What is immersive theater? The six elements that define it at its best

“Immersive theater” has come to mean something separate from the dictionary definition of the word “immersive” – in much the same way that phrases Absurdist Theater and Abstract Expressionism took on new meanings. As in those earlier terms, immersive theater describes an art movement – and a theater moment.

That moment has existed in New York since 2011, when Punchdrunk Theater launched its version of “Macbeth,” entitled “Sleep No More”  as if retold by Alfred Hitchcock and Isadora Duncan, in a formerly abandoned club in Chelsea renamed the McKittrick Hotel.

“Sleep No More” is still running, as is “Then She Fell,” Third Rail Projects’ take on Lewis Carroll and Alice in Wonderland, which debuted the following year.

Neither company initially attached the phrase “immersive theater” to their shows, nor do they prefer to label them that now  – which is ironic, considering how many companies now insist on calling their shows “immersive theater”  even when they aren’t really.

Or at least they don’t fit my definition.

Almost four years ago, in HowlRound, I listed the six elements that defined the best of immersive theater that I had seen by then. I still find these a useful guide to my own theatergoing, and, given several new shows I’ve seen of late, it feels the right time to present them again here, updated a few more recent examples.

  1. Immersive theater creates a physical environment that differs from a traditional theater where audiences sit in seats and watch a show unfurl on a proscenium stage with a curtain.

I loved the succinct and spontaneous definition of immersive theater provided by a young Brazilian-American man waiting with the rest of the crowd to be let inside Inside the Wild Heart . a stage adaptation of the book by Clare Lispector, when he noticed that the venue in Williamsburg was called Immersive Gallery.

“Oh no,” he said, “we’re going to have to stand.”

That more or less nails it, although you do sometimes get to sit.

It’s important to note that “immersive theater” is not a synonym for “site-specific, theater.”  Some immersive shows have taken place in actual theaters, but in such cases, the theaters have been radically redesigned. That was the case, for example, with KPOP, which turned the theaters of the  performance art complex A.R.T./New York into a South Korean music factory.

The best-known example may be “Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812”, Dave Malloy’s musical based on a sliver of Tolstoy’s War and Peace, which began in 2012 in Ars Nova, a theater transformed into a nineteenth century Russian tearoom. It moved into its own space, called Kazino, a “temporary structure,” resembling a circus tent, set up in the chi-chi Meatpacking District, and later reassembled on an empty lot in the theater district. But it ended up on Broadway, set designer Mimi Lien transforming the Imperial Theater as much as physically possible. The (aptly named) Imperial was not just decorated to look like a Russian tearoom, with glittering chandeliers, oil paintings in gilded frames set against red velour wallpaper, and a lobby turned into a hallway for an underground nightclub, plastered with posters in Russian. The auditorium itself was reconfigured so that there was no big stage, but rather many little ones criss-crossing through the audience. There were ramps built up into the balcony. Some seats were chairs  around cabaret tables.  This set-up allowed for the performers, dressed sumptuously and mischievously in Paloma Young’s punk aristocratic costumes, to dance, and sing, and play instruments throughout the auditorium — and, above all, to interact directly with members of the audience.

Immersive theater indeed has become such a popular trend that new theater buildings are being designed to reinvent their space for each show.

But it’s still true that most immersive theater takes place in some unusual venues. Two memorable recent, very different examples: The Mile Long Opera took place along the entire length of the High Line; The End of the World Bar and Bathtub takes place in your bathroom; you hire the company to perform in your bathtub.

 

  1. Immersive theater tends to stimulate all five senses—sight and sound, as with conventional theatre pieces, but also touch, and frequently taste and even smell.

Many of the immersive shows have constant eerie underscoring that seems more designed to unnerve than enchant. Most serve drinks. Some serve food. This Is Not A Theatre Company’s Cafe Play took place in an actual cafe and included a meal, although it would be very hard to call it dinner theater; one of the actors portrayed a roach.

