Noises Off

Noises Off: What is a Farce?

Posted on: January 10th, 2016 by Leah Reddy


Noises Off is a meta-theatrical comedy: a farce about the production of a farce, titled Nothing On. But what’s a farce?

Farce is a style of comedy that places exaggerated stock characters into absurd high-pressure situations, resulting in fast, almost-violent slapstick. There’s often a case of mistaken identity, a romantic entanglement or two, and several slamming doors. Audiences delight in farce because it allows us to laugh at human faults and the chaotic, uncontrollable nature of life.

The term farce comes from the Latin term farcire, which means to stuff or to gorge oneself. In the Middle Ages, it was associated with a savory stuffing added to meat dishes, and from there came to mean the short comic interludes added to performances of decidedly unfunny morality plays. Silly moments were “stuffed” into the serious religious works.


Daniel Davis, Kate Jennings Grant, Andrea Martin, Jeremy Shamos and Megan Hilty in NOISES OFF










Though the word emerged in the 14th century, the style of farce has been around since Greek and Roman times. The genre was the common person's counterpoint to serious plays about gods, kings, and wars. Stock characters were amplified versions of the people encountered in everyday life: the old lecher, the innocent lovers, the nosy mother, the big-talking soldier. These characters struggled through preposterous versions of relatable events: a meeting with future in-laws goes horribly awry, for example.

Commedia dell Arte, which began in Renaissance Italy, developed from these older comedies. Because it was performed in noisy, outdoor locations, it relied on physical action to tell the (usually improvised) story. Character types moved in a recognizable way. Acrobatic stunts were incorporated. One character smacked his victim’s behinds with a “slapstick,” a paddle made of two pieces of wood that created a loud sound when struck against something.

Commedia-style performances spread to France, and writers began scripting plays for it. Moliére, for example, built upon characters and situations from commedia. His early plays, The Flying Doctor and The Imaginary Invalid, are highly physical and farcical.

Playwright Georges Feydeau brought farce into the twentieth century. He tweaked the intricate plot machinery of the popular “well-made play”—a suspenseful plot, coincidences, a secret only some of the characters know, a finally-triumphant hero—for outrageously comedic purposes. Feydeau took situations to extremes in order to push the bounds of conventional taste; for his characters, reputations and respectability were at stake. He was one of the first farceurs to set scenes in the bedroom, where he found a myriad of comic uses for a bed—everything except sex.

Michael Frayn had the idea for Noises Off in 1970 after watching a performance of his play The Two of Us, also a farce, from the wings. Observing actors Richard Briers and Lynn Redgrave struggle with silent quick-changes and rapid entrances and exits, he realized that “it was funnier from behind than in front.” Frayn discovered that the workings of the theatre make great farce. Actors simply must keep going, no matter how badly they screw up, no matter what happens offstage. And audiences, perhaps identifying with the characters’ determination to carry on in a world gone mad, laugh uproariously at every joke.

Noises Off is now playing at the American Airlines Theatre. For tickets and information, please visit our website.

Related Categories:
2015-2016 Season, Education @ Roundabout, Noises Off, Upstage

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Noises Off: Play Within a Play

Posted on: January 6th, 2016 by Olivia O'Connor


One of the great comedic and theatrical joys of Noises Off lies within its structure: the format of a play-within-a-play. While Noises Off takes inventive, inside-out liberties with the premise (showing us three separate perspectives: a dress rehearsal onstage, a performance from backstage, and a performance onstage), the play-within-a-play format has been delighting audiences for centuries. The first example of a play-within-a-play dates back to Thomas Kyd’s 1587 The Spanish Tragedy. Kyd’s play is often cited as the influence for William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, which itself includes one of the most iconic plays-within-a-play ever put onstage: The Murder of Gonzago. Prince Hamlet asks a troupe of actors to perform the play so that he can watch his uncle Claudius’s reaction to the plot (which exactly mirrors Claudius’s murder of Hamlet’s father).

The play-within-a-play of Hamlet is an example of one of the trope’s originating terms: the French mise en abyme, which literally means “placed into abyss.” The term is rooted in the language of heraldry, since European coats of arms often include a replica of a smaller crest within them. Author André Gide, who coined the phrase, used it to reference a certain duplication technique within art, in which an internal element of a painting, novel, or play in some way echoes and clarifies the themes of the overarching artwork.


Megan Hilty, Daniel Davis, Kate Jennings Grant, Jeremy Shamos, David Furr and Andrea Martin in NOISES OFF

Today, the phrase is often used as a metaphorical synonym for the Droste effect, the infinite reflections that occur when two mirrors are placed face-to-face (think of a hall of mirrors, or, in more Google-able terms, the endless box-within-a-box logo of Land O’Lakes butter). This replica effect is most apt, as a term, when applied to plays-within-plays that have thematic connections between the frame story and the internal story (sometimes referred to as the “composition en abyme”). Since The Murder of Gonzago is truly the plot of Hamlet in miniature, the play is an ideal example of mise en abyme.

Of course, not every example of a play-within-a-play need adhere to such neat parallels, and the definition of the format isn’t restricted to works that feature, at their center, a miniature dramatization of the overarching plot. But even in less thematically tight works, the dizzying implications of mise en abyme are illuminating. Consider the multiple levels of reality that occur within a play-within-a-play: real people acting, playing actors, playing characters within a second fictional story, sometimes for a fictional or unseen audience.

