Features EssaysNYCNYC FeaturesOpinion Published 14 January 2018

Lights Out: A Critical Look at Stage Darkness

Joey Sims looks at a recent unnerving trend in theater: the prolonged blackout.

Joey Sims

Animal Wisdom (Photo: Cortney Armitage)

There is the familiar darkness: right after the lights go down, and just before the show begins. Typically the rest of your time in a theater will be spent in the light – give or take a few dramatic blackouts, or the half-light of a hurried scene transition. Before this past year, I don’t recall wondering as I took my seat in a theater: will this one plunge me into a seemingly endless, pitch-black darkness?

Yet, three very different New York productions in 2017 included an extended period of total blackout. As a frequent theatergoer, I’ve noted this trend with fascination – and as an anxious personality, with some self-concern. Why are artists suddenly relying on the dark to communicate their intentions?

Just last month, I spent the days leading up to seeing Hundred Days (a new musical work at New York Theatre Workshop) wondering nervously about a reported scene of total darkness. How long would it be? How dark were we talking? What if I just went home instead?

As it turned out, Hundred Days employs this device very briefly. The same can’t be said for Julia Cho’s Office Hour, from the Public Theater, Heather Christian’s Animal Wisdom, at the Bushwick Starr, or Dave Malloy’s Ghost Quartet, revived as part of New York Theatre Workshop’s “Next Door” series. All three productions used total darkness to various, and often deeply unnerving, theatrical effect. But dropping an audience into the dark should be borne of artistic necessity and not just be a mechanism of shock to jolt us to attention.

Several critics accused Cho’s Office Hour of just such a questionable approach. The play presents multiple versions of a meeting between Gina, a creative writing professor at a liberal arts college, and her troubled student Dennis. Cho shocks us early – in the first version of events we see, Dennis immediately pulls a gun and shoots Gina dead. Though the play quickly resets, a butt-clenching air of dread now hangs over every moment. It genuinely feels like Cho (and director Neel Keller) could do anything next.

Office Hour (Photo: Carol Rosegg)

That rising tension builds to a terrifying final series of images which play out, in gruesome detail, our worst contemporary nightmares. We see Dennis shoot another professor dead; we see Gina shoot herself; we see Dennis roaming the halls with a machine gun, firing wildly. Christopher Akerlind’s lighting flashes abruptly on and off each image, one horror barely sinking in before we jump to the next.

Following these images, the theater goes black and fills with the piercing, unending sound of gunfire. The moment may well have lasted for only ten seconds, but for me it felt endless. Darkness is used here to attack the audience. More than that, it makes us conscious of the danger we place ourselves in by entering any public space – including this theater. Re-entering the play’s naturalistic world after this experience proves impossible. Intentionally or not, the final scenes pass as a blur.

It was maybe unfortunate that I entered Animal Wisdom with that terror still in mind. Heather Christian’s “folks-blues Requiem” interweaves a deeply personal tale of loss and ghosts with gospel-infused hymns. Much of the show bounces back and forth between songs and monologues. But for its final section, Wisdom sets Christian’s story to the side and goes full Requiem mass, killing the lights just as a chorus enters to bring the Hallelujah. 

Wisdom’s use of darkness sits in an odd place in the work. Christian seeks to create a community experience with her show – drinks are handed around, and her own presence is warm and welcoming. Much of the show is a goofy, sweet seance of friendly spirits and anecdotes of Christian’s life.

Yet as designed by Andrew Schneider (and director Mark Rosenblatt), the show’s blackout is clearly intended to evoke the experience of death. Swallowing the audience whole and running for an extended period of time, the sensation is we will not see light again. The long darkness, but for brief flashes from one tiny star-like bulb, is total. Christian’s guiding presence disappears, and the warm spirit of the room is gone.

While Wisdom is about death from its first moment, up to this point it has been filled with a communal spirit of celebration. In the dark, engagement in Christian’s own compelling story is overwhelmed by unusually acute awareness of one’s own mortality. Again, the darkness proves so effective that it’s hard to come back.

Ghost Quartet (Photo: Ryan Jensen)

I felt zero anxiety in the blackout section of Ghost Quartet, Malloy’s self-proclaimed “song cycle of love, death and whiskey.” Among other things, Quartet is a ghost story – though the placement and style of its blackout plays quite differently. Roughly an hour into the show, Malloy announces the title of the show’s third section: “Lights Out” – and with a snap, the space goes dark. For the next three songs it remains so, but for brief streaks and slivers. What light does break through is accompanied by lyrical screaming. Sound and light combine to render the quartet as as nightmarish creatures. Suddenly they are ghosts.

It is a deeply scary sequence, yet within this larger narrative, somehow calming. That dissonance reflects the confused state of Quartet’s characters, who live in both the past and present and, while living, are also long dead. (Stay with me here.) Quartet lets this sequence illustrate that paradox theatrically. Friendly faces who moments ago chatted with us amiably while drinking whiskey are transformed, in the same space, into ghosts bellowing out a tragic past. Only by taking us into a spirit world – in this case, through use of darkness – can director Annie Tippe (aided by Christopher Bowser’s lighting design) make the show’s ethereal concepts literal.

The use of total darkness in Quartet lures us into a theatrical space where the pain and longing of its characters can live unspoken. In the dark, we see them most fully.  In Office Hour and Animal Wisdom, darkness as a theatrical technique conjures up anxiety in a way that ultimately pushes you out of the show’s carefully built reality. Even though that may be the artists’ intent in both instances, it fractures the overall work.

The darkness in all three shows grabs our attention. Yet, it also reminds just how tenuous our immersion into a show’s fabricated setting can be. Shutting off the lights is more likely to break that spell than anything else. You won’t soon forget your time without light – but unless the technique is used carefully, the darkness might well be all you remember.

Joey Sims

Joey Sims is a critic and playwright based in Brooklyn. He was written for Sketch Show at The PIT, and conducted research for The Civilians. His work has also been produced at Bard College, where he earned a BA in literature. Joey has worked as a script reader for Manhattan Theatre Club and The Public Theater, and has written for American Theatre Magazine. He was previously a Web Assistant at Playbill.com.