Stage backdrops exist in the same way Newton’s Laws exist. They establish which direction is up, and remind us two solid objects cannot occupy the same space. However, once we understand the basic framework, they’re relegated to the subconscious: for example, if a man unhooks his belt, his trousers will drop around his ankles, whether or not he’s cognizant of gravity. And a play’s scenery blends into background so much that other things are said to blend into it.
Gravity-wise, Noises Off resides mostly in the trouser dropping column. It’s a farce about very bad farce, wherein actors portray deeply flawed characters who happen to be bad actors portraying deeply flawed characters. It’s sixth-level drama geek. The snake eating itself. Ouroboros.
And so the star of the show arrives at intermission, when the scenery turns its back on the audience. Stage techs appear to rotate the entire backdrop, revealing plywood and prop tables, now facing outward. That scenery we’ve taken for granted is now hidden from view as the first act repeats itself.
But it’s never been so potent. With its back to us, the set conjures a mirror universe. From our perspective, the scenery now faces another auditorium at least as large as our own. In it sits an imagined audience much like ours. Except we know by instinct that other audience is a pale reflection, relatively dim-witted and unattractive, because it isn’t in on the joke the way we are. It doesn’t know we are here, experiencing a secret backstage life, hidden from their view.
We know how their play is meant to go, and recognize it as inferior to the action we are watching. Those audience members bought the tickets to the wrong show, and we pity them for it. When backstage characters in our play mock this imaginary audience as 70-somethings shambling towards death, our mostly white-haired crowd laughs at their expense.
That other audience may be imaginary, but we project our motives onto the imaginary people populating it, and get to laugh at them, free of self-deprecation. But mostly we empathize with them, as they sit back there waiting to be entertained. And that empathy makes them feel real — in a sense, more real than the actors on stage, because the phantom audience is the product of our own imaginations rather than scripted characters we passively observe for two hours.
When the scenery returns to face us for act three, that other world disappears. The imagined audience members have vacated their seats, and gone home or to coffee shops to discuss the play they just witnessed. Most likely paying little attention to the backset that created them.