Your fanciest shoe hits the pavement as you exit a taxi in front of the grand white columns of the Daryl Roth Theatre. After more than a year, indoor public gatherings are permitted in New York City again, and you’re about to spend 75 minutes in a room with up to 49 strangers.
Simon Stephen’s adaptation of the Portuguese novel Blindness — a play with no stage and no actors — is one of the first shows to open in Manhattan since the pandemic started. The folding chair that matches the seat number on your ticket sits in a windowless room, facing other masked audience members grouped in pairs.
Adapted from José Saramago’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 1995 novel, the audio-and-light play tells the metaphoric tale of an epidemic of blindness from the perspective of the sole woman who retains her sight. You can’t stop thinking about the parallels to our world today, yet the playwright and director are adamant that the timing is a coincidence. When fleeing London to a country cottage with his family as the COVID-19 lockdown started, director Walter Meierjohann brought along the Blindness script, begrudgingly. “You know what, I really don’t want to read this,” he said in an interview, recalling his thoughts at the time. “Because it’s now become a reality.”
Meierjohann said he has tried three times to bring this story to the stage within the last 20 years. He saw its relevance when “you think about September 11, to the financial crisis, to your president — your former president — and then also this [British] prime minister.” Eventually, he commissioned Stephens to write the play in 2016.
Stephens came up with a grand production featuring over 100 actors, but they decided to cut it down to a recorded monologue after a 2019 workshop. Then Meierjohann’s phone rang in May of 2020. London’s Donmar Warehouse was interested in staging a socially distanced production. The current off-Broadway show is nearly identical, with minor tweaks to the script.
Juliet Stevenson is the voice behind the monologue, which audience members hear in a darkened room enlivened by a custom light display. The seating is in sets of two, facing different directions, which Meierjohann considers “fundamental” to the community dynamic he and his creative team imagined. “You can create a partner in the person [across from you] who you don’t know, right? And immediately you start thinking about this other person or you think about the space, you think about community,” he said.
Lizzie Clachan, an acclaimed British theater designer, created the unique setup. “The glorious thing about this time in history,” Meierjohann said, “was that I could choose and pick the best, because no one was working.”
But still, a play with no actors? Ria Reddy, a Stanford University student who saw the show last month, was skeptical about a production with only audio to tell its story. However, she said, the sound quality made up for a lack of visual entertainment.
“It felt like there were people literally around us,” Reddy said. “You could see people in the theater would put their hand out because they thought there was actually a person there.” This is because the audio was recorded using a binomial head microphone, which has synthetic, human-like ears on each side. The microphone captures sound as a person hears it and can create a 3D effect; the sound not only comes from different locations around the listener but also can be layered — someone can be talking in front of you while something crashes to your left.
Working with the sophisticated microphone took some getting used to for Meierjohann. Similar to a visual director needing to storyboard every take before the camera rolls, Meierjohann was thinking about “how far away is [Stevenson] from the microphone, how will she move, how long that tape will be, how quiet it is compared to the next take.”
Not every New Yorker is ready to be back inside a theater, and the production team is well aware of this. When interviewed separately, the first thing both director and playwright inquired about was how safe the audience felt.
For those who prefer to remain outdoors, there are other options. Mimi Dunne, a New York City resident of 30 years, plans to see her first show since the pandemic at Tanglewood, an outdoor music festival in western Massachusetts. “People miss community, being physically together, and appreciating things,” Dunne said, adding that community is the heartbeat of Manhattan.
The theater industry is vital to New York City’s economy. According to the Broadway League, a trade association, the 2018-19 Broadway season contributed $14.7 billion to the city’s economy and supported 96,900 jobs. After theaters went dark in March 2020, thousands of artists struggled to survive.
Financial aspects aside, performers were unable to express themselves at a time when emotions overflowed. Emma Lerner, a student at Pace University pursuing a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Acting, noted that without having the space to perform, she isn’t able to fully process what is going on in the world. “I’m curious to see if once I go back to school, back to being able to do some kind of in-person creative art form, is it all going to just pour out?” she said. “All that stuff that’s been just sitting in there for a year?”
Lerner and the rest of New York will soon get the chance to find out. Governor Andrew Cuomo allowed the state’s arts, entertainment and events venues to reopen at 33 percent capacity on April 2nd, with up to 100 people indoors and 200 people outdoors. If all guests test negative for COVID-19 before admission, there can be 150 people indoors and 500 people outdoors.
Stephens, the Blindness playwright, said that it is hard to know what audiences will want to see right now. Instead of guessing, he expresses his preference for dark and difficult. “Theatre is an innately optimistic art form … it’s predicated on faith in other people,” he said. “It allows artists and audiences to lock into the darker corners of experience in order that they might find light out of it.”
Blindness ends with light, in a scene Stephens selected from the middle of the novel. Three women wash themselves in the rain, having recently found safety. The audience collectively sighed as Stevenson passionately spoke of the cleansing rain, the pitter-patter mixing with her voice. Lights gently graced the room, dampening the complete darkness. And then, as the rain continued, previously invisible curtains swept open, revealing Union Square behind them.
Glowing taxis and pedestrians glided by, unaware they were being watched by audience members who would soon exit through the doors that were just their window to the outside world. Something about this moment made the connection immediate: from a blindness epidemic to the Covid pandemic.
“We don’t want to create a happy-happy ending, not a Hollywood ending anyway,” Meierjohann explained. “It was more the idea of actually connecting the fiction to our reality.”