Immersion, Coercion, and Mutiny

How do we set rules for the audience?

I am a security guard. The woman I am supposed to drug and carry away is surrounded by an audience who is set on protecting her. I take a breath...and improvise.

This past semester at Arizona State University, thirty-one MFA candidates including writers, directors, designers of all hats, and performers of all styles, set out to create an immersive theatrical experience at the ASU Art Museum.

The performance that emerged after fourteen weeks of devising was called [De/As]cending. Born from the seed of Dante’s Inferno, spritzed with the theme of water scarcity, and encapsulated by an oppressive regime housed in a bunker, it was the kind of show only exhausted, relentless graduates could imagine.

The show had three simultaneous “tracks” the audience could follow that ran three times a night, and culminated in one final scene, Sleep No More style, with one actor from each track being sacrificed and turned into water.

Or so went the story we wrote.

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The first night went off with nary a hitch. A few missed cues, a bit of improvising, and some wonky timing, but hell, it's theatre.

The second night opens, as the first, to a sold out crowd. The first run-through goes well, but as the second run starts, something feels...different. The audience is riled up. As we go through our security speech, one audience member pours out the water we've given him and shouts "I will not drink people!" The scurrilous remarks continue through the run. They steal little things, talk back to our instructions, and openly question our motives.

At one point in the show, I am to drug and capture a scientist who the audience has come to love. The scientist is standing at the bottom of some stairs, surrounded by audience members who she is trying to "rescue." I step towards her when, all of a sudden, my arm is grabbed by an audience member who shouts, "We won't let you take her!"

This is...not part of the show.

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I shake the audience member off, pick up the scientist, and climb the stairs. From behind me I hear, "We're going with them! We can't let this happen!" I walk a little faster, expecting to get decked from behind by a passionate audience member. After leaving the room, the scientist and I break character. I turn around to face the audience members who have followed us. They look...surprised?

"Oh...she's okay," one says, referring to the now fully not-drugged scientist who is running down the stairs to set up for the next scene.

"Hi," I say to them. This is a little absurd. I struggle for words. "Um...what are you doing? We need to set up...um? Hi. I’m Phil."

They explain that they cannot stand by while we kill people, that we are forcing them to be implicated in murder, that they were trying to stop us. I know that in about twenty seconds, the rest of the audience is going to come through the stairwell. This is not the time for a psycho-social debate.

I leave them and enter the sacrificial chamber to find something else very strange: one of the three people on our sacrificial altars is...an audience member. Something was happening. This is not what we had designed.

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After the second run, the same rebellious audience is ready to see it one final time. As the bunker representative steps to the top of the pyramid to introduce the show, the audience boos loudly. "Down with the bunker!" they shout. 

I turn to the bunker president and whisper, "Hey, I don't think they're going to let me kill the scientist. If I get a bad vibe, I'm just going to kill you instead." He looks at me. "Deal," he says. What a champion.

The moment comes. I am at the top of the stairs, ready to drug the scientist. There are flames in the audience's eyes. “There are more of us than there are of you!" they shout. The president and I exchange a silent acknowledgement. "This is what you wanted!" I improvise. I drug him and drag him away. The audience has saved the scientist.

This last sacrifice looks different than we wrote it. Only one of the original characters we intended to kill is there—the other two have been replaced with an audience member and the president I just drugged. Ceremony, sacrifice, the audience leaves.

We all gather after the performance in a haze of anger, euphoria, and confusion. What just happened to our show? Could some audience members really not tell the bunker from reality? Were they trying to teach us something? Did our oppressive regime hit a nerve?

What happens when you remove the typical social contract of the theatre seat? We invited the audience to walk in our oppressive world and they wanted to change it. The audience's acts of touching and speaking, grabbing and yelling were both revelatory and deeply disturbing. Were they assholes or heroes?

What happens when you remove the typical social contract of the theatre seat? We invited the audience to walk in our oppressive world and they wanted to change it. The audience's acts of touching and speaking, grabbing and yelling were both revelatory and deeply disturbing. Were they assholes or heroes?

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How should people touch the worlds we create? As theatre artists, we are uniquely positioned to create challenging answers to that question. You might yell at the movie screen when Snape kills Dumbledore, but that's not going to save him. Yell out to an actor and we can all hear you. "Hey, Romeo! She's just sleeping!"

