By Maddie Orton
Four corners of what looks like a boxing ring are filled to capacity with theatergoers. They sit with near-perfect posture in what seems like an effort to smell and hear to the best of their abilities.
At Jersey City’s Art House, a group called No Peeking Theater performs a new play, The Shapeshifter. It’s a blindfolded adventure for the sighted and an amplified theater experience for the blind and visually impaired.
“In my opinion,” says show producer and director Amanda Levie, “most theatergoers that are in tune with being in immersive or interactive theater are sort of up for a lot of things.” In this case, that means being blindfolded and following the story through dialogue, sounds, smells and a pre-show “touch wall.”
Levie researched theater accessibility while studying at Kean University. She was disappointed by what seemed like a disparity in experiences for sighted audience members and the blind and visually impaired.
“You have to find the right theater that would adhere to your disability,” she explains. “You can show up early, you can feel the set and meet the actors in character, feel their costumes.” Audio descriptions of what’s happening on stage are sometimes provided as well. “It’s really great,” she says, “but it isn’t necessarily something you would want to do every time you wanted to see a show.”
So Levie turned the tables, making impaired sight the norm and building a show from there. She brought on a “touch technician” and a “smellscape designer.”
“We’re trying to bring in elements that will make it smell like you’re on a boat or on the shore, things that will feel like a breeze. When we’re inside there’s a bit of baking going on,” says smellscape designer Alex Finger. “We’re hoping that it’ll make them feel like they’re actually in someone’s apartment.”
Only 20 seats are available per performance. That’s to allow sounds and smells to waft over each and every audience member. The show’s action is strategically placed as well.
“The audience actually sits onstage while we act offstage,” says actress Clara Childress, “and we have the different areas offstage that signify different worlds to help the audience keep everything clear.”
Levie says she’s gotten positive feedback from visually-impaired theater fans. “The blind audience members that we’ve tested these things on, that we’ve had sample readings for, they have really, really enjoyed it. They appreciate and actually catch on a little bit faster than most of the seeing people, which is awesome.”
And the sighted patrons?
“I was thinking about how everyone else is imagining something different,” audience member Lisa Hibbert says. “So we all had a different experience. It was kind of cool.”
“I haven’t seen anybody take off their blindfold once so far,” says Levie. So it really is No Peeking Theater? “Yeah, it really is,” she says. “They’re really not peeking. It’s really awesome.”
Levie plans to apply the No Peeking experience to other live art forms. She wants to see how the experience lends itself to poetry readings, concerts and more.