Pit & Balcony Theatre Tackles the Chaotic & Carefully Engineered Brilliance of NOISES OFF

Posted In: Arts & Entertainment, Theatre,   From Issue 824   By: Robert E Martin

17th March, 2016     0

Noises Off is a 1982 play written by the English playwright Michael Frayn, who first got the idea for this tightly constructed and innovative ‘Comedy of Manners’ back in 1970, when he was watching from the wings a performance of a farce he had written specifically for actress Lynn Redgrave called The Two of Us.  Believing the actual production to be funnier from behind than in front of the stage, he vowed to one day write a play from that perspective, and in 1977 developed a prototype – a short-lived one-act play called Exits – that was performed in 1977.

At the request of associate Michael Codron, the playwright expanded this vision into what would become Noises Off – taking its title from the theatrical stage direction indicating ‘sounds coming from offstage.’

Debuting at the Lyric Theatre, Hammersmith London in 1982, Noises Off opened in December 1983 on Broadway, where it ran for 553 performances, earning Tony Award nominations for Best Play. It also won a Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Ensemble and is now headed for Saginaw’s Pit & Balcony Community Theatre, where it will unfold its hilarious and meticulously crafted wonders for audiences in a series of performances that run April 1-10th.

Much of the comedy emerges from the subtle variations in each actor, as character flaws play off each other off-stage to undermine on-stage performance, with a great deal of slapstick. The contrast between players' on-stage and off-stage personalities is also a source of comic dissonance.

Director Todd Thomas has harbored an intense desire to tackle the numerous challenges of this ambitious production ever since the early 1980s, when he graduated with a Bachelors degree in theatrical directing and was able to see the original Broadway production weeks after it premiered. Indeed, his background easily serves as an interesting preamble to this current P&B production.

“I spent a number of years in the theatre and made a living as a pianist, doing the types of things you do when you’re 23-years old,” explains Thomas. “I did this for 8 years and decided I wasn’t really good enough to make a solid living with it. I could poke around, but was getting close to 30, so decided to go to school and ended up with a couple Masters degrees and a PhD in Organizational Psychology, and now I’m a college professor.”

“A series of events brought me to Midland, where I’ve been living for six years now; and my daughter is very talented and got interested in music & theatre, getting started with the Peanut Gallery at Midland Center for the Arts,” he continues. “Although Noises Off is the first play I’ve directed for Pit & Balcony, I’ve directed several productions at Midland Center for the Arts and got to know P&B Board Member and director Brandon Bierlein, who invited me to this Directors Luncheon.  When it was announced that Pit & Balcony was doing Noises Off, of all the shows I’ve seen since 1983, that is the one I’ve always wanted to direct the most. I told Brandon, ‘I have not remotely the time to do this, but I simply have to do it.”

For Thomas what distinguishes Noises Off from the lexicon of contemporary theatre is the way it was written.  “Frayn is a serious writer and not necessarily known for writing farce, but this is his ‘one-off’. He constructed this play like an engineer, and I saw this in the early ‘80s when I was one of those college kids that would go to New York City to see 5 shows in 3 days and have never since seen a show where by the second act you’re so astounded, you can’t possibly imagine what will be happening in the third act. And by the third act, I couldn’t breathe.”

“The second act of this production alone is like a huge rollercoaster ride, filled with so much physical humor,” continues Todd.  “It’s not really slapstick because objects get passed from one person to another across the stage; and I couldn’t stop thinking how one actor could have his hand in exactly the right place at the right time. And by the time you get to the third act, it’s a different kind of funny, which is also very hilarious.  So basically, I believe that this play was very carefully engineered and meticulously thought out, because its amazingly funny and a lot of fun to watch.”

But we get ahead of ourselves, as is easy to do when dissecting such a carefully engineered, yet divergent excursion into humor. So let’s move to the beginning.  Act One begins at the dress rehearsal of a play called Nothing On, in which young girls run about in their underwear, old men drop their trousers, and many doors continually bang open and shut.  The cast are hopelessly unready, baffled by entrances & exits and bothersome props; whereas Act Two is set at a matinee performance one month later.

“The basic premise when we start is that we are at the final dress rehearsal of a play where one of the actresses is nearing the end of her career,” relates Thomas. “She is well-known and has invested money into the production and also gotten one of her old friends to direct it, who is also well-known.  The entire production is being put together on somewhat of a shoestring budget; and some of the cast is not necessarily as good as they might have been at different points in their careers. So with this first act, we are basically sitting in an audience watching the dress rehearsal of this new play, Nothing On.”

