Can You Smell That Smell? It’s Theatrical Scent Design

David Bernstein, Scent Designer.
David Bernstein, Scent Designer.
David Bernstein, Scent Designer. Photo by Nathaniel Buckholz.

Theatre has begun to embrace a new type of designer. Their work is invisible, but, if done correctly, it can have a palpable impact on the performance. I interviewed David Bernstein about his work in the burgeoning field of scent design.

Dillon Slagle: On a basic level, what is scent design?

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David Bernstein: I split up scent design into two categories. One is an ambient smell or scent, which is scenting the theatre or the performance space as the audience is walking in. It’s part of the initial impression. It’s more like an installation, so it serves to transport the setting, or to make it “other.” The second is more like scent cues. Rather than scenting the space when you walk in, it’s the introduction of aromas to coincide with the action on stage.

DS: Does smell design integrate with the other design elements?

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DB: It always locks in with the design. If you’re doing an ambient scent, really what you’re making is a part of the set that’s invisible. For that, you really want to work with the set and lighting designer to talk about what is the space — what kind of place do we want to evoke? As a scent designer I am supporting them in that — adding an extra dimension to what they’re trying to do.

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Directors often want to wield [scent design] like “I want to make the audience feel something,” which is a very difficult thing to do. Sometimes it’s useful, sometimes it’s not. They try and have me function kind of like an extra actor. They want “stunt scent design” where, instead of supporting what’s happening visually, they’ll want me to be almost an actor in that I’ll communicate directly with the audience [through scent]. There’s this stage action, but there’s also this thing going up inside of them. I sometimes feel that they want either a master of ceremonies or, like, a protester in the audience that just fucks shit up. All of a sudden they smell this and then they feel angry, or they smell something different and they feel nervous or anxious. It’s usually negative emotions that they’re going for. It’s something that I’ve noticed — that usually when directors want me to be an “actor” in this way, they want it to be wielded negatively.

The only time that wasn’t the case was when a director wanted the smell of orange to be released right at the end of the play because the two characters were kissing, and previously they had devoured oranges so it’s like we were smelling their kiss. Which I liked; it was probably one of the better moments using scent as an independent cue. However, usually I think it works best when it’s a part of the set, as another design element in that way.

DS: How does smell affect the audience’s experience?

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DB: It’s a truism that scent is so subjective, but it is so subjective. First of all, you’re in this liminal space where you’re not sure how many people are even smelling it. Sensitivities are such that you have to play it on the safe side of a grey area. Some people, no matter how strong it is, aren’t going to smell anything at all. Some people I open up the bottle [of scent] and I’m about to spray it and somebody goes “Wait, what was that?” People’s sensitivities to smell in general and specific smells is so wildly unpredictable that if you’re trying to get any kind of consistent effect in a room with a group of people, it’s really touch and go. Which doesn’t mean that I’m not excited to try it.

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I do [scent design], and I’m interested in it, and I think it’s one of the most interesting and unique things I’ve been involved with, but I’m constantly skeptical of it as a device. I’m constantly wondering: Is this really [effective]? Sometimes it really works, and there are moments when I think the piece is well served by it.

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Locking an emotional response to a smell, even outside of the technical considerations that I mentioned, is from my experience almost impossible. I tend to like as an audience member, as a director, and as a designer when a director takes the whole space that you’re in as the setting and pays attention to the fullness of the space that we’re in and doesn’t turn a blind eye to the fact that we’re in a theatre. I don’t only mean that in a “meta” way of approaching things. More just being aware that you’re in usually a four-walled space, and that it extends past the proscenium even if the dramatic world doesn’t. That’s what I think scent can do: it can bring the dramatic world to the audience; it can unify the space towards the aims of the performance maker. You can’t get any more immersive than inside the body of the spectator. That’s where [smell] is being experienced. There are other ways to do that I’m sure, but this is a really evocative way of making the whole space a part of the storytelling. When you make a space smell different from wherever the audience came from, immediately you have this fast lane to the part of their brain that’s connected with emotions, that’s connected with memory. You’re making a very clear and a full transformation of their perception of the space that they’re walking into that a set can’t do, that lighting can’t do, that nothing else can do. That’s the most positive effect it can have on the audience. It’s the most dimensions you can have.

DS: What materials or delivery systems do you use?

DB: For the ambient kind of scent design, I basically make a concentrated tea, with a few drops of essential oils in it. Then I put it in a humidifier — a cold-mist humidifier, because hot-mist would burn off some of the scent, and I turn the humidifier on 15 to 20 minutes before the house opens, depending on the size of the theatre. And the mist will smell like whatever I want it to smell like. Maybe that’s the other reason I like ambient scents — it’s a lot easier to make and use. It also diffuses the lights; it makes the shafts of light visible in the way that designers often like.

For cues, I need oils for the scent. I need to make an aromatic base, so either oils or synthetic aromas which are the individual chemicals that are used in perfumes. Some of those are available online, so for an orange smell there are about a hundred different chemicals that go into it and I can buy that. I can also buy “Bright Bitterness #4” that goes into that orange smell, so I can play with it on that level as well. I’m often asked to do kitchens, so I go, “OK, I need some bread smells!,” and because I don’t have the library of synthetics needed to make my own bread smell, I can buy that scent. Actually the warehouse is right next to Four and Twenty Blackbirds Pie Shop, so it makes for a nice outing. Once I have the scents I need, then I dilute them into a solution of alcohol. Then I use spray bottles, and usually I need to spray it through a fan. There’s usually a testing process to see the time between the spraying and the “smell-abiltiy.” Then you have your cue: When they say this, I’ll spray it, and then when the scene change happens, people will just be starting to smell it.

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“OK, I need some bread smells!” / via

DS: How did you become involved with smell design?

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DB: I was taking a multimedia class at NYU that was an experimental collaboration with the undergraduate drama department and graduate interactive telecommunications, which is basically interdisciplinary design in the wildest sense possible. The class was a complete failure; the professor on the drama side actually got fired. People on the telecommunications sides bailed on it, so it was less than ideal. But in that class I asked, “Well, could you do scent with performance?” Someone in that class knew a student director at Playwrights Horizons who wanted to mix scents with theatre. So they set us up and I figured out how to do scent for her first production. I then worked with her for her next two productions. That’s how I started doing it, and word spread. As far as I know I am the only one to do it primarily for performances. [On my first show] my favorite one that worked quite well was the scene in which the protagonist loses her virginity, and it was a scent of Old Spice deodorant, crayons, condensed milk and a riding crop.

DS: What inspires you about scent design?

DB: I like smell in general because it’s invisible. I think there’s something very interesting about a design element that takes up no space. Playing on a level that takes up absolutely no space is something that I like. It literally comes out of almost nowhere. Additionally, unlike other forms of art in theatre there’s one intended transmission of meaning, and the piece can be deemed a failure or success on the transmission of that one meaning. But if you see a piece of art, it’s open to interpretation; it can be any number of things and exist as something of merit. Scent design is a way to do that in the context of theatre. It’s out there and you’re smelling it, but it’s meaning, and it’s effect, isn’t so cut and dry. What people experience just physiologically has to be different. It’s this little corner of abstract freedom in the corner of the theatre.