This story is part of a series of articles previewing Thespian troupes and the shows they’ve been invited to present on the 2019 International Thespian Festival main stage.

TROUPE 3796 from McPherson High School in Kansas will make its International Thespian Festival main stage debut with Noises Off.

Story

Drake Langshaw and Rachel Janzen in McPherson High School’s production of Noises Off. Photo by Greg Smith.

Director Lloyd Dallas and his troupe of exhausted actors are working slowly through final adjustments for their touring production, Nothing On. Mere hours before opening and with rehearsal dragging late into the night, the show is edging closer and closer to derailment. Missed lines, botched entrances, and waylaid props threaten to spoil any chance of success.

Those fears are proven a month later when Lloyd drops in on a matinee of the tour. Backstage, several of the show’s cast members barely speak to one another, the lead actress refuses to appear, and unhappy personal entanglements compromise the quality onstage.

As the final performance approaches, it’s clear that Nothing On has become a complete disaster. The show goes on, but with only minimal resemblance to its script, and the tour flounders hilariously to its conclusion.

Background

Michael Frayn’s Noises Off premiered in February 1982 at London’s Lyric Hammersmith theatre before transferring to the West End. It was an immediate critical and commercial success. The show opened on Broadway the following year and was nominated for four Tony Awards. It has been revived twice there, in 2001 and 2016. A film adaptation was released in 1992.

Frayn has said the inspiration for Noises Off came to him in 1970 as he watched his play The Two of Us from backstage. According to Frayn, “It was funnier from behind than in front, and I thought that one day I must write a farce from behind.”

Although the show’s nonstop laughs result from extreme mishaps, Frayn believes the humor to be based in reality. He told the Paris Review, “It seems to me that everyday life has a very strong tendency toward farce, that is to say, things go wrong. And they go wrong often in a very complex and logically constructed way — one disaster leads to another, and the combination of the two disasters leads to a third disaster, which is the essence of classical farce: disaster building upon itself.”

The cast of McPherson High School's production of Noises Off.
The cast of McPherson High School's production of Noises Off. Photo by Greg Smith.

TROUPE 3796’S PRODUCTION

McPherson High School Troupe Director Greg McGlynn doesn’t just like Noises Off. His latest incarnation marks the seventh time he has directed or appeared in the show. “I was fortunate to be sitting in the Savoy Theatre in London as the curtain rose on a play called Noises Off in its premiere season. We arrived right before curtain and were not quite sure what we were in store for. When we figured out the plot, we began laughing ourselves silly. Well, it’s 31 years later, and I’m still laughing at this play.”

McGlynn returns to the script every four or five years, giving each generation of students cycling through his theatre program the chance to experience its onstage zaniness. “I love the physical challenge the roles bring to actors. I also love the technical challenge the set and props bring to my crews. In my 37 years being involved with theatre arts, I cannot think of a more enjoyable and challenging show.”

Those challenges include the show’s play-within-a-play structure, precision comic timing, and intricately choreographed blocking. To navigate them, McGlynn extended the rehearsal period for Noises Off, casting the show at the end of the previous school year and building rehearsal time into his fall Repertory Advance Acting class so that students could dive deeper into the style, study commedia dell’arte and stock characters, and explore multiple British dialects needed to differentiate their dual characters. The Stage Craft class began framing the two-story set in August, giving the actors more time to work with its multiple doors and windows leading up to the show’s November opening.

Thespian senior Drake Langshaw, who plays Garry and Roger, says he and his fellow actors have experience performing comedy, but the nuances of farce were a welcome challenge. “With the fast-paced, ‘one person goes off while another comes on’ thing going on the whole time, it requires a great deal of focus and chemistry with your castmates to feel that same timing every time,” Langshaw said. “This cast is my home away from home and a group of people I’ve known since middle school. I love them like my own siblings and owe them the world. Without their reactions, my falling on my face would only be half as funny.”

“I have never played a character quite like Brooke before, so it was fun and challenging to learn how to act so hopelessly dumb and develop the gestures she would use,” said Meghan Smith, also a Thespian senior. “Learning the blocking and overall timing in Act 2 — between what is seen onstage and the lines said backstage — was extremely challenging, but the end result was definitely worth it.”

All three are elated to have the opportunity to present the show again. “The most exciting thing to me about getting to perform Noises Off at the International Thespian Festival is that I will get to perform another time with my theatre family,” Smith said. “I am also thrilled to get the honor of performing at such a high level, in front of people who truly appreciate theatre.”

Langshaw agreed, “My school is well known as a sports school, with a community that wholly backs every sporting event. But beyond the fields and courts, we have a thriving fine arts department that does so many lovely things. I think this opportunity is huge to show our community that we can achieve accolades too.”

For his part, McGlynn describes the invitation to ITF as “one of the most exciting moments of my educational career. Back in August, I told my students this would probably be my seventh and final time to do Noises Off, as I near retirement. But now I’m saying, this is my 7.5 and last time to do Noises Off. Maybe. After all, I’ve never played Selsdon!”

POST-SHOW DISCUSSION

  1. Noises Off and its play-within-the-play, Nothing On, both provide examples of farce. What are typical elements of farce? How many of them can you identify in the show?
  2. The McPherson High School cast of Noises Off rehearsed the first act of the play, then moved forward to the third act, before returning to the “backstage” second act. Why do you think they made that choice? How does an understanding of the blocking in acts 1 and 3 inform the action in Act 2?
  3. English playwright and actor Ray Cooney, described as a master of farce, said, “Farce is more akin to tragedy than it is to comedy.” What do you think he meant? Do you agree or disagree?
  4. Noises Off illustrates a disastrous theatrical production. As Thespians, can you relate to the challenges faced by the cast and crew as they rehearse and then perform Nothing On? Have you ever been part of a production in which something went wrong onstage? What did you learn from that experience?
  5. Which of Noises Off’s three sections is your favorite to watch? Why?

ACTIVITIES

  1. Farce can be dated to the classical Greek plays of Aristophanes and Roman comedies of Plautus, continued in the Italian Renaissance through commedia dell’arte, and evolved in the hands of French playwrights Molière and later Feydeau into the form we recognize today. Create a timeline that explores these and other milestones in the history of farce.
  2. Film and television stars Charlie Chaplin, the Marx Brothers, the Three Stooges, and Lucille Ball helped bring elements of farce into the modern era. Choose one of them or another example and compare and contrast the use of farce in their work with Noises Off.
  3. In Noises Off, traditional stock characters from farce are combined with stereotypes about people who work in theatre. Take each character in Noises Off and identify the stock example and theatre stereotype they embody in the show.

RESOURCES

Read
The Journal interview with playwright Michael Frayn
The Herald interview with Michael Frayn on the success of Noises Off
Encyclopaedia Britannica entry on farce
Encyclopaedia Britannica entry on commedia dell’arte
Telegraph article “Ray Cooney’s six rules of farce”

Listen
Melbourne Theatre Company’s MTC Talks podcast with Michael Frayn about Noises Off

Watch
Roundabout Theatre Company, “About the Show”
The Guardian interview with Michael Frayn
Roundabout Theatre Company’s 2016 production scene montage

Learn more about the 2019 International Thespian Festival online.

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