Friday, August 30 – it’s less than a week before “Noises Off” opens, and director Meredith McDonough has an odd request for an actor who plans on shaving his beard that evening.
“Nathan, can I get less of your face?”
Actors Theatre of Louisville last staged this backstage farce (often called “a love letter to the theatre”) in 1998. Then-artistic director Jon Jory directed, and McDonough was Jory’s directing assistant – not a bad gig to kick-start a career.
Now, McDonough’s in the director’s chair. After re-joining the company as associate artistic director and helming two tense, character-driven dramas last season (Matthew Lopez’s “The Whipping Man,” Sam Marks’ “The Delling Shore”), McDonough will launch Actors Theatre’s 50th anniversary season with Michael Frayn’s door-slamming, double-taking “Noises Off,” a play-within-a-play that uses a revolving stage to show the on-stage mishaps of a fictional bedroom farce “Nothing On” and the backstage antics of the play’s temperamental director and his oddball cast.
Most of the actors play two characters – the parts they play in “Nothing On,” of which the audience only sees the first act (three times – twice on-stage and once from backstage), and the actors in rehearsal and backstage. Love triangles and wacky personalities abound.
In this fast-paced brand of ensemble comedy, each bit is worked out in slow-motion first. It’s an intricate dance to land each laugh – every door slam is carefully choreographed, every beat carefully guided.
“You really have to do exactly what [the script] says,” says McDonough. “Once you do that over and over again, then you can have fun with it.”
Over and over again. It’s Friday and we’re in a technical rehearsal, only two more rehearsal days before the first public preview, and you haven’t experienced “over and over again” until you’ve sat in on a tech rehearsal, watching the same five-minute scene run repeatedly, parceled out into thirty-second bits, until every cue is nailed on stage and off.
But technical precision is only half of McDonough’s formula. Comedy is math – the rule of threes says tripled bits are inherently funny, as they introduce tension on the first mention, build it up on the next appearance, and then release on the third instance – but more importantly, it’s chemistry. Cast the funniest people you know, McDonough says, and take it from there.
“They bring all those ideas to the table,” she says. “That’s been the huge collaboration. Because I’m funny, but these people are really funny, and so they get it and I can help them edit.”
Every night, over and over again. Now that the set is built and the cast is in full costume, it’s time to figure out all the details they’ve been waiting to build out, like exactly how two actors will unwrap another from her bed sheet shroud disguise without anyone tripping. Painstaking in their precision, the cast tries every angle and pivot to make the process look flawlessly spontaneous in execution.
“Nothing is surprising me at this point,” Pablo Holmes murmurs into his headset. “Yeah, we’ll hold here.”
Holmes was an assistant stage manager on Jory’s 1998 production. Now he’s the production stage manager with a crew of eleven. Or, as he puts it, the show’s conductor.
“Make sure everyone knows what they’re doing, make sure set designers and crew get their notes, as we make changes in rehearsal and it’s disseminating all that information,” explains Holmes.
“And then once we’re in performance, it’s a downbeat and we’re off and running,” he says. “I call cues and make sure things happen light-wise and sound-wise, and for us, revolve-wise.”
It’s painstaking work, but it’s obviously a fun gig. In the first version of Act One of “Nothing On,” the cast is also in tech, and director Lloyd (Andy Grotelueschen) completely loses his mind when his actors can’t manage to make it to the end of a scene. In the Pamela Brown, every time Holmes calls a break, McDonough and the cast are laughing until it’s time to get back down to business.
When the action picks back up, Holmes calls the cue from his command station in the center near the back of the Pamela Brown Auditorium.
“Let’s pick it up from ‘You toss me aside like a broken china doll, what what what,’” he booms to the cast and crew.
Choreography, comedic chemistry and an on-point conductor – that’s how a comedy like “Noises Off,” with so many moving parts (including the stage) avoids the pitfalls “Nothing On” falls victim to in the third act, when we see the first act of the fictional play for the third time: Lloyd’s actors at the end of their tour, not doing so well. Nothing goes right on stage.
But Holmes says from his vantage point, watching the wheels fall off a fake production is cathartic – to him, it’s the play’s funniest moment.
“It’s a total stage manager’s nightmare, oh my God. You see one thing go wrong and you go, Katie bar the door, nothing is going to come out of this,” he says with a laugh. “If what happens in the third act really happened in real life? I’d shoot myself. I’d jump off the Second Street bridge.”
“I would run out of here and jump off the Second Street bridge,” he emphasizes, melodramatic as a member of the “Nothing On” cast. “Because it would be a huge fail.”
Then he goes back to his notes, making sure nothing like that will happen on his opening night.