Streaming with laughter: how Mischief and Kenny Wax created Mischief Movie Night In
The team reflect on what has become an online cult sensation
The last 16 or so months has seen the theatre industry defined by a "can-do" attitude: producers taking shows online, creating bespoke productions that respond directly to lockdown restrictions, or desperately managing mitigation measures in order to safely stage socially distanced shows.
Mischief, the makers of The Play That Goes Wrong and producer Kenny Wax have been at the forefront of these endeavours: the Mischief crew have put two shows out on tour during the pandemic (with two more to come in the upcoming weeks), while Wax, whose other productions include Six the Musical, has done everything from demo-ing a drive-in concert tour to mounting a socially distanced version of the classic in a brand new venue.
The pair now partner to stage Mischief Movie Night In, a live-streamed improv comedy experience. Sat in the Riverside foyer ahead of the first performance, Wax admits he was initially skeptical when pitched the concept after the December lockdown, but was more than ready to take the plunge with the Mischief crew: "Sometimes producers do amazing things – this wasn't one of those occasions. I didn't believe that an improv show with a live audience would easily transfer to an online show. But we made it really work very quickly, which meant doing a lot of testing, doing a lot of streams. At the Vaudeville we'd been aiming to play to 150 to 200 people: suddenly on the big nights we were playing to 7000 people. The concept of a Zoom link with families, a social media corner and no audience – that combination plus the audience at home: it worked amazingly well."
A smash-hit success for its initial runs in December, January and February, the Mischief crew were eager to bring the piece back – now in hybrid format. Audiences can either sit and watch live (capacity is currently limited) or watch online via Zoom, sending in suggestions and comments via social media or Zoom's chat function. After an initial spree of suggestions, the team improvise an hour-long full movie, complete with critic commentary and "special effects".
Wax brings the story to the present day: "When you've worked as long as I have in the industry, you get to know people. I called up Rachel Tackley, who is the creative director at Riverside and asked if they had a space free. Initially we were hoping to play to 150 live audience members here though, with restrictions as they are, we've started out at 40. In a few weeks' time we want to push up to around 90 live audience members."
How has it been for those actually in the show? The initial, audience-free shows were a whirlwind to set up and stage, as Mischief co-founder Jonathan Sayer explains: "We did our dress run on Christmas eve. It was all built and set up in eight days to get the first live-stream ready. By the end there were some people who had watched every one, and there was a lovely online community that had formed. It was a way of sharing and reaching out to people we'd never met before."
A big part of that community is down to the cost of watching the show, and Wax definitely has opinions when it comes to pricing tickets: "Most producers try to find the price point for their show, which is just about affordable but also the maximum they can squeeze out of potential audiences. My approach for all of my shows is different: how cheap can we make these tickets to still make it work online. Ten pounds for a stream of Mischief Movie Night In for a family could come to £2.50 per person."
"I don't believe that high price tickets encourage people to come back to the theatre. I believe that people seem to enjoy the theatre more when they don't have to pay as much, and the word of mouth is better.
"We get a huge amount of repeat bookings on all of our shows. As it's inexpensive, people come back with their families, friends, colleagues. I bet if you went into Six tonight and asked the audience how many had seen the show before, two thirds would say yes."
Does Wax think these new innovations are here to stay in some form? "I've never been keen on streaming, ever. We've been asked to film Six and The Play That Goes Wrong many times . There is sometimes a right moment to do it – normally at the end of a limited run with a big star for ten weeks or something – that way you're enabling a much bigger audience to see it. I'm very sad that we didn't film Top Hat – we could have done that. We probably missed the boat. We probably will film Six at some point in the next couple of years, but we won't release it until a few years after that."
For Sayer and co-star Henry Lewis, doing Mischief Movie Night also feels partially like returning to their roots. "This is the first show we did in some form ten or 12 years ago. To bring it to new people has been amazing," Lewis explains, "the space we're streaming from is really similar to one of the Fringe venues we used to perform at – C+3 I think it was." Sayer adds: "I would credit this show with creating the spark that led to a lot of the shows we've created – the madcap house of cards where anything can happen."
Watching the show, it's incredible to see how innovative it is – a flock of wonderful technicians and musicians overlay the streamed video with basic CGI effects and whimsical improvised tunes, while green-screen opens up new disastrously hilarious opportunities.
Sayer and Lewis say the chance to do the improv lets them unleash creative juices: "There was one show we did last year that we thought might end up being a good film – a pirate adventure where the captain's son is kidnapped and brought to an island where no one is allowed an imagination. It had a ridiculous series of characters – one of the silliest things we've done."
But it all comes back to getting people employed, Wax states: "With all of this, with Six, The Play That Goes Wrong in the West End and on tour, it's all been about getting employment: making sure people can get out of their homes and working. Any commercial success is a bonus."