The New Immersive Theater
Why does the specter of “audience participation” turn so many of us into introverts? The words send many otherwise adventurous theatergoers scurrying for the hills, evoking fears of uncomfortable encounters and unwanted attention. Attending a theatrical performance has not always been an essentially passive act. The dominant paradigm today (and I speak of Western theater practice) involves a seated audience, facing the stage, and participating only by laughing, applauding, murmuring or gasping. In a darkened auditorium, audience members are expected to sit still, to observe the rules of decorum, and to leave the unfolding of the experience to the artists. The template is essentially the same as that of cinema and even television (with variations in the rules of decorum). It was not always so, of course. Our understanding of Greek theater practice is limited, but it does seem that the audience responded in a way we would consider interactive: shouting, wailing, remonstrating, and so forth. For thousands of years, most performance spaces were jerry-rigged, borderless, and naturally lit, the audience not a fixed, paying group but an amorphous mass that came and went at will. We know that Shakespeare’s audience would have interacted with the performers from time to time and that the audiences in Baroque and even Classical-era Europe would have often treated the action on stage as backdrop to their social interactions.
The current paradigm calcified in the late nineteenth century. Electric lights enabled a dramatic increase in control over theatrical optics, allowing a dramatic differentiation between light levels in the house and on the stage and thereby strengthening the one-way nature of the focus from the audience toward the players. The rise and eventual triumph of Naturalism, popularized in the works of Ibsen, Chekov and many others, enabled the concept of the “Fourth Wall”: the invisible barrier at the proscenium that separated the actors from the audience, facilitating the pretense that neither could see the other, that the stage action was happening without reference to its observers. Of course this paradigm has never been inflexible. Even playwrights and directors as essentially conservative as, say, Thornton Wilder or Mike Nichols peeked from behind the Fourth Wall. In the 1960s, protean groups like The Living Theater, founded by Judith Malina and Julian Beck, sought not just to tear down the Fourth Wall but to reinvent the relationship between actor and audience, to blur the lines in a group encounter that made the spectators as much a part of the authorial process as the actors themselves. This impulse has colored the work of various progressive companies and artists over the last fifty years, but for the most part even the theatrical avant-garde, in all of its various manifestations from Wooster Group-deconstruction to Robert Wilson-expressionism to Richard Foreman-surrealism, posits a passive audience—thinking, yes, but not actively participating in the drama.
So the recent mini-explosion of interest in what is now variously termed Immersive, Site-Specific or Participatory Theater has been a much-remarked-upon phenomenon. Suddenly, the theatrical scene is rife with works that ask the audience to wander from room to room, to talk, touch, and otherwise commune with performers, to become a part of the performance in a way that would have been unusual even a decade ago. The phenomenon began in London and New York and is now spreading to other locations. A remarkable series of productions has received attention this season alone, penetrating the mainstream consciousness. These productions might all be termed children of Sleep No More, the spectacularly successful adaptation of Macbeth by British company Punchdrunk, which began in London in 2003, came to Boston in 2009, and opened in New York in 2011 in a production which is still running.
The commercial success of Sleep No More and its infiltration of the zeitgeist have spawned a new wave of productions that find traditionally passive audiences open and even eager for participatory experiences. Avatars of this phenomenon over the last few years have included, among many others, Queen of the Night, a banquet-cum-extravaganza loosely inspired by Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte; the War and Peace-inspired musical Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812, which took place in a nightclub setting and is (somehow) transferring to Broadway this fall (starring Josh Groban no less!); Crossing Over, a dance-theater work set entirely in Brooklyn’s magnificent Greenwood Cemetery at night; and many more.
I’ll be taking a close look at several more recent productions, but before doing so, taxonomy might be useful. Critics use descriptors like “Immersive,” “Site-Specific,” “Participatory” and “Interactive” to describe many different kinds of theatrical experiences. All theater strives to be “immersive,” but the generic term “Immersive Theater” might be the best catchall for the current wave, foregrounding as it does the sense of the audience being folded into the event in a very real manner. “Site-Specific” describes theater that, for the most part, does not take place in a traditional playhouse but rather makes use of a found or repurposed location, in many cases one that has some resonance vis-à-vis the content of the work itself. So, for example, one might stage Three Sisters in a Victorian-era mansion, or Endgame in an abandoned warehouse. Recently, I saw a terrific production of Tosca by the enterprising company LoftOpera, presented in an old bus depot in Brooklyn. Even Carnegie Hall got in on the action with a Site-Specific performance of West Side Story at the Knockdown Center in a no-man’s-land industrial section of Queens. New York has seen many such productions over the decades, and the latest wave is more a matter of a bump in numbers and visibility, not inherently a new paradigm.
