Twenty years after its West End premiere, Noises Off continues to be one of the most popular farces staged by regional and community theatres alike, a significant accomplishment considering the amount of pain inevitably inflicted upon those involved in bringing the show to life. Michael Frayn's classic comedy is one of those productions that seems, on paper, deceptively simple. But once you get knee-deep into the mechanics of the piece — the bruised and battered cast hurtling down stairs and passing through slamming doors, the harried director losing her voice after the umpteenth plea of “Faster!” the frazzled backstage crew nervously waiting for a door to get stuck or one of the many props to turn up missing — it soon becomes apparent that, if not done right, the complete breakdown of order that occurs in the play could easily come true in the real world as well, turning the whole enterprise into something smelling vaguely of sardines.
This also holds true of the set design. Though it consists essentially of one simple, two-level household set — okay, two, if you count Act II's backstage set, though most designers simply opt for a revolve — designers who sign on for Noises Off inevitably find themselves faced with a variety of problems they had never expected. Three recent productions — the current Broadway revival, designed by Robert Jones and based on a production originally done by the Royal National Theatre, a version done at the Trinity Rep and designed by David Jenkins, and a third mounted by a tiny community theatre troupe in the wilds of Canada by David Antscherl — all underscore these challenges.
Noises Off on Broadway photo: © Joan Marcus
A quick recap for those unfamiliar with the play, or perhaps more accurately, the play within the play: We see the first act of a creaky English farce called Nothing On three times. Act I takes place on the set just before opening night, as the cast of middling British actors fumble their way through a dress rehearsal, missing cues, losing props, all while the increasingly exasperated director looks on. The mostly wordless second act takes place backstage one month later, as cast and crew, most of whom already hate each other, try desperately to keep things moving onstage without killing or maiming a fellow cast member behind the scenes. Act III takes place, once again, on closing night; we see what's left of the first act of Nothing On after months of broken relationships, in-fighting, drunkenness, and general pettiness have taken their toll, and it's not a pretty sight.
David Antscherl designed the set for the Curtain Call production of Noises Off by proxy; Curtain Call is a small community theatre based in the tiny hamlet of Timmins, Ontario. Antscherl, a British-born and trained designer who does a lot of work around Ontario and is a member of both the Associated Designers of Canada and Theatre Ontario's Talent Bank, was hired by the company but wasn't able to get up to Timmins before the production. “They built it all locally, and I sent fairly extensive painting instructions, since it was an amateur production,” he says.
David Antscherl's model for Noises Off in Timmins, ON
Initial meetings with the Curtain Call group involved the space itself. “We had discussed different ways of doing it,” Antscherl recalls. “The thing was, the space it was going into had quite wide sightlines horizontally, which wasn't particularly helpful. Also, it was basically a school theatre auditorium, a multi-use/no-use space, so that threw some extra difficulties in the pot.”
In the end, the designer opted for placing the main part of the set on a 28' revolve, stacking the two stories and the staircase on it, and setting up the backstage area as the backstage area. “We had some ancillary pieces of scenery stage left and right of the revolve that we used to frame and mask off in the first and third act, and in the second act we had a couple of supplementary pieces with backstage exit signs,” Antscherl notes.
The set was built almost completely of wood. The front walls were sponge-painted, the front stairs done in dark walnut; the door frames and floorboards were made of Styrofoam and painted walnut. The backstage area was painted black and beige. The various doors (the script calls for nine in all, plus a large downstairs window) were made of wood and sported actual frames, hinges, and doorknobs. The revolve was built of solid wood. It consisted of 18 easily removable sections, which were configurable, so that sections could be added or removed if needed. The revolve moves via four to six heavy-duty construction casters per section.
The biggest challenge with the revolve was the theatre space itself. The floor of the theatre consisted of a stage and a strikable forestage, which were in sections and thus not entirely level. “The differences was something like ⅝" between the stage level and the forestage level,” Antscherl recalls. “It was crazy. So the way I designed the revolve was with independent, floating, pie-shaped segments that were sort of like gravity cleats put together, in order to accommodate the vertical movement as it revolved. And then I provided little mini-ramps along the lines of casters, so that it ramped up between the two different levels. Pretty Mickey-Mouse, but it worked.”
