It came as a shock to lovers of immersive theater, and reportedly even to the people who work on “Sleep No More,” the show by the British theater company Punchdrunk that launched New Yorkers’ enthusiasm for immersive theater with its wordless version of “Macbeth” as if retold by Alfred Hitchcock and Isadora Duncan. On Wednesday the show’s producers announced it will be closing in the McKittrick Hotel in Chelsea on January 28, 2024 — nearly 13 years, 5,000 performances and two million attendees after its first preview there on March 7, 2011.
Just the day before, “Here Lies Love,” a show that is probably the closest Broadway will ever get to immersive theater, announced it will be closing at the Broadway Theater on November 26 after a much shorter run, just four months — 33 previews and 150 regular performances.
“Yes, new ways can work,” the producers of “Here Lies Love” said in a statement. But it requires “creating the audience for it. And how much time it takes to find and grow new audiences is out of sync with the tight timeframes for audience-building and awareness.”
The creators of “Sleep No More” didn’t (couldn’t) offer such an explanation, citing instead the increasing expense of running their elaborate operation, which involves some hundred cast members and other employees
”It is the end of an era,” Punchdrunk’s Felix Barrett and Maxine Doyle said in their statement.
But is it?
I asked that question of Erin Mee of This Is Not A Theatre Company, the artistic director of one of the five immersive theater companies in New York that I heralded in an article in TDF Stages in 2019.,
Erin said she couldn’t talk much as she was in a hurry — “I’m on my way to an immersive show right now.” She only had time to say she was sad that the two shows are closing but “‘immersive’ and/or ‘participatory theater is here to stay. The genre itself is very powerful, and remains very popular.”
Noah Nelson, the publisher of No Proscenium, a publication (website, podcast etc) about immersive theater across the country, was also busy: “I’m setting to travel today to an industry event in Denver where immersive theater makers are going to be pitching the likes of Lincoln Center, The Kennedy Center, Center Theater Group.”
He did have time to tell me: “I’m all in on the long-term viability of immersive. An off-Broadway show that can run for 13 years and bounce back for a turn after a global pandemic isn’t something to sneeze at. It lasted longer after the pandemic than Phantom of the Opera did.”
Yes, there has been less immersive theater to experience in New York since the Covid-19 pandemic. I personally have seen less of it. But a little perspective here: There was a time when I couldn’t possibly have seen more of it. I was, well, immersed in immersive theater.
So immersed that I wrote several articles defining it, in part in reaction to the many, many theater companies marketing their shows as immersive without having any of the six elements present in the best shows by the genuine immersive theater companies, most of them homegrown, such as Third Rail Projects, En Garde Arts and Woodshed Collective. My supposed expertise got me invited by a Chinese theater festival to give a talk about the genre in Shanghai, where I witnessed (and wrote about for American Theatre Magazine) the rising trend in immersive theater there, including “Sleep No More,” which Punchdrunk had just brought to Shanghai, taking over an abandoned building and renaming it the McKinnon Hotel (a kind of homage to the abandoned nightclub it had taken over in Chelsea, and renamed the McKittrick Hotel.) Seven years later, the Shanghai production is still playing there, with no plans to close.
In New York, the term immersive is not bandied about as promiscuously as it was pre-pandemic, but there are still shows that are 1. presenting stories in 2. non-traditional theater spaces, which sometimes 3. double as art installations, and 4. make individual audience members feel as if they have had a uniquely personal experience while also often 5. emphasizing social interactions/ interactivity/participation. They also 6. tend to stimulate more of the senses (such as touch, taste and even scent) than a conventional show. They are, in other words, examples of immersive theater, although the concept has broadened beyond Punchdrunk’s initial approach, with new ways of storytelling and new non-traditional theater spaces, such as parks, courtrooms, a cafe, swimming pool, the Staten Island Ferry, whole neighborhoods, a bathtub, podplays, smart phones, and Virtual Reality.
There is a question as to whether immersive theater is workable for the commercial world of Broadway. The examples of immersive shows that transferred to Broadway – “Here Lies Love” and before it, “KPOP,” and “Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812” — are not encouraging. This is not just because of their relatively short runs, but because of how much was lost of the shows’ essential immersive elements with the transfer. The most stark example of this was KPOP; Off-Broadway in 2017, audiences moved from room to room in what had been configured as a KPOP factory. This was dropped on Broadway in 2022, where we stayed in our seats.
Pre-Broadway (and more immersive) productions of Here Lies Love, KPOP and Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812
Most immersive theater these days tends to be smaller and have lower marketing budgets, but there’s always something to see.
Last year, I attended a day-long event called “The New Frame,” featuring fourteen works by “experience designers” schooled by Odyssey Works — much of which fit the definition of immersive. The New Frame is returning for its second annual event (for free!) on November 19, with the work of thirteen new experience designers.
Examples of currently running shows that seem to fit the bill (I haven’t seen them myself) include LinkedDanceTheater’s The Incomplete Collection a gallery show (at Culture Lab in Long Island City) in which the artwork comes alive , Dead Letter No. 9 (at a former postal facility), and Off The Wall Production’s #uglycry, a “phones-on immersive experience” involving a grieving girlfriend.
Each of the New York City-based immersive theater companies that made the biggest splash pre-pandemic are still in business. Third-Rail Projects, best-known for its long-running Then She Fell, a theatrical trip through a wonderland of Lewis Carroll and his writings (which, yes, closed in 2020 after eight years), remains among the most prolific. They even produced during the shutdown, an immersive digital production entitled Return the Moon . When I first interviewed the founders, they didn’t like the label “immersive.” But now Third Rail is planning a big new in-person theater piece in New York in February, which they describe as “where immersive performance and an indie rock concert collide.” Immersive theater lovers might be losing Sleep, but the new show by Third Rail Projects is entitled – aptly? – True Love Forever