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Monday, April 1, 2013

Laugh Until You Forget Your Life Stinks: TYPES OF THEATER---What is Farce?

Still Gets a Laugh
Hello ladies and gentlemen.  Welcome to Theater is a Sport.  My name is Bobby Keniston, and I will be your host for this blog post.  I am a playwright with 21 published titles, and actor who has appeared in more than 65 plays, a director, and a theater educator.  This blog is where I like to talk about all things theater, and I welcome all drama geeks, actors, writers, directors, and theatre-lovers to check out what I have to say and offer up your own thoughts in the comments below.

A little while back, I had a post about the Theatre of the Absurd, which is one of my favorite types of theatre.  Tonight, I thought I'd talk about something a little lighter....

Those of you who are regular theatre-goers or are involved with theatre are pretty clear what on what farce is.  I know that at the community theatre I grew up at, Lakewood Theater in Madison, Maine, the summer season always ended with a rip-roaring farce, often a "sex farce", because they were almost a sure bet to pack the house.

In fact, I have acted in a number of them. 

So what is a farce?  Let's start with a definition, shall we?

FARCE:  A comedy with exaggerated physical characterizations, abundant physical humor, and, often, an improbable plot.  (source:  SPARKed)

Pretty siimple, really.  One thing to keep in mind, that is not mentioned in the definition, is that, while they talk about improbable plots, part of this improbability is the fact that more and more complications build throughout the play, often froma catalyst moment of a simple deception, forcing the characters to construct more and more elaborate deceptions in order to cover up the initial deception, until, finally, in the resolution, the truth is revealed and our heroes are generally left unpunished for their sins (it's not too funny if they're killed or jailed, let's be honest).  Along the way, as complications mount, there most likely will be mistaken identity (many examples include men having to dress up as women), slamming doors, close calls, a big chase scene, and, in a "sex farce", people running around in their underwear.  In short, it is a night of pure escapism for the audience, and, more than likely, a huge workout for the actors on stage (theater is a sport, after all).

If you trace back the roots of farce, you will find a little something in ancient Greece called Satyr Plays, based on Greek Mythology, which had a chorus of satyrs (half-men, half-goats, like Pan), and told stories with lots of bawdy humor, sight gags (including lots of phallic props), and drunken people (remember, theater began as a festival for Dionysus, the god of wine).  Satyr Plays were one of three types of plays in Ancient Greece, along with tragedy and comedy.  Most playwrights would enter three tragedies and one satyr play to the big festivals. 

Other "classical" farces may include The Comedy of Errors by William Shakespeare (or "Good Time Willie" as Queen Elizabeth I called him*), from 1592, Tartuffe by Moliere in 1664, and Russian gems like The Inspector General by Gogol (who, in my opinion, was a better short story writer than playwright, but that's just my opinion).

Don't be fooled by the light-hearted nature of farce--- they are hard work.  The playwrights who create them, the actors who perform them, and the directors who stage them, should have a very clear and precise notion of how to bring their vision to life.  There is a great deal of energy associated with farces, but it is an energy that should, and indded, must, be focused.  Audiences go to a farce to lose themselves in the delirium.  Don't cheat them by putting on a shoddy farce that hasn't been choreographed well (and I use the term "choreographed" very deliberately). 

For example, take a look at Noises Off (seriously, take a look at it--- it's a scream) by Michael Frayn, which is arguably the best and most successful farce of the contemporary theatre.  It is produced almost non-stop, and it deserves to be.  Michael Frayn created a farce-within-a-farce that involves a group of actors trying to put on a farce called Nothin On, and everything goes wrong.  The first act is an awful dress rehearsal, where we meet the actors and other key players, a learn a little bit about the storyline of the first act of Nothing On.  Act Two is a true delight--- written almost entirely in stage directions, Frayn takes us backstage of a rough performance of Nothing On, showing us a cast that is at odds with each other.  Because they are backstage, we only hear the voices of the actors who are onstage doing the play (who are now, of course, backstage in reality).  In this act, the complications rise to boiling point with a truly wonderful last line in the act.  In this act, it is ESSENTIAL that the stage directions are choreographed to a T, with impeccable timing.  Act Three is a performance where EVERYTHING goes wrong.  Seriously.  Noises Off succeeds because of Frayn's precision, his dialogue, and his ability to make these characters relatable and sympathetic, but still allows you to laugh at their hardships.  This is a tough balancing act, which is why Mr. Frayn deserves every cent of what I'm guessing are pretty big royalties for this play. 

I guess what I'm trying to say is that the words "Oh, that's good enough for a farce" should never be uttered by anyone undertaking the writing or the performing of one.  Farce is damned serious business.

Here are some other examples of popular farces from this day and age:

Run for Your Wife, Funny Money, Caught in the Net all by Ray Cooney, a premier British farce writer
Lend me a Tenor, Leading Ladies both by Ken Ludwig, a premier American farce writer
Rumors by Neil Simon (a murder mystery farce)

There are many others, of course.  I am, in fact, working on polishing a farce that I wrote as an experiment.  I hope that it turns out well.

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Thanks for stopping by.  Until next time, be well, remember that farce is damned serious business, and, of course, theater is a sport.

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