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Theater Science: Scents Memory- Evoking Emotions with Aromas

Jay Duckworth • April 2021Theater Science • April 1, 2021

This story can be read below or in our April 2021 digitial edition

The use of a smoker box and hickory wood chips give the scent of a backyard grill.

‘Would you do me a favor and smell this? I found it in the fridge, and I don’t want to throw it away if it’s still good. What is it? I think it’s kiwi skins I saved, or it’s old pudding!’
Maybe that’s a bit of an extreme example, but we humans are totally pulled in by smell. If it’s an old leather book, a damp locker room, right after a good rain, maybe even bread or cookies, smells and aromas will take us back to a time or place in our memories.



Sensory Information

When you see, hear, touch, or taste something the information that your body receives goes through processing then it is assigned to certain places in the brain. After it reaches that part of the brain, then we react. Like if you touch a hot stove or a pan, it takes a second for your body to react and drop the thing that is burning you. Smelling things is a lot different. Smells bypass everything and head right to the olfactory bulb. The olfactory bulb is directly connected to the amygdala—the place that triggers emotion—and the hippocampus where we form new memories and process learning and emotion. That is why smells hit us so hard and can vividly trigger a strong emotion or memory. Remember smelling an ex’s perfume or cologne after you both parted ways? Yeah, it’s like that.

So, if scents and smells are so strong at triggering deep emotional connections, why don’t we use them with what we do in theater? Funny enough… We’ve already been doing just that. AromaSys is a manufacturer, which since 1991, has been making Las Vegas casinos smell the way they do. They go into a location, evaluate what the customer’s experience is, look at the architectural style, the design of the place and make a custom scent for that location. In 2019 Disney published a patent for something they call ‘scent blending’ with the goal to provide a time varying scent in a scripted entertainment environment. So basically, they are pumping scents into the rides at different stages. Like a burning fire scent in the Pirates of the Caribbean ride.

Theater Scents

The Broadway musical Waitress (photo: Joan Marcus)

So why don’t we do that in theater? Some of us actually have already started. In 2016 Waitress in NYC at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre didn’t use fake scents, but they did cook real apple pies! According to Barry Weissler one of the show’s producers, they tried to use a canned spray or artificial spray, but it just didn’t smell right. So, they asked about a putting real oven on stage, well that got a big no. But they did put a convection oven in an entryway just outside of the doors near the orchestra seating. 20 minutes before the house opens, they put a premade uncooked apple pie in the oven and let it cook. Now the audience had the sense memory of apple pies! J & M Special Effects also has designed scents for shows. Like a jasmine scent for Katori Hall’s Our Lady of Kibeho at the Signature Theater and a horse-like smell for The Lord of the Rings.
When I was working at George Street Playhouse in New Brunswick NJ, we did Terrance McNally’s Lips Together Teeth Apart. If you don’t know the play, it’s about a pair of straight couples that go to Fire Island on the 4th of July. The second act opens with a BBQ on the deck next to the pool. [Yes, there is a pool in this show as well.] Instead of just sound from the BBQ, I wanted to add smoke and scent as well. So, I bought a smoker box for a gas grill and some hickory wood chips. Inside the grill we put a kitchen hot plate and ran an electric cord through one of the BBQ’s hollow legs. We had the Fire Marshal check out the whole setup and approve it. We soaked the wood chips in water and at the 5-minute call for Act 2 we cued the hot plate and by the time of lights up on the second act we had a small amount of smoke and the distinct smell of BBQ.
Who knows, maybe in the future there will be a Tony Award for Best Scent! I bet that would happen before they give a prop Tony Award anyway. I guess my attitude just… stinks! 

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