An Interview
with Center REP Artistic Director Michael Butler
and Noises Off Director Timothy Near

 

In this Center REP production, the company’s own artistic director, Michael Butler, himself an accomplished stage director and actor, plays the part of Nothing On’s bravura director. Life imitates art even more because Butler and Center REP’s Noises Off cast are being directed by Timothy Near. She is an Obie Award–winning Bay Area theater veteran—who just so happens to be Butler’s wife.

In this conversation, Butler and Near, Noises Off’s star and director—and husband and wife—offer their own backstage view of putting on a show together, and of how this play reflects their own lively and lovely fusion of the professional, the personal, and the creative.

Michael Butler: Center REP has been able to provide you with the set for Noises Off for your first two weeks of rehearsal. Why was this important for a play like Noises Off?

Timothy Near: Yes, usually we rehearse plays without the set. The stage manager tapes out the “ground plan” on the floor and we use rehearsal furniture until we get on the stage for “Tech” and performance. With Noises Off, this would be impossible. It is a two-story set, and it is a farce. There are three doors upstairs and four doors downstairs. People are constantly running up and down stairs and in and out of doors. It is like a dance. The timing of doors slamming, people appearing and disappearing, people galloping upstairs—it’s critical to the comedy of the piece. Timing is everything in comedy. It is amazing how a couple of seconds’ difference in the delivery of a line can make you either die laughing, or merely smile.

MB: There’s also the “play within the play” in Noises Off. Does that affect how we rehearse? Which play will we work on first, Noises Off or Nothing On?

TN: We’ll spend the first day rehearsing Nothing On, the play within the play. That will be particularly helpful to the actor who is playing the director. That would be you, my love. It is important for you to know the specifics of the play your character is directing. And we can begin to develop the relationship between your character and his cast.

MB: You are directing me, your husband in real life (who also directs in real life), in the role of a director in the play within the play. Will this be confusing?

TN: Crazy, huh? I imagine it will be hilarious at times. You are my long-time collaborator. I have directed you in eight plays, and it is always a very creative experience because you are so willing to use your imagination and try anything. And, you are an excellent comedian. The character is not really like you. He’s not as nice as you. So directing you to be arrogant and sarcastic and naughty will give us all some good fun. I can just see the audience members thinking: Is Michael Butler really like that? But of course you aren’t. Now, let me ask you something. What is it like being directed by your wife?

MB: Oh, that’s easy! You are my favorite director. Maybe it’s because that’s how we first met and got to know each other – I was a New York actor, and I auditioned for you for the role of an Australian ballroom-dancing nerd. And I got the part, much to my surprise! We had such a good time together, creating his dance, creating his character. I always feel both very free working with you and very strongly pushed in new directions.

MB: Directing a farce is very, very hard work. What made you want to direct Noises Off?

TN: I love to make people laugh. But there is a more personal reason. At the heart of this play is the old adage: The play must go on. That saying isn’t just about actors. It is about humanity and its willingness to keep trying to make things better despite terrible odds. I love that about people and Noises Off expresses that marvelous aspect of the human condition in the most hilarious way. I think that is why this play continues to be beloved. There is something deeply human at the heart of it.