When Daryl Roth, 13-time Tony-winning producer, first announced that her Off Broadway theater would premiere a production during the pandemic, her argument to the city and state of New York was that “Blindness,” the work in question, was a sound and light installation, not quite a play. “It is an adaptation of a book that you might call a play, but not in a traditional sense,” she tells Variety. “Not as we’ve known theater before.”
On April 2, the first post-COVID evening on which indoor theater is permitted in NYC, “Blindness” will begin performances. An adaptation of José Saramago’s acclaimed novel, the show is an audio play about a pandemic of infectious blindness, narrated by Juliet Stevenson and directed by Walter Meierjohann. There are no actors and no stage.
“I felt a responsibility in some way to be among the first to give it a go and say, ‘We can come back,’” says Roth. “This is a baby step forward. It’s not theater as we know it, but it’s leading us to the light. You can’t be in theater and not take risks, even in the best of times. So this is a big risk in maybe not the best of times.”
Debuting at London’s Donmar Warehouse last August, “Blindness” is among the first pieces of in-person theater to be born from the pandemic.
Simon Stephens, the Tony-winning playwright who began his somewhat destiny-driven adaptation of “Blindness” three years ago, says the work in its current form is theater, which matters most: “It’s one place. It’s one time. You’ve got to go somewhere. There’s the commitment of the journey across the city. And it’s a congregation of strangers.”
Of course, that definition continues to strain what is possible for American producers. “The only way this production can happen is because of the way it is presented,” said Roth, resolutely affirming that “it’s not safe yet to have actors and audiences.”
Vaccinations, she said, are essential for Broadway’s reopening, noting the city’s recent commitment to a vaccination site for theater workers. “The big question is the safety protocols” she said. “It’s not about rules and regulations. It’s about whether you can safely present something to enough people to make it worth your while.”
“Blindness” is not an escapist take to usher audience members back to the theater. It is, as Stephens admits, at times a terrifying experience, plunging the audience into darkness to understand how people come together in survival.
“It’s about the possibility of recovery. It’s predicated on that possibility,” he said. “It’s about somebody who survives and recovers from something unimaginable, and to tell a story about extraordinary recovery just as we stand at the foothills of our own is a hopeful provocation.”
For Roth, who has worked with the city and state to mount a safe production, seating just 86 at a time, the question remains whether provoking audiences in such a way will bring them back to the theater.
“We can’t just open the doors and expect thousands of people to line up,” she said. “Not everyone is feeling that yet. But I think there are enough people that are.”
“This is a unique way to tell a story, I agree,” she allowed. “But it has everything we need.”