“Inside The Wild Heart” marked the “world premiere” of the Scent-O-Scope, an odd looking contraption that delivered ten different scents. I passed it by as a text was projected above it about a woman who explains why she began to steal roses: “I wanted to sniff it until I felt my vision go dark from such heavy perfume.” Nearby, there was a large round bed covered by red roses.  I wish I could state with certainty that what I smelled from the Scent-O-Scope was a red rose.

  1. Immersive theater doubles as an art installation and hands-on museum

The designers pay extensive attention to details, especially what might in more conventional theater be called props, but here function as artifacts, providing an opportunity for the audience members to explore the world. There are photographs on the wall, postcards and period magazines on tables, but some of the shows go much further. In Then She Fell, each audience member is handed a set of keys, with the implicit directive to open drawers and boxes and cupboards and rifle through the letters and postcards that illuminate Lewis Carroll’s work and his relationships.

In “The Jungle,” which was performed at St. Ann’s Warehouse in 2018 (and is scheduled for an encore run in April, 2020) Miriam Buether’s set re-creates the four-star Afghan restaurant that was at a refugee  camp in Calais, France. Food was for sale during intermission just outside the restaurant, inside a geodesic dome lined with photographs and signs that tried to re-create the atmosphere of the camp, whose residents named it the Jungle. One sign was entitled “Workshops Today,” next to little cardboard clocks with the various times: “Kung Fu with Yasin. Theatre with Kneehigh. Music with Mohamed.

This element is often given short-shrift in less meticulous shows claiming to be immersive. (To be fair, the shows that take place entirely at one or more real-life locations – such as Waterwell’s The Courtroom, or Woodshed Collective’s remarkable Empire Travel Agency make the world into their museum, and so need not design any further

 

  1. Immersive theater makes individual audience members feel as if they have had a uniquely personal experience, that they are not just part of the crowd.

This can be achieved in a variety of ways. In Sleep No More, you are on your own to explore some ninety rooms in any order you see fit and for as little or as long as you want (up to a total of three hours)—giving the theatregoers the sense that they are in charge (even though, in fact, we must adhere to some rigid rules—for example keeping on that itchy mask). In Then She Fell, performers choose for you which rooms you will visit, in what order, and for what duration. But there are only fifteen theatregoers attending each performance, and each is most often alone in a room, or with just one or two other audience members. As a result, the experience feels custom-made.

Often in immersive shows, a single performer pairs off with a single theatergoer for an encounter. This can be a performance for an audience of one, or the theatergoer can be volunteered as a character in the plot, or asked to participate in some other way. Lewis Carroll asked me to dictate a letter to Alice asking her to respond finally to his entreaties.

  1. At the same time, immersive productions often emphasize social interactions, either through directed tasks in small groups, or by fostering a looser party atmosphere.

In “The Grand Paradise,”  a Third Rail Projects show that transformed a Bushwick warehouse into a tropical resort,  one cast member gathered four of us together to teach us how to tie nautical knots, exactly as a recreation counselor might in a resort. The first activity in The Alving Estate was an elaborate game of Black Jack, in which we are asked to write down a secret on a piece of paper and use that to bet on the game. The winner of the hand collected all the secrets. The mere fact that alcohol is served at these shows signals that what we’ve paid for is not just art, but a party.

 

  1. The most successful immersive theater has a story to tell—and gives respect to storytelling

I’ve gone back and forth in my view of this element over the years. It’s true that many of these shows don’t even include dialogue, substituting mute and often-violent pas de deux, or tableaux vivant. The arbitrary or random order in which an individual theatergoer’s experience unfolds also suggests that plot is not a priority. But the longest lasting immersive shows in New York, Sleep No More and Then She Fell, both offer stories that theatergoers already know—Macbeth and Alice in Wonderland. Our prior knowledge enables us to fit the disparate pieces into a coherent story, through some detective work that feels part of these shows’ appeal.

 

Not all of the best of immersive theater have all six elements, and not all shows that attempt all six elements are the best immersive theater. But in my experience, the most satisfying theater that calls itself immersive is driven by the creative team’s  respect for the form, rather than the producers’ interest in the branding.

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Author: New York Theater

Jonathan Mandell is a 3rd generation NYC journalist, who sees shows, reads plays, writes reviews and sometimes talks with people.

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