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Features Published 9 May 2016

Is immersive theatre broken?

Immersive theatre will fill London this summer - but although Punchdrunk and Secret Cinema have spawned a host of imitators, the experience doesn't always justify the hype. Here, Exeunt writers debate whether immersive theatre is broken - and how we could fix it.
Exeunt Staff
Punchdrunk's 'The Drowned Man' in performance. Credit: Alastair Muir

Punchdrunk’s ‘Sleep No More’ in performance. Credit: Alastair Muir

Alice Saville: Eight years ago, I was persuaded to part with £20, A LOT of money (well, for a 19-year old student) to go the Masque of the Red Death at the BAC. Theatre, at that point, meant the student drama scene, which varied from interestingly terrible to terribly terrible, with only a few shining exceptions. Theatre meant handing over a fiver to support a friend. But Masque of the Red Death felt worth it. It was shining with what I can only describe as “value” – with stuff, with gloriously madly sumptuous production values that studded a corridor, accessed only by a few people who chanced to crawl through a fireplace, with an opulent paper of brittle-winged butterflies. I don’t think I saw much acting that night, really – some slightly ranty riffs on Poe stories happened at the front of big masked crowds. But the experience felt unquestionably “worth it”, for the lavishness of the experience, for the escapist safari to another, more beautiful world.

This language of money, of value, of worth, took on a different meaning a few years later, when I met the set designers who’d worked all hours creating Punchdrunk’s lavish settings for no pay. The pure joy was corrupted, a little. And then tarnished by a sort of law of diminishing returns, which affected subsequent trips to immersive theatre. The impossibility of following the narrative became more of a problem, the overwhelming quantity of “stuff” became less of a delight. And so to the point I’m at now, where immersive theatre feels like a capitalist playground – inviting the audience to “play” freely in an environment that’s full of invisible restrictions, and costs. The unspoken rules which circumscribe audience behaviour remind me of the public, but privately owned piazzas of the City of London, where suited workers are welcome and anyone undesirable – protesters, photographers, homeless people – is swiftly moved away. But I suspect I’m being pretty unfair…

Duncan Gates: Not to get too post-modern too quickly, but it seems to me the problem immersive theatre has is that it doesn’t really know what it is.

Is it ‘narrative-lite’, focussing on audience experience and the ability to find and construct meaning as you go along? Coz that’s fine, but that’s also Hampton Court Palace or the London Tombs – are we calling those theatre now? I’m cool with that, but mainly because I enjoy annoying people.

Or do you elevate audience ‘involvement’ rather than ‘experience’? I often hear immersive theatre fans talking about how the feeling of ‘being involved in the story’, and in my snarky way want to ask ‘oh, ok, what did you *do* in the story?’, because the answer is usually ‘nothing other than being able to walk around the set and interact a little bit with the performers’, which let’s be honest you could just as easily do at Mamma Mia! If you asked nicely.

On the basis that helping to ‘make’ a dramatic world is more interesting than letting it passively wash over you, artists such as Coney or Hannah Nicklin are where the real potential of immersive theatre lies, and how it demonstrates a tangibly different offering to ‘traditional’ fourth wall.

Against this, it’s quite difficult to argue that the likes of Sleep No More are fundamentally an ossification of a type of theatre too afraid to alienate its audience by requiring them to make an effort.

'The Stick House' by Raucous Collective

‘The Stick House’ by Raucous Collective

Rosemary Waugh: The beauty of immersive theatre, say its advocates, is that the audience is so much a part of the show itself. And whilst this can lead to suspicions of narcissism on the part of those who feel that their personal participation will enhance the event (me, I’m happy to leave it to the professionals), it can be true that a certain proximity can heighten the intensity of the experience. I recently went to review Constellation Street at Cardiff’s Other Room. The inescapable closeness to the actors’ raw monologues certainly contributed to why I walked to the train station in tears. Yet in the strictest sense this event wasn’t entirely immersive as a very traditional division between listening audience and monologuing actor was maintained. We were just that much closer, that much more enveloped in their piercing words.

The flip side to this ‘playing a part’ is the occasions where audience members feel uncomfortable doing so. A trip to review The Stick House underneath Bristol Temple Meads in 2015 (review here) left me angry for days afterwards because I felt I had been co-opted into participating in a performance that included, for me, a problematic use of the Holocaust as part of the story. Had this been something I had watched from a distance on a stage, I don’t think it would have made me so upset. It was the sense that I had to play a role in something that I found insensitive. It wasn’t part of the pre-show advertising that we would have numbers stamped on our arms etc and I kept thinking: what if I was Jewish and I’d just attended this show on a Friday night for some entertainment? Because I was participating in it, it made it seem like I was also endorsing it. Immersive theatre needs to provide audiences with options for opting out if they don’t want to play a part. Many other people undoubtedly found this show completely inoffensive and interesting, and I might well be wrong in my assessment of it, but I would have liked to have felt more informed before finding myself literally playing a role in a story I didn’t want to be a part of.