“Participatory” starts to get closer to the root of what defines this new wave. In many of these productions, the audience is not confined to seats in a prescribed area but instead moves around the playing space, sometimes according to a strictly guided plan and sometimes on its own volition. The spatial separation between the audience and the performers disappears, and both occupy the area that would traditionally have been called the “stage” but is now best described as a theatrical space. Audience members can closely examine set decorations and props and can determine their own experience based on when and where they spend their time within the theatrical space.
“Interactive” takes the new paradigm to the next level, indicating not just a sharing of the theatrical space but also true verbal and even physical interaction with the performers. This approach circles back to the Living Theater and its imitators in the 1960s in which the line between Theater and a “Happening” was slim. The utopian vision of that era strove to tear down walls, as a representation—or even an actualization—of sociopolitical revolution. The audience spoke to the cast, joined them in the action, and became one with the theatrical act. The results were naturally chaotic but full of potential power. So much power, in fact, that the concept of “audience participation” was co-opted by the commercial theater, stripped of its politics, and re-created as everything from mass sing-alongs (in 1972’s Pippin, for example), to cast members roaming the auditorium and sitting in audience members’ laps (in 1983’s Cats), to countless examples of hapless patrons being pulled up on stage as part of a comic sketch. And this is where many audience members become uncomfortable: much of the fear of “audience participation” stems from a terror of being put on the spot in public. All but the most extroverted will break out in a cold sweat when suddenly asked to improvise in front of a crowd.
The new wave of Immersive Theater neutralizes the anxiety of audience participation in two ways. First, the theatrical space is decentralized, so any interaction you have with a performer is generally not in front of an intimidating audience and may even be in a private one-on-one setting. Second, the interactions are fairly controlled. You may be asked a simple question, or instructed to hold an object, but rarely are you put on the spot or asked to improvise in a way that feels central to the show’s momentum. In this way, audiences who might otherwise flee the idea of a participatory theatrical event have found themselves entranced by the breaking down of traditional barriers, and by the opportunity to commune more closely with artists. The multiple manifestations of immersion on occasion lead to confusion, and audiences are still negotiating expectations. In fact, many current works pointedly ask audiences to avoid participating in a verbal or narratively disruptive way. At the performance of Journey Labs’ The Alving Estate I attended, a man initially thought he was supposed to be improvising along with the performers and was gently rebuked into observant silence.
Third Rail Projects is a major player in this new field. Then She Fell, their endlessly fascinating spin on Alice in Wonderland, opened in 2012 and is still running. Directed, designed, scripted and choreographed by the company’s co-artistic directors, Zach Morris, Tom Pearson, and Jennine Willett, the piece received rapturous reviews, numerous awards, and popularized an alternative template to Sleep No More’s dominant model. Whereas Punchdrunk’s work is epic in scope, encompassing dozens of large rooms and hundreds of audience members (masked to separate them from the performers) wandering around with complete freedom of movement, Third Rail’s Then She Fell takes a miniaturist approach, with no more than 15 audience members at any given performance, each led through a strictly arranged, personalized sequence. The playing spaces, each inspired by some aspect of Lewis Carroll’s immortal story, are intimate and exquisitely art directed. Participants are given keys (a notable Alice motif) at the beginning of the show and encouraged to unlock cabinets and drawers; most are filled with postcards, photographs, playing cards, and chess pieces. Performers play characters from the books as well as Carroll himself and, somewhat obliquely, members of the Liddell family, whose daughter Alice inspired the tales and whose eventual break with Carroll was the source of much mysterious drama. Although there is plenty of dialogue, the performers are primarily dancers, moving through choreographed segments that bring out the underlying psychological subtext of the Alice books in relation to the author and his own struggles. Audience members join in a nonsensical, chair-hopping Mad Tea Party, drink herbal concoctions offered in tiny goblets by the White Rabbit and others, voyeuristically watch the Red Queen dance a psychotic breakdown, and take dictation from Carroll as he writes a despairing letter in a room flooded with “tears.”
