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What Is Immersive Theater?

What Is Immersive Theater?

Immersive Theater
by Stephen M. Eckert

The Contemporary Performance Think Tank is housed in the John Wells Directing Program MFA at Carnegie Mellon University’s School Of Drama under the direction of Caden Manson. Each year the Think Tank focuses on a set of topics concerning the fields of Theater and Contemporary Performance and conducts research and interviews to produce a paper as a resource for practitioners. This year’s topic is contemporary performing artists and companies redefining relationships with audience and pushing the formal relationships of architecture, artist, and audience. For this paper the Think Tank chose five areas on the forefront of this research to explore; Contemporary Choreography, Mixed Reality Performance Performance Cabaret, Immersive Theatre, and Social Engaged Art. Each section of this paper includes an introduction to the specific practice, a conversation with an artist, and a list of artists working in and around the specific practice. “What Is Immersive Theater?” is part of a series of posts. Check back daily to see the next posts. 

In an era of binge-watching, live-tweeting, and the Oculus Rift, how can theater compete as all-consuming entertainment? Perhaps it’s our desire to be more than spectators—to be sucked headlong into alternative worlds—that has fueled the recent boom in immersive theater, which trades the fourth wall for winding hallways and dance floors, in the hope of giving audiences not a show but an ‘experience.’ – Michael Schulman, The New Yorker1

Immersive theater is a performance form emphasizing the importance of space and design; curating tangible, sensual environments; and focusing on personal, individual audience experience.2 The form has emerged over the past two decades as a major movement in performance and finds itself today within a mainstream moment. As a form which subverts much of the established relationships of conventional theater, its success can be seen as reflecting a larger need in today’s audiences. With much of contemporary life taking place in ungrounded, digital spaces audiences long to exist as physical bodies in actual locations; presented with a culture that is two dimensional, today’s audiences seek expansive, visceral stimuli; within a society lacking privacy, audiences find the prospect of an intimate, personal experience alluring.3

When an audience goes into a regular theater, they know what they’re getting – seats, a programme, ice cream, a stage, two halves – and as a result they slump, switching off three quarters of their brains. I wanted to create productions where the audience is physically present, so that they are driven by a base, gut feeling and making instinctive decisions. That sort of show leaves a far larger imprint on you than just watching something.
– Felix Barrett, Punchdrunk4

Contemporary practices of immersive theater can be seen as a fusion of installation art and the physical and visual theaters of the 20th century. Elements of modernist practices are reflected in contemporary work including considerations of scenographic design, the actor-audience relationship, and highly physical performance styles.5 The happenings and environmental theater of the 1960s with their open-ended composition, focus on immediacy, and acknowledgment of the importance of duration also lend elements to the immersive form today6 with installation and live art practices from the 1960s onward inspiring much of the aesthetic of intimacy and participatory focus seen in contemporary immersive work by placing the viewer within the work itself, subverting critical distance.7

Companies making immersive theater today are greatly concerned with physical space, with site-specific productions in warehouses, hospitals, or nightclubs common, and great attention paid to tangible details of the environment. Productions often draw inspiration from the location, or choose the venue based on the subject of the work, but the transformation of a non-theater into an immersive space is widely practiced.8 This connection between the work and the location, embedding the dramaturgy of the space within the production, is in many companies an essential aspect of their practice.

Space—whether a suspended pause, a blank area, an empty room or a limitless cosmos—performs… it is the fundamental immaterial-material utilized by designers creating sites for theatrical performance. Space is the stuff of architects (who construct it) and scenographers (who abstract it); experienced by inhabitants (immersed within it).
– Dorita Hannah, Performance Perspectives: A Critical Introduction9

Immersive theater provides sensual experiences with audiences encouraged not only to hear and see a production, but to touch, taste, and smell it as well. Scenic designs fully consume audience members with each aspect researched and specifically designed and enacted.10,11 Food and drink are often featured as a part of the experience and productions may contain opportunities to physically interact with scenic elements.12,13 Sound in immersive practice similarly focuses on grounding and tangibility, seeking to place an audience within the piece, to put them inside a new world.14 These elements are considered as thoroughly as the space of the performance and all are similarly dramaturgically supportive of the themes of the work.