Audiences typically follow prescribed, unspoken etiquette, but what happens if we ask an audience member to stand? To speak? To die? To kill? Each step we take out of the proscenium is scary and exhilarating. Do we enforce a new set of rules for immersion? Or do we let the audience's will, as their feet, roam free?

Live performance is so often plagued by indifference. Theatre is 90% failure, 90% boredom, 90% I'd-rather-be-watching-Netflix. If people walk away ecstatic, great. Furious? Great. The biggest thing we have to fight is mediocrity. Take the audience out of their seats. Let's show them something.

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All photos from [De/As]cending, credit: Tim Trumble.

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Recent studies have suggested that although performance attendance numbers are declining in the US, the DIY movement has seen a rise in people learning instruments, etc. at home. This type of performance where the audience can interact and act could be viewed as participatory art, and I think that could potentially be a draw.

This is very interesting. I'm writing an immersive play, October. My play is a murder mystery set in the woods. If I can find funding, my play will take place in the Summer of 2016. I have two scenes where the audience participates in the play, in a Search for a missing child, and a Hunt for the antagonist. My actors will tell the audience that they are going to break off into two groups, one group will follow Captain Han, one will follow Bronte, and run around the woods, for these two scenes. I also have one Procession scene where the actors will lead the audience, in groups of two, up the stone stairs, to the adjoining park. On paper, this works out well. I wonder, though, in real life, if things will work out so smoothly? What if an audience member doesn't want to join one of the groups, and she starts her own search party? What if someone doesn't want to wait in line to be taken up the stairs? How do we keep a semblance of order in the play? Should we?

Sounds like an awesome project! So often immersive pieces are devised by large groups, I'm glad you're shaking that up.

The question of "how to instruct" is an important one to consider. Should it be in character or out of character? Within the world of the play or outside the world of the play? My favorite immersive pieces find a way to intuitively build the instructions into the world of the play without having to say "Okay now audience...you'll be walking this way." The risk with that, however, is that if the audience doesn't trust or want to help the characters giving the instructions, they might break the rules they've been given. You'll also want take the performers into consideration--the less rigid you are with the rules you set, the more prepared the performers ought to be to improvise.

The bottom line is, whatever group you're producing this with ought to all be on the same page about how to view the audience's independent agency. Whether it should be encouraged/celebrated/played-along-with or if it should be diplomatically controlled/diffused/ignored. Both choices carry opportunities and shortcomings, but making a clear choice is quite important.

Thanks for sharing this .I had hoped to see this 'show' but unfortunately was unable to.I'm an actor who has acted in 'immersive' productions and have attended a few as a audience member.You are to be congratulated for trying this on..."Rules for an Audience..."?Ok, would this be a 'meta-dramatic' technique, clearly it is much more than, hey audience "clap for Tinkerbell"-so in this we do away with 4th wall/5th wall?One is confronting, talking to the audience directly within a contrived framework...sort of suggests dilectical thearpy; an audience member who wants that level of participation should audition?Immersive pieces to me often seem more like an interactive art installation rather than theater...in suggesting that more traditional forms of theater are a 'passive' experience for the audience, I think presumes too much on what's going on individually and collectively with an audience to, to say nothing of the text.A show opens, as an actor I have little or no idea what is going happen, what my part is or may become ,asking audiences to perform as much as performers- seems to me this quickly can start to feel predictiable, hackneyed...a gimmicky attraction.Just thoughts off the top...I look forward to seeing more of your work.Best,Steven

A friend posted this and it sparked a conversation over on FB... so I thought I'd cross post an idea I shared with that group. First - sounds like a SUPER fun and impactful piece of storytelling. I hope you make more.

At the end you write "Live performance is so often plagued by indifference. ... Take the audience out of their seats. Let's show them something."

But what you describe, your audience didn't want to be SHOWN something. They wanted to DO something. And because you made just enough of a space to allow it, they took that opportunity to do something. This is how you overcome indifference - you give people something they can make a difference in. They are no longer an audience, they are participants.

