Wait Until Dark: Α Study on the Theme of Fear in Theatre

Tyrone Grima*

Abstract

The objective of this project is to examine how to generate the feeling of fear in a live theatre production. The first part of the research paper will present a theoretical framework embedded in psychological theories on the subject of fear, through interviews with theatre practitioners. The second part of the paper will focus on a case-study of a theatre production in which the theoretical framework was implemented. The text selected for this project was Fredrick Knott’s modern classic Wait Until Dark, which narrates the story of three con men who are attempting to find a doll stuffed with heroin in the apartment of a blind woman. A multi-sensorial approach was embraced in the work so that the audience members could have a more immersive experience. The case-study will analyse the dynamics of the performance as experienced by the members of the audience through a questionnaire that was sent after the performance. This will provide an indication of whether the techniques used in the production served to explore the research question being proposed.

Keywords: fear, senses, dark, spatial dynamics, unexpected

Fear is an emotional reaction that the film industry has explored extensively. The horror and thriller genres have produced various great works that fill their audiences with the excitement of fear. Although there have been notable and effective theatrical productions internationally that have generated the feeling of fear, in the Maltese theatrical landscape, the thriller and horror genres have been less visited, and practitioners seem to shy away from doing so. The prominent theatre critic Paul Xuereb had already remarked that “the decline of the stage thriller is due to the cinema and television, media that can, with their much technical range and flexibility, do more justice to the genre” (“Digging up the Past” 23) and reaffirms a decade later that “the limitless technical possibilities of the screen for scaring me to death have made me largely impervious to stage thrillers” (“Writing to Order” 23).

A dearth of stage thrillers in the local scene has also been particularly evident in the last decade. One of the possible reasons for this may be the financial risks incurred. Apart from the fact that some thrillers are dependent on expensive and sophisticated technology to create the required scares, local producers might be afraid that the genre is too risky and that the overall desired objective of generating fear might not be achieved, thus resulting in less audience attendance. This risk needs to be understood within the reality of the performing arts industry in Malta. Vicki Ann Cremona clearly shows that, on average, performances are only staged twice in Malta, with the capacity of the local theatre houses ranging from 100 to 1,000 seats, denoting the financial hurdles that local producers face.

Yet fear has always been on the radar in the history of theatre since its inception. In the classical world, the experience of fear in theatre was considered redemptive since it purified the audience. Aristotle expounds upon how fear leads to catharsis (1453b–1480). On the other hand, as the Bard says in King Henry VI, “Of all base passions, fear is the most accursed” (1.5.2). Arguably, it is this “accursedness” that makes fear so raw and poignant, whether it serves as a means of bringing people together in the awareness and realisation of the frailty of the human condition, or it highlights the absurdity and ephemerality of life.

This essay will examine how fear can be incorporated into the theatrical experience. The two major angles that this study will examine are how a multisensorial approach can enhance such an experience, and how this can be a genuine and authentic experience. Apart from analysing literature on the subject, this study will also refer to the insights of two leading local practitioners who have directed or performed in thrillers or other works where fear was a key component. It will also embed these insights within research conducted in the field of psychology to reinforce the arguments further. Finally, this study will apply these findings within a case-study of a play directed by the researcher to assess the effectiveness of these insights when put into practice. This will be analysed from the perspective of the audience members, juxtaposed against the only review that was published to date.

Fear in the Theatre: A Sensorial Experience

In the theatre, using a multisensory approach that manipulates the senses can be an effective tactic to generate an ambience of tension, particularly if the audience feels “engulfed.” The closer the squeaking sound, the irritating smell, the eerie sensation is to the audience the more uncomfortable the spectators will be. The director can exploit the spatial dynamics and enrich it with the use of the senses to create the required ambience. Chris Gatt, one of the most innovative directors in the local theatre scene, refers to Mercury Fur, a play he directed in 2005, in which the audience entered the theatre through the backstage area, set up to resemble the dystopian society that the performance depicted. The visuals and the noises facilitated the process of the audience as it transited from their mundane life to the frightening setting of this particular play.

