Dallas — Theatre Three opens the second show of its 58th season with one of the most popular farcical pieces in the canon, Michael Frayn’s 1982 play Noises Off. After having originally opened in London, the play had a successful Broadway run and was awarded the 1984 Tony Award for Best Play. (It has been revived twice on Broadway, in 2001 and 2016.)
Frayn, an author and translator, wrote the play as an expression of his theory that if we could indeed get a 360-degree view of the universe we might find that the front looks the same as the back. Noises Off presents this as a question through this three-act play-within-a-play about the process of rehearsing and performing a play. This means each actor hired assumes two roles —that of their character in Noises Off, and the role their character portrays in the sex farce being rehearsed, Nothing On. Just trying to explain it creates a sense of say what now?
It is a brilliantly conceived work which among other things, pays great respect to technical theatre — the set, props and other elements which are necessary to keep the action moving forward. Noises Off puts the production process center stage.
Producing this play is a challenge for any production company. For Theatre Three, a space with an arena (in-the-round) configuration, it presents a unique set of challenges that caused us to wonder how are they going to be able to do that? After all, in every production of Noises Off, in the second act, the two-story set is turned completely around so that we see what’s happening backstage during a performance. Having the set in the middle of an in-the-round stage wouldn’t work because not everyone in the audience would see the same thing as the folks on the other side of the theater.
In the news release for the production, Artistic Director Jeffrey Schmidt says “We also have a few tricks up our sleeves to make this a never-before-seen version of Noises Off. By that, I'll tease and just say we have received script change permission enabling us to give the show a hilarious Texas twist.”
The production is directred by Kara-Lynn Vaeni and the cast features Diego Martinez (Garry Lejeune), Kristin McCollum (Dotty Otley), Michael Federico (Lloyd Dallas), Chris Sanders (Belinda Blair), Ashley Wood (Frederick Fellowes), Catherine DuBord (Brooke Ashton), Mac Welch (Tim Allgood), Gordon Fox (Selsdon Mowbray), and Robin Clayton (Poppy Norton-Taylor).
The production is currently in previews, opens Monday, Dec. 2 and runs through Dec. 22.
We talked to Schmidt about the production, and choosing this play for that space.
TheaterJones: Why did you select this play?
Jeffrey Schmidt: I knew I wanted to do something fun for the holiday slot but not specifically holiday related. As we planned the season, there must have been about 16 [titles] up for consideration. People kept telling me why I couldn’t do [Noises Off] at Theatre Three. [He laughs] Well, if you tell me I can’t do something, I’m going to do it.
No one had produced it professionally in a while. The Goodman Theatre production just got extended and extended and extended.
There’s another reason for selecting the play as well that’s a little more devious. The Theatre Three space is versatile in so many ways, but it also presents a set of problems. Producing Noises Off is a proof-of-concept for reimagining how that space is used. I’ve been wanting to look at other ways to use the space.
Also, the constant talk about “how are they going to do this” … you can’t buy that kind of marketing.
I would love to be able to do things like this down the road with other shows. The Quadrangle building is 50 years old this year. A new company has purchased the Quadrangle so it is inevitable that we will see renovations to Theatre Three in the coming years. Perhaps the renovations will yield a theatre space which offers a little more flexibility without moving away from the arena configuration.
How did you identify a director?
Neither Christie Vela (Associate Artistic Director) nor I thought we were the best people to direct it. We talked about how specific the person has to be. To pull this off, that person would have to be able to thoroughly understand the very complicated stage directions. At that time, I thought I was going to be in the play so I couldn’t direct it. For these reasons, we knew it would have to be an outside director.
We needed someone who would understand the math of comedy. It is pure math, farce like this. That’s how we landed on Kara-Lynn Vaeni. She has worked with us before, as well as Second Thought Theatre and the Dallas Theatre Center. Kara-Lynn is assistant professor of theater for Southern Methodist University (SMU). She has that ability to understand the complicated stage directions and also the math of comedy.
How did you approach casting? This cast requires actors who can understand and handle two roles. Did you approach the casting differently given this, or as you would any other work?
We cast from the general [auditions]. The only metric for shows like this is that you have to be naturally funny. You can’t only be something that arrives in the rehearsal process. One of the trickiest roles is Dotty. The characters are all sort of iconic because of the movie, and Carol Burnett more so than everyone else.
[In 1992, a film adaptation starred Carol Burnett as Dotty, plus John Ritter, Michael Caine, Christopher Reeve, Marilu Henner, Denholm Elliott, Mark Linn-Baker, Nicollette Sheridan, and Julie Hagerty. For some audiences, their reference point for the story is the film.]
Given the intricacy of the set the play calls for, are you involved with the design?
Yes. I am designing the set though I did push for other designers. I get excited when other designers bring ideas because I’ve been staring at that 60’ x 60’ box for quite some time. But my intimate knowledge of the space won out.
We announced the season in March. Early in April I started designing and playing around with some set pieces to see what they looked like in the space. I would get close to a solution and then have to abandon it because of one or more logistical considerations. I didn’t settle on a final solution until mid-September.
We sent a sneak peek to subscribers so they wouldn’t be caught totally off-guard. When you see what we have done, you might think it doesn’t look that complicated. But actually, it was incredibly complicated, coming up with a workable solution.
What else would you want readers to know?
Without sounding condescending, I would want an audience to know that farce, which is different from comedy, is very difficult to pull off successfully. It’s not just a matter of being funny. You have to have an inner metronome. I think that’s part of the success of this show because of how difficult it is to get that right. If it’s done right, it’s a Swiss clock.
As for explaining how T3 makes Noises Off work in its space, you’re just going to have to see it.