On Immersive Theater
The Senses to Take the Wall Down
A six-part series on the words, challenges, craft, and zeitgeist of the immersive theater movement
For the first time in my life, I have found myself at non-theater events being introduced with a recognized word. The words have always been: theater director and/or artistic director. As we know, that can create a relatively blank stare and polite nod. These terms still hold true. But now, the first word mentioned is: immersive. A light of recognition turns on in the eyes of my new best friend. “Ooooh immersive!” They want to know more. Someone else will arrive they say: “This is Mikhael, she does immersive theater. Isn’t that cool?” And then a light turns on in my newest best friends eyes. I appreciate it. It’s a brand new and odd experience. But what exactly do they think the word means? It’s the word they see everywhere to describe new phones, video games, real estate, and insurance policies. And I believe there is an important reason the feelings they connect to this word are attractive. But honestly—in our own field—what do we all think it means?
This is the beginning of a series of articles I will be writing for HowlRound on the importance, language, and craft of the immersive. I will frame this series around the five senses. Why? Because phones and insurance may use the word, but we understand the unharnessed part of this movement: “the live.” And I break down the qualities we use to create the story of live-ness through our senses. In fact, I will connect our physical senses (sound, taste, smell, touch, and sight) to another five senses from Shakespeare (common wit, imagination, fantasy, estimation, and memory).
I have come to believe that there are two major reasons the word “immersive” has caught on. The first: our audiences are in a cultural moment of two-dimensional overload and are craving experiences. The second: from shopping to Twitter they are already participating in non-hierarchial interaction. When people say immersive the two things I believe they always mean are: multi-experiential and freedom to respond. But truly “immersive” is not always what they are experiencing. I believe that immersive is a part of it, but in our theater field we are also struggling with lumping site-specific in with promenade in with interactive etc. So I’d like to offer a new term: openframe. This word includes the range of formerly lumped “immersive” work I will discuss in this series. I believe there are two actions that link the wide range of unique skilled openframe makers: they are all taking down the architectural walls of traditional theater and then building new specific walls that frame the audience and experience for their particular experience.
I started by discussing the reaction I have in non-theater situations, but the conversation I have in our own field has changed as well. Unfortunately, many people will say to me “Yeah—I am so tired of the proscenium. Of sitting in an audience and watching.” I’m not. I love theater and there is nothing wrong with the proscenium. It frames so many of our important experiences. Instead, as “immersive theater” becomes more and more present in our mainstream theatrical language, we need to challenge ourselves to step much further beyond the fad of this word into a new world. We must first make sure to look at each unique type of work outside the proscenium differently: promenade; site-specific; installation, simultaneous; immersive; etc. Each term defines separate, often generalized, qualities. We need all of these words, but we also need openframe to begin to encompass them and to empower the words for their own meaning.
Fifteen years ago in the basement of the Chopin Theatre at Division and Ashland in Chicago (where too many young artists get the opportunity to experiment to count), I didn’t talk about immersive theater. Instead, my collaborators at Uma Productions and I dug into how to tell stories and I found an obsession with the relationship with the audience (Time Out later coined this as the Umaenvironment). I was interested in how to craft relationships with audiences that mirrored the storytelling. It was that simple. What I experienced led me on a theatrical journey I could not have imagined. Audiences committed to my young storefront theater (Uma Productions) with an obsession. I would argue that we were doing a level of quality that others were doing as well, but our special sauce was we had made the audience feel necessary in a new way each time. This was fifteen years ago at a time when the industry was just starting email and guerilla marketing. As our work developed, our marketing (led by John Zinn) became more and more entwined in the experience of each production.
I never thought of myself as experimental, but after several years in the Chicago community a theater leader sat me down and told me how much she respected our work and wanted to bring us in to do work in their residency but, she asked, “Can you do a play in a real theater?” At the time I was crushed. I love the theater. I had never believed I had been rejecting it, but making stories in this way had defined me without my realizing it. Getting older, I believe, is actually becoming more and more comfortable with who you are as a human and as an artist. Today I would have plenty of responses to that question, but it is being asked less and less. Within the bigger picture of openframe, I define myself as an immersive storyteller. My text is that of playwrights, space, and senses. I am adamant about crafting the relationship between the audience and the story as specifically as the relationship between two characters. When it is built at its best, the audience’s presence is an imperative for the story to move forward.
I would define my own work as immersive storytelling; I came to it organically. And now I have grown into wanting to step onto the soapbox and bring us together in another significant journey: defining, learning, teaching, writing, and empowering openframe theater. Not only because we are on the cusp of being a field in the forefront of cultural needs, but additionally because the incredible artists who specialize in this field need unique support and create incredible potential for the livelihood of our regional theater centers. Our next generation of theater-makers wants to make “immersive work.” But I want them to have more at their disposal than a desire to knock down the proscenium walls.
We can’t carelessly throw the proscenium walls down. The proscenium creates an important safety for an audience to take emotional risks. In the darkness and in the comfort of their seats, your audience member feels a sense of freedom you will have to earn differently when you move them down a dark hallway alone. The masks used by my colleagues at Punchdrunk create an incredible safety that supports a freedom for unjudged wonder (this childlike wonder is the artistic impetus behind all of their work). So I would argue at the best of this openframe theater, we create directed freedom. And it is the direction, craft, and build of the frame that encourages a safety for transformative freedom.
I couldn’t possibly immerse you in everything we need for this theater movement. Instead, I will direct this series through the frame of our senses. And like any good story, the senses are where I began and where my own journey was dramatically changed.