Tips for Directing a Farce- Fast, Clear, Clean, and Articulate Equals Funny

The Guthrie production of Arsenic and Old Lace offered plenty of opportunity for comedy.
The Guthrie production of Arsenic and Old Lace offered plenty of opportunity for comedy.
The Guthrie production of Arsenic and Old Lace offered plenty of opportunity for comedy.

It’s interesting but farces, which should be hilarious, are often deadly on stage, and often it’s not the fault of the playwright. In fact, most audiences have witnessed some very fine farces given very poor productions, making them dull, slow, and not very funny at all. What’s the trick in doing a farce and where do many directors fall short? In essence it has to do with the timing, but within that word “timing” are a multitude of elements.

Doors

Meyerhold's production of Gogol's The Inspector General was all doors.
Meyerhold’s production of Gogol’s The Inspector General was all doors.

Much of the comedy in any farce revolves around someone entering, while another is exiting, and one person just missing the next or just catching the next person. It is impossible to stage a farce without at least three doors, and, preferably, you want more and you want to use every one of them. Also, the doors need to be sturdy. They have to be able to be slammed. People are running off and on, and there should be a lot of energy in those characters, so doors slamming are standard.

Obstacles

Tartuffe with plenty of exits and entrances and obstacles.
Tartuffe with plenty of exits and entrances and obstacles.

Physical obstacles, such as long stairways, furniture, and large props, are all necessary. These are not arbitrary items. They should certainly make sense in terms of the script and the setting. Often they will be called for in the play and fully described. The point is it’s important to pay attention to the physical composition of the space in any play, but in a farce it’s exceptionally essential. The thing about obstacles is they get in the way of characters who really need to try to do things very quickly and that can create great opportunities to develop and hone great physical comedy.

Physical Comedy

Physical comedy has to be timed perfectly.
Physical comedy has to be timed perfectly.

A farce is dependent on physical comedy. A good 50% of the laughs in most farces come from something associated with a physical action on stage. It might be the manner in which an exit or entrance occurs, the way in which something is given or taken from someone, or the manner in which someone interacts with another person physically. As a director, you have to ready to explore all of the possibilities of physical comedy when directing this type of play.

Lines

Comic lines are not funny if they are not articulated properly and if the rhythms are misunderstood or ignored. Also, within lines, operative words become very important in terms of setting up jokes, creating comic situations, and supporting funny bits. Additionally, slow line pickups between actors can be deadly, especially when dialogue is supposed to overlap. It all needs to make sense, every word, and everyone needs to know their lines inside out.

Desperation is Key

Actors have to play characters that are committed.
Actors have to play characters that are committed.

Characters in a farce are exceedingly funny to audiences when they are in a state of desperation. Yes, this is a comedy, but only for the audience. Thus, the characters on stage have to be motivated in a very strong manner. They don’t sort of want something, they really need what they want or desire or their entire life will be ruined. It’s the desperation that, in part, creates the energy that, in part, creates the comedy. No lethargy allowed in farce. Actors need to push their objectives constantly.

Making It All Click

Finally, it really is all in the timing. And with a well written farce the timing must be impeccable. That means rehearsing the same 30-second piece of business, or two- minute French scene, or five-person dialogue exchange over and over until it is seamless. In doing so, you’ve honed and crafted one part of what will be a continuous evening of nonstop comedy. In the end, farce is really that basic- it must be cleanly and clearly articulated comedy with one moment flowing effortlessly into the next as the stakes are raised and characters become more and more desperate. If you can create an evening in the theatre like that, you’ve directed a farce successfully in which “timing” is everything.

  • This Author:

    Paul Mroczka

    Paul Mroczka has served Theatre By the Sea as associate director and playwright-in-residence. He has directed for companies including North Country Center for the Arts, Pontine Movement Theatre, The Theatre of Newburyport and the Palace Theatre. A former National Endowment for the Arts fellow in playwriting, he has also garnered a Shubert Fellowship, the Jason Miller Award and has received grants from the New Hampshire Council for the Humanities. His plays have been performed at New York’s La MaMa La Galleria, Nat Horne Theatre, and Manhattan Punchline Theatre, among others. His interactive planetarium show, Pathfinders, is running at the Christa McAuliffe Planetarium in Concord, NH. Recent directorial assignments include Good People, Steel Magnolias, and The Complete World of Sports (Abridged) at The Barnstormers Playhouse in New Hampshire, and Rumors, Orpheus in the Underworld, and The Glass Menagerie at PSU. This summer Paul finished an initial draft of his new play, Smart Money ... Read Full
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