How Daryl Roth made the New York Theater comeback

Photo credit: Helen Maybanks

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“It’s safer to go to my theater than to a restaurant,” says Daryl Roth, the prolific theater producer, over a zoom to talk about her – and that of the New York theater community – first in more than a year Immerse yourself in live experiences of dark stadiums.

Opening at the Daryl Roth Theater on April 2, Blindness is less a preliminary look back at live shows than a mindless dive that takes the audience on a harrowing, economical 75-minute journey with no live actors but a long one List of health hijacked protocols prescribed by City Hall, Albany, and Roth themselves.

Photo credit: Helen Maybanks

The play is based on the 1995 novel of the same name by José Saramago, which was adapted by Simon Stephens (Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night, Dyke), directed by Walter Meijerjohann and narrated by the inimitable Juliet Stevenson. Blindness was produced and staged by Donmar Warehouse in London last August and brought to New York by Roth. “We put it together, rehearsed it and recorded it in a total of seven days. It was one of the most exciting weeks of my life, ”recalls Stevenson.

The story follows a group of humble townspeople affected by a mysterious and contagious blindness that ultimately ravages the country and destroys civilized society. The bulk of the action takes place in an abandoned mental hospital and abandoned city, making the story of illness and desolation an apt reflection of last year’s quarantine panic. In a brilliant and pandemic-friendly twist, however, the story is told entirely through the recorded voice of Stevenson, played through individual headphones worn by each audience – meaning there are no actors and minimal crew. For most of the show, the theater lights are pitch black as Stevenson’s voice eerily circles you thanks to binaural recording technology that mimics a 360-degree soundscape and approximates the experience of sudden, bewildering blindness.

Image Credit: Courtesy

Originally slated to open in New York in October 2020, the rise in Covid postponed the opening after the summer. Until restaurants and “Flex Spaces”, which the Roth Theater technically considered, were allowed to partially reopen this month.

The story goes on

“We bet this can happen, we didn’t know exactly when, but we ordered the chairs, the headphones, we prepared everything that needed to be done in advance so we were ready to give the green light.” Says Roth. The spectators sit in two-part capsules arranged in a socially distant pattern throughout the room, with entrances and exits at different points in the building, reducing the need for collecting and grinding.

Roth worked closely with New York City Hall and the Albany state government to get permission to open it. He installed a new air filter system and made sure that all surfaces between the performances and the UV-disinfected headphones were wiped, paper playbill and mandatory temperature checks on arrival, as well as a health questionnaire to be filled out by each ticket holder. “I’ve been calling them the four questions since it was Passover,” she says with a laugh.

Blindness is the first personal indoor theatrical performance to open in New York since last March, so all eyes are on it, so to speak. “I feel a great responsibility,” says Roth, “apart from the fact that I’m a Jewish mother and of course I’m worried about everything.”

There is no question that the full list of minutes will reassure viewers, although the play itself serves to clarify questions about who we are in the face of the crisis and who to look for when we are afraid. “It has a kind of Shakespeare or Brecht feel to it. It’s an epic theater that thinks big, which I love, ”says Stevenson. Her narrative is comforting and eerie at the same time in its subtle escalation as the madness takes over the world of the play. What one is willing to sacrifice or commit in a crisis in order to get to the other side that inevitably awaits us is a central question of blindness that many have encountered in the past year.

As the theater doors open at the end, a glimpse of Union Square spreads before the audience, reminding them of the relative peace and innocence of the real world after the troubling hour they just had. “It’s like waking up from the nightmare,” says Roth, “and there is life.”

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