Designing a Wait Until Dark for the Noir Era

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Rod McLachlan, Mather Zickel and Alison Pill in "Wait Until Dark." Photo by Michael Lamont.
Rod McLachlan, Mather Zickel and Alison Pill in “Wait Until Dark.” Photo by Michael Lamont.

When a blind woman is assaulted by criminals in her apartment, how does she remove their sensory advantage over her? In the 1966 play Wait Until Dark, the character Susan Hendrix has a brainstorm — and depicting the aftermath of her move requires an organically integrated blend of lighting, blocking, sound and set design as well as acting.

For the Geffen Playhouse’s production of Wait Until Dark, all of the above elements were amalgamated under the guidance of director Matt Shakman — whose staging of the Geffen’s Good People received eight Ovation nominations, including one for the director. Shakman has a return engagement with many of the Good People crew members who are now working on Dark.

Matt Shakman
Matt Shakman

Focusing on the behind-the-scenes infrastructure of Wait Until Dark doesn’t diminish its script or its cast.  In Dark, playwright Frederick Knott (Dial M For Murder) took the age-old damsel-in-distress storyline to new heights by making its protagonist a blind woman confronted by dangerous criminals. Lee Remick starred in the 1966 Broadway version, but certainly a lot more people have seen the 1967 screen version helmed by Terence Young, with a waif-like Audrey Hepburn in the lead and a black-leather-jacketed, switchblade-wielding Alan Arkin as her chief antagonist Roat.

In addition to having Knott’s solid story, which was adapted for the Geffen by Jeffrey Hatcher and re-set in 1944, this production also sports its own star power. Alison Pill — who may be best known as journo Maggie Jordan on HBO’s Newsroom series, appears as the sightless Susan, headlining a cast of actors who sport an array of stage and screen credits. Among her other theater credits, Pill portrayed visually challenged Annie Sullivan, Helen Keller’s teacher, in a revival of The Miracle Worker.

Stage Noir

Shakman, who studied art history and theater at Yale and runs the Black Dahlia Theatre — now re-located in Hollywood and currently under renovation — is an avid aficionado of film noir, that genre of gloomy, crime-ridden postwar pictures literally translated as “dark movies” (the Black Dahlia is the nickname of one of the more famous real-life crime victims of that time in LA history).

The director worked with Hatcher to re-invent Wait Until Dark, which was originally set in the 1960s, with a decidedly noirish sensibility and ambiance.

“I do love noir. It has a classic sense of danger that everyone responds to and enjoys, but a certain degree of formality that I love,” Shakman gushes. “You have very dapper villains and well-spoken enemies. The world has a certain order to it — when it gets disrupted you yearn for it to go back. You’re trying to create tension, hold suspense, keep audiences engaged” without using editing.

Mather Zickel and Alison Pill
Mather Zickel and Alison Pill

Shakman describes Arkin’s movie depiction of Roat as “a dangerous bohemian emerging from the 1960s counterculture. We moved the play back to the 1940s, the middle of the war, so our Roat is a dapper, classy draft dodger, rather than a reckless bohemian… I wanted to move it back to a simpler time.

“I also liked the idea that it was a time when all of the men were away [fighting WWII]…The whole world of women at this time are left alone, with the criminals and draft dodgers, so it heightens that sense of the men are away and who’s there to protect? …Her husband is now back from the war, and he’s suffering from post-traumatic stress [disorder],” a dimension added to the Geffen’s iteration of Dark as a nod to today’s Iraq and Afghan War vets afflicted with PTSD. Another addition is making the husband a photographer, so Susan can use some of his camera equipment as defensive weapons, a reference to Hitchcock’s 1954 classic, Rear Window. The addition of a darkroom also has a symbolic dimension.

