Every possible mistake that could be made played out onstage during Thursday night’s theater production at Franklin.
The actors missed the lines, grimacing as they struggled to utter high school vocabulary words like “facade” or “moody.” Props were constantly misplaced, leading to awkward moments where the lead actor had to use a vase as a notebook.
During what should have been a dramatically shocking moment in the second act, an actor leaned against a prominent support beam towards the back of the set. The beam collapsed to the ground, causing the second story floor to collapse with a loud creaking sound.
The actors recoiled in horror. The audience roared with laughter. And the stage crew – the creators of the doomed set – smiled with satisfaction.
Everything was going exactly according to plan.
The mistakes were all part of “The Play That Goes Wrong,” a wacky parody of 1920s murder mystery plays in which a beleaguered company of actors struggles in a performance where everything constantly fails. The onstage mishaps – from collapsing sets and untimely dramatic music cues to onstage collisions that seemingly incapacitated the actors – were carefully crafted and executed by an all-volunteer production team.
“This particular show couldn’t have happened without a huge, huge amount of people,” said Sarah Kieffner, the show’s director. “It was the toughest series I’ve ever helmed, yes, but also been on.”
As a director, Kieffner not only gives performance and action notes to people onstage, but helps coordinate a largely invisible team of offstage light operators, sound engineers, prop designers and costumes and set builders. They are responsible for everything that happens on stage, from setting up props to playing eerie music and sound effects at the most dramatic moments.
Make things go wrong, the right way
Or, for this show, making sure everything failed correctly.
The actors in the later production never acknowledged that the mishaps on stage were intentional, and the show was presented to audience members as “The Murder at Haversham Manor”. A sense of realism and immersion was key to the show’s comedy, so the team used countless tricks to create the illusion that the set was collapsing by accident.
Stage manager Dustin Greenleaf ran the operation on show nights. While the actors were on stage, he gave carefully timed instructions to crew members on when to play music, where to focus lights, and when to destroy the set while watching from a backstage control screen.
“I can see everything, even customers sitting in their seats,” Greenleaf said. “Which is always fun for us.”
The paintings and wall decorations were held together by magnets, allowing crew members to drop them (and then put them back on) effortlessly. To make the rungs of a ladder look like they’ve collapsed, the props team replaced two of the rungs with polystyrene painted to match the wooden ladder. When the actor stepped on the bar, it broke easily.
Basically, they also created props that wouldn’t actually harm the actors, which was especially important in a show where an entire wall slams onto the stage.
“When things ‘go bad’ you have to be very careful about safety,” said Savannah Aiello, one of the two team leaders. “So not only do we make sure the actors are in their place and the props are in their place, but the show has a lot of different components with sets falling, with water, with things coming off walls, with hidden entrances.”
By day, Aiello is a technology coach at schools in Williamson County. Her husband, fellow set construction manager Sean Aiello, is an attorney and Williamson County Commissioner. Kieffner is a guidance counselor at Father Ryan Academy. And Greenleaf, who has arguably the most stressful job on show days, works in tech support at TriStar Centennial Medical Center.
Greenleaf, who has worked with Pull-Tight for 16 years, said he loved coordinating so many moving parts behind the scenes to create a seamless show for audience members. The actors can get the applause on stage, but without the crew, a play would just be a bunch of people yelling at each other in a dark theater.
No props, no costumes, no lighting or sound and certainly no elaborate set design.
“That’s the beauty of acting,” Greenleaf said. “You shouldn’t know we’re back there if the show goes well.”
Recalling the spectacular “failures” of “The Play That Goes Wrong”, he added:
“On this show, you can almost get away with it a bit (with mistakes) because they don’t know exactly what should have happened.”
Cole Villena covers Williamson County at The Tennessean, part of the USA Today – Tennessee network. Contact Cole at firstname.lastname@example.org or 615-925-0493. Follow Cole on Twitter at @ColeVillena and on Instagram at @CVinTennessee.