There's a really exciting conversation evolving about the intersection of storytelling/games and I think theatre artists have a really important/exciting place in that conversation. Please make more art like this :)

I'm glad this article sparked more conversation, thanks for sharing! You've shed new light on a good distinction of terms. Let me see if I can figure this out:

Showing, as a passive interaction, means the narrative/art/story isn't being affected by the audience at all. This might work with TV or movies, but I think it might be impossible in the theatre. To borrow a bit of wisdom from quantum mechanics, the "observer effect" means that the observed will always be changed by the observer.

In the live space of the theatre, the audience will always be Doing something--breathing, laughing, crying, leaving the theatre at intermission--the feedback loop will always be there because of shared time/space. But these fall within a pretty strict boundary of "acceptable" behavior. Let's call these "soft" interactions--interactions wherein the audience behaves according to presupposed etiquette. "Hard" interactions, on the other hand are behaviors outside the bounds of etiquette: the audience shouts at the characters, touches them, chooses to stop the action, etc. etc.

"Hard" and "soft" can't really be a binary distinction, though, because there are too many variations to include. Perhaps the audience's "Doing" is on a continuum from "soft" to "hard."

I would propose that in the middle lies one distinct milestone: The audience has the power to change the story. If we don't want them to cross the milestone, but they do, we tell them to get back into their place. On the other hand, if we want them to cross, but they don't, we're left feeling the sting of complacency.

In this show, to use your phrase, we "made just enough of a space to allow" the audience to get over that milestone. Some of us weren't really prepared for what lay on the other side, while others were ecstatic about what they would find.

So we're left with a few questions. Is "hard" interaction more exciting than "soft"? How should we approach stepping over the milestone? How can we preserve safety?

I guess all of those boil down to the ultimate question at hand: How much control do we want, as artists? We could set up the framework and let the audience build/destroy it, or we could create the city and tell the audience exactly where to walk.

Thoughts?

Oh Phil! I have so many thought! The vocabulary I have been using for this is one of a continuum from "sit in your chair/proscenium" <---> "agency". In the middle of that continuum you would find promenade theatre (move, engage, but ultimate watch) immersive theatre (cast the audience in a role, ultimately observe). These are awesome - and then agency (the ability for audience/participants to actually impact the outcome/flow of the story) is different. Sometimes I've articulated this as "the story only happens because the audience/player does things that make it happen."

In video game design they talk about how truely open worlds are very difficult to design. So part of how you create them is by making part of the open world uninteresting. You can take your virtual boat and row into the ocean for hours, but nothing really happens. In a live experience - you can walk out of the theatre, but if nothing interesting happens there, would you want to? -- This is one of the design theories I've been using in the work I make. If you don't want them to do a thing, make that thing uninteresting and vice versa.

These are all good questions. And I think lots of really good art can be made along that continuum. Your questions are spot on - you need to decide for any given piece, what kind of engagement do you want? How does that support the essential story/experience you are creating? And once you know that, then HOW do create that engagement.

We spent the first 20 minutes of our design meeting for Rabbit Hole talking about this last night. We are really passionate about agency and the result is that the stories we've chosen to tell are once about agency and choice.

You can see some of our progress on our next project (Lights Out - a live narrative game for 40 people) here: https://www.facebook.com/do...

Or if you really want to hear a whole lot MORE opinions I have on this topic, I did an interview about our last Rabbit Hole project (After the Death Card) here: http://biggameswithace.blog...

Whoa. First of all, I want to come play and design with you all! It seems like you're asking a lot of the same questions I've been asking. Your interview with Big Games was super insightful into the area of "experience architecture" (a generalized term I'm trying to coin to encapsulate all the alt-reality/interactivity/scavenger hunt/urban adventure stuff :P).

Your work parallels a lot of conceptualizing some of the grads at ASU have been doing. We were considering how the 'serialize' the process. That we might design the first couple chapters of a story, but depending on how audiences interacted with it, subsequent chapters would build around the ideas the audience was the most interested in. Quite a large logistical conundrum to be sure, but an exciting prospect. I love the idea of the design/participation feedback loop happening in real time.

We also had lots of ideas about multimedia interactions and timescale (if it could be a multi-year project, for instance, all tracing the same big story). Of course, a lot of this was conceptualization. Implementation is a whole other ballgame :)

What strikes me is that the narrative you describe for After the Death Card, the narrative we thought up (for a project called Anthem) and the narrative of other projects like this (The Institute in San Francisco for example) all deal with investigations of wrongdoings, mystery-like atmosphere and physical artifacts being left behind. What truths about interactive games/theatre can we distill from this pattern? That discovery of past narratives is inherently interesting? Or that casting the audience as "investigator" would draw the biggest response?

