Who's Afraid of the Dark?

By Eddy, Michael S. | Stage Directions, November 2012 | Go to article overview
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Who's Afraid of the Dark?

Eddy, Michael S., Stage Directions

No light doesn't mean no design in Odyssey Theatre Ensemble's presentation of Theatre in the Dark

The Los Angeles, Cailf .-based Odyssey Theatre Ensemble, never a company to shy away from a challenge in its four decades of well-received work, is offering audiences a true sensory experience with their premiere of Theatre in the Dark. The production is a collection of pieces that are presented almost exclusively in the dark. The audience is in the dark, the actors are in the dark - in fact, the entire 90-minute production will be done in a completely blacked out theatre with the exception of a few small lighting cues to punctuate or underscore a scene. The complete show experience consists of two separate evenings, Dark, which opened on October 20, and More Dark, which opens on November 3. They will run in repertory through December 16 at the West Los Angeles Odyssey Theatre.

The two-evening program has 12 actors, nine directors, and a combination of playwrights and authors. Each evening consists of 12-15 short pieces in a 90-minute production with no intermission, so the audience would not need to re-acclimate to the dark. There are selections, adapted for the dark, from previously published work by Friedrich Dürrenmatt, Edgar Allen Poe, Danny Robins and Dan Tetsell, William Shakespeare and Matei Vi§niec; along with new, ensemble-devised pieces developed as part of the rehearsal process. The ensemble sourced materials from three sources - plays, traditional literature and commissioned writers. There is one piece by a blind playwright who wrote about the experience of losing his sight and, when coming out of the hospital, his terror at all of the sounds of traffic and people around him that he can no longer see.

Grid, No Lighting

Producing an evening of theatre in the dark isn't new but it is rare, especially in the United States. Odyssey's artistic director, Ron Sossi, comments that this has been done in the UK very successfully. "This idea had been done a few years ago at the Battersea Art Centre as a part of the London Fringe Festival and their audiences ate it up," he says. "They even produced a whole season in the dark. Though we are doing different plays and material from what they presented, we did speak with them about how it worked for them and they gave us some technical advice along with things to consider."

Some may liken this production to radio plays, but as Sossi points out, "With radio, we sit in the light while we listen. What will it be like to sit in the dark, together with the actors and 98 other audience members? It's a fascinating experiment for everyone involved. How do we create theatre without our eyes, using only imagination?" The ensemble is playing with voices, music and sounds as well as changing the spatial and aural perspectives in shaping the works. They have found that a piece like Poe's The Tell-Tale Heart plays one way when done in the light, but in the dark it's more intimate and makes the audience much more apprehensive.

As the materials were developed, the production team started to work on the mechanics of moving around the space, and while there is no traditional set, the actors do need to navigate the stage. They also needed to learn to deal with props and live sound effects while in the dark. Technical director Joe Behm worked closely with set designer Simon Schabert on how to deal with safe and efficient actor movement. "Simon and I worked out a system with a rope grid that the actors could use in rehearsal," explains Behm. "We were then going to create a much more elaborate structure for the production, but the rope method has proven to be practical for the show itself."

The rope grid mounts at six feet off the deck; one inch higher than the tallest actor, yet within easy reach for shorter actors to still use. The flat-floor playing space is 24 feet deep and 38 feet wide. "We have a system of three ropes that go wall to wall from left to right and seven that run upstage to downstage," Behm comments.

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