The stagecraft to bring Dark alive pivots around the fact that its lead character can’t see. “It’s great opportunities, rather than challenges,” asserts Shakman. “Susan’s the ultimate survivor. It seems like the whole world is stacked against her, but she manages to outwit and survive in an unbelievable situation. It’s a great opportunity for an actor, it’s a great opportunity for a director — how you stage a scene with a blind character is very different than if you were working with a sighted one. Those little moments of human interaction that happen non-verbally — you don’t have those, [such as] making eye contact. How people motivate their move around a stage is very different when they are not sighted. So how I blocked it, just working to develop interesting stage pictures, I didn’t have a lot of my usual arsenal, of how you can justify movement, create flow and pattern. It was all about research and getting to know real members of the blind community,” whom Shakman and Pill spent time with, as they prepared for the play.

As part of this investigation, Shakman adds, “we had to study blind technology, make sure we knew what was happening in the world of blind people in 1944. We had to take a look at phones, furniture and all of the mise-en-scène that would be appropriate to the period. Then we had to develop tricky mechanisms to deal with knife throws, fires, things that get knocked over.”

Fight Choreo

Ned Mochel, Jonathan Snipes and Elizabether Harper
Ned Mochel, Jonathan Snipes and Elizabeth Harper

Enter Ned Mochel, who describes his job and its title: “A fight director can also be referred to as a fight choreographer or sometimes as a violence designer. He helps realize the vision of the director in any sort of action sequence. So it can be a swordfight, a fistfight, a collapsing set, in this case a battle between two people in the dark — it’s quite an action sequence… In American Buffalo at the Geffen I was a violence designer — there was no actual fight, but the set itself had to fall apart before the audience’s eyes. So I came in and helped design that aspect of the show.”

How did Mochel, who was born in 1966 and sometimes acts in plays with stage violence, get into this line of work? “I taught martial arts for years and worked my way through college at the University of Illinois, Champagne-Urbana, teaching for the Japan Karate Association. I did my internship at the Kentucky Shakespeare Festival. It was really the big swordfights in Shakespeare plays that attracted me to stage combat. A nice combination of the physical aspects of sports and theater.” Since then, “I’ve been much more drawn to realistic action onstage, it’s just more visceral, story-driven action, as opposed to fight sequences, like a swordfight.”

The black belt in JKA karate says the Bard “is the best example in the world” as to how fight choreography can help tell a story. “Of course, Shakespeare is very dialogue-heavy… but when it comes to the climax of Hamlet the soliloquies stop and the swords come out. This is very similar to that — it’s dialogue-heavy, lots of information to be conveyed, very witty, brilliantly written, but by the end the dialogue dissipates and the action tells the story. Much like Shakespeare, Wait Until Dark culminates in a violent action sequence. It’s very exciting.”

While Mochel has been a fight director for some low-budget martial arts flicks, most of his work has been for the theater, including the Chicago-based Steppenwolf Theatre, which elevated fight choreography to a new visceral, violent level and style in the 1970s, Mochel says. He cites the trend-setting brawl between John Malkovich and Gary Sinise in True West as an example of this greater realism in stage combat that had rarely been seen.

A view of the set
A view of the set

At Steppenwolf Mochel met its then-artistic director, Randall Arney, who has served in that capacity at the Geffen since 1999. Mochel says, “I’ve been doing most of the action work at the Geffen for the past couple of years,” including for Miss Julie and Beth Henley’s The Jacksonian. Mochel heads to New York soon to work on the Off-Broadway production of Henley’s Southern Gothic dramedy, with actors who appeared in The Jacksonian at Westwood: Ed Harris, Amy Madigan, Glenne Headly and Bill Pullman.

