Backstage Stories From The Cast
Theatrical Disasters In The Spirit Of Noises Off
I direct Beauty and the Beast at People’s Light. My then-fiancée Melanye Finister acts in the show. One Wednesday about 1:30PM, the stage manager calls our apartment for Melanye. I don’t know where she is. He says, “We have a 2:00 show and she’s missing.” This is before cellphones so I have no way to find her. He says, “Well, I’m glad you answered--you’re coming in to do her role.”
I arrive five minutes to curtain. They retrofit Melanye’s “mean stepsister” costume on me: head wrap, long skirt, bustier. There’s chest hair spilling out all over the place.
The house manager tells the audience what’s happening. I step onstage. The actors whisper directions to help me fake the choreography. The audience laughs and claps. I perform Act I. Then I see Melanye standing in the wings. She takes over and finishes the show.
Melanye now says that when she saw me that day in drag, dancing and flouncing, she realized that it was a good idea to marry me.
I’m a first-year acting intern in Othello at Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival. I’m about to enter a raucous drinking scene with a guitar and a little wooden keg, but I snag my fingers on a nail in the keg and they start bleeding. I walk on, sit on the keg, and cup my hands to catch the blood running down my fingers. Cassio and Montano are having a great time and I’m supposed to be playing the guitar, but that’s not going to happen. I run offstage mid-scene, rush to the men’s room and empty handfuls of blood into the sink.
I perform in On The Razzle at the Wilma. It’s fast-paced. At one point I quick change into a wide hoop skirt. Unbeknownst to me, a piece of the hoop breaks loose and sticks out through the skirt fabric. So I enter with a flourish, sit in a chair onstage and the scene starts. When I stand up to exit the chair comes with me. It’s pinned to my butt by the broken hoop in my skirt. I move forward, the chair moves forward. I move backward, the chair moves backward. The crew’s waiting for my next quick change—I have to get into the wings! So I turn and run offstage with the chair attached to my backside.
I perform in The Prescott Method at the Walnut Street Theatre. Every night we deliberately smash a porcelain creamer as part of the action. The creamer has no “pre-set” cracks, so it breaks differently each time. We ask ourselves, “What will it be tonight? Two big pieces or 6,000 little ones?”
Tonight, my co-star throws the creamer extra hard for emphasis and it shatters spectacularly all over the set. I have to clean it up quickly before the next scene starts. I scramble frantically with the dust pan, get everything up and walk into the next scene. Then I notice my left hand is covered in blood. I feel no pain so I assume it belongs to my co-star. As we exchange dialogue, I scrutinize her from head to foot but I see no injuries. Then I look down at my right hand and see the cuts, and they’re pouring blood. But I can’t leave the scene! And I have a quick change coming up in the wings so there will be no time to get a bandage then, either.
So I take a dishtowel from the onstage kitchen, wrap it around my right hand and stick the hand in my pocket. Then I enact all the stage business I have: I pour coffee, I light birthday cake candles. Everything I do looks utterly awkward because I’m right-handed and I have to use only my left hand. It’s a nightmare!
But I managed to hide the blood so successfully that our stage manager watches the entire scene, and never figures out why I’m acting so oddly, until I tell her about it afterwards.
What’s The Play About?
Noises Off, a 1982 comedy by English playwright Michael Frayn, earns praise from critics as the epitome of its theatrical form, a play-within-a-play farce. It follows the exploits of a troupe of actors, stage managers and directors as they stage a play called Nothing On. Here’s how it works:
--In the first act, we watch the characters rehearse Nothing On in preparation to tour it around England.
--In the second act, we watch them backstage during a performance of Nothing On in a small English town. Tensions have started to erupt among cast and crew so backstage is a bit crazy, but they’re all determined that the show must go on.
--In the third act, we watch them perform Nothing On from the front like a normal audience in yet another small town. But now the cast is openly at war with one another and the chaos spills onstage.
Author Frayn continues to rewrite the play. You’ll see his latest version (copyrighted 2004) at People’s Light. He’s added new sequences, cut others, and reworked references that might date the play (such as Mrs. Clackett's observation about the Brents having “colour television”).
How Will People’s Light Rehearse It?
Pete Pryor Tackles The “Funniest Play Ever Written”
PEOPLE’S LIGHT: Noises Off is notoriously hard to rehearse because there’s so much onstage movement, so many visual gags, such split-second timing required to make the comic bits work. Why do you want to direct this play? Are you crazy?
