“If it weren’t for me, you’d be acting in the dark,” Amanda Levie said during a debate about the merits of lighting design with a colleague. She was a theatre student at Kean University with a concentration in lighting design when the idea for No Peeking Theatre emerged.
“When I talked to people about the concept of a blindfolded theatre experience, most of them laughed. They made fun of it. But when I created a sample experience, everyone was blown away.”
And as soon as Levie graduated, she brought the idea from assignment to actuality with the first No Peeking show, Shapeshifter (2015). Typical theatre jobs, including the lighting designer role (which Levie herself typically vies for) were cut and new ones emerged. Costume and set teams were replaced by smell and sound engineers.
“I want theatre to be more accessible, financially,” says Levie, “I want everyone to be able to produce theatre, for any reason. When I proposed the original budget, I realized that the highest paying and most labor-intensive jobs would no longer be necessary. Sets and costumes are expensive!”
So what can audiences expect? “A blind theatre experience is nothing like a typical theatre experience,” explains Levie. In brief, the underutilized senses take the lead. Audience members wear blindfolds throughout the performance and are immersed in smells, sounds, touch as a way to engage with the show.
“Smell is the strongest sense connected to memory,” Levie explains. “We create smells by diffusing fragrances into and out of the room. Distribution of smells come from a variety of different things. In the Shapeshifter, the setting was in the ocean, so we had seaweed in a humidifier. Stagehands moved fish around the room. We also use things like parrafin wax, oils, candles… At one point we boiled already brewed coffee.”
Sound is curated with the same attention to detail. For starters, Levie refers to the sound engineer as a soundscaper. “The job is different in the blind theatre experience. Sound effects are grabbed off the internet, created by instruments or even by experimenting in recording. We have prerecorded actors, there are music clips… We’re adding moves and underscores. It’s not a set up and level check sound engineer. It’s prewritten, mixed and finalized. It’s a finished product by the time the show starts.”
As far as the touch aspect of the experience goes, Levie says she “doesn’t like giving audience members jobs. They’re blindfolded, but completely stationary. They won’t be creeped out or grossed out. In one example, there was a reference to time passing, and leaves falling, so we had lightweight paper falling on the audience to represent leaves. Or if it gets misty or humid, those are things that can be felt by the audience. We’re touching people with objects – a slight brush or touch.”
Ultimately, Levie says that No Peeking’s goal is to be “theatrical rather than theatre. It’s not always a story with a beginning middle end, protagonist, and antagonist…” She’s trying to bring No Peeking into all forms of live art. While The Shapeshifter was an actual play, No Peeking’s second production, Hindsight, was more like a poetry reading. Levie wants to apply the blind theatre method to all live art as opposed to creating a new medium.
As No Peeking grows, Levie looks forward to catering to blind audiences by creating more and more sophisticated designs. She sees No Peeking as a way to create an experience that everyone can have, whether or not their sight is impaired. She even imagines taking No Peeking on the road.
For now, however, Jersey City is welcoming the new and exciting way of experiencing the theatre. Since the shows are intimate, (the largest audience No Peeking has presented to was comprised of just 31 people), tickets tend to sell out pretty quickly. No Peeking’s third show, The V. Lucas Cycle, is running June 16 – 18 at Art House Productions and can be purchased online.