Tim Bano: Rosemary’s point is bang on, and it’s also one of the biggest problems immersive productions face: if you give audiences the option to opt out, there is less incentive to buy into the world. You’re not fully immersed. Like playing poker with matchsticks – the rules slacken and change because there’s nothing to lose. Immersive shows tend to provoke in me one of two moods: cooperation or mischief. If I’m enjoying the world, soaking up the often amazing surroundings and in the mood to awkwardly improvise along with the performers it can be a fun or moving or exhilarating thing. But if I’m with a friend or trying to show off or a bit drunk or excitable, it’s all too tempting to try to break the game. To offer snarky comebacks to actors who are probably sick to death of wisecracking drunk little rotters who think they’re above all of this.

Part of that, though, is retribution. If immersive shows have taught me anything, it’s that I have an extraordinary talent for being in precisely the wrong place at the wrong time. If I pop off to see what’s happening in this room over here, just as the door slams behind me I hear a huge frenzy of action and excitement in the room I’ve just left. The coordination of these things is vital. How do you corral a bumbling audience through a space, get them exactly where and when you want them, without them feeling like sheep?

And so it’s tempting to look for the cracks, to prod and probe and test a show’s mettle. A show I saw recently had a note saying ‘some parts of this performance take place in public areas where Common Law still applies.’ We know how to behave in the real world, but immersive shows are suspensions of the real world. You’re letting us into a playground without telling us the rules: of course we’re going to play.

A scene from Punchdrunk's 'The Drowned Man'

A scene from Punchdrunk’s ‘The Drowned Man’

Natasha Tripney: I share Tim’s talent for being in the wrong room at the wrong time, for always being on the other side of the door or entering a space just at the very second everyone else appears to have decided to head off elsewhere something very exciting evidently having finished a half-second before. I’m really bloody good at that. Ian Shuttleworth, I think, made the point that so much of Punchdrunk-level immersive theatre is about following cues and following crowds, and I do think there’s some truth in that.

I had the inverse experience to most people in that I enjoyed Punchdrunk’s The Drowned Man far more than The Masque of the Red Death but only I suspect because both my expectations and my approach had shifted between seeing the two pieces. With The Drowned Man, I embraced my ability to miss key scenes and to never, ever find the cool room full of people doing cool things that everyone ends up talking about afterwards. It was only on doing this that I felt in any way – not immersed exactly – but at least enmeshed in the piece. I went for a walk around my some of the less frequented corners of my imagination and made a couple of repeat visits to the bar, and for a little while achieved a brief kind of elsewhere-feeling which was not unpleasant. But immersed? Submerged in a world? No, I didn’t feel that. The only theatre that has fully and completely had that effect on me has been more intimate pieces that tease at ideas of trust and control, most notably Ontroerend Goed’s astonishing Smile Off Your Face. That was immersive theatre.

And don’t get me started on Secret Cinema.

Stewart Pringle: It’s only worked for me once, and that was the first time. I mean, I’ve been to dozens of immersive shows that have kept me entertained, and even a handful that I’ve loved. Heist at Marylebone Gardens was an absolute blast. The Uncommercial Traveller was pearl-like, small and perfect. Goosebumps Alive was actually a whole heap of fun. But like Alice, it was only The Masque of the Red Death back in 2007 that really transported me, that really made me part of the story.

When I say I thought, for an hour or so, that I was actually not a 22-year old recently graduated literature student who worked in an Alice and Wonderland-themed gift-shop, but C. Auguste Dupin, amateur sleuth, master of ratiocination and scourge of the Parisian underworld. In my cape and mask I darted through deserted streets, leafed through dusty tomes, solved fiendish cryptograms and quizzed recalcitrant barmaids. Somewhere between Punchdrunk’s brilliance and my absolute green-ness (I’d only been to London a handful of times, and to the theatre there even fewer) there was an alchemy that was absolutely transporting. I sipped absinthe in the Palais Royale. I scoured the environment for clues as to the mystery of the Gold Bug. It was one of the defining theatrical experiences of my life.

If I went back now, maybe it would all look a little naive (maybe). Maybe Maxine Doyle’s rape-dance choreography would grind my gears. Maybe the suspicion of unfair working practises would sour it all. I’m certain that I’d have one eye on the structure and mechanics of it all, one eye not really in ‘the game’. I don’t know if that means that immersive theatre is broken. It sounds more like I’m broken to be honest. Maybe it just has a shorter shelf-life than other kinds of theatre. Maybe the magic really is in the novelty. These days I feel quite similarly about Punchdrunk et al as I do about the Oculus Rift. It’s all very clever, and from time to time it might sweep me off my feet, but I think I’d rather just sit and watch, thanks very much, without a silly mask strapped to my bonce.