PRYOR: Yes. I am crazy.
But also, directing this play poses a gigantic challenge, one that I’ve always wanted to tackle. Frayn is an incredible writer, and this is one of the best farces ever written. And we have company members at People’s Light who can do this material really well.
PLTC: You’re an actor as well as a director, but as it would be impossible to do both jobs in such a complicated production, you’ve opted to direct. Are you distressed that you won’t be in the cast?
PRYOR: Yes, I really want to be in it. But maybe I’ll fire someone.
PLTC: How would you describe your approach to this material?
PRYOR: I am approaching this material like a bull moose. Slowly, awkwardly, trying not to let my antlers get in the way. The material in Noises Off is so well crafted and precise that if we honor the story, we serve the play. We’ve assembled the best storytellers in our region for this project. I’m looking to them for learning, guidance and medication.
PLTC: We’re one week away from the start of rehearsal. What are you thinking about right now?
PRYOR: Lunch. Mostly lunch is what I am thinking about. My favorite is Vietnamese Pho.
I am thinking about the best way to start the rehearsal process. I’m looking at the final drafts of set and prop plans with our designers, and consulting with our production manager and stage manager about strategies and logistics. We’re still working out aspects of the physical production because there’s so much stage business in the show. This is my favorite part of the process, actually, because everything is still in the idea phase.
PLTC: Speaking of stage business, Act Two is perhaps the most challenging part of the play to rehearse because the audience witnesses the backstage chaos that accompanies an onstage performance. What’s your strategy for rehearsing that act?
PRYOR: Lots of prayer.
Chaz Brastow (our aforementioned production manager) has made it possible for the cast to get onto the set earlier than usual, which will help us enormously with Act Two. Right now, we plan to work in the rehearsal room for two weeks, then the third week of rehearsal, go into the Main Stage and work on the set for a couple of hours a day. The set won’t be finished when we first step onto it, of course—we’ll have to use our imaginations for those sections that the production department hasn’t completed yet. But it’s GREAT to be able to rehearse that incredibly complicated act in the actual space.
PLTC: Why are you suited to direct this play?
PRYOR: Um, it’s all based on looks. Or there was a cage match and I won. Actually, it’s a work release program—it’s either this or I pick up trash on the side of the road. I’m suited for both but it’s easier to do theatre, since I get to sit down.
PLTC: Why should someone come see this play?
PRYOR: It’s one of the funniest plays ever written. It’s a love letter from a brilliant, witty writer to the theatre. Our company members will make this material sing. You’ll encounter some top-notch acting from both new and familiar faces in the cast.
There’s a reason this play is done a lot. It’s absolutely hilarious, and People’s Light hasn’t done it before.
PLTC: How will you judge, for yourself, if you’ve done a good job creating this production?
PRYOR: If people are laughing or not.
Who Wrote The Play?
Playwright, columnist, reporter and translator Michael Frayn was born on September 8, 1933, in the suburbs of London. His mother, a once promising young violinist, died when Frayn was 12, and his father, a rep for an asbestos and roofing materials firm, had to withdraw his son from an expensive private school to a public one. Frayn, however, thrived in this new environment of Ewell, south London. He displayed a talent for music and poetry, and by the time he was a teenager, knew that he wanted to be a writer of some sort.
After a brief stint in the army as a Russian interpreter, Frayn attended the University of Cambridge. He graduated in 1957 with a degree in "moral sciences”. Soon after, he served as a reporter and columnist for the Manchester Guardian (1957-62) and The Observer (1962-68). He published collections of essays from his columns and wrote several novels including The Tin Men (1965), The Russian Interpreter (1966), and A Very Private Life (1968).
Frayn's first play, a one-act, was rejected by the producer who had commissioned it. Irritated, Frayn decided he would simply write several more pieces and put on an evening of his own short plays. Unfortunately, The Two of Us (1970), starring Lynne Redgrave and Richard Briars, bombed. The production sold tickets thanks to the popularity of its cast, but critics attacked it viciously. In fact, after the opening night performance, a few audience members actually spat on Frayn in the street!