Can we talk more about this? PM me on Facebook (Phil Weaver-Stoesz) or Twitter (@Dear_Godot). I'll be near Chicago for the next few months and would love to sit down with you if you have time.

I was once involved with an immersive theatre production that was inspired by George Orwell's 1984. There were various moments that allowed the audience to split up, but the biggest decision was whether to stay loyal and follow Big Brother, or to go with the rebellion party. I was playing the leader of the rebellion and one of our final scenes was where I had been captured and brought to room 101 to be interrogated, which involved a lot of yelling and using a duct tapped Taboo buzzer as a remote to "electrocute" me. Normally this scene went off with no problem, and was quite effective in disturbing the audience members, who were in the room watching me writhing in pain.However, one night we had a particularly over zealous woman in the audience who was all for trying to take down the government. I found out later that she had been causing a few problems throughout the show by talking back or delaying certain scenes, but the biggest impact she had happened when she was brought to Room 101 partway through my torture. Every performance had an audience member who was asked to distract a guard who would then bring them to Room 101, but this was the only time that someone saw me being tortured and immediately ran to try and save me.I was currently strapped to a chair and this woman practically tackled me, trying to tear my arms out of the restraints. This was a vital scene that needed to happen for our conclusion; luckily we stayed in character, but it did require three other actors to pull the woman away from me.

I have been involved with a few immersive theatre productions, but I have never seen that level of commitment from an audience member before, or since. It's interesting how both our experiences have happened while involving a show with an oppressive regime and I have become fascinated with the idea of possibly bringing audiences completely into the world of a play.

Whoa, thanks for sharing! We also discussed if the audience's reaction was due to the "oppressive regime" narrative we created. We, like you, also included rebellion within the audience--each of the three tracks had some people attempting to escape the museum, but ultimately failing. I talked to one audience member who, halfway through the performance, just literally "escaped the museum" and left the performance.

Our performance included no cathartic release for the audience. They saw people they had grown to care about killed, then they left. Perhaps after seeing that happen multiple times through different lens, it triggered a need for that release?

In your performance, did the audience win? Or did the regime win?

The audience who chose to side with the rebellion won, but only in a sense. The final scene that everyone saw was my character being released from the restraints, only to put the person who had been torturing me in them and start electrocuting her. The effect we wanted to create was that, while the power has swapped hands, nothing has changed.In fact, as the audience was leaving Room 101, the woman who had tried to rescue me asked "are you really going to do the same to her, after everything that just happened?" and she looked so heartbroken that I actually felt bad. I think there's something to be said for audiences wanting a happy ending for those that they rooted for, and if they are given the power to interact with that world then sometimes they are brave enough to make the ending they want, happen.

This is awesome! Kudos for truly activating the audience! It sounds like the audience is telling you that it wants a few more choices, agency, perspectives or voices in the narrative. One of the reasons I sometimes do immersive projects is because the conventions for them are not quite set yet – – we in the audience create them together for and during each piece. I have had similar experiences in which my "script" for them was not followed, and I had to redesign based on the experience of real people. For me the worst and least creative response is to get bossy and instructive, because that creates the invisible "theater seat" that this kind of theater is so joyously free of.

Such a wonderful exchange between audience and makers! Thanks for writing about it.

I resonate with your distrust of "bossy and instructive" environments, because we're dangling the illusion of freedom and play in front of the audience while crafting something so rigid that if they bump into the "walls" of the experience, we shut them down.

The question then becomes, how do you approach training and safety for all performers involved? Or, does this work necessitate stepping into an "unsafe" environment?

This is very exciting. I think it's the kind of work that could bring audiences back into the theater. I can see why you'd want your cast and crew to be a well-oiled machine, with the ability to improvise like you did when you killed the president instead. It makes me want to create some play scenarios where this sort of thing can happen. Something new! Yes!

If a museum is in fact an open forum for the exchange of ideas ... if the archive is a living collection of objects infused with thoughts and impressions ... then this performance moves that hope into experienced reality.

