Immersive theatre has become so popular over the last several years that many theatrical companies claim the title for their shows, making it difficult for some theatregoers to identify what genuinely belongs in the genre. I have no such problem. Immersive theatre is theatre that makes me sneeze. This is not meant as a put-down; I’m simply stating a fact:
I sneezed repeatedly at Sleep No More, Punchdrunk Theater’s staging of Macbeth, as if retold by Alfred Hitchcock and Isadora Duncan, which has been running since 2011 in a formerly abandoned club in Chelsea renamed the McKittrick Hotel. It is the show that started the recent trend of immersive theatre in New York. I assumed at the time I was allergic to the creepy Scream/Eyes Wide Shut masks we were required to wear.
I sneezed again (though not as frequently) in Then She Fell, the Third Rail Projects’ take on Lewis Carroll and Alice In Wonderland, staged in Brooklyn. We didn’t have to wear a mask, so what was making me sneeze?
My weird response seems to have tapered off during my most recent immersive binge. I sneezed only once in Third Rail Projects’ newest show, The Grand Paradise, held in an old warehouse in Bushwick, redecorated to look like a tropical resort from the 1970s. I didn’t sneeze at all during my latest immersive excursion, The Alving Estate, a recent staging of Ibsen’s Ghosts by Journey Lab, which was most impressive for its location—the Morris-Jumel Mansion, the oldest house in Manhattan, now a museum, which served as headquarters for George Washington and home for Aaron Burr.
Both The Grand Paradise and The Alving Estate managed to incorporate many of the same elements of immersive theatre as the hits Sleep No More and Then She Fell, without coming together in quite as satisfying a way. The existence of these and other new shows drive home how difficult it is to pull off immersive theatre, even as they illustrate the continuing appeal of the genre.
But what is this genre exactly?
First, let’s clear up some misconceptions: It doesn’t make everybody sneeze (just me, and not all the time). A show does not belong in this genre simply because the audience becomes “lost in the world it presents” or because it “engages the imagination.” Let’s hope that all theatre aims to do that. Immersive theatre creates a physical environment that differs from a traditional theatre where audiences sit in seats and watch a show unfurl on a proscenium stage with a curtain.
That is not to say that “immersive” is the same thing as “site-specific,” nor that it is a synonym for “interactive” or “participatory,” though all three concepts do tend to go together.
Finally, technically speaking, this is not a new genre. “Most theatre in the Middle Ages was site-specific, immersive and participatory,” director and professor Erin Mee told her NYU class, “but there’s a resurgence now.” Mee herself is directing Versailles 2016, which was presented by En Garde Arts in a private estate on Hastings-on-the-Hudson earlier this month, and will be performed again in “an undisclosed location in Manhattan.”
Although the genre is evolving, I’ve observed five elements that most of them—and the best of them?—share:
1. Immersive theatre 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. Versailles 2016 provides food. Queen of the Night, which ran for two years until this past New Year’s Eve, was focused on eating—not just hors d’oevres, but a sit-down dinner done up to Medieval excess. In The Alving Estate, the Alving family and the other main characters sat down to a very convincing chicken dinner delivered by the household help, although audience members simply watched through the surgical masks we had been required to wear.
2. These shows double as an art installation and hands-on museum.
The designers transform the physical space: Sleep No More, Then She Fell, and The Grand Paradise all re-inhabited abandoned buildings and turned them into new institutions. Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812, Dave Malloy’s musical based on a sliver of Tolstoy’s War and Peace, began in 2012 in Ars Nova, a theatre transformed into a nineteenth century Russian tearoom, and moved into its own space, called Kazino, a “temporary structure,” resembling a circus tent, set up in the chi-chi Meatpacking District. Kazino was later reassembled on an empty lot in the theatre district.
The designers also pay extensive attention to details, especially what might in more conventional theatre 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.
3. Immersive shows make 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 theatregoer for an encounter. This can be a performance for an audience of one, or the theatregoer 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.
4. At the same time, there is always an aspect of an immersive show that emphasizes the social, through playful interaction or inexplicable tasks, often in small groups.
In The Grand Paradise, 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.
5. For immersive theatre to work, in my view, a show has to have a story to tell—and it has to have respect for that story.
Now, 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 theatregoer’s experience unfolds also suggests that plot is not a priority. But the longest lasting immersive shows in New York both offer stories that theatregoers 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. Then She Fell does not tell us explicitly who the characters are, and there was a feeling of self-congratulations when I figured out that the woman in the red dress was the Red Queen (something I realize I should have picked up on sooner).
It’s in the story that The Grand Paradise and The Alving Estate fall short, for opposite reasons. There’s too little story in The Grand Paradise—it references an era, puts forth a few themes, but presents the barest of plots—a family of tourists visit a resort and loosen up. There is too much story in Ibsen’s Ghosts; The Alving Estate took an oblique, immersive approach to a play that is heavily plotted with secrets and shocking revelation, but one that is not as familiar to the bulk of American theatregoers.
To me, respect for the story is an essential element of immersive theatre. It was what I felt was missing from Queen of the Night, which proclaimed itself loosely based on Mozart's “Magic Flute” but felt more like just an evening of flirtation, acrobatics, and eating.
In The Guardian, Charlotte Higgins declared:
If you've seen one too many "immersive" pieces of theatre, the shock and excitement of sharing a space with the actors can just simply wear off…What, on initial encounters, felt like an exciting, experimental trend can start to feel predictable and hackneyed…For god's sake, bring back the fourth wall. And seats.
Higgins wrote this in 2009, years before the wave had even hit these shores.
Now, “immersive” is so hot in America it’s used as a marketing tool, even if it may not apply. When Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812 opens on Broadway in the Fall, it will star Josh Groban making his Broadway debut. It will also be an immersive theatre experience that has been reimagined for a traditional theatre.