“Some of the things Punchdrunk crew and collaborators create still amaze me. For Sleep No More we built a town called Gallow Green, and one of our designers mocked up this old railway timetable. It is accurate and functioning, but he adapted it to include Gallow Green among the real stations. It is emblematic of the Punchdrunk experience: 97 per cent meticulously real, but with minuscule, crucial subversions to mess with your mind.”   – Felix Barrett, Punchdrunk15

Within these spaces performances can be either directed and linear, designed as an on-the-rails experience; or sprawling environments that emphasize choice and exploration. In either case the experience of the individual audience member is the focus of the work. Immersive work needs an audience to exist and much of it seeks to empower or challenge audiences.16 Many companies and artists are creating work with one-on-one relationships between the audience and performers. Audience members may be separated from the group and guided by one or more performers for all or some of the experience, performers may provide intimate moments for participants within a larger event, or the entire experience may be limited to one participant at a time. One-on-one work may also partner participants with each other, further blurring the line between audience and performer.17

It’s not just the numbers but much more about the theater of intimacy… I think audiences want this because it flings the challenge of creating meaning and interpretation back on the audience members. It’s the way we’ve always imagined the virtual world, but it’s alive.  – Vallejo Gantner, PS12218

Founded in London by Felix Barrett in 2000, but having since expanded internationally, Punchdrunk pioneered the contemporary immersive form in which free-roaming audience members experience large-scale dramatic events within highly-detailed theatrical spaces. Combining canonical texts with physical performance, sensual scenographic design, and site-specific locations, the company subverts the conventional theatrical expectation of passive spectatorship.19 These productions are an off-rails experience with audiences unable to see every scene element, and forced to choose which character or narrative to follow, or not. Audiences are also asked to don Venetian-style masks throughout the event, giving them a scenographic function as well as providing a carnivalesque anonymity and a relaxing of typical social rules.

The company’s most recent production, The Drowned Man: A Hollywood Fable, occupied four floors of a long-shuttered Royal Mail sorting office, transforming the space into the fictitious Temple Pictures film studio. With an aesthetic of Hollywood’s golden age and narrative pulled from elements as diverse as pulp novels, film noir, Ray Bradbury, and Woyzeck, critical reception was highly positive.20 The project was also a collaboration with the National Theater, not the first time the company has partnered with a larger, more established entity (The Crash of the Elysium was in coordination with the BBC, built around the characters and worlds of Doctor Who21), but representing a bridge between the old guard of conventional theater and the new immersive form.

Punchdrunk started as an idea I had with some friends at university. It was born from a desire to create work in which the audience is at the centre of the experience. We wanted to wrench them from the safety of traditional theater seats and place them at the heart of the action, equipped with identity and purpose.    – Felix Barrett, Punchdrunk22

Also founded in 2000 and led by Artistic Directors Zach Morris, Tom Pearson, and Jennine Willett, Third Rail Projects aims to reframe dance and performance, and bring together art and the public through diverse elements of site-specific performances, dance theater, installation art, video and multimedia projects, and immersive performance environments.23 Third Rail greatly considers their spaces while developing work, with theme, structure, and scenographic choices directly inspired by the production’s site. Morris frequently describes the importance of “listening” to a space.24 While similarly grand in their scale, Third Rail’s immersive installations differ from those of Punchdrunk in their dance-theater focus and much more guided, on-the-rails direction. Rather than roam freely, audiences proceed from space to space more linearly.

Third Rail’s New York production of Then She Fell, a whimsical and surreal take on Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland mounted in a former medical institution, is in its fourth year,25 while their balmy 1970s fountain-of-youth resort experience, The Grand Paradise, ran to acclaim in both Los Angeles and New York this past year.26 Both pieces feature curated one-on-one encounters and were notably funded via online crowdsourcing. Learning Curve, developed with the Albany Park Theater Project in collaboration with the Goodman Theater, places participants into a Chicago high school and was created with the local community of students, teachers, and parents.27 Sweet & Lucky, commissioned by the Denver Center for the Performing Arts,28 invited audiences into a mysterious antique store leading to an evening of dreamlike encounters surrounding themes of memory and mortality.29