Furthermore, overstimulation of the senses can create uneasiness because, as implied by Artaud, it exposes the audience to the horrors of life (99). The audience is “attacked” by a myriad of senses that immerses it into a heightened experience, preventing it from rationalising and instead feeling the emotion in a powerful manner. As Josephine Machón demonstrates, “often this results in a comprehension of the work that does not engage intellectual sense but enjoys and/or understands the work on a deeper, embodied level without necessarily being able to describe or explain this” (204). The concept of overstimulation was used in a dissertation performance-based project, 5T1NG, where the director created a sense of uneasiness by flooding the space with bright and strong light, together with the invasive use of sound.

The use of the senses becomes even more poignant when the space is intimate, thus making the experience more conducive. Gatt refers to a local staging of The Woman in Black (1996) which was not as effective as the West End production because it was held at the Maltese national theatre which is not intimate enough. If there is no net distinction between the space of the characters and the space of the audience members, the spectators will feel that they are an integral part of the narrative and can protect themselves less, showing the important role that proxemics play in producing fear.

According to Chris Wilkinson, the sensorial approach in the theatre also directs the attention of each individual and acts as a powerful semiotic to guide the audience member in the emotional journey of the drama that they are watching, experiencing fear in the same manner as how the characters on stage are feeling it. The director and the creative team immerse the audience in the same experience that the character is going through on stage by replicating the same sensorial experience in the audience space. For example, the overhauling experience of a character in a storm can be paralleled by generating wind in the audience space. Moreover, the sensorial experience is intensified because the spectator is not living it exclusively as an individual but in the context of a collective, hence consolidating the group identity of the audience (Wilkinson). It reconnects “an individual with her or his own body as much as connecting an individual with other bodies” (Machón 207). The end result is that the feeling of fear is multiplied exponentially: the experience on stage is transmitted to the individuals in the audience, who, in turn, convey it to each other simultaneously, in an interrelated complex web of transference that accentuates fear even more.

On the other hand, the director needs to be attentive not to overuse the sensory effects. According to Polly March, a seasoned theatre practitioner who has been living in Malta for the last fifteen years, the dynamics of the senses need to be studied and understood to trigger fear. The theatre director should be selective to avoid an overkill. In creating fear on stage, priority needs to be given to sensorial dynamics that are considered to be threatening, since research demonstrates that we are more likely to give prominence to something perceived as harmful (Hogue 661). In his classifications of fear, Gray mentions “special evolutionary dangers” (21). As a species, humanity shares a number of sensory experiences that are associated with fear, such as the smell of smoke or the sight of fire. This is an evolutionary mechanism, possibly rooted in the belief that human beings will live longer if we eliminate whatever can cause danger (Lawton 154). Following the maxim of less is more, the director needs to be capable of establishing a hierarchy of sensory effects accordingly and only make use of the more effective ones.

The extreme use of the senses might also imbue the audience with such an overwhelming experience of fear that it triggers anxiety. These two emotions, often used interchangeably, need to be clearly distinguished for the benefit of the theatre production. Whereas the sense of fear in a play can be enjoyable, anxiety is disturbing. Although audiences are ready to experience risk in a performance, they also need to be reassured, at least on a subconscious level, that they are in safe hands (Gardner). It is this general sense of security which will, consequently, allow the audience to be vulnerable (Brusberg-Kiemeier, McKenzie and Schäbler 3) and to “be swiftly undermined” (Gardner). Adam Alston defines this thin line between fear and anxiety as “a submissive diminishment of control over my own behaviour” (223). The spectator is choosing deliberately to put down his guard. This also entails that a relationship of trust needs to be fostered and developed with the audience so that they can allow themselves to partake in the experience.

