Noises Off director Jeremy Herrin spoke about with education dramaturg Ted Sod as part of Roundabout Theatre Company’s lecture series.
Ted Sod: Thank you for joining us today. I was amazed to find out that you were born here, in the city.
Jeremy Herrin: Yes, I’m a native New Yorker. So it’s very nice to be here directing and working. I haven’t spent very much time here, apart from this year, having done Wolf Hall at the Winter Garden Theatre and now Noises Off. So this is the year where I’m fulfilling my long held ambition to direct in New York, and I'm delighted.
TS: Most of your credits are in the program, but I would like to point out that you are currently running a theatre called Headlong.
JH: Headlong Theatre, correct.
TS: When I interviewed you for Upstage, Roundabout’s online playgoer’s guide, I asked you why you wanted to direct Noises Off and you said you had never directed a farce and you thought it was important to challenge yourself.
JH: That’s what I said before the whole process. Having been through it now, I may think about it a bit differently. It’s a different job directing a farce because there’s just so much staging. Questions of the nuances of character, motivation, and intention in the play seem to come after the business of staging. There’s so much business that you don’t truly appreciate.
The second half of Act Two, which takes place backstage and is all physical and pantomime -- a "dumb show" as it were – that took an inordinate amount of time to get right and stressed us all out. I think the actors’ work on character came as a result of working out the staging. I usually start with the text, then character and context, and then I make staging decisions based around the collective understanding of the world of the play -- but we didn’t have time to do that. I thought it was imperative to start the business of staging it, and all the people I had spoken to in London who had worked on other productions of Noises Off, including Michael Frayn said, “Start working on Act Two as soon as you can.”
I found that to be very sage advice, because once we got all the topsy-turvy logic of Act Two, we could start making more nuanced decisions based on what we understood to be the physical text. It was an interesting challenge.
TS: I read that Michael Frayn said that while he was writing this play he thought his brain was going to fall out or that he would walk off a cliff. I suppose it has something to do with the mathematical quality that writing this farce entailed. You just said staging Act Two was very difficult, but how difficult was it for you and the actors to figure out what they were doing in the other two acts?
JH: It really is a mathematical puzzle. We started our process by separating the script of Nothing On from the script of Noises Off, so that we treated it as if it was a different show. And Campbell sat next to me in rehearsal and Tracee and Rob were with the stage managers and were doing all the collecting of the props and making sure that Andrea had the right plate of sardines or the right newspaper to go on and off with. We spent about two and a half days staging a version of Nothing On that we adapted throughout our rehearsals. It turned out to be a smart approach because we started with this sense that Nothing On was different than Noises Off. It seems obvious now, but it was really helpful.
It was my feeling that Nothing On had a different performance flavor or culture around it than Noises Off. Nothing On is typical of the British sex comedies of the 70’s. And Noises Off is comic realism. So we wanted to get those two distinct worlds absolutely right. Michael, in his play, satirizes Nothing On, using it for comic momentum, and what he does in Act III is he has the actors completely mangle Nothing On, so they come out with completely different lines at times. As far as the audience is concerned it should feel like the same play, but actually there are many little liberties taken- there’s little rewrites and cuts within -- just to make it flow a bit more elegantly.
For the actors to get their heads around that was unbelievably complicated. It took three of us – Mikey Perlman, the associate director, and Lorenzo Pisoni, the stunt coordinator, and me -- a trio of directors, to work out how to do this thing. There was more head scratching in that period of rehearsal than any other I’ve been a part of. It’s been an amazing journey to get through to the other end of it and to get to the treat of sharing it with our audiences.
TS: Do you have any idea what Nothing On is about?
JH: It’s about a sheik. Act Two hasn’t been written but what I imagine is that Freddy and the sheik keep getting mistaken for each other. It’s a comedy of mistaken identity. That’s why there is all that set up with Freddy and his trousers, either with them on or off. With all of that stuff, we had to work out what the projection was, what we were supposed to be doing. Because I think otherwise it can turn into a slightly generalized series of funny moments. In terms of the playwriting, it all makes perfect sense. And if you invest in the reality of it, that's where the comedy in Act Three comes from.
TS: Noises Off seems like a play that absolutely needs to be rehearsed on the set. I cannot imagine anyone trying to do it any other way. Was that a challenge at all?