Gerhard Fischer and Bernhard Greiner’s 2007 study on the trope, The Play Within the Play: The Performance of Meta-Theatre and Self-Reflection, observes that “the play within the play would seem to be a particularly apt device for the expression of the playful self-referentiality of the post-modern condition,” and indeed, the past two decades have seen multiple iterations of the form across film, television, and theatre. Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Birdman is a stellar example of a show-within-a-show (in this case, a play-within-a-movie), and Christopher Guest’s mockumentary Waiting for Guffman adds a third layer of reality to the meta-theatrical mix. On television, similar faux documentaries abound, and "The Comeback" and "30 Rock," among others, feature shows-within-shows. Onstage, today’s Broadway lineup alone is a boon of examples: The Book of Mormon, The King and I, Dames at Sea, An American in Paris, and Something Rotten all feature versions of the show-within-a-show.

Noises Off is now playing at the American Airlines Theatre. For tickets and information, please visit our website.

Related Categories:
Noises Off, Upstage

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Lorenzo Pisoni

Education dramaturg Ted Sod spoke with comedy stunt coordinator Lorenzo Pisoni on his career and working on Noises Off.

Ted Sod: Where were you born and educated?

Lorenzo Pisoni: I was born in San Francisco, CA. My parents met in The San Francisco Mime Troupe, where my mother was the set designer and my father was teaching circus arts to the Troupe. My father taught my mother to juggle and quickly they started a juggling act and then a circus. My mother says to this day, “It takes a village to raise a kid? It’s takes a circus to raise a kid.” And while I grew up in a very artsy, alternative, progressive community, an education was always important to my parents and all my extended aunts and uncles for that matter. I learned from everyone in my parents’ company or from anyone who would teach me hand-balancing or juggling, trapeze or whatever. To rebel from my vagabond childhood, I went to Vassar College but I never studied theatre or acting.


TS: You started your career as a clown as part of the Pickle Family Circus – correct?

LP: Yes, I started performing the ring when I was 2 years old. My parents couldn’t get me to stop. Bill Irwin, one of my father’s clown partners at the time, had given me maybe a cane, and I had grabbed a busted up top hat from my dad, and one day I went into the ring during intermission and performed my version of the show never cracking a smile - deadpan the entire time. Eventually my parents had to put me into the show because I was taking too much focus. So I began learning acrobatics (at first I was just thrown around - I was little and light!), eventually juggling, aerial acrobatics, clowning and all the rest. When I was 6 years old, my father wrote a clown act for me to do with him and I became his clown partner. Keeping the deadpan.


TS: When and why did you decide to become an actor and physical comedy choreographer?

LP: I was working for Cirque Du Soleil after college and had been a circus performer for 20 years already when Erica Schmidt (a theatre director) called me up and said she was doing a production of Romeo and Juliet in New York and would I like to come be a part of it. She could pay me only a metro-card. I had never done a Shakespeare play professionally, had always loved it though, and I said yes. Just like that I “retired” from circus. I didn’t really think much of it at the time which makes me think I was ready to be done with that part of me life. I told my family I was leaving circus, they were all supportive, though I think they were worried to hear I was leaving it to be an actor. Once I got to New York I fell in love with theatre and acting in general.

The physical comedy stuff fell into my lap, honestly. I was minding my own business when I got a call to help out with a play years ago - someone knew my background and was going to take advantage. But I did enjoy teaching or sculpting a theatrical moment using those falling down skills. I do it very rarely, however. I’ve worked with some amazing people but I feel very protective of it and only say yes when the material is great or the people I will be working with will be inspiring - such as Noises Off.


TS: What will your job entail?

LP: I will be in there to set the big physical comedy moments, keep the actors safe, make the moments redoable - anyone can fall down the stairs once, it’s the getting up after that’s tricky. And also help Jeremy work out all the lesser, smaller moments because there are A LOT of them in this play. Basically, I’m there to help bring those physical moments to life and make them...well, funny.

Company of NOISES OFF

Company of NOISES OFF

TS: What kind of preparation or research did you have to do in order to do the job you’ll be doing on Noises Off?

LP: I’ve read and re-read the play many times already. I’ve drawn out diagrams - almost like a football coach with X’s and O’s just to keep track of who is where when and what door they’ve gone through. I’ve gone to Lincoln Center Archives to watch previous productions. And I’ve also watched a fair amount of silent movies - looking for inspiration.


TS: How do you collaborate with a director? How do you collaborate with actors?

LP: Well, for the big moments, the stair falls, and other obvious physical comedy moments that need to be staged and rehearsed, I sit down with Jeremy and discuss what he wants out of them - what story they need to tell. Then I sit down with Derek Mclane to discuss his set design and see what’s possible and what fun we can have with his beautiful set. Then I go away and work out what I think the actors can do physically 8 times per week. Safely. Once I have a road map, we get some padding for the actors and work through each stage of the falls or other moments. Slowly. Eventually we bring it up to show speed. Of course through of all this Jeremy will have ideas, the actors will have inspirations and it’s my job, I believe, to incorporate all those influences into the moments of physical comedy.


TS: When I interviewed Michael Frayn, the author of Noises Off, he said he has seen some physical action go wrong during productions of his play – how do you go about insuring that the actors are safe when doing physical comedy?

LP: Well, that’s the trick isn’t it? Buster Keaton said, “think fast, act slow.” For a play like this, which is so reliant on pace, I feel Keaton’s adage is so applicable. Also it’s the actor’s job to be really honest if something is not working in rehearsal - if what is being asked is not doable 8 times per week and it’s partly my job to assess what I think they aren’t telling me because we actors always want to please.

Technically, the actors will go through the physical moments before each performance to remind themselves of the tricky beats and to check in with each other before all the adrenaline is pumping in performance.

But to be totally honest, there is no way to insure one hundred percent that everything will go perfectly each time. That’s where the actors’ skills, and my help to set moments that have some spectrum of safety, come into play.

Noises Off  begins performances on December 17 at the American Airlines Theatre. For tickets and more information, please visit our website.

Related Categories:
2015-2016 Season, Noises Off

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