Gatt explains how imperative it is to calm the audience down in the first part of a thriller, as they make their transition from their mundane life to the theatrical experience. This calming down, possibly by presenting scenes that are more familiar and relatable, makes the subsequent fear more unsettling and effective. The director needs to identify scenes, especially at the beginning of the play, that calm the audience down. The practitioner should pay heed not to fall into the pit hole of focusing exclusively on the objective of incorporating fear to the detriment of overlooking these lighter and sometimes humorous moments. Due importance should be given to these moments because they are fundamental to the experience of the audience.

Research also demonstrates that the absence of the senses can be as effective as overstimulation. Removing a sensorial element, particularly if done abruptly or unexpectedly, places the audience in a state of uneasiness that causes fear. Hence, for example, the sudden removal of sight will disquiet the spectators, making them feel disarmed. This “disarmament” transforms the spectator into an active agent by kindling the imagination of the audience. In the darkness, the spectator needs to imagine and decide what is happening. This agency empowers the spectator but, in a paradoxical manner, concurrently discomforts him because of the element of the unknown, thus instilling further a sense of fear (Alston 221). This is based on the premise that the human being is capable of experiencing fear of something or someone that they have never encountered before (Garofalo 841). This is reinforced by the findings in neuroscience. The part of the brain called the amygdala, responsible for the recognition of emotions including fear, whose activation results in behaviours such as an increase in blood pressure and heart rate, sweating and the release of adrenaline (LeDoux 291), predates any experience, since the human being is born with these clusters of nuclei that have the faculty to process emotional response. In fact, it is responsible for the recognition of emotions in facial expressions (Rosenzweig, Leiman and Breedlove 549).

By articulating the difference between “influencing” and “determining,” Alston develops further the notion of imagination stimulated by the absence of the senses. The spectator in the dark (or deprived of any other sense within a theatrical context) is an agent of influence, placing and projecting on the blank canvas of his/her consciousness all imagined fears and preoccupations.  Influencing is opposed to being able to determine what exactly is occurring, something that s/he is refrained from doing since the channel of perception is temporarily deactivated (221). The reality which frightens the audience the most is that in the darkness there may be the presence of the other, an unidentified and potentially threatening other, whose face we cannot see. It is this facelessness, this absent presence, that stirs fear in the spectators (Welton 252). Chris Gatt refers to Greek tragedy where the most horrific scenes were never staged: the playwrights depicted a context through their well-crafted tales to allow the audience to imagine the horror of the situation.

The most effective way of generating fear in the theatre is by suggestion. The actor can evoke and provoke the audience’s imagination, and thereby instil a sense of fear, through the use of words without presenting any graphic visuals on stage. Another effective way is by using sound or smell which is not accompanied by a visual. By removing the possibility for the audience of seeing the frightening scene but only perceiving it through a noise or a smell, the director is stimulating the sense of fear by appealing to the imagination of the audience.

The senses are also laden, constituting a major problematic to the practitioner embracing a multisensorial approach. The director needs to be sensitive to the fact that the audience will perceive the sensorial effects in different ways, depending on their culture, history and possibly temperament in the here-and-now (Alston 221). The skilled director needs to research extensively to determine to what extent the fearful situation presented on stage correlates with the anthropological and social reality of the audience. Yet, the audience is rarely homogenous. Furthermore, Alston goes to the extreme of stating that anything could be perceived as frightening as long as there is a personal association with uncertainty (222). By corollary, this could imply that nothing could be frightening, unless accompanied by the uncertain.