One thing Antscherl did not want to be Mickey Mouse was the actual look and feel of the set. “The thing has to be reasonably sturdy,” he explains. “I don't think the show needs to have a set become a comedy on its own. To me, the set is the supporting cast, it's not a character in its own right, and in this particular case there's too much going on anyway, and there's no need to throw in visual aids.”
Those of you who'd like to learn more about this set, you're in luck: you can actually own the thing. Curtain Call is selling it on their website: www.curtaincalltimmins.com/noises_off_set_for_sale.htm.
A Moving Experience
Most productions of Noises Off move the set around to show the goings-on backstage for Act II; David Jenkins, designer of the recent Trinity Rep production, moved the audience. Director Amanda Dehnert and he frequently toy with the Trinity Rep footprint; in a recent production of Othello, they reconfigured the entire space and flooded the stage, filling water underneath the scenery and holding everything up with I-beams.
“Trinity Rep is a terrific theatre in which to work because they don't say, ‘Oh my God, you want to move the seats?’ That's not their first question. They're very helpful, and they've gotten used to Amanda and me coming up with these crazy ideas to re-orient the relationship between the audience and the stage. What happened with Noises Off is that she said in the first sentence, ‘Let's move the audience.’ And I thought, what a great idea.”
But not necessarily an easy one to pull off. Because Trinity is subscription-based, the immediate concern was getting the necessary seats backstage for the subscription audience to be viable. There was also the issue of what the audience would actually be sitting on, since nice comfy seats installed backstage were not an option. In the end, Jenkins and the Trinity production staff were able to fit 458 seats into the backstage area, all made up of 2' × 12' wooden benches (“just like in school gyms,” notes Jenkins). The audience watched Act I, then, after a normal 15- to 20-minute intermission, moved to their seats at the Act II set behind the stage, helped by Trinity Rep acting school students sporting British accents and usherette costumes. Then, with a short break between Acts II and III, the audience returned to their Act I seats.
“Most of the work in designing the show was getting the same amount of seats on both sides,” Jenkins explains. “Because every time you joggled six seats, then you had to joggle six in the back as well. We had to make sure everyone was accommodated; wheelchair accessibility became a big factor, and what kind of seating it was going to be became a big factor, because we didn't just want to replicate what was out front. We wanted to keep the backstage look so we went with raw, wooden bleachers.”
Compared to the design of the seating, Jenkins says, the set design was a breeze. “The set's not a hard set, frankly. You have to have the prerequisite number of doors and they all have to be in relative position to one another. The minute you try changing something and being inventive you get into trouble. The temptation is to make it more than it should be. My favorite remark was when the cast came in for the first time and said it was like the summer stock they remembered here or a regional thing they remembered there.
“But how do you design tacky?” Jenkins continues. “It's not an easy challenge. For instance, all the scenery was painted. We had some stone wall in the set, reflecting some of the mill idea in the play, which was all painted stone. It would normally be my tendency to make it dimensional stone. We didn't worry about making sure it all masked properly. The main thing was making it all safe. It could look a little shabby, but because it gets such a workout, we had to make sure it was secure for the actors running around on the stairs and the balcony.”
The set (and seating) was built in place onstage by the Trinity rep staff. “Like a lot of regional theatres, they build in place and add about a week to 10 days, depending on the show,” Jenkins explains. “They have an extended period of time between shows, because the nature of the shop is not large enough to build the whole show and then load it in.”
The sturdy set still took its fair share of abuse, a given for this play. “The doors required constant repair,” Jenkins says. “We had a carpenter on the show who just wore out his toolbelt. He'd arrive half an hour before the house opened and repair the doors and latches. He was exactly like the character in the play. I heard reports that during the show, when a door would start to fall off, he'd just walk out and fix it.”
Farce of Steel
Robert Jones' sets for the Broadway production of Noises Off didn't have that problem: every single door, and in fact the central core of the set, was built out of steel. Protecting the set from all that physical abuse was only part of the reason for opting for something so strong.
“The doors really clang when they close,” Jones explains. “It was done for both the noise and the strength; we really wanted that thunderclap noise. When you see the back of the set, the doorframes are all steel, but they're painted to look like timber, as is all the structure at the back of the set.