According to Mochel, “The Geffen has been approaching stage combat in a new, innovative way — it’s much less like a fight choreography job now and more like a traditional stunt coordinator from a film. I don’t necessarily create an action sequence — the entire design team creates it with the director’s vision, and I’m just a part of that group. So, for example, in this play, the set designer will come to me and say, ‘here’s a piece of the set you can really hit against.’ The lighting designer says, ‘this is how I’m going to light this knife moment.’ The prop guy says, ‘here’s how your switchblade is going to work, and I have plates that can spill off.’ Together, as an entire design team, we create the action sequence, and this sometimes starts months before rehearsals begin. It’s a brand-new way to approach stage combat and allows us to incorporate all the design aspects in theater to realize an action sequence. I’ve never run into this before at any large theater, and the Geffen is at the forefront of a new, much more visceral form of stage action, which is wonderful.”

Mochel adds, “this is an incredibly tough cast… amazingly skilled at stage combat,” so he didn’t have to do much training. “I still marvel at a lot of the action they do onstage. Alison is really incredible and very, very strong. That has allowed me as a choreographer to focus on storytelling and technical aspects.”

Knife Fight at the Geffen Corral

Craig Siegels
Craig Siebels

For Dark, set designer Craig Siebels created a detailed, realistic rendition of a basement apartment in a Greenwich Village brownstone. “This set was built to facilitate the action sequence,” says Mochel. “The railings are reinforced and the carpet runner down the middle of the staircase is actually padding the actors use and can fall down the stairs with,” adding that after Dark’s grand finale the stage looks like a battlefield.

With its blind protagonist, Dark presents rare tests for the fight choreographer — and the cast. “Wow!” Mochel exclaims. “It literally is black dark onstage for the actors. So when the lights go out, the actors can’t see their own hand in front of their own face. From the stage there are five foot drops to the left, to the right and forward. There’s a staircase, a kitchen, there are steps — all kinds of things to fall over. So not only does an actor play blind, but what [Pill] finds by the end of the play is that she really is blind, because the lights get turned out. So it was a matter of really choreographing meticulously, counting steps, figuring out exactly where everything is, so the actors stay safe. The safety aspects of this show, we really had to focus on. Because once it becomes dark, it becomes very dark on stage.”

Fom a spectator’s POV, if it’s pitch-black onstage, how can viewers see what’s happening? “This is the trick, because the audience gets to experience action onstage without seeing it — much like a blind person,” explains Mochel. “So when the lights go out, it’s the blind person who really has the senses that can ‘see,’ and all of us that see become the blind person. So it’s a really different approach to action. There are moments within the action sequence where a match is lit or a lamp turns on, very briefly, and then turns off again. So there are flashes of vision where we get to see some of the action. But when the lights are out, all we can do is listen and hear what’s going on onstage… That’s really the fun of it. We get to experience literally watching the play, but we’re no longer watching — we’re listening. And it’s a fight scene, so we’re listening to a fight happen before our eyes — but we can’t see it. It’s really wonderful.”

Wait Until Light

Elizabeth Harper
Elizabeth Harper

Then there’s Elizabeth Harper, Dark’s lighting designer, who says: “The biggest challenge” in lighting a play that’s often in the dark or near-dark featuring an unsighted lead character “was looking at the stage from her point of view. The audience’s sense of sight is completely gone. Making the absolute blackout and each step in-between believable for the audience. Because if it starts to feel stagey, I think it’s a way out for the audience and you find yourself not being as viscerally scared.” Harper, who hails from St. Louis, attended Webster University’s theater conservatory and also earned an MFA at NYU.

During the denouement in the dark, “our protagonist really levels the playing field,” notes Harper.

“It works in a curious way — it makes our villain [Stein as Roat] almost an anti-hero. You are also plunged into darkness and as unused to it as he is. It makes for a fantastic back-and-forth of a tension, between our protagonist, who of course we love and is charming, and an equally charming villain we’re suddenly, in a way, aligned with.”

Harper stresses that during the finale the actors “are in the dark, dark,” but confesses “there are some tiny pieces of glow-in-the-dark tape that the audience can’t see that are concealed within the set that only the actors can see to get their bearings… During some of the partially lit moments I am constantly cheating — for example, they light a match. It is the real match light, but the matches are taped together in a little bundle to give a bigger flame. There is a light coming from an offstage source… but I cheat that a little, so people in the back row have a feeling of being in the apartment and don’t miss anything,” says Harper, who attended each preview to ensure the illumination had Swiss precision timing.