Even though these two statements can be accused of presenting an erroneous absolute, there is undoubtedly a degree of truth in them that shows how subjective the experience of fear is. This subjectivity could, of course, hinder the collective experience since the perception of the individuals might stifle and obstruct the communal feeling of fear. Lawton explains how fear is conditioned and experienced according to troubling episodes that the person had in childhood, showing how it is perceived differently by each individual (154). This makes the experience of fear relative to the meaning that the audience member gives to the experienced or witnessed situation. The emotion is sparked off from the reaction stemming from the particular reading (based on experience and culture) of the individual (Konijn 57). Indeed “the growing number of incisive investigators into the social life of the senses has made it clear that sense perception is not simply some pre-cultural, psychophysical ‘information-gathering’ process” (Howes and Classen 13). Particularly with reference to the olfactory, Howes, Classen and Synott present the following argument:

It is precisely because they are so value-laden, however that osmologies [olfactory classification systems] are so revealing of the essential preoccupations of a society. Olfactory classification systems do possess a sense, a logic, but that logic is local rather than universal.

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Fear in the Theatre: An Authentic Experience

Despite the research indicating that fear is induced by external stimuli, the theatre director should not be dependent on these factors. Unless embedded in an authentic interpretation by the performers, these stimuli could feel “gimmicky.” The audience needs to feel not only that the experience is relevant, but that it can believe what is happening and that the fear is palpable. If not, the multisensorial effect will come across as false and serve as a deterrent. What matters to the audience is “that the emotion is real and usable, not what you employ to evoke it” (Marshall 55).

There is a parallel process between the authenticity of the journey of the actor and the journey that the audience is invited to participate in on an experiential level. If these two journeys are not happening in a congruent manner, the whole structure collapses. Indeed “take away tricks, you only have truth” (March). Truth and authenticity are attained when the performer, supported by the director, is ready to confront the fear within himself and portray the vulnerability of such a process to the audience. The director needs to help the actor to engage in this process in a two-tiered manner.

The first level of authenticity is dependent on the culture that the director endorses in the rehearsal room. The director who prioritises emotional and psychological safety encourages the performer to be true to the self. This culture is embedded in a democratic framework where power dynamics are eradicated so that the performers do not need to wear any masks (Marsden 89) and can feel free to express themselves comfortably. A non-judgemental ethic ensures that the performers can experiment without feeling that their work is being criticised.

The second level of authenticity is explored when the director coaches the actors to react truthfully to the stimuli around them so that the emotion transmitted is genuine. Hence in this context, it is not the sensorial effect that causes fear—that is simply a gimmick—but the honest reaction by the performer to the effect.

March believes that the authenticity of the experience of the actor reaches its full potential when the performer does not spoon-feed the spectator emotionally. The duty of the performer is not to do the homework for the spectator in such a way that the latter is exonerated from doing it himself. The performer who pushes forward the emotion too much is robbing the spectator from the possibility of experiencing the same emotion. The director needs to remind the actors constantly to be subtle and contained in their emotional delivery. The role of the actor is to facilitate the process of catharsis, but it is the spectator that must go through the purification. The actor should not tell or show everything (March). The skilled performer facilitates this cathartic process for the audience, since the fearful dynamics of the characters on stage are a metaphor for the internal fears of the audience. The theatrical experience becomes less an expression of the fear of the characters and more the vehicle for the spectators to connect deeply with their internal ghosts and demons. Unless this happens, the theatrical experience remains shallow and does not attain its intended objective.

Greek tragedy once again shows how the feeling of fear is intimately linked with authenticity. According to Daniel Schulze, fear was experienced in the staging of tragedy in Classical times because of the authenticity experienced by the spectators “in the form of shock in the face of human abysses” (2–3). The performances rested exclusively on the poignancy of the language and its delivery in the final tragic moment, providing the audience with a raw and soul-tearing experience.

The contemporary audience still seeks this experience of authenticity. Schulze argues that in an age where the social media has dominated the perception of social reality and deploys the truth in such a way that the genuineness of communication has become fuzzy and questionable, society craves for authenticity (4). Nonetheless, the tension between the communal and the individual, explored in the previous section, arises again in this discourse on authenticity. In the postmodernist perception, despite the craving for authenticity, all meaning is individualistic (Schulze 41). This subjectivity adds another problematic layer: not only fear but also authenticity is experienced in different ways by each audience member. This entails that, within the same performance, the fear conveyed will be experienced by some as authentic and effective, and by others as false and, consequently, ineffective.