Then She Fell encompasses what critic Jonathan Mandell, in his treatise “Immersive Theater, Defined” on Howlround.com, defines as five key elements of the genre: a multi-sensory approach (taste, touch and smell augmenting sight and sound); a sense that the show is as much art installation as theater piece; personalization of the experience; an emphasis on the social via “playful interaction or inexplicable tasks, often in small groups”; and, finally, the centrality of a story, no matter how fractured or obscure. Prior knowledge of the story helps significantly in decoding Immersive Theater, hence the frequent focus on canonical works like Macbeth and Alice in Wonderland. Mandell notes the pleasures of deciphering allusive references, and I felt that many times myself in these productions. When a climactic moment in Sleep No More culminated in the actors picking up branches and marching toward the center of the room, my heart leapt into my throat, and I almost said out loud: “Oh my god, it’s Birnam Wood!”
Third Rail’s latest effort, The Grand Paradise, opened in February of this year in the trendy Bushwick neighborhood in Brooklyn. The experience is a re-creation of a hedonistic tropical resort in the 1970s. Upon arrival, the audience is “checked in” by the staff in a cocktail-stocked waiting lounge, shown an introductory video in the style of an airline safety announcement, and sent through a faux jet bridge. The performers, identifiable by their flashy resort wear, greet the audience with leis. The “resort” itself encompasses a bar, a beach, a disco, a giant glass swimming tank filled with cavorting divers, and myriad smaller rooms, all surrounding a central courtyard. As the lights are low, the effect is of a tropical evening, full of mystery and potential. Period music, superbly curated and scored by Sean Hagerty, sets the tone. Soon the plot, such as it is, commences. A tourist family arrives, comprising a father, mother, two young women, and a young man (the interrelations remain a bit unclear). They’re clearly excited to be at the resort but seem uptight, in need of the slightly louche relaxation that a 1970s swinging scene provides. The mother is the first to succumb: in an encounter with a provocative female employee (identified as “The Siren” in the program distributed after the performance), she begins to let loose, engaging in a music- and dance-saturated act of outfit- and identity-switching that takes place on a balcony above the audience. This sets in motion a whole series of scenes in which the members of the family encounter seductive employees who slowly pull them out of their shells. We witness the father interact with a Venus-like diva, the daughter dancing with young men and letting her hair down, and the young man engaging in homoerotic encounters with various lifeguards and activity directors.
The audience engages in the same activities as the family and also infiltrates the world of the resort employees. The show alternates among scenes that are meant for the entire audience, small-group breakout moments, and one-on-one encounters between cast and audience members. At times, the audience is free to move from room to room, choosing their own path. At other times, individual spectators are specifically directed, or pulled, into different rooms. And at times the entire audience is corralled into the central courtyard to witness a specific scene. No two attendees have the same experience, and no attendee is guaranteed to undergo or witness every element of the play. When I attended, I spent some time with a resort employee learning to tie nautical knots and then moved into a room where we were given paper and a pencil compass and taught how to map our dream destinations and desires. One delinquent employee led a group of us on an illicit mission, with much tiptoeing and whispering. Another brought me to an hourglass-filled room and delivered a new-agey monologue on the passage of time. In a particularly affecting vignette, a young woman brought me into a mirrored room and asked me to spend several minutes looking at myself: an encounter that recalled a few college-era moments of substance-fueled introspection. Throughout, there was much talk of time, of desire, of unknotting knots, of destiny and pre-determination. The audience was enraptured and fascinated, the cast unvaryingly committed and expert.
By the way, there’s no getting around the Erotics of Immersive Theater. Being in such close proximity to performers heightens an awareness of their physicality—a factor of any live performance, but one generally experienced at a safer distance. Voyeurism is an intrinsic part of any theatrical experience; since the Greeks, artists have exploited the forbidden excitement of witnessing moments that are technically meant to be private. Immersive Theater foregrounds the act of voyeurism, not least in the way audience members are often encouraged to peek through keyholes and windows to watch scenes playing out. What’s more, participatory performance often involves physical touch, and in many instances the audience member finds himself in a chaste but undeniably intimate one-on-one encounter with a performer. It’s impossible to ignore the covert thrill of making a connection with an attractive stranger (at The Grand Paradise I was singled out for a back rub from a hunky masseur), and many works of Immersive Theater play on this frisson, either implicitly or explicitly.
