What makes theatre different from film and television? It’s live! Each and every performance on stage is unique, with myriad factors affecting how things go. The audience may be very loud or very quiet; a cell phone might ring in the middle of an important speech; an actor might have a cold or be stressed out about an audition. Then again, something a bit more complicated might go awry, as we see with the bloody noses, falls down the stairs, and squashed sardines of Noises Off.
In fact, Noises Off playwright Michael Frayn may have been inspired to write this mishap-laden play thanks to a memorable onstage disaster in his own youth. While a member of England’s National Service, Frayn studied Russian and was recruited to play a servant in a Russian-language production of Nikolai Gogol’s The Inspector General. The reluctant actor said his only lines in the show and tried to exit, but then it all went terribly wrong: ''I pulled instead of pushed at the door, it jammed in the frame, and there was no other way off. So I waited for what seemed like many, many hours while stagehands fought with crowbars on the other side and the audience started to slow-handclap. I've never been on the stage since.''
Here are some other memorable tales of the kinds of onstage mishaps that can happen to anyone, from future playwrights like Frayn to Roundabout staff members to Broadway performers!
“I saw a performance of Legally Blonde, and the girl playing Elle Woods was doing the ‘Bend and Snap.’ She snapped so hard her wig came off!” – Sari Stifelman, Roundabout Apprentice
“I was part of an intensely physical, all-female production of Romeo and Juliet that traveled to NYC Parks. During one performance, Tybalt's death attracted the attention of a nine or ten-year-old boy passing by on his bike: he thought the injury was real, raced over, and, very upset, knelt down by the actress playing Tybalt. Tybalt came back to life long enough to let him know it was a play.” – Leah Reddy, Roundabout Teaching Artist
“Our very own Roundabout’s Machinal opening a couple years ago when the turntable broke down. There were guys manually pushing the stage around! I loved how Todd Haimes handled it with good humor and opened the bar.” – Robert Parmelee, Roundabout Web Administrator
“I remember watching The Will Rogers Follies when an actress was giving a passionate speech alone onstage, and suddenly we heard barking. A dog from an earlier scene in the show had gotten loose, and he went sprinting across the stage, into the audience, and out the back of the house! The actress completely broke down into giggles.” – Jill Rafson, Director of New Play Development
“I saw Dracula, the Musical on Broadway, on what proved to be a bad night, technically speaking. First, a door that came up from the stage didn't close properly into the door frame, so it couldn't go back into the stage the way it came up. A man with a headset had to come out and hammer the door frame - IN THE MIDDLE OF A SONG - to get it to close and go back into the floor. If that weren't enough, a few scenes later a coffin wheeled out on stage. Nothing happened. Still nothing happened. Finally, our friend with the headset came out, hammered on the back of the coffin, and suddenly the coffin opened and out popped Tom Hewitt (the actor playing Dracula). If you ask me, the man in the headset should have gotten to take a bow at that performance.” – Elizabeth Kandel, Roundabout Associate Director of Marketing
When we were doing The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee in San Francisco, a woman got arrested in the audience DURING the performance! She was drunk and unruly. The cops had to cuff her and cover her mouth because she was screaming so loudly. The stage manager made an announcement that we would be stopping temporarily, but instead we just kept improvising on stage, commenting on the action, etc. It was amazing. – Jared Gertner, Actor
“In high school, an upperclassman was cast in a smaller role than me and tried to sabotage my performance... by wearing a bald cap and pulling out chunks of my wig and sticking them to her bald cap, mid-performance. Then she proceeded to yell “I'M SAD!” on my character's deathbed when she should have had no lines...” – Lindsey Ferrentino, Playwright
“Anna Manahan fell off the Atlantic Theater stage into the laps of the front row audience members during a scene change of The Beauty Queen of Leenane. Twice.” – Christian Parker, Director/Dramaturg
“As I was entering with one of the Bad Idea Bears in Avenue Q, I caught his eye on the set and it popped off his face and rolled to the ground. I had to do the whole scene with a cyclops puppet, while trying desperately not to break out in hysterical laughter with my scene partner!” – Jed Resnick, Actor
“I slid off the stage dancing hard in Movin’ Out into an empty seat in the front row, and a critic said Twyla Tharp was brilliant for 'breaking the fourth wall.'” – Lorin Latarro, Actor/Choreographer
“First scene of King Lear, Lear enters, goes up on his lines, forgets to divide the kingdom, exits.” – Christian Durso, Actor/Playwright
“I was playing Albert in Bye Bye Birdie, and the Sad Girl in 'Put on a Happy Face' had her hair pulled back in a ponytail. At one point in the dance break I was supposed to take her hand and spin her around. Somehow her hair got wound around the button on the wrist of my suit jacket so my hand was essentially stuck to the back of her head. We did our best to adjust the rest of the choreography, but when we finished I found we still couldn't break apart. And since she was supposed to leave but I had to stay on stage, we had no way of fixing it. Finally, I carefully removed my suit jacket, handed it to her, and said, ‘Here, a gift to cheer you up.’ She exited and found a stage hand to help free her, and I continued sans jacket.” – Jeff Ronan, Actor
“There's a legendary college story about a performance of Othello where the deck crew forget to preset the dagger Othello used to kill himself. So, stranded without a weapon, Othello snapped his own neck!” – Elise LeBreton, Actor
“There’s a story about Josephine Hull in Arsenic and Old Lace – she was playing a scene with the ingénue when the phone rang and it wasn't supposed to. Both actors looked at each other quizzically – Hull walked over to the phone, picked it up and said, ‘Hello?’ She then turned to the ingénue and said, ‘It's for you!’” – Ted Sod, Roundabout Education Dramaturg
“I was in a show once where my character was passed out onstage for about 5 minutes during a scene. One night during that scene a ROACH crawled onto my FACE. I decided that I could sort of do a groggy swipe of my face with a hand to try to get it off, but apparently I actually just flailed and totally broke character.” – Melanie Hopkins, Actor/Producer
Noises Off is now playing at the American Airlines Theatre. For tickets and information, please visit our website.
2015-2016 Season, Education @ Roundabout, Noises Off, Upstage