Creating Chaos Behind the Scenes of 'Noises Off'

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hink about producing a play within a play and convincing the audience that the play-within-a-play is a complete disaster, all while maintaining perfect control over the actual play. If that premise sounds confusing, you’re not alone. 

Even the team of actors and backstage cast members hard at work on Boston College Theatre’s upcoming production of Noises Off have trouble keeping things straight. The comedy, written in 1982 by Michael Frayn and directed by theatre professor Luke Jorgensen, documents the messy relationships and myriad of mistakes that plague a theater production. The three acts of Noises Off show the “cast” of the play-within-a-play, Nothing On, perform Act I on three separate occasions. At each performance, tensions among the cast rise more and more until the performance runs completely off the rails.

“When you create a set design, the set not only has to inform the audience about where you are and what kind of place this is, but it also helps evoke moods and ideas and moves the story along in various ways,” Tiala said.

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he set, costume, and sound designers of Noises Off have to clearly differentiate the three layers of time within the play for the audience, due to the complexity of the plot. The cast of Nothing On live in the present day, but Nothing On is set in the ’60s within a 16th century mill-turned-house.

Set designer Crystal Tiala’s work for Noises Off focuses primarily on the design of the 16th century house. Tiala, who is also an associate professor and chair of the theatre department, is responsible for the aesthetic of the stage. She describes her role as a combination of artist and architect.

“When you create a set design, the set not only has to inform the audience about where you are and what kind of place this is, but it also helps evoke moods and ideas and moves the story along in various ways,” Tiala said.

Although Tiala is not directly involved with the construction of the set, technical knowledge is a crucial asset for a set designer. With it, Tiala knows what’s in the realm of possibility and what’s simply infeasible. 

Tiala usually begins the design process six to eight months before the premiere of a play. In discussions with Jorgensen, Tiala decided to approach the design of the play-within-a-play’s sets as seriously as she would with a real production.

“It’s funnier if [Nothing On] looks like it has the possibility of succeeding but then goes completely wrong, because if it looks like it has no chance of succeeding, it doesn’t really have anywhere to go from there,” Tiala explained.

Tiala cites the image sharing platform Pinterest as one of her most valuable resources for garnering inspiration. Her account has dozens of boards dedicated to the most precise decorative styles: Chinoiserie, Biedermeier, De Stijl. For Noises Off, she’s collected images of theaters and dark, medieval interiors.

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ith more abstract scripts, Tiala has the freedom to create her own interpretation of how the environment might look. But Noises Off is fairly concrete; Tiala knew from the beginning that it would be set in England inside a 16th century mill. Still, Tiala isn’t limited to research on the internet.

“You can get inspiration from anywhere, it doesn’t have to be just from the web. A lot of stuff’s out there, but you might get textures off the sidewalk after a rainy day, or, you know, a nice beautiful tree or a sunset […] anything visual can be research,” Tiala said.

After she’s gathered ideas for the set, Tiala creates sketches or rough models of the proposed set. She collaborates with the director, props master, and the lighting, costume, and sound designers to determine how the set will look and move from one scene to another.

Once she’s settled on a final plan for the set, Tiala creates a three-dimensional model of the set. Seeing what’s essentially a miniature version of the set is crucial to understanding how the actors will move across the stage. The model functions like a dollhouse. Tiala also creates in-scale architectural drawings of the set that are used by the scene shop to construct it. From then on, Tiala’s job is to address issues as they arise during the set’s construction.

While Tiala is preoccupied with 16th century architecture, costume designer Jacqueline Dalley and costume shop supervisor Quinn Burgess are immersed in the wild fashions of the late ’60s. Jorgensen decided to set Nothing On in the ’60s to differentiate the “actors” from the backstage characters, such as the director and stage manager. Jorgensen was also drawn to the ’60s because the slapstick style comedy of Noises Off reminded him of a sketch comedy TV show that aired in the late ’60s called Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In. The show had the same loud, flashy tone as Noises Off. 

“I think about Poppy, what stores do I think she would shop in, what magazines do I think she would read, that kind of thing. So those are the places I would look for those clothes,” Dalley said.

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ather than source vintage clothes, which are often precariously delicate, Dalley and Burgess have opted to create most of the costumes themselves. In general, theatrical costumes are more durable than everyday clothing. This distinction is especially important in Noises Off.