Faced by this dilemma, the director needs to coach the actors in such a way that they are true to themselves, reacting to the given circumstances that they encounter in the journey of their characters (Stanislavski 52–53), so that “stage action must be inwardly well-founded, in proper, logical sequence and possible in the real world” (48). In doing so, “the truth of the passions or feelings that seem true will arise of their own accord” (53). Imagination plays an important role for it helps the actor, supported by the director, to understand the plot, as well as its spatiotemporal dynamics and its socio-political milieu, and to react to these factors in an honest manner. It allows the performers to engage deeply in the process by juxtaposing their journey within the parameters of time (the period in which the piece is set) and space (the metaphorical space and the space that the actor is performing in). The key to understanding fully the given circumstances is the question if. What will happen if the character experiences a particular variable instead of another? The director needs to pose this question to the actors to guide them as they embark in a journey of authenticity. It is also important that this question is posed to the actor in relation to the other characters on stage. The “magic if” assists the actor to understand his or her actions within the complex web of relationships that exist on stage. Hence, the actor is authentic in the relationship with the other(s), as well as within the space and time that the performance is happening in.

Hence, the sense of fear within this methodology is evoked by being attuned to all senses and being sensitive to the essence of the immediate response that emerges as the performers relate with the environment around them, be it the other characters, the situation they are in or the space that they are operating within. Although this will not guarantee that each audience member will experience fear in an authentic way, it will undoubtedly disrobe the actor of all embellishments that might hinder the genuineness of the experience. It is the interaction between the performer and the multisensorial interventions that can make the performance authentic.

Case-study

Wait Until Dark is a stage thriller written by Fredrick Knott in 1966. The story revolves around a blind woman, Suzy. Unbeknownst to her, the doll that her husband brought with him from his last trip to Amsterdam is stuffed with heroin. Three con men attempt to take advantage of her blindness to find the doll, resulting in a tense situation. This text was selected because it was perceived as the right vehicle to test out the insights discussed in the first part of this paper. The situations that it presents, as well as its use of language, provided a tight infrastructure to convey the feeling of fear. In the work with the actors in the rehearsal process, this exploration of the text was given prominence. It was a question of not only understanding the language within its social and political context but also studying how the text leads to the unravelling of the objective of each scene and of each character as the story unfolds. Prime importance was also given to the rhythm of the text to ensure that the sense of fear is evoked. The “musicality” of the script and the spectrum of different tempos that the playwright uses were scrutinised to attain the goal of the project. All other layers in the process, such as the use of the senses and the experimentation with the spatial dynamics, were introduced to support this musicality and stemmed from it, rather than the other way round.

Katie Grech Lupi, one of the two actresses who played Gloria on alternate nights. Photo: Justin Mamo, MADC
Shaznay Mangion (the other actress who played Gloria). Photo: Christine-Joan Muscat Azzopardi, MADC

The performance was produced by the MADC (Malta Amateur Dramatic Club), the country’s oldest and most prestigious theatre company, which annually stages performances with the best professional actors on the island (MADC). The play ran over nine performances from 22 April to 8 May 2022 in the theatre of the MADC clubrooms in Santa Venera, a town situated four and a half kilometres away from the capital city. The space in which the performance was held was also selected due to its intimate nature. The theatre at the MADC clubrooms houses 126 spectators per night, even though the production company decided to reduce seating capacity to 67% to ensure comfort and safety because of the COVID-19 pandemic. A total of 586 persons (paid and complimentary tickets, including a few who attended more than once) watched the show. This figure needs to be interpreted within the context of the restricted number of local theatregoers, already referred to at the beginning of this study.

