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In the lobby of the Palermo site of Buenos Aires’ Teatro Ciego, or blind theatre, with photographs of Borges, Stevie Wonder and Ray Charles on the walls, guests finish their glass of wine as an actor attempts to prepare us for what’s to come, but he knows that no matter how clearly he spells it out, nothing will fully ready us for the experience of walking into a room to dine in complete darkness.
Entering the void as a train, holding each other’s shoulders, hesitating in our steps as things brush against us, disorientated diners are led to their places by the actors themselves. In complete darkness, we hold on to the back of our chairs waiting for the actors to help us to sit, fearing we might fall into a void should we let go. Several thoughts begin to occur: should i close my eyes or keep them open? And where the people I came with? Opposite me? Beside me? In another part of the room completely?
A Ciegas Gourmet is very unique proposition; a feast for all of the senses but one: dinner followed by an original musical comedy written by one of the independent theatre cooperative’s own managing directors and performed mainly by blind actors, all in complete darkness. The proposition has proved so intriguing that it’s been going for ten years, making it the theatre’s longest-running show - it offers other shows including a play for children and cycles of music with 360º sound that “blow your mind” at another site in the Abasto neighbourhood. The actors have different methods, some learning the scripts using braille, others using recordings, and many stay with the theatre for a long time.
Diners begin trying to locate the people they arrived with. Some raise their voices, perhaps because in the darkness, you can’t tell how far away your companion is. Some can’t stop laughing. “Something touched me!” a girl bursts out and her companions explode into fits of giggles.
“You don’t know what will happen; people react in different ways,” says the play’s director Estéban Fiocca. “It’s because of the feeling of ridiculousness that people have in this situation, which often becomes something fun, and a feeling of pleasure. The darkness produces a sensation of vastness, and people start speaking more loudly, perhaps with people they don’t even know. The natural reaction is to search for a source of light, and some people, when they don’t find that, find that their legs start to shake, and every two or three shows there’ll be someone who has to leave the room because they get nervous. Fortunately we have a simple solution to that - the brain plays a big role here.”
Only then do I realise that the dinner’s begun and we’re already supposed to be eating. I’d been waiting for some further instructions, but were told before entering that the dinner consists of seven stages, already waiting on the table organised, left to right, the last being a dessert (“so if the first thing you taste is sweet, then you’ve taken your neighbour’s dessert”). You have to reach and find the food, as well as well as your glass, napkin and bread. Everything is eaten by hand.
The show itself begins in a whirlwind of sounds and other effects, creating sometimes very vivid images of the scenes portrayed. Telling a story without images, but with words, smells, touch and other effects, sometimes leads to a chaotic mix of sensations. There’s a constant sense of things happening around the room, things brushing against you, sometimes intentionally sometimes accidentally. It’s not clear at times which voices and sounds are part of the performance, and which are the contributions of the audience. “I’m very sad?” and actors says. “Why?” a girl who sounds like is sitting opposite me blurts out, then stops herself, actor picks up on it “Yeah, why?” the other character in the performance asks.
“This is also due to the sense of size in the darkness, and when it happens, we take advantage of it as a springboard to add something improvised to the work. Everything that happens in the room requires a lot of people working together permanently. The whole cast is always working for the whole duration of the process - while a scene might involve only two or three in a dialogue, the rest of the cast is making the effects. Here the actors are also the technicians and the waiters and the permanent generators of sensations. It’s a finely-tuned machine. We have a wide variety of effects and everything happens live in the moment.”
We’ll be clear: you’re not going to be able to follow much of the narrative if your Spanish isn’t good (it involves a series of romantic adventures, one involving a Wild Boar and another a hilarious trip to Brazil), though that in itself could make the experience all the more surreal, led by the tangle of sensations weaved by the clever effects. I find I tune in and out of the play, sometimes distracted by other thoughts: what’s the layout of the room? What do the people sitting opposite look like? Stepping out into the bright lights of the bars of Palermo afterwards leads one to reflect on our senses and how we rely on them. This was an experience we chose to take part in; making the decision to do without one of the senses that we normally rely on, while many of those who create the work, do without it through obligation, but the show is fun, lighthearted; a positive, uplifting experience for everyone. “It’s a unique experience, and people have fun and they leave happy,” Esteban says. “We too. Normally in theatre, after one or two seasons, you start thinking about the next play, but here most of us have been working on the play for a long time and we come with the same energy and enthusiasm as always.”