photos courtesy of Bristol Riverside Theatre
Currently on stage at Bristol Riverside Theatre through December 18th is Odd Man Out, a unique and interactive performance presented in complete darkness! The 65-minute production follows a blind jazz musician who is on a journey home to Buenos Aires from New York. It’s presented along with Pitchblack Immersive Experiences and directed by playwright Martín Bondone with co-directors Carlos Armesto and Facundo Bogarín. The show was first developed in Buenos Aries by Bondone’s Teatro Ciego, an Argentinian company that specializes in producing theater in total darkness.
I spoke with Martin Bondone to find out more about the meaning of Odd Man Out‘s airplane setting, the show’s development journey, and how audiences will use their senses to experience the story.
Bondone is the Artistic Director and founder of Teatro Ciego (teatrociego.com) in Buenos Aires. He is the author of more than ten plays where darkness is used, and spends his time researching and developing the technique of theater in the dark. In 2008, Bondone founded the Argentine Center for Argentino de Teatro Ciego with Gerardo Bentatti which gained national and international recognition. Currently, forty percent of the project’s staff of actors have some type of visual disability.
Q: What real-life experiences and events inspired the creation of Odd Man Out?
A: The story has a lot from my own experience working in the dark with blind people. I have dedicated half my life to this effort, and when we were faced with the idea of writing a completely new piece, I wanted to put into words how people are in essence, regardless of how we appear on the surface. Darkness as an aesthetic has the power to make us all equal. In this case, the protagonist, having been born blind, calls into question some cultural concepts that govern our society, like judging someone by their looks, skin color, or appearance.
On the other hand, I have lived most of my life outside of my place of birth, so I always considered myself an outsider, a fish out of water. In the years that I lived outside of the country, I made many friends who had to leave Argentina, some for economic reasons, others forcibly during the dictatorship, and I saw how their lives were divided in two, an uprooting that regardless of the historical circumstances is universal. There is a point in common between New York and Buenos Aires, which is that both are cities that received a significant amount of immigrants. Tango and jazz, for example, have common roots; the work emphasizes this point by putting a musician who starts with tango and then ends up being a jazz professional, as the protagonist.
Last but not least, during the last military dictatorship of Argentina, my uncle, my grandfather, and my then-18-year-old father were all detained for a year for political reasons. This experience marked my life and, in a certain way, that is reflected in the plot of the play because, regardless of the history of my country, there are common points that make the work a piece of universal history.
Q: Why is the character of Alberto a jazz musician in the story? Why in an airport?
A: It is a product of circumstances. He is actually a professional musician that starts out as a composer. It is moving to New York in the ’60s and his musical training that leads him to become a jazz musician. The piece takes place on an airplane because it is a connection point between two cities, and telling the story from a familiar point of reference allows flashbacks in the story that create a dynamism typical of a Teatro Ciego production. At the same time, by being performed in complete darkness, we allow jumps in time that do not require a set design to be modified, making the experience something more similar to cinema than to theater. The viewer “travels” through the story along with the narrator, who in this case is the main character. The scenes take place in the mind of each spectator, where non-visual stimuli, such as aromas, flavors, and sensations through touch, make each person feel they are inside the scenes.
Q: Tell us a bit about Teatro Ciego and why you felt it was important to tell this story in the US as well?
A: I believe using the dark to tell stories is revolutionary in the US. From what I know, this approach to creating theatre has never been done extensively in this country. We wanted to bring the approach of my theatre company to the United States, and we felt that Carlos Armesto of Theatre C was the perfect partner to achieve this interdisciplinary, international approach to creating theatre as well as his affinity to immersive theatre. We are very excited to have created PITCHBLACK Immersive Experiences, the newly formed company in charge of developing Odd Man Out. We want to expand our work, bringing it outside of Argentina.
My company in Argentina, Teatro Ciego, is the only one in the world that has been developing all its shows in complete darkness for more than 20 years, employing people with and without visual disabilities, and forming integrated and inclusive casts. Setting our productions in complete darkness allows all the barriers and prejudices associated with how we see things to be eliminated. The eye can be a tyrant at times and, considering that in today’s society 80% of the information processed by our brain comes from visual stimuli, making a theatrical piece that doesn’t need to “be seen” a disruptive act in itself. We believe that polarization and intolerance are more extreme than ever nowadays. Darkness makes us equal and allows us to go back to our essence, erasing the prejudices that image imposes on us. Therefore, making a work of these characteristics, regardless of the dramatic story, is not only an aesthetic act but also a necessary one.
Q: What challenges, if any, did you face when bringing Odd Man Out from Buenos Aires to New York City? Were any plot points or stagings changed for the US audience?
A: Aside from the adaptation of customs between the two countries, which could be common to any international production, the first challenge taking into account that this project began in 2019, was without a doubt the paradigm shift that occurred in the entertainment industry as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. It forced us to think differently, within what was already different, to continue being innovative when our initial approach couldn’t be presented in its original form. We went further and began to generate a virtual sensory experience in a box format that was presented in 2021, and then we managed to finalize a “semi-live” premiere of the show where we combined a virtual staging in the dark with the non-visual stimuli (aromas, sensations such as wind, rain, etc.) without counting with the physical presence of the actors, presenting the whole story through immersive “binaural” 360° audio. And now, thanks to the support of the Radio Drama Network and the award of the Princess Grace Foundation, we’ve finally been able to obtain the necessary financing to carry out the live version of the show in complete darkness, with actors in the space, in the traditional Teatro Ciego format, a format we like to call the PITCHBLACK experience here in the U.S.
Q: What did you learn from your initial run in New York? What was the audience’s reception of the experience?
A: Although the experiences of a “semi-live” format vs a “live” one are very different, the initial response was excellent. Personally, I am very confident that the public reception in Bristol will be good too. It is something that people will be very grateful for, the type of proposal, the experience, and the message of the play.
Q: Audiences will be in complete darkness, relying on senses other than sight for the 80-minute production. In what ways will taste, touch, and smell be used to tell the story?
A: Without giving much away, all non-visual stimuli are part of our scenery. What we do during our show is “sensorially” transport each spectator through a journey in their own imagination to the place where the scene takes place. This means that we can smell the rain, feel the water falling on us, or the breeze of the wind in a storm. As well as the green aroma of a landscape, and the sound of leaves that the actors make when walking through a forest. Everything that the imagination allows us.
Q: What do you hope audiences at Bristol Riverside Theatre will take away from this experience?
A: I think French writer Antoine de Saint-Exupéry puts it best, “The essential is invisible to the eye,” which fits perfectly with what we do in Teatro Ciego and PITCHBLACK. The audience will not only be part of a play, but of a transcendental experience that will change their perception of reality. I think that what we do from an artistic point of view is something that everyone should experience at least once in their life.
Q: Do you have plans for Odd Man Out after the BRT run ends? Where will you take the story next?
A: Yes, but everything depends on us getting the necessary support to do so. This first live production in Bristol allowed us to consolidate what is most important, a team that knows how to move, act and create in complete darkness. Fortunately, to date, this has been a very successful experience. Most likely we will do a New York production in 2023 and a national tour in 2024. But, in the long term, our plan is to grow PITCHBLACK in the United States and develop new experiences that are currently being showcased in Argentina through Teatro Ciego. With PITCHBLACK, we hope to further create musicals in the dark, immersive experiences with gourmet dining, children’s theater, and developmental marketing events and workshops for other companies.
Tickets to Odd Man Out at Bristol Riverside Theatre can be found here. Performances are be available in English and Spanish