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An Interview with Director Sam Strong
(L-R) Simon Burke, Hugh Parker, Libby Munro and Ray Chong Nee.
Queensland Theatre has been offering us some world class productions in recent years. Their next offering is the internationally famous, smash hit comedy Noises Off by Michael Frayn so it's likely to be just as good, if not better than their works to date. Queensland Theatre and Melbourne Theatre Company are presenting this co-production in QPAC's Playhouse from the 3rd until the 25th of June, before they take it to Melbourne for a six-week season.
Noises Off, for those unfamiliar with the work, is a hilarious 'play within a play'. You observe the creative process and the interpersonal relationships in the cast and how they develop and in some cases disintegrate. The journey takes place through pre-production to performances, with the second act of the play showing what goes on behind the scenes backstage and the chaos of a production that's experiencing problems. It's both verbally and physically funny, but at its heart it's a relatable tale about people who are dreaming big, struggling to work as a team and not quite reaching the stars.
I was fortunate enough to speak with Sam Strong on his lunch break between rehearsals for this fabulous farce. Sam is not only the director of this production of Noises Off, he's also the Artistic Director of Queensland Theatre, so, you know, he's kind of a big deal. Fortunately, he's very down to earth and accommodating and not at all like the terrible stereotypical ideas you might have about diva directors. After we exchanged pleasantries and I thanked Sam for taking the time to speak with me, we got straight into chatting about the play and his directorial approach to it.
Director of Noises Off and QT's Artistic Director, Sam Strong.
SS: Good, good. We're in the belly of the monster at the moment because it's a huge enterprise.
KM: Well, it's like, three hours!
SS: Yeah it will probably come in under three hours, but what's been fascinating about rehearsing it. I'm realising its scale and its genius. In terms of realising its scale, you sort of underestimate that it's four plays. So you have the onstage farce called Nothing On which you never actually get to see in its entirety. We ran it the other day, and it was hilarious. When you just see it, uncorrupted, it's amazing.
So we worked the onstage farce Nothing On, then act one is the interruption of that during rehearsal, act two is seeing that go pear shaped from backstage, then act three is seeing that go even more pear shaped from front stage. So it's this amazingly large thing to tackle but I think what's been particularly heartening about it is you realise the genius of Frayn – this almost inhuman genius where it's like, 'How do you..?' I've no idea how he created or wrote it, because the correspondences between the three acts are so clever and so smart. You'll be working act one and you'll be like, 'Well why does that character go and leave the bag on the other side of the door?' and then you realise it's so he can see a particular action in act two that then has a correspondence in act three.
KM: It is very clever.
SS: So it's just this amazing mathematical act of construction that is a real joy but also a huge task to realise.
KM: I was reading that it came from his own experience backstage. Have you ever been directing a play that's gone like that?
SS: Touch wood I haven't actually!
KM: Ah well that's good.
SS: I haven't been involved in something that's gone awry as extremely as this thing goes awry, but I think what's amazing about the play is that it depicts an experience that everyone can recognise and particularly, everyone can recognise whether or not they work in the theatre.
It's pretty easy for us to access because it's our industry on stage, but I think the beauty of it is that it's a workplace comedy before it's a backstage comedy in that it shows the sorts of behaviours that human beings exhibit when you put them in an environment and you get them to try and do things together and all of those things that people will recognise from any workplace: the secret romance that goes wrong, people being nice to people before they are very, very not nice and things that are well planned turning to chaos. I think audiences will recognise them regardless of the professional background that they come from and that's, I think, why the play's been such a hit.
KM: And this is quite a Brechtian play as well and your last one that you directed (Once in Royal David's City) was too, do you have a particular affinity for Brecht?
SS: (Laughing) You know what? No! It's interesting in that bizarrely, I have quite a low tolerance for theatre that's about theatre, even though Once in Royal David's City and Noises Off are both in some way engaged in the act of telling a story in a theatre. I think what's unique to both of them is that they're first and foremost about human behaviour and the theatrical thing is just secondary to that. So where I think theatre becomes too much of an in-joke is where the theatre side of it is dominant rather than the human side of it.
KM: So you're not necessarily devoted to reminding an audience that they're watching theatre right now?
SS: No. I think no. I think one thing with my directing is that I like to subject myself to new directorial challenges, so I don't necessarily like to sit in my comfort zone or my perceived comfort zone. I like to range across styles. So my directing over time; a lot of it has been in new plays in 100 seat theatres, new plays in 850 seat theatres, classics, new international Broadway hits… as a director I don't tend to be someone who just occupies his little patch of turf, I like to range around a bit across different styles.
KM: This is quite a big farcical comedy, what challenges do you find in directing farce and comedy compared to tragedy?
SS: I think in a way they're unified by both being grounded in the truth and if you can't find the truth of the human experience on stage then there's a problem. There's that great quote that farce is just tragedy at a thousand revs per minute - or whatever, I think I've misremembered the quote - but they share a similar origin in human behaviour and stem from, I suppose in me, a real curiosity about human behaviour.
What unifies both of them is rhythm and timing. A sense of the musicality of theatre has been something that's always been at the centre of my directing and I tend to think very musically about what's on stage. Rhythm is very important so that's where you can utilise rhythm to push an audience's emotional buttons or you can utilise rhythm and timing to land the joke at the right time. In a way it's the application of the same set of skills to a different thing. That said, the starting point for directing great comedy for me is just to cast the right people and if you get the right ensemble then actually the rest of it sort of takes care of itself because your job is just to let funny people go at the material.
