Immersive theatre is a form of contemporary performance that usually includes elements of one or more of site-specific theatre, improvisational theatre, interactive/participatory theatre, environmental theatre, performance art and promenade theatre.
Immersion of the spectator in the drama is a key factor. Immersive theatre is often staged indoors but can also be performed at outdoor settings. Critical to most immersive theatre is the lack of a purpose-built structure we know as “the theatre”. The actor-audience relationship is altered significantly. Gone are the plush red seats in neat little rows and one fixed area called “the stage”. The forced separation between performer and spectator in the traditional theatre arrangement is eliminated. The boundaries between actor and audience are so blurred in an immersive theatre experience, they often barely exist.
Indoor settings for immersive theatre allow for a more intimate actor-audience relationship as the mere confines of the space(s) enable a close proximity between performer and spectator. These spaces often include multiple rooms and levels, such as disused warehouses, factories and empty school buildings. London’s punchdrunk formed in 2000 and are widely considered the pioneer theatre company for contemporary immersive theatre. Their 2011 show Sleep No More, an adaptation of Shakespeare’s Macbeth with a film noir inspiration, is still showing in an abandoned warehouse in the neighbourhood of Chelsea, Manhattan, renamed the McKittrick Hotel.
Sleep No More is an indoor promenade performance lasting up to three hours. There are five arrival times for each performance ranging from 6:00pm-12:00am depending on the day of the week. After admission, guests embark upon an individual journey and may stay inside the performance for as long as they wish. Following the culminating moment of the performance guests are welcome to stay on at the Manderley Bar.
All guests are required to wear a mask while inside the hotel for Sleep No More. The mask will be provided upon arrival.
Immersive theatre often uses found spaces for their architecture or aesthetic with the audience placed in and around the “set(s)”. This aspect borrows heavily from Richard Schechner’s environmental theatre of the 1960s. The audience, unseparated from the action, becomes a participant, not an observer in the conventional sense.
Some immersive theatre shows are highly structured with the audience taken from location to location as one group, others have performers politely prompting “lost” spectators to head in the right direction, while some immersive theatre shows allow the audience to roam freely in any direction to multiple locations at their own leisure. Each participant, therefore, may have a highly individualised, unique theatre experience. This, of course, is part of the beauty of the form.
Whether indoors or outdoors, the moving of spectators from one location to another is similar to medieval liturgical dramas which had both site-specific performances (inside the church building) and fixed locations outdoors (mansion stages) where the audience would move from one to another.
The participatory aspects of many immersive theatre shows can involve both a physical and sensory experience. Spectators are often asked to hold props, sit at dinner tables, join performers on a couch, take on a role in the drama with instructions, or listen to or witness something in very close proximity. They are “inside” the action. Punchdrunk are well known for asking audience participants to wear masks during the performance, an experience in itself heightening one or more of the senses.
The improvisational nature of immersive theatre sometimes affects the outcome. Participants can be asked to be directly involved in the story, in turn changing the narrative. This is similar to Brazilian theatre practitioner Augusto Boal, whose forum theatre asked audience members to join the drama and become “spect-actors”, ultimately altering the plot.
Some immersive theatre shows are more concerned with the plot than others. Immersive theatre that allows participants to wander from room to room not only encourages a different theatre experience for everyone, but also enables participants to view the action in different orders and in some cases miss the conclusion altogether. The plot in these shows is more like loosely connected episodes in each location, than traditional scenes in a drama. Immersive theatre shows have more control over the audience by their very nature can also control the telling of the story for all concerned.
Whatever the case, immersive theatre is definitely about an intense, interactive theatre experience.
Readers of The Drama Teacher are welcome to tell others about an interesting immersive theatre experience of your own in the comments below.