Producing “Noises Off”

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Noises Off Poster

Noises Off By Michael Frayn

GENRE: Farce

Performance length: about 3 hours and 15 minutes

ACTING: Hard

SET DESIGN: Hard

COSTUME DESIGN: Easy

CAST POTENTIAL: This play will stretch the comedic talents of your casting pool, requiring most of them to play not one, but two over-the-top characters.

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CROWD REACTION: I have seen two different productions of this piece and both had the audience literally rolling in the aisles. “The Butcher of Broadway,” Frank Rich, called it “the funniest play written in my lifetime.”

SUMMARY: Written as a play-within-a-play, Michael Frayn wanted to show both sides of a theatrical farce: the onstage comedy and the offstage chaos. The first act is a dress rehearsal for the ridiculous sex-farce Nothing On. And, as the title suggests, nothing is going right. It is here we begin to see what terrible shape this production is in.

The second act takes place on opening night of Nothing On, except we are privy to watch the performance from backstage. While the actors run on-and-off stage to deliver their lines, we get to watch them fumble aimlessly backstage as they futilely try to maintain order.

The third act is closing night and the cast and crew have clearly lost all control of their play. We watch the first act of Nothing On once more and laugh at the denigration of a production that seemed destined to fail.

CASTING CONSIDERATIONS: This play requires a highly energetic cast with an exquisite sense in timing. Performing any farce can be very stressful and demanding, yet Noises Off takes those requirements to another level. Both the dialogue and staging are extremely complicated, demanding the actors to be many places in very little time. The second act, particularly, is an acrobatic feat. While the audience cannot see Nothing On, they can still hear it being performed. So, not only must the actors perform the hilarious backstage pantomime, but they must also catch their cues for the onstage play.

Be that this was written by a British playwright, the cast really needs to be able to execute that accent. The dialogue just doesn’t ring true without it.

SCENIC CONSIDERATIONS: Like any farce, the set usually becomes a character in itself. Doors are usually the bread and butter of a high stakes comedy. The more entrances and exits, the better. Here, the set not only features many, many doors, but must be able to rotate 180-degrees to expose its backstage. I have seen this executed with a massive box-set (most impressive) and unit pieces (got the job done, but less exhilarating). In either case, this requires a lot of foresight and planning, but is a delightful treat for the audience.

PERSONAL REFLECTIONS: I echo Frank Rich’s sentiments. This is one of the funniest plays I have ever seen. And even though the performance length is a daunting 3 hours and 15 minutes, the time seems to fly by. As a theatre person, I find much of the comedy very relatable: the vices and personalities of the cast can be found in almost any theatrical company. Yet I think the audience member who knows little about the process of a theatrical production will find this play that much more enjoyable, because it shows everything we theatre makers try desperately hard to hide: that is, the noises off.

About Matthew McMahan

Matthew McMahan is an actor, writer, and dramaturg, who has worked both in New York and regionally for theatre companies such as the Wooster Group, the Atlantic Theatre Company, the Indiana Repertory Theatre, Young Playwrights, Inc., and the Living Newspaper. He is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in Drama from Tufts University in Medford, MA.
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