On Monday afternoon, theater critics in and around New York City received something they hadn’t seen in more than a year: an invitation to a personal indoor performance at an Off Broadway home. “Blindness”, Simon Stephens’ adaptation of the novel by José Saramago, directed by Walter Meierjohann and recorded by Juliet Stevenson, opens on April 6 at the Daryl Roth Theater.
The production, which was played in London in August, does not include live actors, but does invite live, masked, temperature-controlled viewers to participate in groups of two. And if you’re a theater buff who is still waiting for a vaccine, it also leads to conflicting emotions – excitement, indecision, eagerness, fear – as there is risk in any social interaction. Is the theater worth it (and especially a show without an actor)? Two New York Times reviewers took to Twitter and then email and a Google Doc to try to clear it up.
LAURA COLLINS-HUGHES Alexis, when you saw the invitation, what was on your mind?
ALEXIS SOLOSKI Basically panic. I had heard about the show and am breathlessly (wrong word, I know) excited for the return of personal theater, but not being vaccinated for months and not feeling ready to do this morally / professionally / hygienic calculus. You?
COLLINS-HUGHES When I think of going back to indoor theater there are things that scare me and make me feel safe. I fear anything that has to do with poor air quality, or people who eat and drink, or people who sing or play wind instruments, or otherwise breathe heavily, such as dancing. “Blindness” has none of them. And when I think of the Daryl Roth Theater, I think of how airy it is. This is huge for me.
SOLOSKI I’m mainly thinking of “De La Guarda,” the long-running show that put it on, a big, sweaty upskirt take. But up to your point, “blindness” does not include human actors. Why should I want to take on the associated risks of the subway and lobby, as well as other customers’ masking habits, for something that doesn’t even offer the energetic flow between performer and audience?
COLLINS-HUGHES Good argument. I am also not vaccinated yet and have no idea when I will be. For me, taking minimal risk means partly collecting, partly making theater design a huge draw for me – and designers have been left out of a lot of online work. But I sensed when you brought up the topic on Twitter and we started chatting (and it took our editor every three minutes to step in, suggesting that we are having this conversation instead) that you are not yet felt comfortable.
SOLOSKI I was not alone Many of our colleagues also expressed mixed feelings, although some had already replied. And a London friend said he had seen it at the Donmar Warehouse and found the security protocols impressive. But when I read this invitation, I felt sick. Which was a big surprise. Because I thought I was dying to go. I dream of the theater most nights. And while this is likely to sound unbearable, I actively mourn it. I also miss the me who went to the theater, put on hard pants and lipstick (remember lipstick?) And left my home as a functional adult doing professional things in the company of other seemingly functional adults. I miss that almost as much as I miss the transportation the theater provides. But no, I am not feeling well. And then I feel like a wimp for feeling this discomfort.
COLLINS-HUGHES A valuable lesson that we learned right away a year ago is that it can be very brave to follow your gut and not do what is reflexive – like going to the theater, like keeping a show going – when it doesn’t feel safe. Theater doesn’t work when the audience or the artists sit there and have to worry about something other than the show.
SOLOSKI Yes, but does it work when you’re at home with kids screaming and the temptation to check your phone or fold laundry is just overwhelming?
March 19, 2021, 12:49 p.m. ET
COLLINS-HUGHES Wait, I thought you got into the online stuff?
SOLOSKI I did. I do. Especially when there is a participatory or play element. I am very competitive! But not if it doesn’t feel alive. Will something like “blindness” where you hear a recorded voice through headphones still feel live?
COLLINS-HUGHES I’m just starving for the personal element, even when there are no personal actors. The way I think about the safety of indoor theater is that it has to have what makes outdoor theater relatively safe: people in masks (“blindness” requires them, and mine is doubled) in one Distance from each other in a room with excellent ventilation. But I am surprised to see when I search for “Blindness” or “The Shed” on the websites, for example, that it does not mention contact tracing as found in the Park Avenue Armory or in “Frozen” in Australia. That would be valuable.
SOLOSKI Laura, why didn’t we become critics in Australia? I think I would be more comfortable if the audience had to show proof of vaccination or a recent negative test like the one I recently had to show while visiting a television stage.
COLLINS-HUGHES The armory requires pre-site rapid tests and a health questionnaire, and the shed has test requirements and a questionnaire. It makes me feel a little better than a temperature check that will have “blindness”.
SOLOSKI Temperature tests are basically useless.
COLLINS-HUGHES During the summer, I went to a tiny indoor show where the guy on the door asked where I’d been traveling recently and specifically asked about a few virus hotspots in New York. That felt reassuring.
SOLOSKI What do you think of the edict that individual seats are not available for “blindness” and that people have to agree to come in pairs or to buy the extra seat?
COLLINS-HUGHES I’m fierce against it. I’ve spent the past year alone, starving for anything that resembles normal life, and not thrilled to feel unwelcome as an individual in the theater. There has to be a way to make the economic viability of socially distant target groups less cruel. But have you made a sure decision not to go “blindness”? What would make you feel like going back to indoor theater again?
SOLOSKI I’ve made up my mind for the most part, at least as far as my natural and wild ambivalence allows. Rapid tests would help, but the vaccine seems so close now and I would rather wait for an indoor performance, especially this indoor performance. I can turn off the lights and put on headphones here at home. You go?
COLLINS-HUGHES I am. And I’ll report back.
SOLOSKI Good luck. Don’t get Covid! Even Juliet Stevenson isn’t worth it.