Everyman Theatre is ending its season full of compelling new works with a beloved comedy. With record-breaking advance ticket sales, “Noises Off” opens this week and runs through June 18. This British farce is a “love-letter” to the theater and the behind-the-scenes hilarity and onstage mayhem that can ensue when performing live. “Noises Off” was written in the early 1980s by Michael Frayn and garnered many nominations and awards. I had the good fortune to see the touring company from Broadway when it came to Los Angeles.
Directed by Artistic Director Vincent M. Lancisi, with one of the best resident companies around, MDTG thought it would be fun to ask the cast members to recall some of their most memorable theater mishaps. We cannot wait to see this production!
What was your most memorable moment backstage that nearly caused an onstage mishap?
MEGAN ANDERSON (Poppy Norton-Taylor): Deborah Hazlett and I have performed “Rabbit Hole” twice, playing the same characters (sisters) in two different productions. In the first production, the family was celebrating my character’s birthday. Deb was supposed to pull a large present out from behind the couch. She reached for it, and when she came up, her arms were stretched out but her hands were empty – no present! It hadn’t been set! We looked at each other and had an actor-to-actor “twinkly” moment – where you both know you’ve got to come up with something quick. She said something like “Surprise! We DO have a present for you,” then looked over very meaningfully to the actor playing her husband who picked up the ball and said, “I must have left it in the garage,” before running backstage to grab it. This left Deb and me alone to adlib. I said, “Can you tell me about my present? I want to be surprised but I don’t think I can wait!” and she described it to me until the other actor came back and we could get back on track.
DANNY GAVIGAN (Garry Lejeune): My very first role on stage was in Wilde Lake High School’s production of “The Matchmaker” and I was playing Cornelius Hackl (who doesn’t really show up until five or 10 pages in). I was in costume and makeup, all stoked and ready for my very first show and my very first audience and having the best time backstage getting amped up with some of the cast. Then I suddenly had to go to the bathroom really badly – probably because of the nerves and the soda. While I was in the restroom, I suddenly heard my cue to come on onstage through the loudspeakers. I remember completely freaking out and almost zipping myself up (a la Ben Stiller in “There’s Something About Mary”). Cornelius works in the basement, so the set designer built this faux cellar door right smack center stage. So I ran to the wings and had to slide into place before I emerged for my poor cast mates (who actually covered with some awesome improv like a couple of pros). Carly Hughes played “the matchmaker” in that show. She was one of the actors vamping for me. She’s all over Broadway now and you can catch her on ABC’s “American Housewife.”
Can you recall an incident of something going very wrong during a performance? How did you try to save it?
BRUCE NELSON (Frederick Fellowes): In 1992 I was in Macon, Georgia on tour with the National Players. We were heading into the second act of our production of a musical version of “Animal Farm” and I was setting props when the technical director’s black Labrador walked on stage and sat with the cast during a group musical number. I tried in vain to coax the dog off and he finally walked off mid-number of his own accord. The audience commented afterward on the realistic costuming.
WIL LOVE (Selsdon Mowbray): In my younger days (decades ago) as an actor in a summer theatre in Montana I was playing the caustic comic role, Jeff, in the musical, “Brigadoon.” As I peered through the window of a small set within a set and said the line, “Nice place,” one entire wall fell over flat in front of me. A communal gasp from the audience was followed by a hushed silence… to which I simply replied, “Well, that was nice.”
BETH HYLTON (Belinda Blair): Several years back I was asked to jump into the role of Ruth in “Blithe Spirit” at a theatre in Florida at the last minute. The theatre had lost their Ruth and so I was an emergency replacement. Fortunately, I had just completed playing Elvira in a production of “Blithe Spirit” in Delaware and the play was fresh in my mind. I literally closed the Delaware “Blithe Spirit” on Sunday and began rehearsing the Florida “Blithe Spirit” on Tuesday. It was a real challenge to block out the Elvira lines I knew so well, all while learning the lines for Ruth. We got the show open that Friday and on Sunday, in the opening scene, I lifted my cocktail glass to finish a joke and realized… I didn’t know what to say next. I was completely blank. It’s the worst thing that can happen to an actor. It’s called going “up.” I think it’s called that because it feels as if you are suddenly somewhere up above your body, far away from the earth: it is terrifying. As I was hovering over my body, awash in humiliation, I suddenly realized that I didn’t know which character I was. The terror was mounting. I looked around for clues and saw myself reflected in the stage management booth window. Now, in the previous year I played Nora in Ibsen’s “A Doll’s House” and in that play I had a beautiful midnight blue cocktail dress… unfortunately for me, in the opening scene of “Blithe Spirit,” the costumer had put me in another midnight blue cocktail dress. I saw myself in that lovely blue, and thought ”I DON’T KNOW WHAT PLAY I’M IN.” I looked around me and saw another actor on stage with me. I can’t imagine what it felt like to be him in that moment. He tried to help. He fed me a line: I shook my head no. He fed me another: I smiled wanly and shrugged. Finally, he walked over, took the martini glass out of my hand, and led me to the sofa where he played the remainder of the short scene with himself until finally something clicked in my mind and I recollected where I was and what to say. The stage manager rushed backstage at intermission because she thought I had a stroke.
