Lyn Gardner on Theatre and Performance: Immersive Theatre and Performance

We frequently talk about getting ‘lost’ in a play, that wonderful moment when we suspend our disbelief – although I often prefer to think of it as expanding our belief – and become completely caught up in the world of the drama. Immersive theatre goes further still.

There is no fourth wall to be broken, the audience is mobile and occupies the same space as the performers, interaction is often encouraged, and the space or environment itself becomes another character in the production. The experience, at its best, can be like Alice falling down a rabbit hole into a parallel universe, or like a lucid dream where everything is heightened.

It can be huge and giddy, akin to being in a festival atmosphere as in De La Guarda’s Fuerzabruta (2003), or it can be small and intimate as in the case of Ontroerend Goed’s The Smile Off Your Face (2007) or the one-on-one sensory work of Adrian Howells. It often takes place in warehouses and post-industrial buildings in cities, but it can also take place on the streets (ANU’s Torch in St Helens in 2018), or in small villages and rural landscapes as in the work of WildWorks (Souterrain, 2006) and Louise Ann Wilson (Fissure, 2011). I have been to shows in containers and even in public toilets.

Many immersive shows are site-specific or site responsive, but they don’t have to be. Dreamthinkspeak’s Orpheus-and-Eurydice-inspired Don’t Look Back was made and recreated in many different locations around the world between 2003 and 2008, including Somerset House in London, a disused print factory in Moscow and an abandoned hotel in Kuala Lumpur. The same company’s Chekhov-inspired Before I Sleep (2010) was specifically made for an old department store in the middle of Brighton and reflected the old shop’s interiors and detailed craftsmanship – although the show was subsequently remade in Amsterdam for the Holland Festival.

More recently, binaural shows in which the audience wears headphones throughout, such as Simon McBurney’s The Encounter (2015), and pieces such as Curious Directive’s Frogman (2017), which uses Virtual Reality (VR) technology, have expanded the range of immersive theatre experiences on offer.

The popularity of immersive theatre in the first part of the 21st century has led some to mistakenly view it as a new form. But its history extends back at least to the counter-culture happenings of the 1960s and companies such as The Living Theatre and The Performance Group.

Long before Punchdrunk came along with shows such as the Macbeth-inspired Sleep No More (2003) and the Poe homage The Masque of the Red Death (2007), numerous practitioners were exploring the form, from Welsh company Brith Gof to Geraldine Pilgrim, Blast Theory and the all-enveloping theatre of European companies such as La Fura dels Baus. Oily Cart, a company working with severely disabled children, has long made work that qualifies as immersive for its creation of total environments, interactive elements and emphasis on visuals, sound and the sensory (including smell and touch) rather than text.

In the mid-90s, shows such as Enrique Vargas’ Oraculos (which cast each individual audience member as a seeker in a maze where you kneaded bread, lay down in a coffin and had a series of encounters with different performers) started arriving in London.

In 1995, Robert Wilson’s installation-based HG at the Clink and Deborah Warner’s St Pancras Project – in which ghostly figures were glimpsed in an abandoned London hotel – were both hugely influential. Battersea Arts Centre’s 1998 ‘Playing in the Dark’ season, which explored the potential of theatre performed in complete darkness, was also significant, leading to pieces such as Sound and Fury’s Kursk (2009) and Darkfield’s Séance (2016).

But it was the arrival of companies such as Shunt and Punchdrunk who were game changers in the early 2000s. These were companies who – like their 1960s counterparts – wanted to change the relationship between performers and audience. But whereas those 1960s practitioners wanted to do it primarily for political reasons, these new companies were more interested in the aesthetic possibilities of such shifts.

In shows such as Shunt’s Dance Bear Dance (2003) and Punchdrunk’s Faust, the audience dynamic was shifted, and in Punchdrunk’s case, the audience was given permission to roam freely and seek out the narrative they were most interested in exploring. The arrival of You Me Bum Bum Train (2010, although previously seen in club settings) continued the trend started by Oraculos and The Smile Off Your Face, in which the individual audience member became the star of their own show.

Punchdrunk may not have made a new large-scale show since The Drowned Man in 2014, but the allure of immersive theatre continues. Sometimes it’s on a smaller scale created by small, young unsubsidised companies, but it can also be in massive multi-million-pound commercial shows such as the poorly reviewed Somnai (2018).

This has led to shows of variable quality where there are often too many audience members and too little density of content, making it hard to have a meaningful experience. Great immersive theatre demands considerably more than a flair for window dressing and low lighting, although both help. But, like any form of theatre, one bad experience doesn’t damn the entire genre.

As a brand, immersive theatre has undoubtedly been damaged by its over-use by marketers, who know that the term helps them to shift tickets even if the actual show is about as immersive as a puddle. But its strength is in its ability to bring in new audiences, many of whom have never been to the theatre before, as it defies traditional theatre conventions. There are none of the issues around audience etiquette which so often bedevil traditional theatre when non-regular theatre-goers attend.

But because it creates a different contract between the audience and performers, it can present problems for both sides. Individual audience members are often randomly selected for one-on-one encounters that take place within the wider show, which raises issues of consent, and Punchdrunk’s Sleep No More in New York and the Guild of Misrule’s The Great Gatsby in London both had issues with audience members harassing some of the cast.

When I told a friend recently about an upcoming show I thought she might like, she rolled her eyes and said “immersive, isn’t that so over?” Which is, of course, a bit like saying, “new writing, the bubble has burst.”

There is always room for reinvention in any genre and that includes immersive theatre – which I am prepared to bet is going to be around for a long time to come and may well become even more popular as new forms emerge. The days of the old Punchdrunk shows where the audience wears masks have almost certainly passed, with Punchdrunk’s Felix Barrett recently telling me that the company was “not interested in rolling out old tricks”. That’s good; like all forms, immersive theatre needs to keep reinventing itself.

As technology develops and headsets become less cumbersome, VR is likely to be a major component of immersive theatre – indeed all forms of theatre. It is an area that the Arts Council has identified as being rich for development. There are indications too that gaming and the way it uses storytelling may also have an increasing influence on the structures and models of immersive theatre.

In a sense, this has always been built into Punchdrunk shows which have often embedded hidden games in the central structure, and on the basis that the harder you work as an audience member, the more rewarding the experience often is. You cannot sit back as you can in traditional theatre and expect the show to come to you. You have to be active and seek it out as you would when gaming.

Shows such as Coney’s A Small Town Anywhere and Metis' 3rd Ring Out (in which the audience have to make decisions to save London as it floods because of climate change) have already played with the idea of creating theatre in which there are no actors but only a playing audience.

The recent Dismantle This Room at the Royal Court uses an escape room format to consider the power structures of British theatre and society. What’s interesting about these shows is that, like the early pioneers of the form, they are using the immersive and interactive not just for aesthetic reasons but to offer a different form of theatre – one in which a potentially emancipated audience enters a theatrical space where they have genuine agency to make decisions, influence the outcome and take responsibility for their own actions.