“Farce is a tragedy played at a thousand revolutions per minute.” – John Mortimer
How very true. After months of preparation, line learning, swearing, optimistic visual cues, line running and more swearing, we have finally opened ‘Boeing Boeing’ to our paying audiences at The Miller Centre Theatre, Caterham. Whilst farce is often looked upon as one of the basest forms of humour, it is also one of the most demanding of its actors. Pace, comic timing, cue-bite, fiendishly similar lines, lightning-fast costume changes and being rock solid on your thread of the story whilst maintaining the illusion that this is a situation hurtling dangerously out of control – all of these are essential.
Many friends outside of my theatre bubble ask ‘how do you learn all those lines?’ often referring to long speeches or pages and pages of dialogue. In those cases, with relative ease; when you only have yourself and perhaps one other person to rely on, and a clear direction to the conversation, you record the lines, listen to them over and over in much the same way as you’d learn the words to a song. But farce typically has lots of short, clipped lines, interjections, interruptions, repetition and similarity peppered throughout, especially so when the confusion mounts. The best way to learn this is sheer brute force with the ‘shopping list’ method:
I went to the shops and I bought an orange. I went to the shops and I bought an orange and two apples. I went to the shops and I bought an orange and two apples and 3 pork chops. etc etc etc.
It’s boring and time consuming, but it works!
We’ve also experienced that horribly, disconcerting point in the last few rehearsals – NO ONE IS LAUGHING ANY MORE. In the first few weeks, you spend half of your time recovering from fits of the giggles, be it from lines, a carefully timed entrance, a pause, a facial expression – eventually you gain control of yourselves, you get books down and a few more people appear in the rehearsal studio, doubling as a mini-audience: stage manager, props, prompt, wardrobe, production committee, artistic director etc. their laughter buoys you and spurs you on. But then everyone has to knuckle down and focus on their own tasks. You are pouring every last inch of yourself into performing, only to have no audible feedback.
The greatest risk is going too far over the top or feeling so demoralised that you don’t give it everything. I’ve experienced both with this rehearsal process – a few careful tweaks help to sharpen up the little bits that need ‘light and shade’. It does of course help to have a small rent-a-crowd in for your final dress-rehearsal, partly to reassure you that it is still funny, but also to give you an indication of where an audience might laugh. It’s a very tricky thing to balance; on one hand you don’t want to deliver a punchline followed by the sort of pause that aches with: “You can laugh now.”, but nor do you want to cut the laughter short! (I challenge you to find me an actor who doesn’t revel in laughter and applause of their own making – we’re all suckers for it!)
Boeing Boeing had a very successful run in the West end about 6 years ago (which is where I first saw it and first knew that I wanted to play Gretchen one day). I didn’t see the stint featuring Mark Rylance playing Robert, but our director’s son, being a great fan of Mr Rylance, sent him an email asking if he had any tips. To our surprise, we actually got a reply:
“Don’t play for laughs; play to terrify the audience about what might happen next.”
This is possibly one of the best pieces of advice for farce that I’ve ever received. With that in mind, we have stripped back some of the overdoing and instead worked more towards keeping the audiences stress levels up with every almost-catastrophic near-miss that we can manage! This has been an immensely tough production to learn, rehearse and stage, but also one of great fun and reward. We’d love to see you in the audience one night. 🙂
Boeing Boeing is at The Miller Centre Theatre, 30 Godstone Road, Caterham, Surrey CR3 6RA until Saturday 21st September. Tickets can be booked from http://www.millercentretheatre.org