Our job is to, hopefully, create a bunch of really interesting dots. But the audience’s job is to connect those dots. And they can connect them however they want. The thing that’s kind of cool about this type of theater is I’ll walk out of a show and you’ll walk out of a show, and we may have seen many of the same dots, but my picture will look very different from yours. And that’s sort of what’s amazing. And a very different way to think about storytelling.   – Zach Morris, Third Rail Projects30

Founded in 2011 by Artistic Director Annie Saunders, the California-based company Wilderness takes its name from the disused spaces where they mount their site-specific productions. In these unexplored and uninhabited places, they “create immersive, experiential and interdisciplinary theatrical events that disrupt the boundaries between observer and observed.” 31

Their 2015 production of The Day Shall Declare It was a guided dance theater experience featuring a cast of three performers, texts from Tennessee Williams and Studs Terkel, a series of rooms combining “Great Depression-era décor with a contemporary urban industrial aesthetic,” and a sound design even “more resonant than anything that’s spoken by the three-person cast.”32 Antigone Project, a work in development set to tour in 2017/18, is an “intimate theater duet” retelling the Oedipal myth “situated in a huge blanket fort, born out of Antigone’s imagination whilst she is buried in the cave” aiming to create “an up-close and human exploration of the heroine and the brother she buries.”33 The work was created with support from the Getty Villa, San Francisco Playhouse and the Harvey Milk Center.

When I got to L.A., I was kind of trying to figure out what I was going to do here and driving around and seeing a lot of really intriguing, seemingly abandoned space, especially downtown. And so I decided that I wanted to make work that kind of occupied those spaces temporarily. I mean, I just really was feeling like I wanted to explore those buildings, and I thought maybe this is the kind of work I want to be making in L.A., like inviting people into these spaces and creating these kind of temporary worlds.  – Annie Saunders, Wilderness34

A UK-based, German artist working in several mediums including visual art, film, installation and performance, Britt Hatzius’ work “refers to or often takes the format of the moving image, both in its technical and conceptual form, exploring ideas around language, interpretation and the potential for discrepancies, ruptures, deviations and (mis-)communication.”35

In her immersive piece, Blind Cinema, audiences are seated in a theater, blindfolded, and have a projected film described to them by whispering children through a funnel up to their ear. The work focuses on “that which lies beyond the sense of sight (leaving the illusory reality of cinema to re-enter that of the imagination), the attention oscillates between each shared but internal world guided by the whispering voice, and the shared physical space of the darkened cinema.”36 This is Not My Voice Speaking, a collaboration between Hatzius and Ant Hampton, divides audiences into “Ones” and “Zeroes” and guides them through experiences utilizing older technology including a turntable, slide projector, cassette tapes, and 16mm film. Participants are tasked with following a physical and vocal instruction ‘manual.’ Doing so “results in the voice jumping from cassette to vinyl and, eventually, being synchronised with what appears to be old 16mm footage of a bearded newsreader.” The work “moves the audience-performer around within three communicative elements forming an uncanny triangulation: the human voice, the instruction ‘manual’ language and physically manifest (last generation) recordable media.”37

The Extra People is rather dangerous actually, not to the public, but to notions of representation and participation (…) plunging us deep into the defining social and economic reality of our times: empty, disconnected, monitored, vaguely menacing and very public: on a stage, in fact. As we prepare to leave, another group enters and the show goes on. – Molly Grogan, Exeunt Magazine38

Shasta Geaux Pop is the creation of New York-based multidisciplinary performer Ayesha Jordan and director Charlotte Brathwaite. The piece was produced at Under the Radar Festival in 2017 and at The Bushwick Starr in fall of 2016, but the character was developed for many years previously by Jordan.39

An “immersive underground hiphop party,”40 the work stars the titular character, a “pop star-tist and entertrainer [sic] making jaws and booties drop one song at a rhyme…I mean time.”41 The production transforms theaters into immersive basement parties and blends elements of immersion (focus on space, tangible design) with those of cabaret and solo performance. Shasta equally performs for and interacts with audience members throughout the performance which fights a simple, linear narrative or story and instead builds an open-ended environment for audience experience.

