Features Published 7 May 2019

Immersive theatre, and the consenting audience

Immersive shows like Barzakh push their audiences to extremes. But can you really consent to an experience you know nothing about?
Alice Saville

Immersive experience ‘Barzakh’, created by Sean Rogg

How can you write about show you’ve never seen? There’s a lot you can’t capture secondhand. A mini rule-of-thumb I have with writing about performance is that I only want to talk about shows that I’d actually buy a ticket for, in non-writing-about-theatre scenarios. But I’m also a bit obsessed with Barzakh, a show I will never go to because a) it involves being stripped to your underwear and shouted at by strangers b) it uses strobe lighting, which gives me migraines and c) it’s £75.

So I’m coming at the self-imposed task of writing about it from a place of humility and fascination. Why are people willing to entrust themselves to theatremakers whose website warns: “We insist you don’t buy a ticket if you suffer from; Nyctophobia – Fear of the dark / Aphenphosmphobia – Fear of being touched / Aquaphobia – Fear of getting wet / Automysophobia – Fear of getting dirty / Somniphobia – Fear of going to sleep, Asthma and especially EPILEPSY”. And when you read this warning and buy a ticket anyway, what exactly are you consenting to?

I spoke to several people who’d been to Barzakh for this article, and they didn’t seem put off by this battalion of warnings. They mentioned that they were into Punchdrunk or Gingerline or escape rooms, or any of the new breed of immersive shows that sit on the boundaries between theatre and event. It’s part of a new category, the ‘experience’: a commodifiable interlude of time that’s packed with the kind of extreme sensory and emotional events that some people crave, but that sanitised, tradition-stripped modern life often doesn’t have room for. Fascinatingly, one audience member said that “I would pitch it all as ‘extreme experiential dream-like reality’ that doesn’t aim to give you joy through it (is running a marathon a joyful experience?) Some experiences give you just that – experience to relate and recall later”.

So maybe some people attending Barzakh see it as a life-changing physical and mental event. Like running a marathon, or a religious rite-of-passage, or even giving birth. But I think the crucial difference is that with all of those things, you can have a reasonable idea of, if not exactly how you’ll feel, then the history and contexts and meanings behind the experience you’re putting yourself through. But immersive experiences like Barzakh are shrouded in secrecy. And they’re also designed by someone, rather than just organically existing: they’ve been crafted specifically to induce a certain spectrum of feelings. So when people consent to doing them, they’re doing so on the basis of trust: that this is an experience with creative integrity, and that it’s one that ensures a basic level of safety for participants.

But what does safety mean? It’s incredibly subjective. One woman who’d been through Barzakh compared it directly to torture. She told me that “They made us change our clothes to vest and shorts (it was 2 degrees outside when I went), force-feeding us jelly and liquids, making us walk barefoot on concrete and gravel.” Emily Jupp’s fascinating, wittily-written write-up on her blog calls it an “evil day spa”, and raises concerns that the show’s candles and curtains are a fire risk, and the warehouse’s custard-smeared concrete floors are something of a trip hazard. But I also talked to someone who sunnily commented that “anyone who’d done a mud run or military training would find it pretty breezy”.

The same contradictions came up when I asked about the show’s climatic moments, a prolonged strobe light-show that’s designed to produce a transcendental experience. One person told me that “as a doctor I found it inadvisable and even painful to stare into [the lights]”. I heard multiple reports of participants who felt unwell, rather than transported, after staring into the strobes, and said that performers stopped them from shielding their eyes or turning away. But Sean Rogg, the experience’s creator, said the exact opposite: “The audience members have their eyes shut during this sequence. It has been carefully designed to create an alpha wave induced altered state. If the guests find the experience overwhelming, they are also provided with a method to further shield their eyes at which point the light is blocked.”

Barzakh is a show ‘about’ how people bond in extreme conditions, and this light-doused climax is meant to be an antidote to the physical discomfort that proceeds it. Some people I spoke to were able to laugh off the indignity of being cold, smeared in goo, and shouted at (even if they weren’t literally able to wash away the experience: no showers are provided). But mostly, they seemed unsure what their three-and-a-half hour stint in a chilly Welwyn Garden City warehouse had been in service of – and either underwhelmed, shortchanged, or furiously angry at what they’d been put through.

In particular, this is an experience that might stir up a lot of uncomfortable feelings for women and non-binary people. One person I spoke to described the whole experience as “weirdly gendered”, for the way that people were divided and assigned a ‘guard’ of a different gender to their perceived one. They raised the point that your gender has a massive impact on how you respond to physical touch from a man, to being shouted at, and to how comfortable you are running around half naked, covered in slimy liquids.

These second-hand snapshots of the show made two things really clear to me. The first is that consent isn’t signing a one-off waiver at the beginning: it needs to be ongoing, and informed, and accompanied with enough clarity that all audience members understand what they’re ‘meant’ to do in a situation, and how and when they can say ‘no’. And that also means making space for autonomy, for walking away, in a way that’s built on an understanding of how vulnerable audience members are in a space whose rules they don’t know. One audience member told me that “While performers were forceful, moving us around in a pretty aggressive manner, I personally think that I would be able to leave if I wanted to.” Still, other people told me they felt they couldn’t leave: because of FOMO, because they weren’t sure how, because it seemed like a finale was coming that made it all worthwhile, or because they didn’t want to ruin things for everyone else.

