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How Theater Directors Use Fragrances to Create “Poetry for the Nose”

Memory is directly linked to our sense of smell. That’s why Cyril Teste chose to engage the audience’s noses in directing Opening Night at the Crossing the Line festival.

Cyril Teste, director of Opening Night (all images by Simon Gosselin, courtesy French Institute Alliance Française)

This article is part of a series of pieces covering or inspired by the French Institute Alliance Française’s Crossing the Line festival, produced in collaboration with the Arts & Culture MA concentration at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism.


Theaters smell — sometimes on purpose. From at least the late 19th century, when David Belasco had actors cook and brew coffee on stage to heighten the realism of domestic scenes, to recent efforts to evoke a piney forest or the tang of gunpowder, directors have tried to involve an audience’s olfactory sense to intensify their experience. In his screen-to-stage adaptation of John Cassavetes’ 1977 film, Opening Night, Cyril Teste — the French director known for his “filmic performance” technique that uses real-time video, live acting, music, and some audience participation — has added scent to the storytelling of this play within a play.

In this instance, the aroma had to be tied directly to character. “The particular thing,” Teste said, “was to create a perfume, a real perfume, not a smell.” Teste tapped famed French perfumer Francis Kurkdjian (who has scented Versailles). Working with Isabelle Adjani, who plays the central role of Myrtle Gordon, an aging actor falling into despair, Kukdjian developed a tuberose-heavy scent that would fit her emotionally volatile character: in works like The Vizirs, by Marianne de Fauques, the tuberose has been associated with voluptuousness and ardent temper. He made the fragrance by adding tuberose oil to Adjani’s usual go-to, citrusy Absolue Pour le Matin. Teste called it “poetry for the nose.”

Isabelle Adjani of Opening Night

“The difficulties of controlling an odor once released into a large room like a theater are very complicated,” said Stuart Firestein, a neuroscientist at Columbia University and former theatrical actor and director. Experts on the relationship of the olfactory system and the brain link memory to the sense of smell. That’s why Teste chose to engage the audience’s noses in this performance. According to Firestein, olfactory memories are always emotional “because at moments of heightened emotion, hormones and neurotransmitters produced by the brain and gut flood into parts of the olfactory system and strengthen the memory of the smell present at that time.” But it’s not easy to set off a string of associations through the noses of an audience.

In Opening Night, the scent came and went like a gust of wind twice during the 75-minute show, misted into the space by scent dispensers attached to silent fans controlled by an app, according to Kurkdjian. “It’s a sad machine, but a great machine,” said Teste of the perfume’s cue. The first time the perfume wafted into the air was when Myrtle discovered that a teenage fan had died in an accident shortly after getting Myrtle’s autograph. It suffused the air a second time she observed that the fan wore the same perfume as she wears. In both instances, “the perfume links the two,” said Teste.

But did people notice? Reactions from the audience ranged from, “I didn’t smell anything,” to, “I smelled it twice.” The scent was purposely soft and intended to leave a “fragrant trail” in the air according to Kukdjian, as if the olfactory connection between Myrtle and her deceased fan was meant to be subliminal. So its impact is impossible to measure, as ethereal and ephemeral as memory.

Opening Night ran at FIAF Florence Gould Hall in Manhattan, New York, September 12-14, 2019.

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