It's the kind of what-if that gives lighting designers the night sweats: What if the artistic director at one of L.A.'s premier stages got it into his head to produce theater without any lights at all? What would that experience be like? Would audiences respond? Would they even notice?
Such questions may be settled over the next several months as the Odyssey Theatre embarks on a pioneering experiment in production design it is calling Theatre in the Dark.
And when Artistic Director Ron Sossi says “dark,” he means just that. The title has caused more than its share of misunderstanding.
“I had a playwright, John Pielmeier, write to me from the Midwest,” Sossi says. “He wrote me, 'Oh, Ron, I'm living here now and I have this really dark piece you would love for this evening.' And I said, 'No, no — it's really in the dark.' 'You mean the stage is in the dark?' 'Yes.' 'And the audience is in the dark?' 'Yes.' 'It's all in the dark!?'”
So, yes, the two-evening program of 90-minute collections of short pieces will be “seen” in the absolute and blackest of darkness. “There are a couple, maybe three places each night where there's just a flicker of light,” Sossi concedes. “Maybe somebody lights a match, or there's one part where you see just the little bit of a lit car radio with two people sitting in a car. Just here and there, little tiny pieces. But [otherwise it's] 99 percent in the dark. Totally in the dark.”
The L.A. scene isn't exactly a stranger to dark theater experiment. The most notable local practitioner has been NoHo's Zombie Joe's Underground. Their hit calling-card production of horror vignettes, Urban Death, is based on the absolute blackout. But where ZJU employs it as dramatic contrast to shock lighting effects, Odyssey audiences will be spending entire evenings with little to no benefit of visual stimulation.
The idea behind the shows, of course, is to exploit the stage's capacity to appeal to the other four senses. According to Sossi, the concept is borrowed from a legendary 1998 summer season at London's Battersea Arts Centre, conceived by director Tom Morris (who more recently brought us War Horse), called Playing in the Dark. In addition to critical praise, that show's mix of guest collaborations brought together the artists that would go on to found London's highly acclaimed, sensual-immersion theater devisers, Sound & Fury.
Though the Odyssey is importing the idea and Morris himself has advised the theater on Battersea's staging techniques, Sossi considers his production a different show entirely. “We're not using any of the same plays,” Sossi explains. Rather, the Odyssey version will take the form of a two-evening festival — dubbed “Dark” and “More Dark” — consisting of a mix of commissioned playlets, adaptations from classical literature and what Sossi calls his “experiments” devised with the 12-member company — “Things that would be interesting to do in a dark theater with live bodies sitting there.”
Sossi says one of the biggest challenges has been simply engineering a way for the actors to safely find their marks without aid of luminous glow tape. “We tried working with infrared goggles that we borrowed from the Taper,” he says, “but it isn't really quite working out, because the goggles almost have a telephoto lens. You don't get an expanse; you just see something very narrow.” The answer turned out to be a grid system of ropes that have been stretched across the stage just above the actors' heads that they can hand-hold to feel their way to their marks. That and a few strategically-placed LEDs that the audience won't be able see.
The infrared system turned out to be a solution to a slightly different wrinkle — audience comfort and safety. “The whole audience will be lit by infrared light, which they won't see,” Sossi explains, “and there'll be ushers standing at either of the exits wearing goggles. And if somebody has a problem — the audience will be instructed at the beginning — if they have a problem, just wave your program, somebody will come and get you.”
The novelty of the shows has hardly been a deterrent to recruiting either actors or writers. For the British actor Marcia Battise, the concept offered the opportunity to deepen an actor's most fundamental and critical skill. “I look at it as an exercise in listening,” she says. “Because, scene-wise, [instead of] visually getting your gestures and your body movements and stuff [from the other actors], all of that is gone. We have to rely on what we hear coming out of the other person's mouth.”
The most intriguing recruit to the project may be veteran L.A. playwright Lynn Manning. At the age of 23, the future stage writer got into a bar fight that left him permanently blinded after his vanquished adversary returned with a gun and shot him through both optic nerves. In that sense, Manning has always approached theater from the dark, and the appeal of the Odyssey show was the chance to work specifically with dramatic soundscapes.
“I always have three dimensions in mind,” Manning explains. “I imagine from a particular viewpoint and how people are moving and all of that. And when I sat down to create something for this, I wrote and described the sound … it was all about sound and sound moving in the space, as opposed to people moving in the space..”
And though the resulting short play, called “The Outpatient,” didn't quite get the immersive intermingling of actors and audience that Manning wanted (the theater's fixed seating proved too hazardous), sound has proved crucial in creating the harrowing disorientation he was after for his tale about a temporarily blinded man stranded amid the aural chaos of the city.
For the playwright Sheila Callaghan, writing for the dark seemed like a natural and exciting extension of the sense exercise she conducts at the beginning of every new play she starts. “I always write an opening monologue in total blackness,” she says, “because I love the experience of disorientation.” The real clincher to Callaghan's participation, however, was the prospect of a close collaboration with her friend, the sound designer John Zalewski.
Callaghan explains that “Beeps,” the short play she eventually contributed to the show, began in talks with the designer. “I was so excited,” she says. “Basically, I asked him what he was interested in exploring, or if he thought there was a realm that he would be especially good at or if there was a sound going through his head that he thought would be appropriate.” Zalewski shared his nightmare of waking up on the operating table in mid-surgery and what that might sound like. “So that got me thinking,” Callaghan continues, “[about] cancer, hospital, politics, work talk — that kind of thing. About the idea of somebody being incapacitated and just absorbing his environment.”
If there's a common denominator to all the dark pieces, it is Zalewski, the show's sole production designer. In fact, one might be tempted to call Theater in the Dark an all-Zalewski show — that is unless you're speaking with Zalewski himself. “It's really Ron Sossi's show,” the modest designer demurs. “He's putting all this together. … And, yes, I'm the common denominator for most of this, though there are several pieces where I just step back [and where the actors themselves create the sound effects]. But Ron actually has all of this covered.” Zalewski's attraction to the show — his first at the Odyssey — actually has more to do more with the theater's brand new toy, an 8-channel surround system that Zalewski is using to heighten show's spatial dimensionality. “It's very fun,” he adds. “Ron has given [it to] me and I get to play with it.”
With any luck, that fun should translate to the audience. For his part, Sossi is only promising something very different from and sensually more “amazing” than your usual kitchen sink drama. Or as he puts it, “[I'm] urging people not to come see the play, [rather] come hear the play.”