A Door Opens to Off Broadway: Blindness
By: Ellis Nassour
April 16, 2021: The acclaimed Donmar Warehouse production of Blindness, adapted from Nobel Prize-winning José Saramago’s dystopian novel by Tony winner Simon Stephens (The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time), has opened at the Daryl Roth Theatre (101 East 15th Street at Union Square East). The production is the first to cut the ribbon of the commercial return of much-missed performing arts.
The director is Walter Meierjohann, the Netherlands native who was international associate director at London’s Young Vic. Lead producer is Tony-winning producer Daryl Roth.
The unique production, a socially-distanced sound and light experience, is actorless. It’s described as “spellbinding storytelling narrated by Olivier Award winner Juliet Stevenson, who in the most hypnotic voice unveils the gripping story of a world changed forever in the blink of an eye reminding us that from the darkness, we will all emerge stronger.”
It delivers “an urgent and timely message” that unfolds through binaural headphones using a Neumann KU100 dummy head containing two microphones, immersive lighting, and atmospheric design.
As in London, brothers Ben and Max Ringham are the sound designers. When they joined the Donmar team, they had no idea what would come of it, but it all came together extremely fast. “The form and the content and the current pandemic all aligned in quite a beautiful way,” says Max. “It was one of the most extreme things we’ve been through in our 25-year career. It felt like we were the family in The Shining, in the midst of Theatreland, but that made us incredibly tight as a company. As we listened, we felt fully immersed in the duality of the pandemic in our ears and the pandemic around us. It was quite incredible.”
In New York, joining Roth (Returning: Company revival, How I Learned to Drive revival; Tina, Jagged Little Pill, Angels in America revival), as Blindness producers are Elizabeth Armstrong, Jane Bergére, Tom Tuft, No Guarantees, and Gabrielle Palitz/Jack Lane. The creative team includes design by Lizzie Clachan and lighting design by Jessica Hung Han Yun Markus Potter is U.S. associate director.
Attendance is mandated at 86 attendees per showing (33% of the DR’s total space) with showing spaced throughout the day to allow ample time for venue sanitization.
Blindness runs approximately 70 minutes with no intermission, and is recommended for ages 15+. There’re two shows (3 P.M. and 7). The theatre opens 10 minutes prior to showings to avoid queuing. Audience members enter one entrance and exit through another, creating a one-way traffic flow. The new enhanced building ventilation technologies bring more outdoor air and disinfect re-circulated air.
Tickets, sold in advance and only online or by phone (212-269-6200), are $48 and sold in pairs at the comparable price of a single Off-Broadway ticket. To purchase, visit www.BlindnessEvent.com, where you’ll find performance schedules, or Telecharge.com (phone 212-239-6200). Seating pods are six feet apart. In addition to the two-person “social bubble” seating, there’re single pods. The price includes $2 facility and $3 Covid fees; in addition, there’s an $8.50 service charge and per-order handling fee. ADA seating is available for persons with disabilities. Follow Blindness on Twitter and Instagram.
Further Safety Protocols
House staff has completed COVID compliance training. Audiences and staff are required to complete a health questionnaire and have their temperature taken upon arrival; and are required to wear masks at all times inside the theatre. Headphones are individually sanitized between showings.
Contact tracing is in effect through the information provided by the purchase of tickets.
A Conversation with Lead Producer Daryl Roth
Produce Daryl Roth discovered Blindness by reading a review of the Donmar production. “I thought it would be an amazing piece I could do safely in my theatre on Park Avenue South and 15th Street. It’s an open, flexible space that can be refigured in interesting ways. I spoke with Donmar and they were interested in having a New York production. We started putting it together, not knowing when we’d be able to do it.”
In quite a leap of faith, the team got the theatre ready, purchasing cleaning supplies to be used throughout each day, and putting safety protocols in place — air filtration system, and getting lights, seating, head phones. Many months later, when the Governor to give the green light, we were ready.”
She informs you need a lot of lead time to market and promote a show, and it takes six weeks to get ticket sales ready. “Things are so different now that we opted for news items and did most of our marketing on social media. Word-of-mouth has caused such much interest that we plan to add a 5 P.M. show in two weeks. With the progress made in vacations, she’s observed a stronger comfort level about going out. This shows that people are anxious to get back to theater again, and have a communal experience, which is what theater ideally is.
“We’re honored to have the opportunity to kick open our doors and to invite theatergoers into a welcoming and safe space,” she adds. “I felt a huge responsibility to have Blindness take place in the safest way possible. Temperatures are taken and there’s socially-distance seating. Blindness is the essence of storytelling. However, I don’t want people to be mislead. It’s not theater as we know it. There are periods of darkness, and the lighting and sound are intense, so it might not be the right event for everyone.”
The story: As the lights change at a major crossroads in a city, a car grinds to a halt. Suddenly, without warning or cause, its driver goes blind. Within hours, it is clear that this blindness is like no other—it is an infectious epidemic, spreading like wildfire. The government tries to quarantine the contagion by herding the newly blind people into an empty asylum, but their attempts are futile. The city is in panic.
Roth admits, “The story is unsettling. I’ll quote from one review: ‘It’s brilliantly terrifying!’ I would agree, but by the end it’s also cathartic. You feel hope and joy.”
It was certainly worth the risk. “Everything comes at the right time,” she points out. “If we were looking for the perfect property for right now, we certainly found it.”