Members of the audience were sent an anonymous online questionnaire after having watched the play. This research tool allowed for a wider outreach of reactions. The first question was a demographic query to identify which age category the respondent belonged to. Most of the respondents (29.2%) were between the ages of 41 to 50, followed by the age range between 51 and 60, at a tie with those aged between 21 and 30 (18.6%). The nature of the next eleven questions were based on the insights stemming from the theoretical framework of the project. Using the 5-point Likert scale, the respondents had to specify their level of agreement from a range of 1 to 5, with 1 indicating total disagreement with the statement and 5 total agreement. In the subsequent analysis, the respondents who attributed a 4 (agree) or a 5 (totally agree) will be added together. At the end of the questionnaire, the respondents had an optional section where they could expand on the statements by adding any additional comments. 113 persons responded to the questionnaire, and 36 included additional comments, although not all of them were related to the statements. This also implies that just over 19% of the audience members answered the questionnaire, which is undoubtedly a limitation in the analysis of the results.

The audience walked into a dimly lit auditorium, guided by torch light. The set, revealing Suzy’s apartment, albeit barely visible, was in full view of the audience, with the humdrum of the spinning of a washing machine running till the beginning of the performance. The objective of this pre-set was to create uneasiness for the audience as soon as they enter the theatrical space. In the light of this research project, it examined whether exploiting the senses to create the required ambience can instil fear in the audience. Most of the spectators, some of whom were familiar with the space, were surprised as soon as they entered into darkness. Some of them questioned it, others complained, whereas some reacted in the most bizarre of ways, including a particular person who tiptoed to his seat or many others who slowed down their movements to ensure that they did not fall. According to the critic, this placed the audience right into the spirit of the play (Depares). The general perception of the audience differed from the reviewer’s comment, with only slightly less than half the respondents (46.9%) maintaining that the objective of the pre-set was successful.

The set, with Roat (Edward Thorpe), Croker (Joe Depasquale) and Mike (Myron Ellul) from left to right. Photo: Justin Mamo, MADC

The first part of the play is written, and was directed, to emphasise the lighter element of the performance. Although the first scene depicts the con men breaking into Suzy’s apartment to plot their plan when she is not there, the dialogue is frequently frivolous and laden with humour. The subsequent scenes are also calm and mundane, focusing on plot as well as character development. The actors were coached to bring out this atmosphere, without losing on the tightness in cues that the play requires. The aim was to analyse whether calming down the audience at the beginning of a performance can ensure a more effective build-up, leading to the second part of the play when the spectators are overstimulated sensorially to experience fear. 77% recognised that the initial scenes were deliberately less intense and 62.8% felt that this loosened up the audience for the eventual tenser moments, with an audience member commenting that “the performance had tremendous build-up from a ‘deceptively’ tranquil beginning to an ‘edge of one’s seat’ ending.”

On particular nights, audience members responded to the humour of the play heartily, although this was notably absent in the first nights. This may be attributed to the fact that the audience did not associate humour with the thriller genre and did not know whether or not they should laugh. In a private conversation with a friend, Pat Azzopardi Preziosi, she admitted that she was “taken aback with the comedic start . . . because you are psyched up to a thriller . . . and entering in complete darkness also made one better prepared for a thriller.” The pre-set confused her, making her think that the play was going to be continuously tense. This may well have been the experience of other audience members.

Croker (Joe Depasquale), one of the con men, in a comic moment in the first scene. Photo. Justin Mamo, MADC

The second act of the play relies on the element of suspense, even though there are unexpected moments, such as the sudden appearance of the three con men together in Suzy’s apartment or the astute plan that Suzy fabricated to outwit the gang leader, Roat. The direction of the play accentuated both the suspense as well as the element of surprise by ensuring a crisp rhythm, to the extent that “the audience is hardly given a moment to breathe with a very well-placed and well-executed staging” (Depares). 84.1% felt the roller-coaster of suspense from the end of Act 1 onwards. On the other hand, not all experienced the tension. Some felt that “the plot was predictable and therefore not suspenseful.” A particular viewer stated that being a horror (presumably film) enthusiast does not make him easily frightened, whereas another believed that a faster pacing would have guaranteed an aura of fear and suspense. The analysis of the subsequent questions will reveal which aspects implemented in the production facilitated this tension, and which did not.

