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. 


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A six-part series on the words, challenges, craft, and zeitgeist of the immersive theatre movement.

Immersive Theatre Series

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Thanks very much for your article. A part of me, though, resists this taxonomy. Do we have to do that yet? I started doing work of this sort 15 years ago because the lack of conventions (that start to get ossified by these sorts of taxonomies and labelings) gave me and my audiences an amazing, free, unpredictable, surprising place to play. "Is it a tour? Is it a game? Is it theater? A concert? How should I behave?" The rules fall away, and the audience and my work can make new ones together. This is sacred to me. Although I am extremely interested in why we've reached this tipping point-- what needs out there does that suggest? I think you're so right about 2-d overload-- I am a bit cautious about putting our work into a conceptual box too soon. It just got out of the physical box, after all.


I totally agree. My own work started this way 15 years ago and continues this way today. (About to launch a project with my company that is a "Travel Agency" exploring different trips with audience.) I love the way you think. I think that there is a need to use some words that give a "frame" and simultaneously keep the openness/freedom you describe. I DO believe that if we find a bit of language that translates certain structures - we can attract hungry seeking audiences and simultaneously we can hold onto that freedom. That is my goal. I feel like right now the thing that we risk by not creating some language is the mistreatment of the artists making the work, the unfortunate assumption that all this work is the same, and the challenge in integrating into theatrical organizations. Instead of putting it in a conceptual box, I am more intrigued to see if the conceptual practices that exist can be translated within and outside our community. Thanks for your thoughts. Lets keep chatting! Next post coming soon!M

I really enjoyed this article and am looking forward to others in the series. In particular I like the term "openframe," and am excited to see how you develop it. It seems to be a good term that, as you state, can incorporate a lot of different performance practices. I also really appreceiate your statement of making the audience feel "necessary" to the performances, and think this might be a unique strength of openframe performances. I've been working on openframe performances for a few years, and wrote an article for Howlround http://www.howlround.com/to... that focused more on particular techniques I used on a piece a few years ago, and what I thought might be a good approach to certain common issues with openframe performances. I would like to ask you your thoughts about other more "nuts and bolts" practice aspects of the different types of openframe performance...but I suppose I'll wait to read the rest of the series! My main concern is for writing about openframe performance to move beyond what it is reacting to, or its novelty (since as commenters have mentioned, it's not at all a new practice), and to begin to discuss how it is made and what choices by the artists involved can make it successful or not.

Jacob - I completely agree. I may not hit too much of the nuts and bolts part of my practice here in this series. But have also been working on a training, documentation of practice, and system behind the intricacies of interactions with audience. I agree that this can't just be a semantics conversation. It has to be a sharing of practices. I think the challenge is that at a time when immersive is being used as a term in our field AND in the mainstream, the semantics have to allow us first to speak within our own community about what we are all doing uniquely. Thanks for commenting and enjoyed your article as well. Looking forward to more conversation for sure.

A valuable piece. Thank you. I'd love to see some sort of glossary as the series moves forward. It seems like a major issue at this point is what to call this stuff. I think adding openframe helps, but I'm not sure it's clear enough. I guess I make promenade pieces tied to particular sites. Sometimes I have control of the locations, and sometimes I don't. Sometimes I have control of the audiences, and sometimes I don't. If I'm understanding your term, not all of my work is openframe. But I'm pretty sure that it's immersive, at least as that word is generally used. Then again, it's hard to tell what's general usage at this point in the trend: The ad copy for Here Lies Love calls it immersive, when as far as I understand, that show has more in common with De La Guarda's productions than, say, Then She Fell.

Hey Jeff - I hope to spend the series defining some of these term. I particularly think openframe is the umbrella - not the answer. From the series I hope to build a comprehensive glossary. I believe that control has to do with the method and there is a great variety of methods in different situations. I believe location has to do with whether it is site-specific, online space, malleable to different spaces, or otherwise. I agree there are a ton of variables and words. I just want us to begin to go beyond the fad that encourages Here Lies Love to use the term "immersive," but also supports the desire behind the use of that word. Lots to discuss. Just hoping to get it started.

Great article, love the term "openframe" and am hungry for more - both articles in this series and openframe experiences.

Yeah. I wrote below in response to Winter that I feel like there are valid reasons for being afeard of forced participation. There are a lot of artists who see that this is cool. Who are interested in it and do it poorly. But there are more artists who are interrogating what the audiences' role is at every step. And my biggest issue with this article that he wrote is that it doesn't even seem to understand the differences between different types of interaction or participation. He is doing the same thing that a careless artist might do. He is poo pooing the whole thing as one thing and not really challenging the need other audience members feel for this range of openframe work, He is responding to it as a fad. Which is false and not particularly an interesting critique. I wish he really questioned his discomfort, which I respect, from all sides. The secret is, I too do not want to be forced to participate in anything. But I accidentally began to make this work, I believe, to challenge my own discomfort. Maybe he could do that in his writing.

I'm aware of the ebb and flow of the images a term connotes--this kind of theater--immersive, and openframe has existed for years, it gets different names like performance art, or site-specific, but it's simply when the trend hits a tipping point it gets a title. And, once it gets a title and kicks around a bit, the backlash begins. So there's sometimes an ugh, do I have to participate at such and such immersive event? And then there's the oh, wow, we get to participate and there are some uncertainties in this live event? What occurs to me are things like audience and performer comfort, even safety--whether a person wants to be groped or hugged by a performer, whether the actual terrain is safe to walk on/stand on, and etc.. One of the things I respect about you as a theater maker is your attention to detail and safety of participants and performers and that you'll take creative risks and create beauty and wonder, but not at the sacrifice of someone getting hurt. I look forward to more of your articles. Oh, I also think it's worth talking about devised theater, like immersive theater--well, all theater there are some instances where the ideas of rawness and boldness supplant craft, intention and theatricality. When you're (any of us) making theater, what is it you want the audience to experience or understand, what called you to build this work and is it alive, is it dynamic?

Winter. I totally agree. This is not new, but there is a new need, a new perspective on how and why the core artistic impetus of this work has been rejuvinated. The backlash or consideration or challenge right now is 2-fold in my opinion. It begins with the makers. There are some amazing makers in this openframe field who have a unique and particular way they are engaging and inviting and directing and leading an audience. There is an implicit understanding that individuals exist within the "audience." The problem comes when makers believe that it is as simple as just "not having a 4th wall." I respond to that question with "Why?" Just like you make any choice, any break of assumption on the practices of being a maker - I believe we must give the audience the opportunity to know the new boundaries. And craft them with the same care that the theater was built. The other big problem as shown to me by Damon Kiely above is that critics/audiences have had too many experiences that make them uncomfortable (some truly by fault of the makers), but some of this uncomfortableness (when safe) is IMPORTANT. Seeing actors perform was shocking at a time. And each new wave is uncomfortable. It is on the makers to up our game. To make sure we are not using gimmicks (which all of us who have been doing this forever are not), but instead interrogating the audience journey with incredible rigor.

Just coming to this. Love this post. I agree; safety is so important. Discomfort is also important and has to be earned, just like in a theater. It's an energy that, once released, has to be dealt with responsibly and created for a good reason. And I do think it's easy to lose sight of those things when you don't have a physical structure doing that safety work for you. thanks

Really smart. Excited to see where you take this conversation, and how you articulate, nuance and complicate the frame (openframe) you are offering.

This is great! I'm really excited to see some critical thinking about defining this kind of work. I'm also glad that you plan to address safety and emotional risks. I think you hit the nail on the head when you say "We can't carelessly throw the proscenium walls down". I have a lot of questions about how this kind of work can force intimacy and what this means in terms of the responsibilities of the theater maker. What happens if a particular individual has a negative experience? Should audience follow-up be part of the process? How do audience members know if they can trust the experience they are entering? Has care been taken by the theater makers to ensure a safe experience? Can't wait to learn some more best practices!

Absolutely Park. The nature of a negative experience in this work can have such huge impact on our performers. We have to create space for that for the audience and for the performers. And I think the question about audience follow up, in fact about all of this is production specific. Each piece of work requires different structures/frames, in line with the storytelling.

Wow! "It is the direction, craft, and build of the frame that encourages a safety for transformative freedom." YES! As a TYA maker, this really resonates with me. I am really looking forward to reading the rest of this series. Thank you!

Thanks Tom. I think that safety comes on both sides of the coin. We have to give our performers immense security and support as well for the kind of unique interactions they are having. With TYA work I believe that young audiences will take physical and gaming leaps, but we have to give them space and safety for leaps of self-reflection or vulnerability.

::bravo:: excellent piece - looking forward to the series! It made me stop to think how I understand, experience or define immersion. Several thoughts came to mind.

The first was completely entering someone else's or another reality and having full sensory realizations.

The second was an 'amusement park' or a 'walled garden' if you will. A place either real or created that has defined boundaries that you can enter that is distinct from any previous comfortable place or situation. By only being in that space or time can you experience that which it has to offer. It is this sense of immersion that feels constrained and boxed in.

Another definition relates to passion and risk and challenge - to go full in, underwater or through the clouds and face whatever lies on the other side.