News Column

'Noises Off' director shows her versatility

November 15, 2013


Nov. 15--KJ Sanchez, who directed "The Diary of Anne Frank" last season, has returned to the Milwaukee Repertory Theater to work with a veteran cast on Michael Frayn's farce "Noises Off," which opens Friday. Could the sober "Anne Frank" story and frantically comic "Noises Off" have anything in common?

"The chemistry of the company has to be excellent," Sanchez said. "The director needs to nurture that chemistry.

"Both of (the productions) have to be built very, very carefully and precisely."

Calling Sanchez versatile might be understating the range of her work. In addition to a busy guest-directing career, she also writes plays through her company American Records, which takes a documentary-theater approach to contemporary issues. And she's a regular guest voice on a popular animated children's show (but we'll unpack that backpack later).

Earlier this year, when he announced this season's shows, Rep artistic director Mark Clements called "Noises Off" "the daddy of all farces." It was first staged in 1982, but Frayn has tweaked it a number of times since.

In "Noises Off," a theater company performs, or tries to perform, a sexy farce called "Nothing On," but their efforts are hilariously derailed by their own frailties and miscommunication. Lloyd, the touchy director, is in a love triangle with assistant stage manager Poppy and young actress Brooke. Elderly thespian Selsdon has to be kept away from the whiskey. And so on.

The three acts of "Noises Off" display the actors performing, or wrecking, the same act of "Nothing On" three times: in a dress rehearsal, a matinee performance and an evening performance near the end of the run. Just for kicks, the second-act matinee performance is seen entirely from a backstage point of view.

Timing is critical to making "Noises Off" work. "I'm at times just focused on what door opens and closes at the right time," Sanchez said. But she also noted that "with farce the danger is that there is an exhaustion." The way to keep the audience from becoming exhausted, she said, is to make them care about the people.

The Rep actors are portraying the "Noises Off" actors as people who are good at their jobs, and are performing "Nothing On," the play within the play, as something that might have been good "if only everyone was actually focused on the play rather than the trysts that (are) happening (backstage)," she said.

Sanchez takes a special interest in Lloyd, the director character in "Noises Off," and confesses that Joe Dempsey, the actor playing Lloyd, is taking a beating in rehearsal because of it. "Poor Joe Dempsey," she said. "I am on him every day. He says one line, and I'm like, 'No, no, you gotta deliver that more positive, because Dotty is actually the money behind the production, so every time you give Dotty a note, you have to be positive.'"

"Every once in a while, I am also giving away (a) director's dirty secrets," she said, laughing.

Sanchez's signature work as leader of American Records is "ReEntry," a documentary play written with Emily Ackerman, based on interviews with Marines who have returned from Iraq and Afghanistan. While it has been produced at multiple theaters around the country, Sanchez is pleased that it also has been staged at military bases and hospitals, and used in post-deployment training.

American Records is now working on "The American Football Project," based on interviews with football players and family members about concussions and brain injury.

Since 2000, her voice has been heard on the popular children's TV show "Dora the Explorer" and its cousin, "Go, Diego! Go."

"I do a lot of the mommy characters," Sanchez said. Indeed, her credits include Mami Bugga Bugga, Mami Duck, Tico's Mami, Mama Jaguar and Mommy Sloth.


--What: Milwaukee Repertory Theater's "Noises Off"

--When: Friday through Dec. 22 (previews, Tuesday through Thursday)

--Where: Quadracci Powerhouse Theater, 108 E. Wells St.

--Tickets: $20-$70, subject to change. Call (414) 224-9490 or visit


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