Congratulations to all involved, including the museum security/visitor service team that is charged with protecting the objects and people in the building while allowing the richest possible experience for performer and viewer. Not easy when "you remove the typical social contract of the theater ... the audience's acts of touching and speaking, grabbing and yelling" are not what is expected in a 'normal' museum. But the ASU Art Museum is atypical - indeed an AMUSUEM!

CONGRATULATIONS to all; performers, audience and museum staff - congrats to container and contents!

I am so sorry I came late to this party. I had no idea this article had been written. And I have a lot to say about this production because I did see it. On the second night when there was disruption. In fact, I was one of the disruptors and would-be saviors of one of the scientists. I agree with so many of the points made by the commentators so will try not to be repetitive. But one major point I want to make is about a certain marginalized theatre genre that I see once again being marginalized. And that is theatre or drama with youth. Our field has long been in the practice of creating immersive and interactive theatre worlds. It is called by many names: "Participatory" theatre, "Process Drama", Environmental Drama.... Our theorists, academics, educators, and artists have been doing this form of theatre since the early 1900's if not earlier. As an audience member at this event I was excited to note that we were to be involved in an immersive, interactive performance. But frustrated early on when I felt that although I was asked questions and asked for my help in certain parts of the performance, when I interacted, I was dismissed or ignored, and I was unable made no difference in the narrative. Just as I used to feel when as a small child I was an audience member in a poorly performed "participation" play when all I was asked to do was wave my hands and be a tree. As an actor in some excellent TYA plays, as a director and playwright, I know we have come a long way from those rigid rule bound events. But those rules were understood, and those participation plays led to open ended improvisations, and Augusto Boal's Forum Theatre and Process Drama "long form improvisation". Events that I both facilitated and participated in, and where audience interaction was anticipated and did make a difference. So I was disappointed that there seemed to have been no acknowledgement that there was a history for this kind of performance, and that it is not something coming out of the blue. It is not that "new". And it is very tricky. It requires some firm pedagogical knowledge of such things as "classroom management" techniques, "teaching in role" "Shadow Role" "Passing of the Mantle of the Expert". Many of the practices Dorothy Heathcote, Peter Slade, Gavin Bolton, Viola Spolin and Augusto Boal, etc. were modeling and writing about since the 1960's. And this is taught at ASU, which has one of the top graduate programs in Theatre for Youth in the country. We model these form in our classes and discuss them a lot. Unfortunately, it seems as though the TYA grad students involved in this project, did not realize that they already knew how to construct and perform in a successful immersive and interactive theatre experience. Several said they didn't realize what they were doing was essentially a "process drama" until after the production had ended. They didn't make the connection that the same careful planning that goes into a process drama for grade school students, or the writing of a participation play for pre-schoolers, are the same tools they could have made use of in this project. That you don't give a audience members two choices, and then ignore the majority's decision as if it never had been proposed. You don't' ask for help and then get freaked out when the audience tries to help you. And you don't create a series of oppressions and then claim you are shocked that the audience tried to rise up and overcome those oppressions.

I must admit, I had more fun at this event than I have had at an ASU theatre production in a long time. One reason was that it was full of energy, emotion, and danger, and I felt like the story mattered. I know that if I had behaved as a good little audience member, and just proceeded through the performance as if it was a "look but don't touch" kind of event, that I would have left before it was over. Or certainly not stayed to participate in all three of the "tracks" as we were encouraged to do. It is regrettable that a few of the actors felt physically threatened by some audience interaction. I hope if interactive theatre continues to be explored at ASU, that there will be an invitation to some of the practitioners who have long standing experience in this art, to come and play on an equal footing.

Yes. You've created an immersive experience that the audience has bought into enough to actually overcome their own deeply entrenched social stigmas and interact with. It is scary, it is disturbing, because once you have changed the contract, anything can and should happen. And you have to be open and ready for it. If you ask the audience to participate, you no longer get to dictate the extent to which that will happen. All that the performers can do is receive and improvise. Obviously, barring any dangerous physical situations, anything is par for the course. This is good. This is the only kind of theatre I'm interested in making. Something that is completely and utterly dependent on the audience, instead of accepting their passive attention and applause. The trick is building an ensemble strong enough to play with whatever happens, and obviously that's what you guys were able to do. So....bully for you.