemporary audiences, especially in Windsor, lies in its universal appeal. Nelson observes, “The humour comes from moments of sheer humanity… We all know that feeling.” The community theatre scene in Windsor, rich and vibrant, is poised to connect deeply with the play’s themes and comedic elements.

Balancing scripted comedy with impromptu moments is a delicate art, one that Nelson approaches with excitement: “Those moments are what are known as a gift from the clown gods! This is when the actors get to use those improv chops.” Such moments enrich the performance, making each show unique.

Nelson’s favorite aspect of the play is watching the comedy evolve through rehearsals, as actors refine their timing and embrace the playfulness of their roles. “What makes ‘The Play That Goes Wrong’ stand out is that it’s a non-stop rollercoaster ride of surprises,” she says, capturing the essence of a play where the unexpected becomes the norm.

Her biggest takeaway from working on this production is succinct yet profound: “It takes a village to make a play go wrong.” This sentiment underscores the collective effort required to bring such a complex, humor-filled play to life. Nelson hopes that audiences will leave with “a wonderful night of laughter and an appreciation for what goes into a theatre production (even when it all goes wrong).”

Influenced by the 2019 touring production and comedy experts like John Wright, Keith Johnstone, and Joe Dieffenbacher, Nelson’s approach to “The Play That Goes Wrong” is a blend of studied technique and instinctive humor. The production not only showcases the talent and creativity of the University Players but also serves as a vivid example of the University of Windsor’s commitment to fostering experiential learning and artistic diversity in its students. It runs November 24 to December 3 at Essex Hall, with tickets and more information available at University Players.

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