The “sudden” appearance of the con men in one of the final scenes. (L-R) Roat (Edward Thorpe), Mike (Myron Ellul) and Suzy (Erica Muscat). Photo: Justin Mamo, MADC

The multisensory approach to instil fear in the performance was well-received. 69.9% agreed that the choice of music and the sound design created suspense. Distortion and shrill noises were used to accentuate a tense atmosphere. In the scene where Roat answers a fake telephone call to erroneously lead Suzy to suspect her husband of betrayal, the telephone is left off the hook so that the irritating sound augments the confusion that Suzy is experiencing. In the final scene, in which Roat threatens to light up the apartment, the abrasive music of an alternative band was played in the background. 67.3% agreed that the use of smell was effective too. There were four moments in the play where smells were released to integrate the audience into the action. These were the smells of toast, a cigarette burning, coffee and the smell of petrol in the final scene. One respondent claimed that “I found the use of smells particularly unsettling as I really thought that there was something burning in the theatre,” while on a particular night, an audience member panicked and left her seat when she smelled the toast.  Another audience member commented that “the addition of smells was interesting and definitely helped the sense of unease, culminating with the smell of petrol at the end. I was on the edge of my seat all evening.” The evident challenge with smells was ensuring that they are distributed evenly and that they spread out in the space without too much of a time gap. This was not entirely successful, considering that certain smells diffuse quicker than others.

Just before his departure, Sam Henderson (David Muscat) forgets his lit cigarette in the ashtray, and the smell makes Suzy (Erica Muscat) panic. The audience in this production smells the same smell she does. Photo: Justin Mamo, MADC

It was the play on sight that the performance experimented with which was most effective for the spectators. 72.6% experienced the tension of the last three scenes which were performed in quasi pitch dark, with the only light sources (never used together) being a lamp, the striking of matches, the light emerging from a fridge and electric torches. This demonstrates that the absence of the senses, particularly the sense of sight, and the removal of a sensorial element can elicit fear, particularly if done abruptly or unexpectedly. These moments were intensified by aggressive movements, some of which are dictated by the playwright whereas others, such as the physical struggle of Suzy and Mike (one of the con men) on the floor, were added to embellish the tension of the scenes in the dark.

The struggle between Suzy (Erica Muscat) and Mike (Myron Ellul) in the dark. Photo: Christine-Joan Muscat Azzopardi, MADC

The use of the spatial dynamics was an integral aspect of the design of the performance, intended to generate tension and fear. The quotidian-looking apartment, described by the playwright as “masculine and practical” (Knott 4), which was the port of security of the protagonist until she was threatened by the con men, was contrasted by a barely lit garden annexed to the apartment. This garden is not referred to in the script but was added in this production so that the con men could invade the privacy of the protagonist from two sides, entering from the garden and from the front door. It also implied that the audience was part of the dynamic, since the garden area was the same space where the spectators were seated, with the con men entering in certain scenes from behind the audience. This decision was taken to study the role that proxemics have in creating fear and whether the audience will experience fear more intensely if there is no net distinction between their space and the space of the characters. The reviewer of the play commended this artistic choice since “the decision to spread the action across the stage and two secondary areas works and helps fast pacing” (Depares). Once again, this was accepted moderately by the audience, with a score of 61.9% agreeing that the use of the back space of the auditorium immersed the audience more fully in the experience.

