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Scents as “atmosphere creators”: Recent experiences of a stage director

Scents as “atmosphere creators”: Recent experiences of a stage director

31 October 2019

The word “atmosphere” alludes to the “climate” present in an environment and to certain ineffable qualities that we perceive thanks to our most evocative and subliminal sense: the sense of smell. This new note about atmosphere gives an example about how to use scents on a theatre stage, to get the audience more involved and to create a more impactful and meaningful show.Can a perfume carry us into the very heart of a tale like narrators, images and paintings can? Nowadays, fragrances are so much more than the cosmetics products kept in our bathroom cupboard. They have taken on a social role as storytellers and “atmosphere creators”.

Barbara Pia Jenič Stage Director, actress from Slovenia and speaker at Smell Festival 2019 is a pioneer in the use of scent in the theatrical world. She maintains that scent is “the element often missing from the stage, which connects us to a deep level of awareness, so that every event becomes a personal experience.”

Perfuming a museum to bring a historical event to life, adding scent to an educational experience in order to encourage public participation, or using perfume during a show to create an emotional atmosphere for a certain scene. These practices are becoming more and more common and yet there are no educational courses to prepare professionals for the problems that arise when perfuming a public space. We are not only referring to choosing and programming the tools to diffuse scents. We need to take the subjectivity of scent perception into account, as well as the way in which the culture, which you belong to, affects the meaning people attribute to smells. Most importantly, we must consider that scent within the realm of theatre cannot be limited to just a “pleasant background”, but should be an integral part of the drama.

Barbara Pia Jenič begun her own journey thanks to Teatro de los Sentidos, a company directed by Enrique Vargas who has worked on public involvement by creating immersive performances since the early 90’s. His memorable works, such as “The Oracles”, aim at deconstructing the traditional position of the “passive spectator” facing the stage, by inviting each audience member through extraordinary labyrinths pervaded by tactile, visual, auditory and olfactory stimuli.

From this experience, Barbara Pia Jenič was able to see how delicate, yet essential, stimulating the sense of smell is. She became a curator for the olfactory preparations of shows for various stage directors and eventually created Sensorium, an institute that specializes in sensorial theatre ad research.

Over her 20-year experience, she has overseen a range of shows that bring smell and perfume to the stage as well as shows where the audience can take part from their seats. She has therefore refined her ability to take advantage of the possibilities that scent presents for theatre. For example, in a scene of “Gothic Windows”, based on Dane Zajc’s poem, one character tortures another who complains of being thirsty, by squeezing juice out of an orange right in front of him. This cruel act was accompanied by the diffusion of an intense orange scent through the audience.  At the end of the show, the actress noted that many of the public’s comments were about this particular scene, demonstrating its strong impact.

“It is often necessary to make the scent visible” explains Barbara Pia Jenič, “so that it can be consciously perceived by the public and associated to the story.”

The show “The Prophet” can be considered as the work of Jenič’s artistic maturity and it is based on Gibran’s famous novel. “This time I introduced fragrances in various ways” explains the director, “they were onto fabrics the audience came into contact with, in the almond oil on their hands, in the diffusers that perfumed the air, there were fire and smoke, and fruits held by the actors.”

This goes back to the very roots of theatre. In the Eleusinian Mysteries and Greek theatre, the shows were permeated by some type of scent: flowers, fruit, animal blood and meat from sacrifices, wine, honey, libation, incense and fumigation.

It can therefore be said that over the last 20 years, contemporary theatre has reclaimed expressive means which we have lost touch with over time. All artists who want to apply the language of scent to the stage or use it as a narrative tool should explore this windy and exciting journey.

In the video here below, Barbara Pia Jenič explains the meaning of this practice, which is rooted in the very beginning of theatre, and how important passing these skills on to new generations is. Not only to actors and directors, but —why not? — to perfumers.



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