Ted Sod discusses Noises Off with Jeremy Herrin about his experience directing the production.
TED SOD: Tell us about yourself. Where were you born and educated? When did decide you wanted to become a theatre director?
JEREMY HERRIN: I was born in New York City, at Columbia Presbyterian Hospital, benefiting from some revolutionary hematological procedure that saved myself and my mother's life. That I'm now down the road directing a play seems miraculous to me, and I'm very grateful. My English parents returned home to the UK when I was two, and we lived in rural Northumberland - one of England's most beautiful and sparsely populated areas. The Royal Shakespeare Company took their repertory on tour to the nearest city, Newcastle, every year, and as my mother was (and still is) a determined theatre-goer, I was exposed to lots of Shakespeare plays at an impressionable age. I knew I wanted to direct when an enlightened teacher encouraged me to choose a play to direct in school: I chose Woyzeck by Georg Buchner - the most difficult play I could find. I directed a meaningfully dark version of the play, and I felt like myself for the first time. If my 17-year-old self knew he'd direct Noises Off on Broadway, he'd be delighted I'm sure. I'm grateful to have had a rewarding career so far doing jobs like this and running one of the UK's best theatre companies in Headlong. Check www.headlong.co.uk if you're interested.
TS: Why did you choose to direct Noises Off? Noises Off features a group of theatre practitioners rehearsing a play entitled Nothing On. What are the challenges in directing a play within a play?
JH: I had a great time directing Michael's version of Uncle Vanya, and got to know him through that. Todd Haimes and I were looking for a project, and I'd never done a farce, so Noises Off suggested itself. It's important for me to stretch myself and do something new. I've always had an instinct for comedy, but I have never addressed the specific demands of a farce, so I hope that it's an enjoyable way to develop my practice as a director. As far as it being a play within a play, that's part of the cleverness and charm of Michael's play, and how it transcends its form.
TS: For a while it seemed West End audiences were enthralled by sex farces. What accounted for this phenomenon in your opinion? Do you believe Michael Frayn, the author of Noises Off, is satirizing that style of playwriting and its popularity?
JH: Maybe, a bit, but he's probably more likely to be using it as a launch pad into comic territory, which I suppose is how this group of not particularly good actors in this not particularly good play cope with the mayhem that engulfs them. There's something about the repression of sexuality that leads to trouble, and that genre was probably an expression of British society's fear of sex and an everyday sexism that went unchallenged in almost every walk of British life.
TS: What type of research and/or preparation did you have to do in order to direct Noises Off? The best definition of a farce I have ever heard is, “When someone should call the police and they don’t.” Would you define Noises Off as that type of farce?
JH: I suppose that working in the theatre is a good way of preparing for a show like this. Knowing the English “types” might be an advantage, although I suppose actors are pretty similar the world over, and my American colleagues will have no problems identifying the truth of their characters. Otherwise it's been a case of planning the business and the pacing and the events and the stunts as rigorously as possible so that we are clear about each of the moments and what we need from them for this beautiful comic mechanism to click into life. And I hope no one feels the need to call the police after seeing our production.
TS: This will be the third Broadway production of Noises Off. American audiences obviously love the play – why do you think that is?
JH: It's a great play and everybody can understand the fundamental edict: “the show must go on.” I think audiences love to see their actors work hard, and Noises Off puts them through their paces. I think ultimately though, the play is about endurance and persistence in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds, and that's a narrative that always resonates. What brilliant and foolish creatures we are, and what nobility there can be in our stupidity.
TS: What did you look for in casting the actors? What traits did you need? Do you sense it will be very different working with American rather than English actors on an intrinsically British play? Will it be necessary to have a dialect coach at rehearsals?
JH: Liz Smith is doing our dialogue, and that will be very helpful, as the rhythms and the sensibility within the dialogue is different enough to make sure we do it properly. I haven't started work with the company yet (I write this a week before rehearsals) but I sense there will be some interesting differences, but I'm predicting a lot more common ground. There is more that connects us than divides us. I'm interested in further exploration of what makes this an English play. Why wouldn't these problems necessarily happen in America? But I have a team of brilliant actors to work with - the cream of the American theatre - and I feel like it's going to be a heady and thrilling process to work with a cast of complete thoroughbreds. I feel very lucky to have an expert in charge of each of the characters.
TS: How are you collaborating with your design team? How will the play manifest itself design-wise?
JH: I feel that there's little room for interpretive maneuver in Noises Off. The play is designed to function in production. In the stage directions, Michael has done all he can to be specific and helpful, so our job is to make that happen. No one is interested in a ground-breaking thematic interpretation of Noises Off. So my ambitions are all about how effective it is, how satisfying, and how much we can make the audience ache.
TS: Do you have any advice for young people who want to become stage directors?
JH: Take a good look at Lloyd Dallas, the director of Nothing On (played by Campbell Scott) and take heed. Theatre directing can be bad for your health. Having done that, read everything, see everything, and get good at listening and watching. You get better at directing the more you direct, so keep going despite the industry's inevitable indifference.
2015-2016 Season, Education @ Roundabout, Noises Off, Upstage