Noises Off

Interview with Director Jeremy Herrin

Posted on: December 11th, 2015 by Ted Sod


Jeremy Herrin

Jeremy Herrin

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 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.

Company of NOISES OFF

Company of NOISES OFF

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.

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

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

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From the Artistic Director about Noises Off

Posted on: December 10th, 2015 by Todd Haimes


NO-0010M-Standard Art Files-300x300pxOn December 17th, Michael Frayn’s Noises Off, directed by Jeremy Herrin begins previews on Broadway, the second production at the American Airlines Theatre in this 50th Anniversary season.

It’s no exaggeration to say that Noises Off may very well be the greatest farce written in the modern day. Not only is the play side-achingly funny, but it is also structurally impeccable – and neither of these are easy feats. Michael has put exactly the right combination of characters onstage together to create maximum mayhem, with feats of verbal and physical dexterity coming at a non-stop pace as egomaniacs clash with beleaguered fixers and vanity is forced to take a backseat. This play has more intricate choreography than you’ll find in most musicals, with the complicated action keeping everyone on their toes (or falling down on other parts of their bodies). As our director Jeremy Herrin has put it, Michael’s stage directions for the play are simply “magisterial” – his is the guiding hand keeping all of the chaos in motion, making an incredibly complex map of interactions somehow seem effortless, uproarious, and even inevitable.

What I think is the greatest innovation of Michael’s wonderful play is the way that it plays with our notions of theatre itself. The story of Noises Off is that of a group of actors putting on a play called Nothing On. While Noises Off is a great play, it’s safe to say that Nothing On is not. And while the performers you will see on stage are the best comedic stage actors of today (and many of them longtime Roundabout favorites), the actors they are playing definitely are not. In other words, you have the best of the best pretending to be somewhat terrible, working on a great play while pretending to be working on a terrible one. The layers of all this are simply delicious, and it all works so beautifully because Michael treats his characters with such great love and affection. These characters may not be great actors, but they certainly exhibit great bravery, as the adage that “the show must go on” is put to the ultimate test as the play goes on. You can feel Michael’s admiration for their rare breed of showmen in every hilarious line.

I couldn’t be happier to have Noises Off keeping the sardines flying, doors slamming, and laughs flowing in this 50th Anniversary Season. It’s a production I’ve wanted to bring to our audience for a long time, and I hope you will share your thoughts on it by emailing me at I can’t tell you how greatly I value your feedback each season. Please keep it coming.

I look forward to seeing you at the theatre!


Todd Haimes
Artistic Director

Related Categories:
2015-2016 Season, From Todd Haimes, Noises Off

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Interview with Playwright Michael Frayn

Posted on: December 7th, 2015 by Ted Sod


Michael Frayn

Ted Sod spoke with Noises Off playwright Michael Frayn about writing and the history of Noises Off.

TED SOD: Will you give us some background information on yourself: When were you born? Where were you educated? Did you have any teachers who had a profound effect on you?

MICHAEL FRAYN: I was born in 1933, in the north-western suburbs of London, and brought up in the south-western suburbs. My father was a rep for a firm that made asbestos building materials. I wrote a memoir of him a few years ago (My Father’s Fortune), and began to understand for the first time what problems he’d been set in life, and how courageously he had dealt with them.

One of the difficulties was the death of his wife, my mother, when I was 12. In the subsequent turmoil I went through a rather bad patch, from which I was rescued by a remarkable English teacher at my grammar (high) school, and a remarkable friend. It’s all there in My Father’s Fortune.

Thereafter nothing but good luck. Even military service was a blessing, because I was sent to train as a Russian interpreter on a course run by Cambridge University. After which I was back in Cambridge as an undergraduate, reading Moral Sciences. You don’t know what Moral Sciences are? Of course you don’t. No one outside the Moral Sciences Department knew, which veiled the subject in a certain awe-inspiring mystery, like the clouds gathered around a mountain peak. It’s since become the Philosophy Department. Every university has a philosophy department, and the veil has been rent. In my last year I was taught by Jonathan Bennett, who has subsequently become a distinguished philosopher, and who has remained a friend. I caught him in his first year of teaching, when he had time, energy, and youthful aggression enough to give full rein to his natural argumentativeness – sometimes not just for the prescribed hour’s personal tuition each week, but for another three, four, or five hours. He wouldn’t agree about anything, even whether it was raining or not. It was a good way to learn philosophy.


TS: I read you were inspired to write Noises Off after seeing a farce you’d written entitled The Two of Us being performed from the perspective of backstage. What was the first thing you did once you had the idea?