JH: Roundabout was really great. When we were talking about doing it I said, “The only way to do this is with a set in rehearsal. Otherwise we're not going to get anywhere.” And so they invested in a very expensive rehearsal set. A rehearsal set that had to be pushed by four stage managers in order for me and the rest of the creatives to be on one side or the other, when we would shift between acts. And there are a few necessary variations, between this set in the theatre and the one in the rehearsal room, but the crucial thing is that the distances are the same.
TS: Let’s talk about your cast because they’re brilliant. What was the casting process like? Did you work with Jim Carnahan, Roundabout’s Director of Casting, directly?
JH: Yes, Jim is one of the best -- if not the best -- casting directors in the world. He knows more about the actors in London than London casting directors do; he’s encyclopedic in his knowledge. I think he worked on a previous production of Noises Off, so he had a strong idea about what the play needs. We just began talking about people. People’s ability is one thing, and arguably the most important thing, but also we were trying to find a company that would collectively be engaged with problems particular to farce and comedy.
Comedy is complicated because actors can sometimes take possession of laughs. I’ve always thought that the setup is just as important as the punch line, so I really try to bring the sense that if the audience laughs it’s because the company, as a collective, makes them laugh. And luckily with this lot, everyone has a healthy ego, but they also understand that the success of the show is dependent on working as a team. And they couldn’t be more different. It’s such a brilliant challenge as a director to work with nine individuals who have completely different processes, completely different ways of approaching it, and translating that into something quite unique. And I feel really lucky with these actors because each of them has got a very particular and attractive energy. I couldn’t be more delighted with them, so hats off to Jim for helping me find a great cast.
TS: I’m curious how much interpretation is allowed, not only in your staging but in their interpretations of the characters. It seems to me like they have to stick closely to what Frayn has asked for, and you as well. But then, having seen the play before, there are certain things that I don’t think I’ve seen before, like the telephone walking up the door…
JH: Yes, that’s a good bit, isn’t it? It’s a process that we all entered openly and we used Michael’s stage directions as a starting point. I suppose when we were working through it the first time we were just trying to fulfill the wishes of the writer as expressed through the stage directions. And there are a myriad of different ways to do that, and so many variables that I think even without some of our particular innovations, no two productions of this play can ever be the same. I think the show has found its own DNA as we evolved as a company. After a while the actors become the experts. It’s almost like an invisible baton that gets passed from the playwright to the director and then to the actors. It feels like now we know what we’re talking about with the play because we’ve gone through it. Later in the process, I can say, “There’s a moment that we can invent something to put in there.”
Or something might happen as an accident. I seem to remember that the phone going up the door just happened in rehearsal, we were just messing around with the phone, and we all thought, “That’s great, keep that. That’s really helpful.” It’s not specified in the script, but it’s great. Michael was here for the first three previews and it was incredibly satisfying when he complimented us on particular moments. It feels, like with all great plays, that there’s never just one way of doing things. And however specific the stage directions are, there’s always going to be something unique about the combination of people interpreting them. I suppose it leads back to the comments I was making about trying to find a company that would embrace this production as a collective creation.
TS: There’s been much written about this play because it got Michael Frayn international fame.
JH: Michael said that writing it was like finding an oil well. He describes it as a gusher. It’s been done several times in London. It’s done all over the country and the world by regional reps, high schools, colleges, amateur groups.
TS: I’m wondering if you will talk a bit about Michael. A lot of people say they feel they know him, but they don’t know him. I find him so fascinating because he’s not only a playwright, he’s also a novelist and translator, having translated works from German, French and Russian -- which he learned in National Service. I know you’ve worked with him before on his adaptation of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya, correct?
JH: That’s right. That’s how I got to know him and just loved him. You were talking before about him saying he felt his brain might fall out writing this play. Michael’s got the biggest brain of anyone I’ve ever met. He’s very clever and incredibly modest, and it’s not a combination you often find. Intelligence doesn't always equal wisdom. He’s a great person to hang around with. I think one of the things that’s most enjoyable is that he doesn’t have a reductive view of human nature, he’s very generous and that speaks to his intelligence. He’s in no way snobbish or snooty and that’s why he can make a play like Noises Off, which satisfies on a comic level, but it also, without being pretentious, gets into philosophical territory.
