Who’s Afraid of the Dark?

by Michael S. Eddy

Odyssey Theatre Ensemble Artistic Director Ron Sossi rehearsing with actor Denise Blasor in night goggles
Odyssey Theatre Ensemble Artistic Director Ron Sossi rehearsing with actor Denise Blasor in night goggles
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 Vişniec; 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.”

 

Actors Ron Bottitta and Kristina Lloyd find their way on the wire navigation grid during rehearsal for Odyssey Theatre Ensemble’s Theatre in the Dark.
Actors Ron Bottitta and Kristina Lloyd find their way on the wire navigation grid during rehearsal for Odyssey Theatre Ensemble’s Theatre in the Dark.

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. “On the floor we created a very compact unit that consists of a red LED run off a battery and housed in black foam core. The LEDs face upstage so that only the actors can see them, not the audience. The seven LED markers each line up with one of the rope lines.”

 

Behm also added a strip of carpet to designate the end of the stage area from the audience section. The actors remain on stage throughout the shows and do not venture into the audience. “We thought that it would break the mood or startle the audience to have an actor in their midst,” says Sossi. “It’s much more mysterious when they are enveloped in the dark.”

Behm points out a few of the more unusual production values to help ensure safety of everyone in the theatre. “All of the stage crew and the stage manager are equipped with night vision goggles so they can function in the dark,” explains Behm. “We rented them from another theatre company. We’re also using the goggles for the house staff who are positioned two on each exit—to watch the audience for any issues or emergencies.” To prevent any glow from monitors in the control booth, the windows were completely blacked out. Behm added an infrared camera system as well as a monitor mic so the stage manager and lighting/sound operator can monitor the stage.

To accommodate the extensive sound design, Behm brought in extra equipment and added more speakers around the theatre to create surround sound to support sound designer John Zalewski. “This production is a bit of an adventure; the lights go out and we tell stories,” says Zalewski. “I was able to create an eight-channel sound system. I needed to rig for what I thought we would need since a lot of this was coming together through development rehearsals.” Zalewski is running Ableton Live from a computer for control. “I like it because it’s very flexible and fast enough to program. I am putting mic feeds into the system for some processing. I’ve also given Ron and the directors my opinions on what would work best for sound-making props. There are a lot of sound effects throughout; some pieces are heavier on effects, some are just props, and some are primarily based on the actors voices with very few effects.” Zalewski notes that one of the challenges for his audio design was removing the visual input he got from the actors. “I am a sound designer who’s very visually oriented; I normally see the actors and play off what’s going on, what they’re doing. It’s also a new situation as well; it’s the first time that I am working with Ron, but I think that it’s come together quite well.”

Light in the Dark

When it comes to lighting an evening of pieces that are all in the dark, you would initially think that this has to be the easiest show ever for a lighting designer, but that wasn’t the case. “There actually are a lot of challenges that I need to deal with in terms of lighting,” comments lighting designer Kathi O’Donohue. “There are a lot of small lighting touches and moments used to highlight a scene or give it some punctuation. I need to have a firelight glow that creates silhouettes of the actors around the fire; or the glow of snow from a TV set or a car radio; one director wanted fireflies. I need to do these things without wires or cables because that could easily become a tripping hazard.”

O’Donohue’s solution is to use battery power for her lighting effects, including battery operated LED votive candles which the actors can control. Wireless DMX control was considered but is pretty much out of range for the lighting budget on this production. Also O’Donohue states, “It’s very hard to control the lighting from the booth when the operator can only use an infrared monitor, plus you can’t make sure the actors hit the same mark in the dark for a tightly controlled beam of a pinspot.” She continues, “It’s also surprising when you’ve been in the dark for so long how bright a simple little LED votive can be. It was interesting when working with the ensemble during the discovery process, working through what everyone wanted in terms of lighting. It’s like the blind men and the elephant; they all described the different parts of the elephant very differently based on their close observation of it.”

Sossi, who has worked a lot with O’Donohue on previous productions, wanted the lighting to be very controlled since the actors are not in costume but rather street clothes. “We are using light in a very restrained way, they are just small moments,” Sossi says. The show starts in the light as they explain the evening to the audience. Then the lights go out and the performance begins. Sossi concludes, “I have heard from some people who say that they are afraid of the dark, but I suggest looking at it a little like a funhouse ride; there’s a certain thrill of the unknown. We want our audiences to take this ride with us and experience something new.”