Undaunted, however, Frayn continued to write for the stage, and his next efforts succeeded. Alphabetical Order (1975) told the story of a newspaper office that loses its identity when an overly efficient employee attempts to impose order on the chaotic environment. This time, critics raved and Frayn won the Evening Standard Award for "Best Comedy of the Year". He followed this success with Clouds (1976),Donkey's Years (1977), and Make or Break (1980), which also won the Evening Standard Award.
Frayn is probably best known for Noises Off, which won him a third Evening Standard Award for best comedy and enjoyed a run of four years in London's West End. (A companion piece, Look Look (1990), attempted to add a new twist--the audience watched an audience watching a play--but the idea didn't hold together and the production closed after 27 performances.)
Frayn also earned international attention for Copenhagen (1998), which dramatizes the disastrous 1941 meeting between German physicist Werner Heisenberg and Danish physicist Nils Bohr. Hailed as an imaginative and fascinating recreation of the historical meeting, Copenhagen earned "Best Play" honors at the 1998 Evening Standard Awards.
Frayn has translated several plays by Chekhov including The Cherry Orchard (1978), Three Sisters (1983), and Uncle Vanya (1988), Chekhov's first, untitled play (which Frayn called Wild Honey), and four one-acts: The Evils of Tobacco, Swan Song, The Bear and The Proposal. Frayn’s first film, Clockwise (1986), featured John Cleese, and his second film, First and Last (1990), won an international Emmy Award. The film adaptation of Noises Off, produced by Disney, boasted a star-studded cast. His plays Alphabetical Order, Donkey's Years, Make and Break, and Benefactors have all been filmed for UK television. One of Frayn's novels, A Landing on the Sun (1991), aired on the BBC in 1994, and another, Headlong (1999) earned a nomination for the Booker Prize.
Thanks to imagi-nation.com for help with this bio.
How Did He Write It?
Excerpts from an article published Monday, April 29, 2013 in The Guardian, London, England
“Writing Noises Off was like trying to make a sculpture out of jelly.”
Playwright Michael Frayn has long had a weakness for farce. Noises Off, he said, was inspired by a visit backstage during a performance of his play The Two Of Us, his West End debut in 1970.
"The show, a series of two-handers, starred Richard Briers and Lynn Redgrave and in the closing piece, a farce, they played five characters between them. Therefore, there had to be a series of quick changes. When I saw what that entailed, I thought that it was funnier than anything that was happening on stage and I decided that I'd like to write a farce, viewed from behind the scenes," he says.
Attempting to plan the movement of actors and crucial props in and out of a variety of exits and entrances, firstly in rehearsal as viewed from out front and then in performance as seen from backstage, would have taxed the organisational powers of the architects of the D-Day Landings or of the 2012 London Olympics.
And in the days before the widespread use of computers, Michael had to rely on his trusty Adler typewriter to steer him along the complicated courses taken by actors and props, on and off the stage.
"Writing Noises Off was difficult," he says. "It was like trying to make a sculpture out of jelly. Every time you change something in one of the acts, it bulges out in the other two.
"I didn't know whether actors would agree to perform a large part of the play not to the audience but to the back wall of the theatre – or even if they could learn to perform all the backstage action of Act Two in mime. I often cursed the day I ever decided to write it.
"Michael Blakemore, the director of the first production, promised to give the play his best shot but said he had really no idea whether it would work or not."
Spoiler alert: it worked.
Now in its third decade, the play has clearly tapped into something universal.
"I think that it's connected to the fear which we all have inside ourselves that we might be unable to go on with the performance," Michael says.
"It's amazing how many people find public speaking terrifying, even if it's just in front of family and friends at a wedding. And an audience is an intense version of the world around us in general.
"We all feel that we might break down – and we sometimes do. So when we see it happening to those idiots up there on the stage in a farce, it's a release of the tension."
If the public delight in the spectacle of actors straining to keep Nothing On afloat, there are reports that some members of the theatrical profession were less amused by Noises Off's depiction of actors as dim-witted, emotionally immature and inclined to alcoholic excess.
Michael pleads guilty but with extenuating circumstances.
"It's a very unfair picture of actors," he admits. "In my experience, actors are astonishing people – intelligent, resourceful, mutually supportive, and often with wide-ranging interests in things well outside the limits of the theatre. The more I work with them, the more I admire them.
"On the other hand, Noises Off is a farce and the characterisation in a farce has to be a bit two-dimensional. Anyway, it's not completely unknown for actors to have affairs and rows with one another."