TS: In my research, academics say that almost every one of Frayn’s works is about human beings futilely trying to bring order to the chaos around them. That seems an apt description of this play, would you agree?
JH: Yes, I would. I had a friend here last night who is a writer and wrote a very kind email after seeing it. He said something like, “It’s great to think of life as a sex comedy that’s gone off the rails. We carry on because we have to. The curtain’s up and we must continue.”
TS: I’m curious about working with American actors and also watching the play with American audiences. This is your second Broadway play. Do you find a fundamental difference between British and American audiences? I know that people ask that question often and sometimes people say, “There’s no difference, not really.” But it seems to me Americans are a bit more vociferous. Do you think that’s true?
JH: It’s undeniably true. When I came in at the end today, it sounded like a very vociferous audience.
TS: Oh, it was.
JH: I would say the main difference between British and American audiences is the clapping. It feels like in American culture everybody wants it all to work, so there’s a round of applause when the curtain comes up or when the actors come on. Whereas in London it’s like, well, let’s see what you come up with and I might clap for you at the end. It seems that we in the United Kingdom want to just to suppress our feelings and maybe express them later on. Whereas with Americans, even before they know what those feelings are, they’re expressing them. It feels like a celebration.
TS: Have you ever acted?
JH: I went to drama school, but I never wanted to be an actor, I always wanted to be a director. I was lucky enough to have a teacher who suggested that I do that when I was seventeen. So as I see it, the theatre business was spared 10 or so years of me as a bad actor waiting to figure out that I was a director.
TS: It’s fascinating to me because I don’t think everybody knows how to do comedy, whether it’s as an actor or a director. I’m curious what you attribute your gift for comedy to?
JH: If you can call it a gift, that’s very kind of you! I just love comedy and I’m happy to laugh and I think I appreciate funny stuff. And I suppose that a lot of my work as a director is representing the audience's experience by being a kind of an innocent. So it’s a good sign if I’m laughing because something is coming across. It's not all about entertaining myself but I do have to represent an audience. I really respect comedy. A lot of my contemporaries think comedy is less valuable than serious drama but I disagree. I think it’s much more difficult, and I’ve always thought that.
TS: When I interviewed Andrea Martin for the Upstage, she said, “You have to be completely committed to what you’re doing, as opposed to trying to be funny. You must be completely committed to the action that you’re doing as if there’s nothing unusual about it.”
JH: The way that we’ve played it is that these characters are in trouble, and if they fix the problem, the show can get back to normal. What they don’t know is that their stupid attempts to fix it only make it more complicated. But in everything that they’re doing they should be trying to get the show back to normal. They should be trying to make it okay, they should be trying to get to the end of Nothing On with dignity intact. If we stick to that structure, it means that our comic choices are supporting the story. I think you’d get into trouble in Noises Off if it isn’t connected to the narrative: it can easily become a string of funny occurrences, with diminishing returns.
TS: I remember at the meet and greet -- which is the first day of rehearsal and when the entire staff gets to meet the cast, the designers and the director -- you told the cast something that Michael said to you. What did he say?
JH: I said to Michael, “Is there anything you want me to say to everyone at our first read-through?” And he said, “I always give the same speech for Noises Off. You should write this down.” So I got my pencil and when I was ready he said, “Three words. Health and safety.” And that's it! Because it can be dangerous and you do have to be really careful. In fact, one of our actors is just having to nip off to the hospital to get his elbow sorted out. He’s going to be fine but playing in Noises Off is an athletic feat apart from anything else. If you see David Furr chucking himself down those stairs, it looks like he’s REALLY chucking himself down those stairs, but there’s actually a very precise series of movements that are low impact and safe. Lorenzo, the brilliant stunt coordinator, stops and addresses it the second there is a problem. Because if you wing it, you can’t do eight shows a week over three months. You really have to make sure you look after the actors.
TS: It’s your turn now to ask Jeremy questions. Who would like to start?
Audience Member #1: I have three questions all involving physical comedy. When you selected the actors, did they have to be good at physical comedy? How did you work with the actors on physical comedy? How much of the sexual physical comedy is in the script?