…it isn’t a show. Better to think of it as a gathering. An event, where I can reveal the inner workings of myself…thru music. We can make intimate connections. You know? I feel like I am more than a performer, more than an artist. I connect. Let’s call it a connection. We are all going to a connection.  – Shasta Geaux Pop, New York Theater Review42

Maybe the biggest change to immersive theater over the last decade has been the growing acceptance and indeed embrace of the form by conventional theatrical institutions. In addition to the previously mentioned pieces from Punchdrunk and Third Rail, several immersive productions are being developed in collaboration with conventional theatrical institutions. U.S. regional theaters are showing interest in the form, with the Guthrie premiering Sarah Agnew’s Relics as part of their Dowling Space Initiative43 and Center Theater Group commissioning Geoff Sobelle’s The Object Lesson as part of a similar initiative.44 La Jolla Playhouse continues to host the annual Without Walls Festival of site-specific work.45 Immersive theater can even be found in the center of mainstream American theater, Broadway houses, with productions such as Ars Nova’s Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 181246 and Simon McBurney’s The Encounter47 filling Broadway theaters this year and using the immersion label as a major selling point. One can speculate the reason for the increased visibility and success of immersive theater, but it is clear that it is resonating with audiences in ways traditional theatrical form cannot.

Further Reading:
10 Immersive Theater Companies To Discover
Immersive Theater: In Conversation With Shasta Geaux Pop