“Mostly the difference is that for theater you’re usually trying to do a stronger version of [the garment], particularly a show that’s so physical, where things might be more reinforced, or we might use sewing techniques that aren’t as invisible because we have the luxury of having the distance from the audience, because that might be stronger,” Dalley explained.

Dalley began her work on Noises Off by researching the fashions of the ’60s. She turned to the internet and fashion catalogues from the period, as well as her own books on the 1960s. Once the show was cast, Dalley also kept in mind how to best suit the particular appearances and performances of the actors.

“Once I can visualize who’s playing the character, it helps me continue with is this the right direction for that character,” Dalley said. “Sometimes it’s just the look of the actor and how I see it fitting the character, and maybe I tweak the way I’m seeing the character based on who’s cast. But also then seeing and hearing about how they’re evolving the character in rehearsal [helps].”

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esigning the costumes for the behind-the-scenes characters is more difficult, since the characters live in the present day.

“One of the challenges is [that] I don’t want them to just seem like Boston College students,” Dalley said.

Dalley also tries to get inside the heads of the characters to explore how they would dress themselves.

“I think about Poppy, what stores do I think she would shop in, what magazines do I think she would read, that kind of thing. So those are the places I would look for those clothes,” Dalley said.

Dalley also oversees actors’ hair and makeup. She’s adding extra ’60s style flair to the characters with exaggerated beehive hairdos and cat eyeliner.

Once Dalley has bought fabric, she hands over her designs to Burgess, who actually constructs the garments. Dalley and Burgess discuss whether they’ll use existing patterns or sew the costumes from scratch.

“If we’re going to create them from scratch, then I use a variety of different methods,” Burgess said. “Sometimes I create them on dress forms, sometimes I create patterns flat from measurements or from knowing what patterns look like. Sometimes I’ll use something that already exists as a starting point and tweak it on paper.”

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ot only do the costumes have to be durable and allow for full range of movement, in some cases, they take center stage as the punchline for jokes. Two different characters have their pants fall down. A character wears a comically large robe. The challenge for Dalley and Burgess is in accommodating these quirks in the script.

For sound designer George Cooke, though, the requirements for his work on Noises Off are more straightforward.

“Some scripts are very specific: We need a gunshot here, we need a door slam there. And then other times, you know, Shakespeare plays, there’s nothing,” Cooke said.

Besides finding sound effects for things like phone rings and breaking glass, Cooke also took the opportunity to write original music for Nothing On. Cooke and Jorgensen agreed that goofy, bongo-heavy, Austin Powers-inspired music would fit the show’s mood. Jorgensen also mentioned Elvis’ “Bossa Nova Baby,” so Cooke crafted an instrumental version of the song with the same aesthetic. 

“I think what’s going to be the big challenge of the show is not sound or lighting, but I think it’s going to be all the choreography and the physicality of the show,” Cooke said.

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ooke, a musician who began working in theatre at BC, uses his experience playing instruments and writing songs to compose music for productions, stretching beyond the typical role of the sound designer.  

Although microphones are typically Cooke’s focus when he works on musicals, for Noises Off, Cooke is responsible for rigging microphones behind the set during Act II.

“What’s the really interesting thing about the show is each production is kind of its own little puzzle,” Cooke said.

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n the first act of the show, the audience is looking at the front of the set of Nothing On. Then, in Act II, the set is turned around and the audience sees backstage while hearing the play-within-a-play on the other side of the set. To pull off this trick, Cooke is attaching microphones to the back of the set so that the audience can hear the actors when they’re performing “onstage.”

“I think what’s going to be the big challenge of the show is not sound or lighting, but I think it’s going to be all the choreography and the physicality of the show,” Cooke said.

Although Tiala, Dalley, Burgess, and Cooke all went out of their way to commend the cast of Noises Off for the complex maneuvers the script demands of them, it’s clear that the intricate structure of the play has brought unexpected obstacles for all facets of the production. When audiences watch Nothing On fail catastrophically onstage, it’s worth remembering the innovative methods that the set, costume, and sound designers have used to make a well-organized production appear to be a hopelessly chaotic mess.

Featured Images by Maggie DiPatri and Meegan Minahan / Heights Editors

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