This week, the national tour of Broadway's The Play That Goes Wrong arrives at the Dr. Phillips Center with Orlando native Chris French in a central role. I spoke with French ahead of opening night to learn what life is like playing dead in this slapstick smash hit.
Orlando Weekly: What is The Play That Goes Wrong about, and what role do you play?
Chris French: We talk about this being an Agatha Christie–meets–Monty Python world. It's a fictional play by a fictional author, it's an amateur theater group that's trying their hardest to produce a quality murder mystery, and they just get stymied at every corner. My character is Jonathan Harris; he is new to the drama society, and he plays Charles Haversham in The Murder of Haversham Manor. He is the person who has been murdered, so I do spend a fair amount of time as a dead body, but as things go wrong, I get exposed as still living, and I take more than a few hits as the other members of the drama society treat me as though I were an actual corpse.
In a weird meta way, the characters who are more senior in the drama society that is putting on the murder mystery were the people who have already been attached to the play before. Me and the other new cast members are the people who are new to the drama society, so that was a little bit of art mirroring life.
How do you keep the show's slapstick seeming spontaneous yet still safe?
The play takes place on opening night. That's huge, because opening night has totally different energy than any other night. The nerves are there, the excitement is there. That's something we all really all try to double down on and commit to before the play every night. We all wish each other happy opening at every performance, just to remind ourselves that this is the "first" time that we're doing it.
Has anything truly gone wrong during the play?
Usually when things go wrong in our play, it's as if the play has gone right. I have a bit in the show where I kick a door open, and in one of our previews the door flew completely off its hinges and fell to the ground. One of my castmates had a friend there that evening, and he had actually seen the show last year, and he no idea that was not what was supposed to happen.
Why did you initially get into theater?
I always enjoyed the spotlight. In [Conway] Middle School I had really great theater teachers who ran the drama club, and I just really enjoyed that. When it came time to go to high school, I decided to go out on a limb and apply to the theater magnet program over at Dr. Phillips High School. Karen Rugerio ran that program for a long time; I know she works for the Dr. Phillips Center now [as director of education outreach]. I'm looking forward to seeing her, because she had so much to do with my getting serious about a career and life in theater.
- Photo courtesy of Chris French
What has being an Actors' Equity union member done for you?
I feel super protected and supported by my union. Like all unions, it's based in solidarity, and there are so many more protections in place for us as actors and stage managers. Being able to work on a team together that way, we all know that we are working towards the same goals and with one another. My initial appointment for this national tour was an "EPA" – Equity Principal Audition – which are auditions that are required by Actors' Equity. I don't see a world where I'd actually be in this play if it weren't for my union.
How do you feel about performing in Orlando again?
I'm very excited to be performing at the Dr. Phillips Center because I've never been before. I grew up going to shows at the Bob Carr; we had a season subscription from the time I was in middle school. I saw Phantom and Cats and everything that came through there, so I'm excited to be on the other side of that. That was always a dream of mine: Maybe one day I'll be coming back through here and doing it, and now here I am.
[This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity. The Play That Goes Wrong continues through Sunday, Dec. 8, at the Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts, 445 S. Magnolia Ave. Call 844-513-2014 or go to drphillipscenter.org for showtimes and ticket information.]
– This story appears in the Dec. 3, 2019, print issue of Orlando Weekly. Stay on top of Central Florida news and views with our weekly Headlines newsletter.