Backyard Cinema's Zombie Apocalypse, reviewed by Lauren Mooney here http://exeuntmagazine.com/features/backyard-cinema-apocalypse/

Backyard Cinema’s Zombie Apocalypse, reviewed by Lauren Mooney here http://exeuntmagazine.com/features/backyard-cinema-apocalypse/

Lauren Mooney: That’s the thing isn’t it? If immersive theatre does have a problem, surely it’s just the law of diminishing returns? That, combined with the apparent drive to make each new immersive experience bigger and madder and more expensive than what’s come before, means people are paying more each time to be affected less.

Taste is personal obviously, but a lot of us have emphasised the intimacy of our best-loved immersive theatre moments, and there aren’t many theatrical experiences that can live up to the weight of expectation caused by a huge price tag. The best immersive theatre I’ve been to has been cheap and cheerful and intimate, and if I was making that kind of theatre, I’d probably want to boil things down rather than scaling them up.

But then, I’ve been on a lot of zombie runs in the last few years – a couple at least for this website – that I’ve enjoyed less than my first one (The Institute at Pleasance Islington), probably not, in reality, because my first was any better, but because it was small and affordable and I’d never experienced anything like it before.

I think that ‘never seen anything like it’ feeling is part of why the trend in (at least larger) immersive shows is away from theatre as I know it and towards something as far from the work I’d generally see as Thorpe Park is. I have friends who have jobs far more lucrative than mine who’ve paid into Secret Cinema and had an amazing time: it’s packaged and sold as an experience, not really as theatre, and if that means it’s not being made with me and my tastes in mind, that’s fine too.

Rafaella Marcus: Like Tim and Natasha, I manage to come away from most immersive experiences feeling panically like I’ve missed something really key – but for me that ties to a very specific anxiety that I’ll do something wrong, that I’ll interrupt or disrupt in the wrong way. Which is probably indicative, really, of how much immersive theatre absolutely isn’t necessarily interactive theatre – interactive theatre requires the audience in order to exist, to create a narrative, whereas a lot of immersive theatre supplies a great volume of detail, which you are left to sift through like your own dramaturg.

It comes back to a further anxiety about “getting my money’s worth” (poverty-stricken graduate that I am) which is a) the opposite of immersive and b) notably never a concern I have when going to the theatre, even if the play is shit. It’s indicative, I think, of of the sly way in which some immersive theatre shifts the blame onto you for not enjoying it in the right way – not being pro-active enough, failing to make the most of your opportunity, which is a weirdly capitalist way to present a piece of theatre.

If I try to imagine a piece of theatre that, for me, is truly immersive, I’m the only one there – or at least the only one occupying my role in the narrative. I want to be invited in in some way – not a tourist in someone else’s landscape. I wonder if, like interactive theatre, the development of immersive theatre lies in creating smaller, more intimate experiences with limited audience numbers, in which each participant – if they so wish – is vital to the life of the piece. That sufficient liveness might turn it from an “experience”, which, as Lauren says, is what it’s usually marketed as, back into *theatre*.

Alice Saville: I’m with Rafaella – one of the most powerful immersive experiences I’ve had was a one-on-one performance at Forest Fringe. Sharron Devine’s ‘I worried my heart wasn’t big enough’ invited me to trespass into the heart of her relationship with her mother. We shared foil-covered biscuits on a sofa and dressed up in too-big clothes – but her silence throughout the experience opened up space for an incredible sense of shared grief, as lingering as the cigarette perfume of the 1970s rooms we moved through.

That sense of care and intimacy would be impossible to roll out or to merchandise (at Forest Fringe, it was free, paid for by donations). But what makes immersive theatre so fascinating, and so vulnerable, is the way it creates worlds in microcosm: and with them, economic or political systems, too. You can brew a riot in a closed space, or start a cult. So perhaps it’s time for people making immersive theatre to shift their focus. We’ve had the huge, hugely expensive adventure playgrounds that need rules and overpriced drinks to stay afloat. And their influence has diluted the (ugly, and newly invented) word ‘immersive’ to the point where otherwise conventional fringe theatre shows cheerfully use it to describe a show with a custom-designed interval cocktail, a bit of fake ivy round the box office and a disco at the interval. Maybe we should give up on the term ‘immersive’ and replace it with ‘interactive’ – and look at how theatre can invite us in, welcome us as equal participants, and let us play.

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Exeunt Staff is a contributor to Exeunt Magazine

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