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Rethinking Immersive Theatre

Inside the Wild Heart of Clarice Lispector

A young Brazilian-American man waiting with the rest of the crowd to be let inside Inside the Wild Heart suddenly looked crestfallen when he saw from the poster on the door that the show was being promoted as “immersive theatre.”

“Oh no,” he said, “we’re going to have to stand.”

Who could argue with his assumption? Who is to say he didn’t nail the definition of immersive theatre more simply and accurately than I did, a year ago in HowlRound, when I wrote an essay entitled “Immersive Theatre, Defined.”

I said there were five elements that immersive theatre, or at least the best of it, shared. And then I listed six.

That essay has been more widely read than most of what I’ve written lately, and it got me invited half way around the world to deliver a lecture on immersive theatre. This was further proof to me, if I needed it, that people don’t really know what immersive theatre is—including the theatre artists most associated with it.

Members of both Punchdrunk (the company that created Sleep No More) and Third Rail Projects (Then She Fell and The Grand Paradise) told me they don’t like the term to describe what they do. A publicist for Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812, which some see as the first immersive theatre piece to make it to Broadway, replied to my inquiry: “While the show may feel very much of that world, that’s not a word we use to describe it.”

The guilt connected to my sudden unearned authority on immersive theatre surely helps explain why I was here in the cold, outside the “Immersive Gallery” (another clue) in Williamsburg, Brooklyn to attend an avant-garde theatre piece about the late Brazilian writer Clarice Lispector, with a text comprised solely of her words, performed by a cast speaking entirely in Portuguese, a language I don’t understand.

Clarice Lispector, who died forty years ago, is an increasingly popular writer in Brazil, with a fascinating biography. She was born Chaya Lispector in Ukraine to a Jewish family, who suffered from anti-Jewish violence that resulted in her grandfather’s murder and her mother’s rape. They escaped when (the renamed) Clarice was an infant by emigrating to Brazil. Her mother died when Clarice was nine; her father, an educated man who in his adopted country struggled financially as a rag peddler and a sales rep, died when she was twenty. A striking beauty, Lispector went to law school, became a journalist, and married a Brazilian diplomat. But, starting as a child and ending only at her death, she also wrote fiction. She had just turned twenty-three in 1943 when her first novel, Near to the Wild Heart, was published to stupendous acclaim. Shortly afterwards, she left Rio de Janeiro for nearly two decades, for a life abroad with her husband. Injured in an accident in her forties, she lived for a decade in pain, and died a day before her fifty-seventh birthday.

actress on stage
Photo courtesy of Group .BR. 

None of this biographical information about the writer was in the show—at least nothing directly discernible. Instead we were ushered into what looked like a converted warehouse, and brought to a room where a woman (Debora Balardini), sitting before a vanity table, and dressed in a nightgown, turned her head to look behind her (not precisely at us, but in our direction), and started speaking in Portuguese, while a translation scrolled up on a TV screen to the side: “When I misplace an important document and the search becomes useless, I ask myself: If I were me and I had an important document to save, what place would I choose? Sometimes this works.” But, often, she said, she gets wrapped up in the idea “If I were me,” and starts to riff on it, e.g.: “I think if I were truly me, my friends would stop greeting me on the street, for even my appearance would have changed.”

Once she had finished speaking, we were on our own, free to explore the half dozen or so other rooms. In one, a woman sat in a bathtub bathed in blue light and filled with shredded paper.

Once she had finished speaking, we were on our own, free to explore the half dozen or so other rooms. In one, a woman sat in a bathtub bathed in blue light and filled with shredded paper. In another, a man splashed the wall of an empty room with red paint, encouraging the theatregoers (if that’s what we were) to splatter some red around as well. In the biggest room, a man and a woman seduced each other gymnastically atop a scaffolding. There was passionate dancing and even more passionate arguing. After two hours, the show was officially over, and seven people took bows; the cast had seemed larger than that to me. I had several times felt an urge to leave earlier; the show felt simultaneously like sensory overload and sensory deprivation, and I couldn’t make sense of it.

Afterwards, I applied my six elements of immersive theatre to the show.

1. Immersive theatre creates a physical environment that differs from a traditional theatre. 

Check. We did, as predicted, spend our time standing, although there was a couch for the weary in one of the rooms.

2. 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.

Double check.

As with most of the works labeled immersive, there was a continual pounding of music. The music here was co-written by Mario Forte, who played it on an amply amplified electric violin. And the performers did lightly touch us at times, to confide something, or encourage us into another room.

In the kitchen, they served coffee, and a different kind of treat at each performance, often specifically Brazilian, such as brigadeiro (a round sweet covered with chocolate sprinkles) and paçoca (a candy made of crushed peanuts).

Inside The Wild Heart also marked the “world premiere” of the Scent-O-Scope, an odd looking contraption that delivered ten different scents. I passed it by as a text was projected above it about a woman who explains why she began to steal roses: “I wanted to sniff it until I felt my vision go dark from such heavy perfume.” Nearby, there was a large round bed covered by red roses.  I wish I could state with certainty that what I smelled from the Scent-O-Scope was a red rose.

3. These shows double as an art installation and hands-on museum.

Although there were no desks or bureaus to riffle through to learn about the characters, as in Sleep No More or Then She Fell, Inside the Wild Heart had the unmistakable feel of an art installation—the rooms that would engage the viewer even if there were no performers interacting in them. There was much that was visually spectacular.

women sitting on a chair
Photo courtesy of Group .BR. 