KM: And you've got some really funny people (Simon Burke, Ray Chong Nee, Libby Munro, Hugh Parker, James Saunders, Louise Siversen and Nicki Wendt).
SS: I'm blessed with the kind of ensemble that I've got. They're all incredibly funny people in their own right and funny individually and then funny collectively so sometimes the challenge on Noises Off is to not invent too much and we need to realise the genius of Frayn's blueprint before we add too much invention.
Photographer Stephen Henry Captured the Cast Rehearsal in Action.
KM: I was reading that he originally wrote it in 1982 and then rewrote and rewrote. Have you picked up the most recent version of the script?
SS: Yes, we have and it benefits from that. I think it is this perfect Swiss watch where nothing is redundant. Everything is important, everything contributes to the storytelling, you need to make sure you're realising every single moment in it so you need to be incredibly rigorous.
KM: Some places have added their own twists or rewritten to suit their location. Have you guys done that or are you keeping it true to the script?
SS: We're keeping it true to the script, which as a director, is always a funny thing. You go through the design process on a play like this and you go 'Let's set it here, let's imagine if it was like it was at the Schaubühne in Berlin, or let's make it now,' and actually we will be guided by what's best for this story on this stage. In our case that's a return to its origins both geographic and period wise.
So we're setting it kind of when the first production happened, which is in the early 80s and we're setting it in England. I think there's a lot of interplay between the on and off stage voices and accents and I think to really get that working and also to get the rhythm of the comedy working the Englishness of it is quite important. Leith McPherson who is the Associate Director and Voice and Text Coach has been instrumental in addressing those questions of what's the single funniest accent version of these characters and their onstage and offstage accents. If that character is cockney in their onstage voice, is it funnier if they're uppity in their offstage voice? So there's been a lot of work going on get the perfect palette of accents as part of the comedic mix.
KM: You were saying the text and the acting is very traditional are you sticking with a traditional set design for this one?
SS: I think my approach to the set and the costume – and Richard Roberts is designing the set and the costume – was I'd seen other productions of the play where the set or the costume tried to be funnier than the show, so the set was so bad it was almost like a cartoon.
SS: Even worse actually – like as in badly made and really deliberately badly made. I've seen productions where they pushed the costumes into a really lurid cartoon version of the 70s where everyone would get a laugh just because they walked on stage in this massive pair of bright green flares. I wanted to play a bit of a straighter bat with the design of it. So these are people who, regardless of their level of skill take what they do pretty seriously and then it's funny because everything goes pear shaped.
KM: And have you been having funny times in rehearsal?
SS: Yeah! It is very funny to rehearse. We're in the pointy end of it now where we're not quite at the point where we're pushing toward the deadline but we're in the middle of realising the scale of the challenge. I've just been working act two, which is the backstage act, which is effectively a forty-minute dumb show. So you need to be very precise in how you build that but actually it's more like creating a dance work where you need to get the movements into the actors' bodies rather than it actually being an exercise in remembering lines or verbal cues it's actually an exercise in remembering a physical pattern.
KM: All those mime skills!
SS: Completely yes! It's a huge challenge but it's a delight to rehearse at the same time.
KM: So this is a co-production with MTC and you've brought more co-productions to Queensland Theatre this year. What's the benefit of that for the theatre community?
SS: I think the benefit of that is in two-way exchange. There's the exchange where Brisbane audiences get to see the work of fabulous artists from outside of Brisbane and particularly fabulous actors but there's also the benefit where we get to share the work of great Brisbane and Queensland artists with the rest of the country. There's always a balance between the local and the national and the global as well.
One thing I was very keen to do with the 2017 season is just increase the level of national exchange. This is the first co-production we've had with Melbourne Theatre Company in at least a decade. It's a chance for us to take the work of great Queensland artists to Melbourne and also to extend the life of that work. So Noises Off will play for our standard season in the Playhouse (which is three weeks). Noises Off will play in Melbourne for six weeks. So it just extends the lives of the work and the lives of the employment that we can offer people.
KM: It's a really well-known work, so did you feel any pressure to do anything in a particular way or to meet certain expectations of the crowd?
SS: No, I think one of the beautiful things about Noises Off is that it kind of takes care of itself and you mess with the perfection of what Frayn's created at your peril. I think that when you have this blueprint to realise something that's delightful and delicious and perfect in it's construction, I sort of see my role as realising that and doing the best version of that, that I can.
I think my individual artistry and the cast's individual artistry will be present in that work whether we like it or not and I'm not too concerned to put my stamp or our stamp all over it because it will be there whether we want it to or not. There are some works where you do really need to make an effort to invent a lot with and there's other works where you don't.
KM: I think this is going to be a good play for people who are new to the theatre as well. For anyone who's not familiar with it, what would tell them to encourage them to come and see the show?
SS: I think this is the perfect first theatre experience. It's like the ideal introduction to theatre because it's incredibly entertaining, it's incredibly funny but also because it has some substance. I think it's entertaining and funny because it shows us human behaviour that we recognise and if it was just a series of slapstick jokes, it would be funny but it would also be sort of hollow.
What's extraordinary about Noises Off is that it gives you all of that great slapstick comedy that is completely accessible and hilarious and delightful but it also does it by way of something that's quite complex in what it says about people and that's a gift for an audience. I think that's why it's been such a guaranteed hit around the whole world for thirty years because it manages to have both style and substance, it manages to do both comedy and complexity at the same time.