The other thing that shone out for me is that it’s impossible to create an ‘experience’, singular. People’s identities will inevitable shape their experience of the work, and immersive shows have a funny way of recreating the power dynamics of the world outside. Frey Kwa Hawking’s review of Operation Black Antler talks about the discomfort of being misgendered within the performance. And he also notes that the people who’ll get the most out of the experience are the people who’d be most successful at infiltrating real-life far-right organisations: white men.

I was lucky enough to get a ticket for Punchdrunk’s Kabeiroi (my write-up here) but, in amongst the odd moment of pure magic, couldn’t help feeling that no one had thought about how the experience would feel for someone who wasn’t a standard issue able-bodied white man. There was a part where you were grabbed by a performer while walking down through Bloomsbury. It was a moment that crystallised every possible stranger-danger fear I’d been indoctrinated with before I remembered that although these were real streets, I still in a made-up world. And there was another moment where you were asked to get into an unmarked car outside a warehouse in Tottenham Hale. The risks of getting into the wrong car felt huge to someone conditioned by decades of warnings, so I delayed the show by lingering too long on the pavement, scouring the car for the signs of inauthenticity, and hence safety.

I felt something during both moments. But it had nothing to do with the show’s actual ideas, which were about Greek myths and a wild bacchic tribe. It reminds me of the discussion about trigger warnings or notices about strobes or gunshots ‘ruining the surprise’. They’ll only ruin the surprise if you let them. But if a show makes an audience member relive a traumatic experience, or places them in physical danger, then they’re suddenly looking inwards, not outwards at the art. Similarly, putting someone in a threatening situation unleashes powerful emotions, but they’re unruly ones, not easily tethered to an artist’s own interests or intentions. And if you’re making someone suffer for what’s essentially an underwhelming-but-macho piece of art, the mouthburning-supermarket-vindaloo of the theatre world – what then? One person who did Barzakh told me that “I felt like [the director] was playing the role of a god, thinking that through the torture he can take us to the feelings of empathy and connection. It actually created a completely opposite effect in me. In the part where we were supposed to surrender and feel like we are going to the other side I was just angry and repulsed by the whole thing. All I received was shock value.”

There’s long been a side of theatre that’s concerned with jolting audiences out of their bourgeois complacency, by any means necessary. Artaud inspired a whole generation of theatremakers to experiment with blood and gore. Sarah Kane depicted horrendous violence in Cleansed. It’s interesting to see that ethos collide with a school of immersive theatre that’s got something macho to it: are you tough enough? What will you do to feel something? Isn’t there something inevitably complacent about sitting in a comfortable theatre seat?

I don’t think sitting and watching is inherently passive. But there’s a certain quality of attention that comes from being made to stand up, made to do something. It’s an effect that some seated performances echo by using audience participation: it’s a way of bringing ‘liveness’, randomness, danger, accountability. But sometimes I wonder if they sacrifice the experience of the person who is selected at the altar of the wider artistic purpose of the show.

It might be more controversial, but I think ideas of consent apply here, too. The act of bringing someone on stage involves making assumptions: about their level of mobility, about whether their level of anxiety will allow them to participate in the required way. Sometimes these assumptions extend to their gender, sexual orientation, political leanings and ethnicity too (oh, so many shows hunting for their next white-straight-male victim). When performers assume wrong, it’s painful. And I think that because artists are so experienced in performing, and working with other performers, they also forget that they own the stage. It’s a comfortable arena with clearly defined parameters for them. But for ‘normal’ people it’s a baffling, treacherous space, and artists often overestimate audience members’ ability to understand its rules, and to respond to new situations on the fly.

The best moments of audience participation I’ve seen have been voluntary. The artists have crafted a space with kindness and care: one where people are invited to contribute on terms that are made clear, and in a form that they are comfortable with – and there are always people are longing for that kind of interaction, just as there are probably some people will go to Barzakh and find everything they’ve been craving. But when I’ve been taken on stage against my will (which has happened SO many times: that kind of face) it’s often ruined the show for me. I’ve misinterpreted two different mime artists’ instructions. I’ve been fake-flirted with and made to dance with multiple male performers who assumed I was straight and would enjoy the attention. And I’ve been pressured into sharing personal info in a fake group therapy session, run by a performance artist who assumed that everyone was as ready to share as she was. Each time, the stress of the situation landed me in this heartpounding space of panic – feelings totally unrelated to the ideas that the artist was trying to explore.

Buying a ticket for something is an act of faith. More so than any other artform, you’re entrusting yourself to a group of artists and hoping that they’ve thought about the impact the hours you’ll spend in their company will have, and that they’ve accounted for the huge range of different needs and experiences your average group of humans will have. Feeling unsafe or like your needs aren’t met makes you put up a hard shell of resistance: if a show isn’t protecting you, you have to protect yourself.

If you want to be messily humiliated, there’s Tough Mudder. If you want to lose all sense of autonomy, there are professional dominatrixes who can help you. If you’re entrusting yourself to artists, you’re most likely to be genuinely challenged, to really feel something, when the performance has your welfare at its heart.

Addendum: There are many gentle immersive shows made with sensitivity and care. For more on them, read Nicole Serratore’s review of Brian Lobel’s Hold My Hand And We’re Halfway There, or Hannah Greenstreet’s review of YESYESNONO’s  Five Encounters on a Site Called Craigslist

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Alice Saville

Alice is editor of Exeunt, as well as working as a freelance arts journalist for publications including Time Out, Fest and Auditorium magazine. Follow her on Twitter @Raddington_B