CARL SCHURR (Lloyd Dallas): One of my first shows at Center Stage was the polemic “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” in which I played Dr. Spivey. The director wanted the production to be “real” in all ways and determined that the heavy metal door leading in and out of the patients’ quarters be as “realistic” as possible–right down to having a “real” lock which required “real” keys. As fate would have it, during a performance early in the run, the key dangling from a lanyard around my neck refused to work and I found myself trapped on stage with the inmates. The inane banter that ensued between doctor and patients had long given way to the sheer terror of the moment. Only through repeated banging on the door and uncreative ad-libs did a crew member rescue me. So much for realism in the American theatre!
EMILY KESTER (Brooke Ashton): In the middle of a very quiet moment on stage during a preview performance of “She Kills Monsters” with Rorschach Theater in DC, I realized that I was supposed to be on stage playing a high school student, when I was dressed as demon queen of the underworld (whose scene would not be until two scenes later). Most of the characters in this play were doubled, and I completely misjudged where we were in the play! After stalling a bit, and calling my character’s name a few times, the actress on stage moved on to the next scene… I’m sure that was a confusing moment for the audience!
ERIC BERRYMAN (Tim Allgood): A few years ago here at Everyman, during the last few minutes of the play “Topdog/Underdog,” my character, Booth, is supposed to shoot and kill his older brother, Lincoln. In the scene, Booth is facing slightly away from Lincoln as he pulls out a gun and cocks it. Then, in a moment of quick decision, Booth turns around and shoots Lincoln from behind. The dramatic scene is followed by one final monologue. On one night, when I pulled out the gun and cocked it, I guess my finger was too close to the trigger, because the prop gun went off in my hands before its cue. Stunned, I still managed to turn around and point the gun, but the other actor – having already heard the shot — had carried on with action, already making his dissent down to the floor. The only way I could think to save it was to make the next moment — the monologue — the most intensely acted and overcompensated thing anyone had ever seen, hopefully forgetting the mishap 30 seconds ago! As for my hand, the little stinging sensation went away after a day.
ANDERSON: When we did “Crimes of the Heart” a few years back, my character, Meg, had to step on a pecan to break it open and eat it. One night I stepped on a pecan and it flew into the first row of the audience. A lady caught it – lightning fast! (It was like that scene in Awakenings with the baseball.) I was so impressed with her reflexes — and also relieved that I hadn’t put her eye out. I laughed out loud and exclaimed “Thank you!” and the audience laughed, too.
What are your tricks to keep from breaking up on stage if something happens and you find it very difficult to contain your laughter?
BERRYMAN: I have tried biting my lip. The pressure and force helps. Also placing my hand over my mouth as if I am thinking or concentrating sometimes works as a mask.
GAVIGAN: It never fails to just turn away from the audience upstage if you ever feel a laugh coming on or start to break character. Another trick I’ve developed is something I saw Will Ferrell do a few times when he was on late night or SNL almost breaking, which is biting down on the back corners of your tongue. It keeps you from cracking a smile and the pain can fend off the laughter a bit.
DEBORAH HAZLETT (Dotty Otley): Many, many things have gone wrong on stage over the years with truly hilarious, and sometimes unnerving, results. The ways in which we deal with them are as varied as the stories themselves. But the one thing I never do is laugh on stage and break character – unless I am working with Bruce Nelson. He is the funniest person I know and his talent is extraordinary. I am grateful for every moment I have on stage with him. But the man makes me laugh even when I shouldn’t. I have come up with various ways to deal with this over the years including turning upstage with my back to the audience so that no one can see. Sometimes I can’t even look in his mischievous eyes so I simply stare at his chest. If all else fails, I laugh and try to make it look like part of the scene. He is a joy.
After a season of bringing a lot of great new works to Baltimore, what was the thinking in ending it with this particular play?
VINCENT M. LANCISI (Director): There’s no greater joy for me when directing a play at Everyman than to showcase the tremendous acting talents of our Resident Company. “Noises Off” — often hailed among the funniest comedies ever written — has brought wall-to-wall laughs to our rehearsal process, and the fun will continue for weeks to come! We are simply delighted to end our season on such a positively hilarious note.
For tickets, go online or call the box office at 410.752.2208.