4. 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.

We were told explicitly that we were on our own to explore any room in any order. And, remember, the scene in the very first room is a riff on “If I were me….”

5. 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.

They seemed to be trying to do this. One of the performers whispered something in my ear that I didn’t understand, so I handed him my notebook to write it down. I don’t know whether this violated some theatremaker-theatregoer code but he wrote “Expe…” then drew a long line as if he had fallen asleep, or the word had died, and he rushed away into another room. This didn’t strike me as very social.

people on stage
Photo courtesy of Group .BR.

6. 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.

Here’s where my definition of immersive theatre diverged the most from this show calling itself immersive theatre. Even if Inside the Wild Heart had been performed in English; even if the sensory experience of the show (that loud music, vivid spectacle, passionate dancing) had not distracted me from the intellectual and emotional experience (the words); the piece had a subject—Clarice Lispector’s words; her take on the world—not a story.

“In Clarice Lispector's literature what is most important isn't a narrative or a plot,” Andressa Furletti explained to me later when I contacted her. “Many of her books are very fragmented. Clarice often doesn't tell a story, she is looking for something and that something is understanding about the world and herself.” Furletti is the artistic director of Group .BR, which calls itself New York’s only Brazilian theatre company. She conceived Inside the Wild Heart with Debora Balardini (the performer from the first scene, and the most vivid presence throughout the production.) Their aim was to get people to read Clarice Lispector who were unfamiliar with her work, and for those already familiar, to provide “a new way of relating with her literature.”

Each of these scenes, says Furletti, related to Lispector’s ‘epiphanies’ about ‘subjects such as identity, happiness, freedom, violence, madness, the creative process, time and God. Often people say that you don't read Clarice Lispector, you experience it, it is a literature of sensations.’

Furletti described the show’s structure—seven set pieces of up to eight minutes in duration, each happening simultaneously in the different rooms, and unfolding with improvisation based on the reaction of the particular audience. Each of these scenes, says Furletti, related to Lispector’s “epiphanies” about “subjects such as identity, happiness, freedom, violence, madness, the creative process, time and God. Often people say that you don't read Clarice Lispector, you experience it, it is a literature of sensations.”

Here is an interview with Clarice Lispector (with English subtitles) the year she died:

Furletti’s comment provided something of an epiphany for me. If the artists choose the right subject, one of sensations, perhaps the sensory nature of immersive theatre makes it less important for such works to have a clearly discernible story. It took an intellectual process for me to appreciate the sensory experience of this immersive theatre piece. But if I were me, I guess that’s how it would have to happen.

Jonathan Mandell’s Newcrit piece usually appears the first Thursday of each month. See his previous pieces here.

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Thank you, Jonathan, for your presence and your reflection on our performance installation. It was a delighful challenge to direct "Inside the Wild Heart" and share with the audience Clarice's internal world. The fact that it provoked such an excellent reflection on what "immersive theater" means to you, really also means a lot to me, moreover because Clarice always insisted that her texts were not stories, but a path for reflection and self-search. Thanks again!

Cool article Jonathan. Glad to see you rethink the last criteria. Definitely think Judith's recent works qualified as immersive but didn't have always a clear narrative.

Interesting to think about this term and the idea of terms like this in general as Gary mentions.

Thanks for the focus on it.

I definitely do use the word. Judith used the term participation more, and I think the words have an interesting relationship. She was, and we are definitely interested in activating the audience in addition to immersing them in something, whether an alternate reality, or state of being/mind or political moment...

I like the term immersive, and am glad it's becoming more and more widespread and used as a method. I think Theatre's job is to be the public space where people learn to be human together...since it doesn't happen in schools the way it should, or in governments, and with religion slowly on the way out...

It's hard to learn how to be a good human by only sitting in a chair in the dark...not that the traditional setting can't also be helpful in the journey towards a greater humanity.

We just got back from a 7 country tour working with refugees, students and artists in workshops and creating street theatre pieces. And in the summer we toured Seven Meditations on Political Sado Masochism across America.

We are also working on Judith's unfinished manuscript Venus & Mars...which we are hoping is immersive, and participatory and something that challenges the production process and modern performance events...we really don't know how to try to do anything else, haha.

But we're headed around the world to learn what is going on, and the politics of the people, and the struggles of the poor and suffering, and the aesthetics of artists everywhere known and not, and hope that that guides us as we try to do so without Judith.

Excellent essay by Jonathan Mandell whose self-deprecating style as an "accidental expert" of Immersive Thetatre recalls the art critics in the 1950's when confronted with the likes of Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko. The artists themselves had little interest in the term "Abstract Expressionism" but the term nevertheless stuck, applied as it was by critics not sure what to do with that work.

Visual art and now immersive theatre seem to banish literature as the foundation of this style of performance (albeit at the core of it's inspiration) and there is at once a strong visceral interest in nonlinear theatre based on visual structures, and a nostalgia for the centerline of our theatre to remain committed to language and dramatic action. Hence Mr. Mandell's sixth criteria seems one too many - or perhaps in need of revision. Nevertheless, a terrific essay that indeed inspires me to read the work Clarice Lispector.

Thank you for your kind words. Very interesting analogy with Abstract Expressionism.
While it's true that the words are not emphasized in Inside the Wild Heart (at least they weren't to me), it's too harsh to talk about such immersive work "banishing literature." The aim of this particular show was to whet the interest of spectators/participants for Clarice Lispector's literature. So, if not literature itself, it's surely at least literature adjacent.