By the time the second act opens, the play’s been on the road a few months.  “We see these relationships between the various characters have continued over the next couple of months,” notes Thomas, “only now the audience is looking at the show from backstage.” 

Because of this ‘backstage view’, Act Two is the trickiest; providing a view that not only emphasizes the deteriorating relationships between the cast that leads to these offstage shenanigans; but more brilliantly manifests itself into onstage bedlam, with the play falling into disorder before the curtain falls.

“What you saw going going out the door in Act 1 is now coming at you from the in-door, which is part of what makes it so unbelievable,” reflects Thomas. “All the lines you hear are from the show side of the stage while the show is going on, yet all you get from the back-side view at this stage of the performance is pantomime – kind of like actors do when they can’t talk. As the story develops during this second act, the interesting thing is how the full attention of the audience is engaged; you sit their glued because if you look away you’re afraid you’ll miss something.”

By the time Act 3 rolls around, we see a performance near the end of the ten-week run, when personal friction has continued to increase. The actors remain determined at all costs to cover up the mounting series of mishaps, but it is not long before the plot has to be abandoned entirely and the more coherent characters are obliged to take a lead in ad-libbing towards some variety of ending.

“With the final act, we’re into the closing week of production, and now you’re back watching it from the front of the stage, as you did when they were in dress rehearsals; only now we see how dysfunctional these characters are,” smiles Thomas. “We see what the show has gotten to by the time it closes.  So obviously the biggest challenge with this production is the stage itself – it has to be set at two stories and be able to rotate, so the audience can see both the front & back side views of this theatrical ‘stage’ within a stage. Tony Serra is our set designer and is working fastidiously to get both the stairs and the set right.”

“Thematically, Noises Off is basically about the relationship of the actors,” continues Thomas. “There’s a couple love stories going on and we see how those develop within a tight group like a theatrical troupe. The character of Lloyd, the director, is somewhat of a charmer and suddenly is working with two of the actresses he has relationship with, only in his mind, he’s simply going to direct until the show opens and then go back to New York to do Richard III.  And then you have an older actor who used to be a Lawrence Olivier kind of guy only now he’s on the bottle, so the cast is always losing him and trying to find where he is. Consequently, the audience sees all these relationships and how they evolve, but Noises Off is very much a contemporary Comedy of Manners.”

Still, the pivotal challenge for Thomas has been focused upon getting the chaotic brilliance of that second act nailed precisely right.

“I call it the ‘Pantomime Act because the actors don’t have typical anchors or any cues really, plus some of he people are doing lines on the other side of the stage, so getting the timing on these lines down and the movement tight is over the top,” he explains. “As an actor you want to know a cue line for doing a specific action, and the problem is with Noises Off, it’s a continuous motion. Nothing actually stops or waits for something else, plus the lines delivered on the other side have to match the action on the side of the stage we are seeing, so it’s a very difficult situation for the actors. I keep telling them its both hard and complicated, which is the exact reason why its so damn funny. It’s all in the timing.”

“Every once in awhile there are plays we do where you hope the audience gets the message, but this is a play where the message is simply the fun of the production itself – there is no big message,” concludes Thomas. “Having said that, if people ask me why they should buy tickets for this production and what makes it compelling, one thing they will discover early on is how they can relate to the series of actors working on the show.  The issues these characters are dealing with have nothing to do with the show, but have to do with being a person; so the audience will identify people they know in their real lives with people they see on the stage.”

“Early on and right off the bat you are able to identify with the characters you’re seeing; and one of the worst things you can do in acting farce is ‘try’ to be funny. You can’t force it. That’s why I tell my actors, ‘Be who you are’. Feel like the characters are real and they can and will be funny. I think we have the cast that will do that and I believe people will leave Pit & Balcony in a better mood after seeing this performance than when they came.”

With a cast that consists of Rachel Jingles, Natalie Slawnyk, Laura Brigham, Matt Kehoe, Kale Schaefer, Paul Lutenske, Janelle Bublitz, William Kircher and Devon ‘DJ’ Wright, tickets for ‘Noises Off’ can be purchased at PitAndBalconyTheatre.com or by calling the Box Office at 989-754-6587. Pit & Balcony is located at 805 N. Hamilton St., Saginaw.




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