Space was used in various ways to create tension. In this image, Suzy (Erica Muscat) enters the apartment, not aware that Roat (Edward Thorpe) is seated on a chair at the centre of her “safe space.” Photo: Justin Mamo, MADC

The questions that focused on the nature of the theatre space yielded polarising results. Although most spectators seemed to feel that the intimacy of the space was a prime factor in the fear required for the play (68.2%), the presence of other spectators was a deterrent, with only 31% stating that the presence of other audience members helped to feel the experience more completely. A respondent commented that “I feel any size of audience takes away feelings of immersivity . . . regardless of audience size, because if there is an audience to begin with, you’re further made aware of your audience status.”

The paradox lies in that the audience seemed to desire the intimacy and the magic of the theatrical experience that allows spectators to be in close physical proximity to the characters without the communal aspect since, in the view of the respondents, the presence of other audience members diminishes the suspense of disbelief. This is a reflection of the typical dialectical tension of the postmodernist crisis between the needs of the individual and the desire for the communal referred to in the first section of this paper. The polarising results in this study accentuate this crisis even further.

Conclusion

The point de départ of this study was the shortage of thrillers in the Maltese theatrical ecology. Hence, it is important to examine the conclusions below against the original impetus that led to this study. Although the experience of the audience watching this production of Wait until Dark was mixed and varied, the interest in the genre still emerges clearly. The results show how the genre should be tackled and do not put into question whether thrillers should be staged locally.

There are four major insights that can be derived from this research project:

  1. The main aspect that generates fear, or any other emotion, is authenticity. Even though the different stimuli were all effective, albeit to a varying and limited degree, the overall effect was that the audience felt that the performance conveyed the required tension, with 84.1% confirming this. The credit is due to the fearless energy of the cast to take risks and bare their souls. As a respondent commented, ‘Wonderful actors and great planning and direction. I gasped aloud a couple of times and felt tense for a good while after.”
  2. Out of all the stimuli, the ones related to the senses were the most effective and left the public intrigued. This includes both the overstimulation of the senses and the absence of the senses in key moments of the performance. The multisensory experience is what the theatre can offer contrary to the cinematic experience, and this allows the audience to connect more deeply in an immersive manner with its surroundings and with the dynamics of the performance.
Another scene in the dark, with the only source of light being two electric torches, held by Gloria (Katie Grech Lupi) and Sam (David Muscat). Photo: Justin Mamo, MADC
  1. The fact that none of the external stimuli was totally rejected—most scored beyond 60%–reveals that it is more a matter of fine-tuning the methodology. More testing needs to be done to ensure that these “effects” are masterfully orchestrated to achieve their full potential.
  2. Fear is a subjective experience. What engenders fear in someone will not necessarily cause it in another. This was evident from the myriad of divergent reactions from people watching the same performance on the same night. The stimulation of fear must also be juxtaposed and understood within the tension between the perception of the individual in a communal setting. The paradox of the collective nature of the theatrical event is equally fascinating for it offers a unique experience, and yet it can also serve as a deterrent and a distraction.

In the light of these insights, it is evident that, in the portrayal of fear, the role of the director, together with the input of the cast and crew, is to provide an honest experience, which is then interpreted differently by the spectators who all walk into the theatre carrying with them their own individuality. The theatrical encounter, and the emotions that ensue, cannot be imposed and no amount of tricks, methods or effects will establish it. It is, on the contrary, an invitation for communication, and a genuine openness can facilitate this sharing of emotions.

The relentless energy of the cast. Suzy (Erica Muscat) defending herself from Roat (Edward Thorpe). Photo. Justin Mamo, MADC
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*Tyrone Grima is a lecturer and researcher at the Malta College of Arts, Science and Technology (MCAST). He is also a theatre practitioner, having directed a number of plays in prestigious theatres in Malta. His favourite works were Michel (2008), the first LGBT play written in the Maltese language; Children of a Lesser God (2015); and Agnes of God (2020), one of the first live theatre performances held in Malta after the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic. His fields of interest in research are the interface between theatre and spirituality; queer performance; and community-based performances. Tyrone is also the author of novels and plays in Maltese.

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