Film noir is known for its moody, stylized lighting, and Harper, who was Ovation- nominated for Good People at the Geffen and also lit the Phylicia Rashad-directed A Raisin in the Sun at the Kirk Douglas Theatre, asserts, “We’re using a number of noir tropes…The venetian blinds; standing directly over a lamp to uplight your face and look very menacing; the use of flashlights.”

Adam Stein and Alison PIll
Adam Stein and Alison PIll

Harper points out “there are a number of plot points the audience really has to see; it’s very Hitchcockian in that way. You need to see the flash of the knife, the glint of the safe — we’ve been very carefully putting tiny, tiny lights on each one so that at just the right time we can draw the audience’s eye” to the prop in question. Harper adds, “there are tons of lights in the refrigerator,” which were painstakingly installed. A more realistic light was built to simulate the same effect as opening a typical fridge would, with bulbs attached to a freezer with holes on top. A higher wattage light mounted to the refrigerator’s back, which Shakman himself jerry-rigged, is intended to provide a film noir feeling.

Compounding these complexities is the fact that Siebels’ set includes a ceiling, which increases the problems of lighting Susan’s basement pad. Harper and her crewmates collaborated closely to solve this conundrum.

The Sound and the Fury

Creating the sound and music for Knott’s blindness-themed chiller also provided some Gordian knots. “I don’t recall a play I’ve done where I’ve been onstage working with the actors as much as I have in this play,” states composer and sound designer Jonathan Snipes, who scored the documentary Room 237 about another spooky story, Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining and worked on 2012’s Good People at the Geffen. “I’ve had my fingers in more pieces of this than a sound designer normally would.”

Snipes, who hails from Riverside and attended UCLA’s undergrad and graduate programs, says: “We tried to amplify all of the sounds happening around Susan as she hears them to put the audience into Susan’s ears. We’ve hidden microphones and speakers all over the set… that amplify, enhance or even replace the sound of the actors.”

Shakman adds, “We’re using sound in a way to enhance the production… to enhance moments of tension, guys jiggling door handles, footsteps squeaking on stairs — like you would using a Foley in the movies.” On the other hand, Snipes says many of the sounds are barely audible and perceptible to unconsciously pressure the audience by heightening tension.

Adam Stein and Allison Pill
Adam Stein and Alison Pill

Although the celebrated Henry Mancini wrote the score for the Wait Until Dark movie, Snipes created his own music for the Geffen’s re-imagined edition, which he describes as “fairy tale-ish,” “noir-ish” and “a fable of the ’40s.” Snipes uses a doll’s music-box melody for the theme of the play with “some noir-y and contemporary elements.”

Although some moments onstage are underscored by Snipes’ original music, which is taped, it’s generally heard during transitions. Shakman calls Snipes’ work “a noir-style, mid-’40s, jazz-influenced score.”

Master electrician Darren Rezowalli brims with enthusiasm for this highly collaborative undertaking, as he takes this writer on a guided tour of the raked stage, where the UCLA grad revels in revealing tricks of the trade.

Dark could be an ideal selection for Halloween season. But ticket buyers shouldn’t be in the dark about the fact that any thrills and chills they experience are attributable not only to the actors but also to those behind the scenes. There’s more than meets the eye — and the ear — in this collectively crafted production.

Wait Until Dark, Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Ave., LA 90024. Opens Wednesday. Tue-Fri at 8 pm, Sat 3 pm and 8 pm, Sun 2 pm and 7 pm. Tickets: $37-$77.  310-208-5454.

**All Wait Until Dark production photos by Michael Lamont.

Ed Rampell

Ed Rampell

L.A.-based reviewer Ed Rampell co-authored the third edition of “The Hawaii Movie and Television Book” available at: