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On Immersive Theater

The Senses to Take the Wall Down—Sound and Common Wit

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

In recent conversations around the Tony Sound Award Debacle of 2014, I was not surprised when sound designs in immersive productions were mentioned. How anyone could underestimate the power of sound design as a whole, I don’t know. Yet I believe sound design became more definable in more immersive environments. Immersive productions (Here Lies Love, Sleep No More) were mentioned because sound design could be viewed in its natural habitat. It is already essentially immersive.  

What do I believe immersive performance means? The dictionary defines “immersive” as “providing information or stimulation for a number of senses.” I define immersive performance as surrounding an audience and production with a stimulation of senses. This does not hold the same expectations of “immersive storytelling,” which I define differently. Immersive performance is a different imperative of craft on the artist. Moreover, it is a different desire—one that favors experience over story. When we define an immersive experience, we most clearly understand it from the audience perspective. I’ll look first from the audience perspective, then from the artist-making experience, and finally where these two meet in the unique challenges of immersive craft.

You are sitting in the audience of a proscenium theater. The doorbell rings. You see a door onstage. From offstage Natasha yells “Anfisa? Anfisa?” You do not stand up and get the door. You and the rest of the audience experience the doorbell. Everyone in that room, performers and audience alike, experience it with the same sense. The scope of sound’s reach must always include the audience. The frame of light’s scope onstage does not have to reach the audience. The scenic design does not have to reach the audience. Sound design must. It is an immersive design element. 

Sound design alone is not immersive performance. Immersive performance is reliant on the audience experiencing related sensory stimulation to the performer and a multi-sensory design.

Sound design is innately immersive and sound speaks to our most basic human instincts. How do we respond to a loud bang? What does the honk of a horn make us think? The content is common, but the directionality, the connection to the things you see or feel, the relationship to the audience, is what makes sound design immersive. Simple content organized in complex systems. Modern science tells us that senses are fluid and not so easily defined into five categories. I discuss these five senses as a way to organize thoughts, but to help bridge the gap, I consider the “inner wits,” or the inner senses. Within sound, I’d like to consider “common wit,” or common sense.

Imagine if we, as the audience, were in a multi-level house with performers—an actual house where we entered the front door to get inside. We have heard tales of Moscow and come for the soldier’s party. The doorbell rings, exactly the same sound cue as before. No one gets it. It rings again. Someone upstairs yells “Anfisa? Anfisa?” There is no answer. Then we hear her shuffle. Anfisa walks in from the other room, hands full. She enters, takes a beat, and looks at us because the doorbell is silent. She goes to leave…and it rings again! Surprising her, maybe making us laugh a little—we might look at each other. One of us might get the door. The experience is different in our proximity and relationship to the scenic element of the door, to the light in the room, but our aural relationship to the doorbell is as it was when we were in the proscenium theater. It is the relationship to other design elements, basic human instincts, and the audience that makes it immersive performance. The experience of sound can be the most recognizable and common part of our otherwise foreign immersive experience.

You return to the proscenium house, this time kids dance and sing onstage. The stage goes quiet because Ms. Hannigan enters (it all refers back to Annie or Three Sisters for me). After she exits, an orphan calls to her fellow orphans to sing! In the audience, we probably do not sing along. But—what if at that same call to sing the lights came up and the orphans came dancing into the audience? Looked to us as if we were orphans as well? We probably still wouldn’t jump into song, but it’s now both immersive performance and interactive. Multiple senses are surrounding you and you are having a direct interaction with an element of the production.

What if, before Ms. Hannigan came in, the orphans had been dancing in the aisles? Climbing on the back of our seats and singing. Seeing us as they saw each other, but not directing us to sing. And then onto the stage marches Ms. Hannigan. She shuts everyone up with the click of her heels. She has defined us as potential noisemakers. As she walks away, an orphan looks around at her fellow orphans—including us now—and leads us to sing in a moment of rebellion. This is immersive storytelling and interactive. I define immersive storytelling as surrounding the audience within the story-frame and linking sensory stimulation to action in the story. I believe we might be more likely to sing. My action as an audience member became more deeply entwined in the action of the play. I was a protagonist. 

When I make work, I build it by orchestrating a sensory symphony: a map for immersive storytelling. The instrumentation of the symphony is aural, visual, textual, visceral, and otherwise. However, the systems traditionally used to map music (a chart or score) are the best systems to track immersive sensory symphonies. I may track simultaneous stories in different parts of a space. I may chart the directed movement of the audience. With my team, I’ll layer in lighting, text, props, cueing, etc. Each production is organized with a unique score linked to the intent of the story: a score that surrounds the audience and performers. Sound is often the bass line. For this reason, I work very closely with sound designers. My main sound design partner for years has been Will Pickens. He is ultimately a problem solver. Will creates systems with me to organize the madness. The threads. The score. We chart the production with sound: this may include the germane sounds of the space, the sound effects, recorded music, live music, performers’ voices, audience voices, etc…we orchestrate the magic.

I return to the doorbell in the house. We know that a doorbell can mean a visitor and/or can mean we need to open the door—common wit. We also know that technically, three beats equals funny. Anfisa enters and the doorbell is silent...she looks around (beat one), steps toward the stairs (beat two), doorbell rings, she falls in surprise (beat three). What if you only saw beats one and three from the back of the room? You would not see what is funny. Here is where the immersive nature of audience experience must meet the craft of storytelling. When crafting immersive story you must decide the imperative beats. You have to craft them in such a way that each person gets a version of it. You know the rules of common human wit. But the craft in landing these beats becomes exponentially harder when the frame is multi-sensory and open-framed. The tools to accomplish this are vast, but the craft of how and what you use to do so is the art of immersive storytelling.


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Thoughts from the curator

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

Immersive Theatre Series

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I love what you've said about sound and immersion. I like to think of sound in theater spaces as interupptions, and reminders of space. When a door bangs, it's both an elaboration on the visual primacy of the theater scene, and a thing in itself: what if the sounds came first, in our experience of the scene? HERE LIES LOVE, as I experienced it, did just that. Great and refreshing post!

Thanks Eleanor. I love what you say here about sound as a reminder of space. That is super interesting. I wonder than about the relationship to sound in the range of ways its used. A door slam. A recorded song. A live guitar playing. A like the idea of a reminder of space. That got me thinking! Thanks.M

Interesting piece and I agree with your general premises but I don't really get the distinction of sound as inherently immersive. In your proscenium example the information of the bell reaches me the same was as information from the set - it emanates from a source, travels through space and interacts with my sense organs. I then do some very clever unconscious analysing and trace that information back to its source in order to define my relationship with it. I understand that the ringing noise is no more significant than the photons flying into my eyes. The important thing (both in an artistic/symbolic sense and in a evolutionary survival sense) is the source of that information - the doorbell and the person ringing it or the chairs and walls that the light is bouncing off. As long as that sound source is 'over there in that world' I am no more immersed in sound than I am immersed in the set.

Sound becomes immersive in the same way that anything else does, when its sources are various and surround me. This doesn't mean having speakers behind me because most sound I understand as symbolic rather than actual and I categorise it as belonging to, and symbolically emanating from, inside the proscenium frame. I have to understand the source of that sound to be an agent in my world and/or something over which I may have some agency ie your second example where I am caught up in the threads of relationship between the sound (and imagined ringer) of the bell, the voice (and it's owner), and the body of the actor who, by responding both to those sounds and to my physical presence, unites us into one world that is not 'over there' but 'right here'.

Robbie I think that the distinction I am making is more about sound design, not sound. Sound design must reach the audience in its impact. Literally. I agree that yes if a light is turned on backstage where I don't see it that that is not lighting design. But I believe that almost every sound designer I speak to or work with speaks in a scoring, multilayered and immersive language in any context. They are having to think of how to use speakers to create surround experiences for the audience. They are thinking directionally and immersively more often in their design. I totally agree that there are many more distinctions to be made and exceptions. This chapter was hard to contain in the word limit. I believe the distinctions are vast and detailed and your thinking on how we receive it physiologically as audience is an important point.Mikhael

Very interesting, thank you. How do you work with playwrights? How much do you want the playwright to craft the immersive experience in the text and how much do you want to collaborate with your fellows (including the playwright) on creating these experiences?

Hey there Nicole - the work I do with playwrights varies. I feel like I find that with each project there is a different need for a different way of working. I have found that there are playwrights I have developed with overtime and others who are developing with me and pushing me to think about how we lead and challenge and take care of an audience. More on this in the upcoming series.

I love the definitions here of immersive performance, immersive storytelling, and immersive interactive as separate categories that create different experiences for the audience. as with many buzz words, "immersive" has become unclear as a form ; rather it is used as a way to describe and market a genre of performance.

Such clarity of thought - Ms. Garver has broken it down so well. I will be avidly reading this series. Thank you.