When juggling a play within a play, a huge cast of characters and a meticulously timed series of events, what could possibly go wrong?
In the 1982 play Noises Off by English playwright Michael Frayn, all it takes is three acts for basically everything to go wrong. Its cast of characters—nine intermixed players, performing in both the play and the play-within-the-play—fall in and out of romantic rivalries, personnel issues and workplace tumult as the audience follows the action from scene to scene.
Noises Off ran with five successive casts at the West End’s Savoy Theatre soon after its London debut. Today, it is one of the most popular comedic plays in both the American and English theater communities. In time for the original’s 40th anniversary, it now begins a four-week run at Mountain View’s Pear Theatre.
Sinjin Jones came on as the theater’s Executive Artistic Director in January 2020 (“just in time,” he jokes). After establishing roots in the Denver theater scene, Jones moved to California for the role, looking to celebrate “the magic of theater.”
“We really wanted to be in a place where we were exploring and experimenting, asking what makes theater really special and what makes a unique theatrical experience,” Jones says.
To open this season, the team wanted a play that had “high theatricality.” Jones immediately thought of Frayn’s play, thinking, “Wouldn’t it be cool, but basically impossible, for us to do Noises Off and put that out into the world?”
Turns out, for the Pear and Jones, very little is impossible.
Jones had performed in productions of Noises Off previously, but this was his first time producing the play. He connected with local director Katie O’Bryon Champlin for the performance, discussing how they could plan for such a technically complex and busy play. The pair began planning in April, while they were still finishing the Pear’s 21st season. In July, the team began building the set for Noises Off, with technical rehearsals beginning last month.
The play requires a two-story set and a cast of nine characters (with five additional understudies), all focused on timing. Because of the play’s grandiosity, The Pear is limiting seating for its 16-shows, with only 45 tickets per performance.
Jones estimates that it will end up being a nine or 10-week process, with building and rehearsals—longer than the vast majority of The Pear’s performances.
“If we can pull this off, it will be unlike anything people have ever seen before,” Jones says. “We want to create work that is both challenging for the audience and to ourselves, and not rest on our laurels.”
Champlin has worked at the Pear as a comedic performer and choreographer over the years, but this will be her directorial debut for the Mountain View stage. Recently, she directed The Play That Goes Wrong for the Palo Alto Players, which has many similarities to Noises Off: “I guess I’m good at making things go wrong,” she jokes.
Noises Off, she says, is a “complicated show,” to say the least. Relying on timing, spacing and even physical comedy, Champlin says that it becomes almost a “ballet” for the performers.
“One of the things I learned on ‘The Play That Goes Wrong’ is how important it is to have as much of the set and as many of the actual props as possible right from the beginning, because they almost have to function as other actors in the show,” she says.
Now the performance is just about ready for audiences.
“We’re really bringing the play to life, which is the fun part of the process,” Champlin says.
Noises Off will be the debut play for The Pear’s 22nd Season, with a slate of four other plays and a variety of community events to come. As demanding and difficult it has been to plan for all of the elements of the performance, Jones says it’s well worth the effort.
“It feels really challenging for us to accomplish—it felt like we could do it in a way that people would not have seen before,” he says. “We figured out how to make it possible…there’s a reason all of your theater friends love it, and that’s because it’s one of the most fun shows that’s ever been written.”
Through Oct 1
The Pear Theatre, Mountain View