Notes

  1.  Michael Schulman, “Immersive Theater on Broadway,” New Yorker, October 24, 2016, http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2016/10/24/immersion-theater-on-broadway.
  2.  Josephine Machon, Immersive Theaters: Intimacy and Immediacy in Contemporary Performance (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013), 66.
  3.  Machon, Immersive Theaters, 72.
  4.  “Punchdrunk visionary Felix Barrett: ‘If audiences get used to the rules, change them,’” Telegraph, June 19,  2015, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/culturenews/11675468/Punchdrunks-Felix-Barrett-If-audiences-get-used-to-the-rules-change-them.html.
  5.   Machon, Immersive Theaters, 29.
  6.   Machon, Immersive Theaters, 31.
  7.   Machon, Immersive Theaters, 33.
  8.   Machon, Immersive Theaters, 65, 85.
  9.  Dorita Hannah, “Event-space: Performance space and spatial performativity,” in Performance Perspectives: A Critical Introduction, eds. Jonathan Pitches and Sita Popat (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011), 54-62.
  10.  Machon, Immersive Theaters, 77.
  11. Claire Bishop, Installation Art: A Critical History. London: Routledge. 2006. Participation. London, Whitechapel Gallery and Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. pp. 14.
  12.  Machon, Immersive Theaters, 78.
  13.  “Immersive Theater, Defined: Five Elements in Sleep No More, Then She Fell, and More,” Howlround, accessed February 25, 2017, http://www.howlround.com/immersive-theater-defined-five-elements-in-sleep-no-more-then-she-fell-and-more.
  14.  Machon, Immersive Theaters, 95.
  15.   “Punchdrunk visionary,” Telegraph.
  16.  Machon, Immersive Theaters, 42.
  17.  Machon, Immersive Theaters, 55.
  18.  Felicia R. Lee, “Theater for Audiences of One,” New York Times, July 28, 2010, http://www.nytimes.com/2010/07/28/theater/28one.html.
  19.  “About,” Punchdrunk, accessed on February 25, 2017,  http://www.punchdrunk.org.uk/about/.
  20.  “The Drowned Man,” Punchdrunk, accessed on February 25, 2017,  http://www.punchdrunk.org.uk/the-drowned-man/.
  21.  “The Crash of the Elysium,” Punchdrunk, accessed on February 25, 2017,  http://www.punchdrunk.org.uk/the-crash-of-the-elysium/.
  22.  Antonio Wilson, “The Drowned Man: An interview with immersive theater masters Punchdrunk,” Creative Review, July 15, 2015, http://www.creativereview.co.uk/the-drowned-man-an-interview-with-immersive-theater-masters-punchdrunk/
  23.  “About the Company,” Third Rail Projects, accessed February 28, 2017, http://www.thirdrailprojects.com/about#abouthecompany.
  24.  James Carter, “Third Rail Projects Holds Up Mirror to the Audience,” The Civilians, April 1, 2016, accessed February 27, 2017,  http://www.extendedplay.thecivilians.org/third-rail-projects-holds-up-a-mirror-to-the-audience-40116/.
  25.   “Then She Fell,” Third Rail Projects, accessed February 27, 2017, http://www.thirdrailprojects.com/thenshefell#tsf.
  26.  “The Grand Paradise,” Third Rail Projects, accessed February 27, 2017, http://www.thegrandparadise.com.
  27.  “Learning Curve,” Third Rail Projects, accessed February 27, 2017,  http://www.thirdrailprojects.com/learningcurve#lcpage.
  28.  Hope Grandon, “Theater Company to Create New Immersive Theater Piece with Third Rail Projects,” Denver Center for the Performing Arts Newscenter, July 20, 2015, http://www.denvercenter.org/blog-posts/news-center/2015/07/20/theater-company-to-create-new-immersive-theater-piece-with-third-rail-projects.
  29.  “Sweet and Lucky,” Third Rail Projects, accessed February 27, 2017, http://www.thirdrailprojects.com/sweetandlucky#salpage.
  30.   Carter, “Third Rail Projects Holds Up Mirror to the Audience.”
  31.  “About,” Wilderness, accessed February 20, 2017, http://thisisthewilderness.com/about/.
  32. Charles McNulty, “‘The Day Shall Declare It’ has dazzling visuals, limited depth,” Los Angeles Times, March 10, 2015, http://www.latimes.com/entertainment/arts/la-et-the-day-shall-declare-it-review-20150311-column.html.
  33.  “The Antigone Project,” Wilderness, accessed February 20, 2017, http://thisisthewilderness.com/portfolio/the-antigone-project/.
  34.  Bill Raden, “A Q&A with Annie Saunders of The Day Shall Declare It,” Stage Raw, May 12, 2016, http://stageraw.com/2016/05/12/a-qa-with-annie-saunders-of-the-day-shall-declare-it/.
  35.  “BIO,” Britt Hatzius, accessed March 3, 2017, http://www.britthatzius.co.uk/bh_BIO.html.
  36.  “Blind Cinema,” Britt Hatzius, accessed March 3, 2017, http://www.britthatzius.co.uk/blind_cinema.html.
  37.  “This is Not My Voice Speaking,” Britt Hatzius, accessed March 3, 2017, http://www.britthatzius.co.uk/notmyvoice.html.
  38.  “Ant Hampton-The Extra People,” Attenborough Center, accessed March 3, 2017, http://www.attenboroughcentre.com/events/612/ant-hampton-the-extra-people/.
  39.  “About,” Ayesha Jordan, accessed March 20, 2017, http://www.ayeshajordan.com/#about.
  40.  “SHASTA GEAUX POP,” Charlotte Brathwaite, accessed March 20, 2017, http://charlottebrathwaite.com/SHASTA-GEAUX-POP.
  41.  “Shasta Geaux Pop,” Ayesha Jordan, accessed March 20, 2017, http://www.ayeshajordan.com/shasta-geaux-pop/.
  42. Jody Christopherson, “Jody Christopherson Interviews Shasta Geaux Pop.” New York Theater Review, August 31, 2016, http://newyorktheaterreview.blogspot.com/2016/08/jody-christopherson-interviews-shasta.html.
  43.  “Relics,” Guthrie Theater, accessed February 1, 2017, http://www.guthrietheater.org/plays_events/plays/relics.
  44.  “The Object Lesson,” Center Theater Group, accessed February 1, 2017,  http://www.centertheatergroup.org/tickets/kirk-douglas-theater/2015-16/the-object-lesson.
  45.   “Without Walls Series,” La Jolla Playhouse, accessed February 1, 2017, http://www.lajollaplayhouse.org/the-season/wow-series.
  46.  “Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812,” Great Comet Broadway, accessed March 25, 2017, http://greatcometbroadway.com.
  47. “The Encounter,” Encounter Broadway, accessed March 25, 2017, http://theencounterbroadway.com.

Sleep No More – Photos by Robin Roemer, Yaniv Schulman and Thom Kaine

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