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moviesblogathonThis post is my contribution to the Things I Learned From The Movies Bloghathon, hosted by Speakeasy and Silver Screenings – and, lo and behold! it has to do with theatre.

Backstage, precisely – and the accurate – if hilarious – portrait of onstage and backstage life that is Peter Bogdanovich‘s Noises Off, based on Michael Frayn‘s play of the same name. I must have been all of thirteen or fourteen, when I was first introduced to the vicissitudes of the troupe of Nothing On, and found them a hoot. Jaded director Lloyd Fellowes and his cast and crew are less than twenty-four hours from first night, and desperately trying to hammer in shape their new farce imported from London. Except, Nothing On is dismal fare, the actors are not, but not ready, doors won’t stay open, sardines are never where they should be, cues are missed, lines forgotten… 

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Ah well, pretty much your typical dress rehearsal – although I didn’t know that back then. In fact, little I knew how much of it was true, under the thick comic layer…  With its repeated play-within-a-play structure, Noises Off is a gem of hilarious and wonderful playwriting, but also a highly educational experience, if you are heading towards a life onstage and/or backstage. You learn very useful things, such as:

  • First Night always come at least a week too early. Well, Lloyd and company are a truly desperate case – with the rickety scenery, the under-rehearsed timing, and half of the cast unsure of their lines, of themselves, of the play’s meaning… Still, this is how it feels, more or less invariably, when the curtain-up looms close, and there are a thousand and one things that need to be fixed, adjusted, tweaked, changed, or just plain done. “We’d need another week/month” is a common mantra. One learns to live (tumultuously) through it. Wich lead us to…
  • There’s never ever time for a proper tech rehearsal. Now the technician’s angle does not truly come into Noises Off – but still. “If this is dress, when are we doing tech?” “And if this is tech, when is dress?” has become one of my favourite theatre quotes. Because it’s true: you think you’re going to have your tech rehearsal, to fix mistakes, to see how things really look, to avert surprises and plan ahead. And then the director and actors will swallow up your tech time with things you feel should have been done weeks ago, and you grow murderous, and, and, and. But then again…noises1
  • If you are the small person backstage, the folks onstage will expect you to work minor miracles all the tima. Poor Tim Allgood is very aptly named. Nominally the stage manager, he also mounts scenery, finds props, tweaks lights, provides bananas for the sardines, does administrative work, speaks with the voice of reason (mostly unheeded), steps in to cover for missing cast-members, and never sleeps. And Poppy, assistant stage manager, understudy and trouble-smoother, also counts. And of course, the smaller the company, the less people backstage. At times there’s one of you, manning the lighting board, stage-managing from there, calling the carpenter every other minute to find out why the damn throne hasn’t arrived yet – and the director will look at you in displeasure, and ask why on earth you are not onstage, covering for the actor who is running late… Prospero – that’s what they all are, under their skin, taking you for their own Ariel. And at times you wish you were, because…noises4
  • Things said offstage can be heard from the audience. Perfectly well. Even when you don’t have a stage manager roaring her life-changing news in the wings, like Poppy does in the film – theatres are made so that voices will carry. All the more so if you have microphones, either individual wireless things, or surround: they’ll pick up everything. I have memories of a children’s choir cheerfully chatting away backstage, completely ruining a certain small thing that should have been ethereal. And of one actress (playing old Euriclea in a particularly serious-minded adaptation of the Odyssey) who, forgetting her little wireless microphone was still open, exhaled “Oh, heck!” as she exited – to much puzzlement in the audience. And you are at the lighting board, horrified and powerless, and wishing that you could spirit yourself backstage, Ariel-like, to do something. Still…
  • No matter how bad the mishap, it always makes for a wonderful story. Or noises3play. Or film. Indeed, the worse, the better. Once you have recovered, once the disaster is well in the past, and you can see the humourous side of it (especially considering that, as often as not, things have a way of patching themselves up) then you’ll have a treasure of anedoctes or the loveliest three-act play within a play. Because…
  • Theatre and its trappings make for good stories. And is all so very exciting in its highs and lows, and like living two lives, as I was recently told by a wonderful veteran actress. Otherwise, why would Lloyd Fellowes, his people, and us all keep doing it?

There, see? A higly educational movie. Not that you’ll learn to avert this sort of mayhem – you never entirely do, I think – but when it comes, you are prepared. Oh – and you may be inspired to write your own play-within-plays on the way…

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Now, be sure to read all the lovely contributions to the Things I Learned From the Movies Blogathon.

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