JH: In terms of selecting the actors, I had to think about the demands of the script. I had seen David Furr in a production called The Explorers Club at Manhattan Theatre Club, where he did a lot of physical comedy. So he was a shoe-in and that casting has worked out very well. I know that in Pippin, Andrea was fearless. All of the actors had a desire to embrace the physical demands of the play. And there’s someone like Megan, who has a background working in musicals, and is this brilliant comedienne. For the others, it was a frank conversation of what the demands were. They’re all great actors.
The second question about how we did the physical comedy -- well, as I said, Lorenzo Pisoni is remarkable. He’s an actor and he’s got a background in circus, so he’s got a great sense of all of it, and we had a brilliant time working together on all the business. And the third part of the question about sexual comedy, Michael specifies that the first time Dotty is aiding Freddy, that should look like a blowjob to Garry. And then we thought that we had to top that. So the rest of the actions have to look compromising while being absolutely innocent. There’s a moment that I’ll always remember. We were working on the scene when Jeremy’s character trips and ends up in what could be described as the missionary position with Andrea. I was thinking about what the next thing we could do was when Kate, who was on the second floor near the attic, saw what was going on and called out, “Sixty-nine!” And we all said, “Yeah!” We tried to avoid it but we couldn't. So that’s how that happened.
TS: Jeremy, I thought of this before coming here today. You have the actors’ real names, the names of actors they play and then their character names. Didn’t it drive you crazy?
JH: I just called everybody darling.
Audience Member #2: It was a brilliant performance, thank you very much. I’ve seen this before with sardines glued to the plate and sardines not glued to the plate and flying around the stage. I was wondering why you made the choice you made.
JH: I think there are five plates of Sardines, one of which is glued. I suppose it’s a little joke about the production of Nothing On. We thought it would be fun if Megan’s character could have a plate of sardines that she could just drop down because she didn’t know that you need to pretend that those sardines aren’t glued. The rest of the sardines are loose.
Audience Member #3: How long was the rehearsal process?
JH: Four weeks and three days, minus Thanksgiving. It was really short, but it was more than Roundabout normally gives. They were very generous. I’m really grateful for that time because looking back, I know we wouldn’t have been ready for our first preview.
TS: Are you frozen now? Are you close to being finished with rehearsal?
JH: We’re finished. But in my head, we’re rehearsing all the time.
Audience Member #4: I always wonder what the title means.
JH: Noises Off?
TS: It’s Shakespearean.
JH: It’s a description of an offstage noise that suggests reality elsewhere.
TS: It’s a stage direction that’s used in Shakespeare’s plays and it usually references a noise offstage.
Audience Member #5: You mentioned Megan Hilty a few times. I thought her performance was hysterical. How much of that was in the script or was that your direction?
JH: A lot of that is Megan’s personal take on the character. I sent her footage of an old British TV program, "Sale of the Century," that has these gorgeous models that don’t really do much, they just stand around near the prizes. And I think that meshed with what she was thinking. And her backstory is very clear. Campbell’s character says, “We know you’ve worked in some very classy places up in London where they let you make the play up as you go along” and what he means is this woman has never acted before, and she’s doing this part in order to start a career as an actor. I suggested to Megan that this woman has worked really hard on what she’s supposed to be doing, but she can’t get her head up to see what everyone else is doing. It’s hilarious and Megan’s character is scarily committed to what she worked on, God bless her. She sees it through, one hundred percent.
Audience Member #6: You talked about the show being mathematical; how much variance is there from performance to performance? How much change do you see between shows?
JH: Essentially it’s the same narrative because the same choices are made every night. We built those into our production. But there are variations in the specific reading of the lines from performance to performance. It’s a live conversation between the characters and the audience and the audience is a really massive part of it. Because it’s a comedy, the audience impacts the timing - depending on how much you laugh, or if you laugh at all. And that is a wonderful thing because it’s my feeling that our culture is getting anatomized in a lot of ways. I have teenage kids and their instinct is to go on their phones and experience culture in a small, individually packaged way. There’s something heartwarming about 800 people sitting in here experiencing the same thing. I think in these digital times, there’s something important about that.
Noises Off is now playing at the American Airlines Theatre. For tickets and information, please visit our website.
2015-2016 Season, A Conversation with, Education @ Roundabout, Noises Off