Unblurred Lines

The Role of Consent in Immersive Theatre

I had my first encounter with immersive theatre in 2015, when I trekked to the abandoned mental hospital in Brooklyn that houses Third Rail Projects’ Then She Fell. I remember the experience in fragmented and disordered bits, the way one might remember a bizarre dream. It’s perhaps unsurprising that the two scenes I recall most vividly were also the two most intimate moments of my journey. In both scenes, I found myself alone in a room with an actor. One room was large, the other closet sized. One performer never spoke but offered me a cocktail and silently enlisted my participation in a game. The other invited me to brush her hair and asked if I’d ever been in love. I can’t say I was totally comfortable, but I never doubted I was safe.

Years later, as the #MeToo movement has led to more nuanced conversations about consent in all spaces, including the theatre, I look back on that evening with new perspective. As much as those memorable moments exemplify the unique potential of immersive theatre, they also highlight the unique risks inherent in the form. I try to identify what allowed me to feel so safe in those secluded settings with strangers. I wonder if other audience members with different past experiences felt that same degree of safety. I wonder if the actors felt safe with me and with other audience members of various ages, genders, physical strengths, and temperaments.

a large group of actors onstage

John Tomlinson (center) surrounded by company and audience members in an immersive staging of Polaroid Stories. Photo by Matt Robson.

The intimacy and unpredictability of immersive theatre requires its practitioners to engage in conversations around consent well beyond basic content and trigger warnings. After all, in many immersive works, individual audience members witness different scenes from one another, and in different sequences. In an event with this many possible permutations, it is insufficient (and maybe even impossible) to preemptively inform participants about every scenario they might encounter. At the same time, these audience members are given closer access to performers than in more conventional theatre, which some have used as an excuse for sexual misconduct. Allegations made in 2016 by cast members of Sleep No More gave us a troubling picture of this intimate performer-audience relationship gone wrong, with numerous stories of actors being groped, grabbed, and otherwise harassed by audience members.

The intimacy and unpredictability of immersive theatre requires its practitioners to engage in conversations around consent well beyond basic content and trigger warnings.

For the protection of actors and audience alike, immersive theatre must include clear guidelines for giving, suspending, and/or revoking consent throughout an experience. As an article written by Emma Burnell in The Independent proclaims: “Immersive theatre may be sexy—but we need to start talking about consent.” In her efforts to help prompt that discussion, Burnell spoke to many artists who “compared the conversations needed in immersive theatre to those you find in the BDSM, sex party or swingers communities, where enthusiastic consent must be sought with each interaction.” Indeed, the BDSM community, with its clearly codified consent practices, may be the most instructive model for creators of immersive theatre.

In examining the specific content of those BDSM consent conversations, law professor Dr. Theodore Bennett unwittingly provides a helpful outline for their potential application to immersive theatre. He identifies three “practical mechanisms around consent that are ‘de rigueur’ for BDSM participants to utilize... negotiations, safewords, and aftercare.”

two actors onstage

Elyana Aronow and Liam Krivcov in an immersive staging of Polaroid Stories. Photo by Matt Robson.

Negotiations “typically cover issues such as a general outline of the activities to be engaged in... [and] any relevant health issues that may impact the activities.” In immersive theatre, these elements of negotiation should be accomplished before a ticket is purchased by providing transparent information about subject matter, accessibility, audience interaction, and possible health risks (strobe lights, etc).

Bennett also notes that explicit negotiation between BDSM participants aligns with “‘affirmative’ models of sexual consent,” in which “consent can only be established through ‘a positive indication that both people want to engage in sex.’” Instead of the oft-quoted mantra “No means no,” good BDSM practices proclaim: “Only yes means yes.” The application of this model to immersive theatre would save actors from relying on nonverbal cues to gauge an audience member’s level of comfort with an interaction. Instead, they would seek unambiguous verbal consent before engaging in each new level of interaction. Holding audience members to this same standard would also help protect actors from uninvited physical contact and create undisputable parameters for what warrants expulsion from a performance.

Like affirmative consent, the integration of safewords can and should be used to protect performers as well as audience members.

But what if an audience member has said “yes” and only in the middle of an interaction decides that they want to revoke that “yes”? As journalist Alice Seville observes in Exeunt, “People’s identities will inevitably shape their experience of the work, and immersive shows have a funny way of recreating the power dynamics of the world outside,” which can evoke unexpected and powerful responses.

Here, we can again borrow a tool from the BDSM community: safewords. “A safeword can be a literal word... a non-word verbal noise... or a non-verbal signal.... Where a participant uses a safeword they are communicating that they want the current BDSM activities to end immediately,” explains Bennett. In the theatrical context, a safeword or safe action can be established during the introduction to the play, and—if handled creatively—can align seamlessly with the world of the play. For example, a horror-themed LARP (live action role play) in Denmark utilized a convention in which participants “could cover their eyes and count aloud to ten, and the monsters would (probably) go away.” This tool succeeds on multiple levels—it is unambiguous, easy to remember, includes both physical and verbal cues, and feels organic within the context of the event.

an actor onstage

Jordyn Stoessel in an immersive staging of Polaroid Stories. Photo by Matt Robson.