MF: I wrote a 15-minute version of the idea for a theatrical charity evening. Michael Codron, the great London producer who has done the first productions of most of my plays over the years, then commissioned a full-length version – the only commission I have ever taken for an original play. In the short version you had to take in everything, onstage and backstage, before, during, and after, simultaneously. Watching it I realized that it would be better to take it one stage at a time, in three acts.


TS: Noises Off features a play-within-a-play entitled Nothing On – what was your inspiration for the characters and plot of that play? Were you satirizing aspects of your own play, Donkeys’ Years?

MF: Good God – I hope Donkeys’ Years is a cut above Nothing On! The play-within-the-play I originally wrote was a pastiche of Feydeau. It’s particularly enjoyable pastiching Feydeau, because he’s so good, but I reluctantly decided that the piece my wretched company was dragging around the country was more likely to be an English sex farce. I’d never actually seen one, so that was my research – watching a few English sex farces. Grim work.


TS: What was the most challenging part of writing Noises Off? What part was the most fun?

MF: I found it all pretty grueling. Everything front stage is interconnected with everything backstage. Everything in each of the three different performances of Nothing On is interconnected. The whole thing is a bit like one of the turbulent systems studied in chaos theory, where the slightest change affects everything else. I was also undermined by doubt about whether actors could ever learn the long wordless pantomime backstage (and it is in fact very difficult) – also whether actors would be prepared to perform a substantial proportion of the play not to the audience but to the back wall of the theatre, which was unlikely to reward their efforts with much sign of appreciation. I became more and more certain as I worked that the play would never be performed. I just went on with it so that I could put the typescript on the shelf, forget about it, and move on to something else.


TS: What do you look for in a director? How do you collaborate with a director? What are the most important traits the actors need for a successful production of Noises Off?

MF: The first productions of most of my plays have been done by Michael Blakemore. This is the real test of a director – the first production of a new piece, when no one knows whether it’s going to work or not. (A test which Jeremy Herrin has passed triumphantly on a number of occasions, incidentally.) Michael and I go through the text together line by line, and he asks stupid questions (always the best questions to ask). In the case of Noises Off he made many suggestions for both clarifying and developing the action, and he deserves a great deal of the credit for getting the play to work. As for the actors…the more I have worked with actors the more I have come to admire them, and the less I have understood how they have not only the skill but the courage to do whatever they do. Including physical courage, in the case of Noises Off. Slamming doors and precipitous staircases make for the kind of dangerous environment that would be outlawed by health and safety legislation in a factory, and a lot of actors have got hurt over the years. Many sprains and bruises, and I have twice seen blood rather copiously spilt on stage.


TS: I understand the 2000 version of the script is different from the one written in 1982. What made you decide to revise a highly successful script? Will there be any changes to the script for Roundabout’s production? Will you participate in rehearsals?

MF: The more often you see a play performed the more your fingers itch to improve it, particularly by means of the delete key. One of the bigger reforms for the production in 2000 was finding a way to suppress the second interval. It’s plainly a three-act play, as many plays were in those far-off days when I wrote it. Difficult now, though, to persuade audiences to go back into battle in the bar twice in one evening. For this production I have made only two small further cuts. I think that the most useful contribution an author can make in the rehearsal room is to stay out of it.


TS: If you were an actor, which role would you want to play in Noises Off/Nothing On?

MF: I’d like to be an actor whose agent had managed to get him a part in something else instead. Preferably one with armchairs to sit in.


TS: How do you keep yourself inspired as an artist? Do you read? Travel? Go to museums, see theatre? What feeds your imagination?

MF: Ideas come – or don’t – from entirely unpredictable sources and in entirely unpredictable circumstances. My wife insists that holidays help. It may be true. I can certainly recall getting the idea for one of my novels as we drove through the San Gabriel Mountains on our way into LA, and a huge bird (which I immediately identified, thrillingly but almost certainly wrongly, as an American bald eagle, and which I decided on mature reflection had probably been a condor) took off from the road just in front of the car. The project that instantaneously flashed into my head at that moment, I should say, had nothing whatsoever to do with eagles, or condors, or birds of any sort, or for that matter with the San Gabriels, or Los Angeles, or driving, or America.


TS: What advice would you give to a young person who wants to write for the theatre? I understand you once said: “Just do it.” Is that really all it takes to be a working writer?

MF: How do you get up in the morning? You just do it. Or not, as the case may be. Whatever training or preparation you put yourself through to write something, likewise, in the end you’re going to have to…well, yes…just do it. Or, again, not. Writers are the ones who manage to, non-writers are the ones who don’t. This still of course leaves open the question of whether the result, if there is one, is going to be any good. But that’s another matter altogether.


TS: What are you writing now?

MF: Interviews like this one, mostly, and introductions to reissues, etc. After-sales service, mopping-up operations. Meanwhile, of course, half hoping, half fearing, that there may yet be another condor round the next bend in the road.

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

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

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