Olfactory Designer David Bernstein on the Power of Scent in Theater

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Certain scents—even unpleasant ones—evoke powerful emotions and memories. The first few days of spring weather in New York, when the streets smell like trash, remind me that my birthday is coming up. Walking into the BlackBook editorial offices somehow transports me to my childhood dentist’s office, an odd mix of antiseptic and fluoride. Turns out I’m not the only one affected this way.

“There is something embarrassingly intimate about smell,” says olfactory designer David Bernstein (pictured, showing off his knee pads by Yoko Ono for Opening Ceremony). “It allows the external to penetrate our most private associations.”

Bernstein works as a designer in the growing field of sensory theater, lending authenticity to theatrical and artistic performances through the addition of various scents. The acrid smell of freshly-ignited gunpowder, for example, might bring the tension and pain of a battlefield scene to life. A romance may benefit from the fresh scent of pavement after a spring rain, setting the stage for the first, furtive advances of young lovers.

Bernstein embarked on this unusual career path in 2010 after being approached by director Julia Locascio for her production of her original work You Are Made of Stars, the story of a teenager who filters her experiences through the surreal realm of her senses.  The actors would cue the audience to pick up numbered fabric swatches that Bernstein covered in the scent of the scene, ranging from playing in a childhood bedroom (scents akin to Play-Doh and condensed milk) to the traumatic loss of virginity (leather and Old Spice).

“I remember getting my hands on a riding crop smell, and it somehow reeked of sex in this very visceral way,” Bernstein explains. “It was the first time it really hit home that this could be something a little more stimulating than the idea of smell-o-vision.” Since then, he has worked with the Theater Reconstruction Ensemble’s Patrick Scheid, whose upcoming trilogy of performances inspired by the writing of Frederic Nietzsche will explore a range of sensory effects. In one chapter of the project, Scheid plans to do away with actors altogether and rely solely on a shifting landscape of sights, sounds, smells, and atmospheric affects like humidity to connect with the audience.

In perhaps the most significant validation of his unique medium, the Museum for Arts and Design called upon his expertise during the run of its 2012 exhibit, “The Art of Scent: 1889-2012,” the first museum retrospective to exhibit the scents of commercially available perfumes as objects of art.

Bernstein’s work is designed to connect audiences with the emotional context of a production, whether literal or figurative. The heady, rich smell of a family dinner does more than recall memories of the foods one might have eaten around such a table. It also underscores the contrast of such an opulent setting with others in the same play, as it did in a production Bernstein worked on with director Christoph Buchegger called The Man Outside. As the main character, a German army veteran stumbling home after World War II through the rubble of war, enters the house of his commanding officer, the audience could feel his palpable discomfort as the starving man inhaled the sweet, thick smell of their evening meal.

But how do you ensure that the greasy smell elicits a troubled feeling, instead of a hungry one?

“When a smell isn’t literally trying to evoke a physical setting of the play, I could use almost anything to evoke emotion,” Bernstein says, describing a scent meant to accompany a personification of the Elbe River in Germany as a shrieking, sexualized female character in The Man Outside. “As she’s about to be introduced, there’s this rotting, fishy, salty smell spiked with the artificially floral notes of knockoff perfume. It was a particularly difficult one to execute, but it smelled exactly as I had hoped: rotten, watery, off-putting, but somehow feminine and serene.”

Bernstein uses the intrusion of smell to embrace incompleteness and uncertainty, to draw the viewer into the time, weather, and emotional tone of a scene. The spectacle of production is sharpened, pulling audiences through uncomfortable moments by engaging all the senses.

And yet Bernstein feels that certain performances are best left unscented, embracing a minimalist approach in his own directing work. In his upcoming play, Too Many Lenas, inspired by the hit HBO show Girls, Bernstein uses a spare stage with few props to encourage audiences to fill a vague, shapeless aesthetic with their own perceptions of the show’s eccentric characters. Negative space is its own character.

Bernstein’s minimalism does, however, have its limits. “I can be like a Christmas tree decorator with Alzheimer’s,” he says. “I’m like, it needs a little bit more! Now it’s perfect! And then I turn around, and I’m like wait, ADD THIS!”

A man truly dedicated to the art of experience. 

[More by Nicole Pinhas]