The Broadway revival, now playing at the Brooks Atkinson, contains some slight modifications from most productions of the play: Frayn tinkered with Act III, shortening it a bit, and there is no intermission between the second and third act. Jones tried tinkering with the set as well, and that's where he got into trouble.
Noises Off at Broadway's Brooks Atkinson Theatre
Photo: © Joan Marcus
“The original concept was based on a flat wall with all the doors on the same plane,” Jones explains, “and I said to Jeremy [Sams, the director], and to Michael, ‘I think we need to set the set on an angle to give it a different dynamic’. So we put it on an angle, just to make it look more interesting, which of course set up all sorts of problems. We had to work out, for instance, if someone was standing, say, in a door downstage right, could they be seen by a person on the upper level upstage left?
“It was all those little things,” he continues. “Every little decision that was made influenced another decision. We would do something, and then it wouldn't make sense when we turned the set around, and vice versa. I remember sitting with Jeremy, and having little colored dots for each character, saying, can the blue dot be seen by the red dot in that position, and how long did it take that dot to get from door A to door B while someone else is doing it from door C to door D. You set out to design this play and it turns into this huge can of worms.”
In designing the set, Jones was keen to not make it a joke in itself. “It was very important to me that it wasn't a comedy set, that it wasn't cutouts, or cartoony, because the play is funny, it's rooted in reality, and it's out of that reality that comes the sheer comedy of the evening. When the curtain goes up, if you have a set that makes the audience smile, or if it's a joke in itself, then it doesn't really have anywhere to go. We have to believe that we're watching a fairly good production of Nothing On. It's not very good farce, but they've spent money on it and done it to the best of their ability. If there's wobbly walls and door handles coming off and everything at weird angles, then it wouldn't be right.”
From a pure aesthetic standpoint, Jones' real innovation for this production was to add a double-height window, allowing the audience to see through all the way up to the top of the set. “It was originally written with one window on the lower level (through which one of the characters, playing a burglar, breaks into), and I think there was a door above it, which doesn't quite make sense in terms of the logic of a real house. So we added this window, which works in that we can see what's happening on both levels when the set is turned around.
In its original incarnation, Noises Off was performed in rep for the Royal National at the Lyttelton, where it would be on for several performances and then off again; as a result, the set needed to have elements that would come apart easily. In that initial production, because the Lyttelton has a wide proscenium, Jones had designed the set with a false proscenium with scrim walls allowing the audience to see backstage; in Act I, you could see the stage manager and a nearby stage door. For the subsequent UK tour and West End production, that surrounding area dropped, putting the set about 9m or 10m across (or approximately 32'). All versions have included a turntable, including the Broadway production, though the latter is smaller and completely motorized. In fact, the show's New York incarnation required quite a lot of re-thinking.
“The New York production cosmetically looks very similar to the London production, but technically it's completely different,” Jones says. “We were very concerned about fitting the production into the Brooks Atkinson; it's half the depth of West End theatres, but we have the same width we had at the Royal National. So it went into Cinemascope. What we tried to do was focus it all in so that the actual playing space of the center didn't differ too much in terms of the distances it had taken the actors so long to work out. What we didn't want to do was reconceive the piece, because we knew what we got worked, and it had taken us weeks and weeks to get everything fitted. To reconceive would not give us the production we'd gotten.”
But perhaps the biggest change in the New York production comes in the second act; a major portion of what the audience sees in Act II is actually not the back of what they've seen in the first act but a duplicate. The center section, which includes the majority of the doors and the gallery, is spun around, but the side pieces are brought out on a series of small wagons, and upper pieces are dropped in; these are completely new prefab versions of the back, with the angle cheated slightly. Technical supervision for the New York production was by Unitech; the computer motion control and the automation of the scenery and rigging was by Feller Precision.
In the end, Jones agrees with his fellow set designers about the deceptiveness of this enduring farce. “It's one of those things that people look at, and think is quite simple, but once we actually started designing it, it took us quite a while to work out the logic of it all, because it can be very complicated. I actually think it was one of the most difficult things I've designed in many years, just in terms of sheer logistics. If anyone dismisses farce as being easy, they're very much mistaken.”