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Why 'The Play that Goes Wrong' is wrong about theatre

The assumptions that makes amateur theatre an old joke are really a power play that creates a fall guy for culturally privileged professionals.
Why 'The Play that Goes Wrong' is wrong about theatre

Image: The Play that Goes Wrong 

Last week Mischief Theatre’s The Play that Goes Wrong opened in Melbourne. Its comedic hook and victim of choice is amateur theatricals.

How theatre reflects cultural tensions about and beyond theatre is perhaps more fascinating than the shows themselves. I’m not going to review The Play that Goes Wrong - Amelia Swan has done so already -  but instead I will consider what its presence can tell us about theatre and society.

Attacking amateurs

The Play that Goes Wrong is part of a long line of theatre and movies that perform ‘being amateur’. The play’s marketing tells us that it’s about ‘The Cornley Polytechnic Drama Society who are attempting to put on a 1920s’ murder mystery, but as the title suggests, everything that can go wrong… does, as the accident-prone thespians battle on against all the odds to get to their final curtain call.’ The language is telling: ‘Cornley’ (corny or what?), ‘Polytechnic’ and ‘thespians’ are all laden with the heavy signifiers of ‘being amateur.’ How the cast performed ‘being amateur’ was highly ‘professional’ but the major assumption that amateur theatre-makers are inept, was upheld. Paradoxically, non-amateurs capitalise on this ‘knowledge’ and wring it for every laugh and box office buck they can get.

We all know the stereotypes that amateur drama is shockingly bad yet the real drama is that, like any double act, ‘the straight guy’ needs ‘the fall guy’ to maintain their status. Non-amateurs need amateurs; when we sit in a theatre (or cinema), having purchased our not-so-cheap ticket to watch non-amateurs mimic the apparent foibles of a cultural underclass, we laugh. We laugh because we understand the tensions being played out. Or we think we do. Nicolas Ridout suggests that the embarrassment evoked by amateurs exists because we are aware of the possibility of failing just like amateurs. This ability to see both worlds gives rise to our enjoyment. We see our own possible downfall and yet it isn’t us who has fallen so we can laugh. This is the basis of slapstick. Sounds a bit like Schadenfreude - to get the joke we must mock the ‘other’.

Arguably, by accepting the (untested) beliefs of the past, that amateurs make bad theatre, as the truth, a form of cultural revisionism is taking place in the amateur genre: it suits non-amateurs to keep amateurs in their cultural place so they, professionals, can be seen to be doing the cultural work. And doing it better. 

Representation of the cultural underbelly by the culturally privileged suddenly can be seen as a problem. As Francois Matarosso writes ‘If people are only imagined and portrayed by others, how can they be full, free and equal members of society?’ There is no equality in the representation of amateurs by non-amateurs.

Yet the fact that Swan, in her review, only questions the absence of decent women or non-white roles is telling. She doesn’t challenge the premise itself. Indeed, whilst it is no longer PC to make shows or movies based on racial discrimination, unless it is an interrogation or commentary on it then why doesn’t this apply to cultural practice discrimination? Amateurs are artists too, aren’t they? Or am I letting identity politics get in the way of a high quality laugh?

Radical Responses

As the Mormons peddle their spiritual wares in Federation Square, riding off the back of the extraordinary marketing of the musical The Book of Mormon, I wonder if amateurs will come out placarding and raising membership outside The Play that Goes Wrong. Will they and their supporters be there with banners shouting ‘Don’t let Pros perform us’ ‘Nothing about us without us’! ‘Amateurs do it for Love!’ Or are the cultural prejudices so internalised that it is still okay to mock amateurs?

What if lurking in our cultural collective sub-conscious we all know that those pretending to be amateurs have the power? They have the luxury of time, money, and training to make ‘a highly physical comedy packed with finely-tuned farce and Buster Keaton inspired slapstick delivered with split-second timing and ambitious daring’ so there is an inevitability about the jarring juxtaposition between form and content presented on stage. Brilliantly performed amateurism.

But do amateurs care anyway? To understand what that we would need to survey the estimated quarter of a million people engaged in amateur theatre to learn their perspectives or at least ask the audience of The Play that Goes Wrong. It would be fascinating to know who cares.

If theatre can provoke consciousness or action in the real world, such as the Mormon’s leafleting in Fed’ Square, might The Play that Goes Wrong offer a similar prod? Arguably, when we sit, comfortably in the theatre laughing at last century power relations of professionalisation, sucking upon the unrepresented to benefit and fatten the chops of the dominant, we are complicit, leaving little room for action. Maybe the play has the capacity to change society’s ideas – perhaps by offering insight into a world where engagement in fun, stimulating, communal activities is a way of being.

Such change is unlikely. When you see the play it feels remote because it is so silly. But perhaps the play could offer reassurance that to make theatre now (read ‘to live’) is about existing within the cultural tension of our individualistic yet alienated times: between being the best and being our best.

Mischief Theatre previously produced Peter Pan Goes Wrong and they are practically the same play. It is a well-worn stereotype.  I’d suggest that these plays are not about  amateur theatre but an image of amateur theatre and the tensions in our culture between who are represented as competent and those who are not. Personally, I’d prefer to go to my local amateur theatre company and see one of their shows – the real thing not the commercial mimesis. Perhaps your local amateur company will perform The Play that Goes Wrong and get it right. What then?


Anna Loewendahl

Wednesday 1 March, 2017

About the author

Anna Loewendahl is a theatre maker, animateur and performer. She is a PhD candidate at the  Faculty of VCA & MCM, University of Melbourne, researching cultural value and theatre practices.