Less prominent but just as enterprising as Third Rail Projects is Journey Lab, a new company that in January premiered their work The Alving Estate, an immersive riff on Ibsen’s Ghosts, created, conceived, and directed by artistic director Victor Carinha, along with Christy Casey, Anthony Logan Cole, Mia Zanette, Jennifer Wilson, and co-produced with Deaths Head Theatrical. The limited run of perfor- mances took place at the Morris-Jumel Mansion in upper Manhattan. This beautiful and eerily isolated structure, now a historical museum, is purportedly the oldest still-standing house in Manhattan and served, over the years, as a headquarters for George Washington during the Revolutionary War as well as a home for Aaron Burr. Upon arriving, 35 audience members were herded through the back entrance into the downstairs kitchen and told by performers playing members of the household staff that they were prospective candidates for employment at the Alving Estate and were there to observe the doings of the house. Spectators were then offered Ibsen-inspired bespoke cocktails and given surgical masks and cotton gloves to wear. The audience was eventually sent upstairs and allowed to wander most of the house, throughout which scenes from, related to, or suggested by Ghosts were taking place. Over a two-hour span, we saw the arrival home of Oswald Alving, his encounters with his mother Helene and Pastor Manders, and the reactions of the servants, especially the ambitious maid Regina. We watched the family preparing for dinner and then witnessed the constantly interrupted meal, a delicious-smelling chicken feast. Visitors to Helene’s bedroom were shown family photos by the mistress and could also witness maids rummaging through her private belongings.
Although there was some choreographed movement, The Alving Estate had much less pure dance than the Third Rail productions, with quite a few scenes played out as pure theater. At first the cast, costumed in 1950s attire, did not generally acknowledge the spectators, although occasionally one of the servants inveigled a wandering audience member into helping with a household task (I did a bit of window washing). As the plot intensified, however, the audience increasingly entered the action. A fearful maid whispered in my ear, “Don’t trust anybody.” Another pressed a coin in my hand and told me it would help should I ever need to flee the house. One of my companions was taken on a tour of the mansion’s grounds by a servant and told that the house was full of secrets, a recurrent theme, of course, in Ghosts. The plot of the play never coalesced in a coherent way, although that is not really the goal of any of these productions. The Alving Estate billed itself as “an immersive, site-sympathetic theatrical experience”—a smart acknowledgment that the colonial-era mansion did not dictate the purported time and place of the play but rather served as an atmospheric backdrop for the action. Ultimately the production, while haunting and peppered with intriguing moments, felt a bit underpowered, lacking the constant stimulation of the Punchdrunk and Third Rail productions, which it clearly emulates. Those works kindle a desire to return again and again, a sense that one will never capture all they have to offer, whereas my visit to the Journey Lab production left me with the sense that I had absorbed all of its content, with time to spare.
One of the primary pleasures of attending these works is the gestalt surrounding the performance. Real estate-obsessed urbanites love nothing more than entrée to buildings that were formerly off-limits, and intrepid explorers love visiting neighborhoods that are off the beaten path. Equally as important to the experience at many of these shows is the imbibing of alcohol before and even sometimes during the performance. Aside from the lubricating impact on social inhibitions, the presence of booze plays into a decidedly youthful vibe that permeates these works. The average age of the audience is considerably younger than that at traditional theaters. The openness of millennials to different experiences—or more precisely their lack of interest in standard theatrical aesthetics—is certainly a factor in Immersive Theater’s growing popularity. There’s something very of the moment, very “Brooklyn,” about the notion of reclaimed spaces, hip/obscure locations, craft cocktails on demand, and the dissolving of conventional barriers.
What’s more, the very structure of these works draws directly from the aesthetics of the digital age, in which narrative has become discursive as opposed to linear. “Readers” each have a different experience when they visit a website or scroll through a social media feed. The hypertext links they follow, the pages they bookmark, the tabs they open and close—all reflect the personalization of the media experience and speak to the attendant fracturing of narrative. This fracturing finds theatrical form in the splintered storytelling of Immersive Theater; in a sense, every spectator claims the power to follow their own hyperlinked story from moment to moment. What is exciting about these works is that this loose, experience-based (vs. plot-based) approach to theater is happening in a real, physical space, populated by fellow humans, as opposed to virtual space. These works speak to a craving for live interaction, for the presence of others, which cannot be suppressed. Ultimately, Immersive Theater works have the same goal as all theater: to move, engage, amuse, enlighten, and connect. To make us feel less alone. To build empathy. To reach out a hand from the past, or from the distant, or from the other—or even from one’s neighbor, so near yet so far—and to make a connection.