By introducing safewords into immersive theatre, we can create a world “that does not treat consent-giving as a singular event... but rather as an ongoing process where consent can be ‘rescinded at any time,’” according to Bennett. Crucially, this revocation of consent should not be permanent, causing an audience member to feel that if they opt out of one aspect of the experience, they are opting out for good. Rather, immersive theatre must include means by which audience members can opt out and back in. London-based ONEOHONE Theatre has created numerous devised works that accomplish this through the simple mechanism of a sash worn by each audience member. The sash may be removed at any time, signaling that the individual has removed themself from participation; it can likewise be put back on at any time, if they wish to reenter the fray.

Like affirmative consent, the integration of safewords can and should be used to protect performers as well as audience members. Just as audience members should be made aware of the tools they can use to suspend consent, they must also receive clear instructions about how to respond if a performer gives them a cue to halt an interaction. Depending on the parameters of the production, this response might entail stepping away, disengaging from physical contact, or moving to a different area. Another extension of this concept might include a safeword or action that performers can use to notify other team members about problematic audience members so that staff can intervene and/or remove the offender if needed.

In many immersive experiences, there is no curtain call, which can cause the end of the experience to feel jarring and incomplete. Crafting a gentler transition back to reality is a gift of care that creators can give their audience and actors alike.

The third and final element of BDSM negotiation is aftercare, something Andrea Beckmann, in her chapter in Making Sense of Sexual Consent, refers to as “a specially managed ‘process of “coming down”’” from the emotional and physical experience of BDSM activities.” In the context of immersive theatre, “coming down” can be equated with the transition from the world of the play back into real life. In most traditional theatre, this process begins with the curtain call. As the audience applauds, they are able not only to celebrate the actors’ work, but also to purge their emotions and begin the mental transition from fiction to reality. In many immersive experiences, there is no curtain call, which can cause the end of the experience to feel jarring and incomplete. Crafting a gentler transition back to reality is a gift of care that creators can give their audience and actors alike.

In Then She Fell, each audience member ends their journey alone with a cup of hot tea. They are given a poem to read, which provides additional context to all they have witnessed. On the other side of the paper is the show’s program—the first concrete reminder that everyone they have watched and engaged with is, in fact, an actor. The combination of physical comfort through the tea, space to process emotions in private, and the division of fiction and reality through the program allows audience members to exit the experience at their own pace and to begin the process of compartmentalizing any strong emotions that may have arisen in the fictional world.

two actors onstage

Jacob Lawrence Kreiss (front) and Savannah Jooste with audience in an immersive staging of Polaroid Stories. Photo by Matt Robson.

For actors, the process of aftercare would take place backstage, and could include both communal and individual rituals to assist in disengaging from the work that has just occurred. Although the specifics of this process might vary greatly based on the wants and needs of the company, it is important that the show’s creators intentionally build in this time for their performers to “come down” from an experience that has the potential to be intensely emotional.

Clear practices for consent are absolutely necessary for immersive theatre. However, they need not be a chore, seen as something external to the artistic work of crafting the world of the play. To the contrary, these practices can and should be woven into the very fabric of that world, which can become a very artistic process indeed. Hopefully, the creative challenge of finding tools for consent that are simultaneously effective and artistic can be embraced by immersive theatremakers as another exciting facet of their work—one that also leads us to a world that is safer and more enjoyable for all involved.

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Thank you for this writing and perspective! The immersive company I am a part of, Submersive Productions (Baltimore), has been working on integrating consent into our shows since we began six years ago--we didn't have the language of consent that we do now (thanks also to all the work done by Intimacy Choreographers and Directors in the last few years for creating a clear vocabulary), but we realized early on that in order to do the delicate work we were attempting, emotional and physical safety of performers and audience were essential, so we've always tried to make our consent practices "in world." We've learned something new every time, and still have much more work to do, but I can attest that the "Consent Aesthetic" for immersive theater not only keeps everyone safe but makes the work BETTER on all aesthetic levels. I don't think we would have been able to dig as deep on some of our shows as we were able to if consent wasn't in the foundation of our content devising.

I really appreciate the perspective of pulling from BDSM culture--I had never considered that and will share it with the company! We started a practice of a "debrief" for all our shows, in various ways, a few years ago, which I think is akin to "aftercare," and it's quite a meaningful exercise to consider this coming-down epilogue as part of the whole narrative for the audience, even if the performers have finished their part of the experience.

Thank you!