From the participatory theatrical experience “Sleep No More,” to the mysterious Omega Mart art installation, immersive theater is both atmospheric and innovative. The art form encourages audience participation in the creative process, making them an integral part of the performance.
It’s a performance art movement that aims to transform audience members from passive recipients to active participants. This genre is what literary theorist Roland Barthes calls a “writerly text”—one that encourages recipients to actively construct meaning.
Like traditional performance, immersive theater covers a variety of genres: drama, tragedy, farce, comedy, satire, burlesque, etc. Unlike traditional theater, however, immersive theater seeks to integrate audiences into the performance.
Often interactive, with actors breaking the fourth wall, immersive theater techniques include:
- Blurring the line between audience and performer: The most important element of the genre is destabilizing the actor-audience relationship.
- Leaving the stage behind: Instead of having actors perform onstage and audience members watch from their seats, immersive theater puts them in the same location. This shared space, which often doubles as an interactive art installation, may be a nightclub, warehouse, home, or even a hospital.
- Including sensory experiences: Theatrical troupes create the desired ambience for a given production by considering spatial aesthetics, room temperature, lighting, color, and aroma. This invites participants to touch, taste, and smell in addition to seeing and hearing.
- Shifting between the personal and the collective: Unlike traditional theatrical performances, immersive drama creates highly personal experiences. The social interaction emphasized by this genre creates a sense of community, or what sociologist Émile Durkheim calls “collective effervescence.” This juxtaposition creates a feeling of individual excitement and group unification.
Courtesy “The Imbible: A Spirited History of Drinking”
Here’s what you can expect:
Auditions: Tryouts for immersive productions usually involve information-retention testing, improv, and games to gauge how you respond to tonal shifts and different audiences.
Rehearsals: These tend to be shorter than their traditional counterparts, since so much depends on each specific audience, which is impossible to test. You likely won’t be able to keep your script for the rehearsal, so you should have a strong idea of who your character is, how they might respond to various situations, and the narrative of the show in its entirety.
Performances: Focus on the show as a whole first and then consider how your character fits into it, rather than moving from the role outward. Consider your scene and every possible audience reaction you can think of so you’re prepared for anything.
Follow these guidelines to help craft the best immersive experience possible:
- Refine your improv skills: The key to immersive acting, according to COLAB Theatre artistic director Bertie Watkins, is improvisation. “You have to be bright; you have to be quite intelligent,” he says. “You have to be thinking about what you’re going to say whilst you’re saying what you’re saying and thinking ahead all at the same time. You need to be able to reply. Like if an audience asks, ‘What have you had for breakfast?’ you need to be able to answer. It’s hot-seating, essentially, but it’s constant hot-seating—you can’t run away from it. As soon as the audience picks up that you’re not hot on your feet, they’re going to start going after you. Improvisation is very key; it’s just basic. You have to know everything. You have to know what you had for breakfast.”
- Consider the audience: You must constantly think about your impact on viewers. Remember your basic role and lines, but be ready to revise accordingly. “As an immersive actor, you’re not just thinking about your scene,” Watkins says. “You’re thinking about how your character is affecting your audience at that point in time.”
- It’s all in the timing: Since immersive theater is much more nebulous than traditional theater, you need to be vigilant about following along with each specific performance so you don’t miss a scene.
“Say Something Bunny!” Credit: Henry Chan Jr.
If you plan to attend an immersive experience, keep these suggestions in mind
- Avoid spoilers: Try your best not to research the experience before attending to preserve the surprise.
- Change your perspective: Instead of going into an immersive theater event with a traditional mindset, think of it as a game. This paradigm shift will allow you to more fully engage with the experience.
- Let yourself be guided: Try to learn and follow the guidelines established by each production. It’s like playing a role-playing game: Although you have narrative agency, you still must abide by the structures and rules of the game.
- Think poly: Many immersive experiences use polychronic narratives, in which participants are provided with a set of rules but are granted agency to interact and engage within those structures. This often takes place when a performer hails audience members by calling on the second-person “you” to integrate with the performance.
- Embrace postmodernism: Critics of immersive theater sometimes decry its nonlinear, boundary-pushing format; but for many, that’s precisely the fun of attending. The genre creates a postmodern narrative grammar of uncertainty and open-endedness that subverts expectations. Instead of trying to create order where there may be none, try leaning in. Embrace fragmentation and temporal distortion. Also, keep in mind that multiple events can happen simultaneously, so you may not understand them all—and that’s OK.
- Have fun: Immersive theater is meant to entertain and engage audiences, so going in with an open mind and a desire to enjoy yourself is paramount. What you get out of immersive theater is directly related to what you put in it.
“Don't Look Back” Courtesy Voyage Theater Company
Immersive theater can come in the form of one-actor shows, highly theatrical escape rooms, autonomous sensory meridian response (ASMR)–based auditory experiences, murder mysteries, and grand spectacle installations. Some of the most popular of these include:
- “Sleep No More” (Punchdrunk)
- “The Evidence Chamber” (Fast Familiar)
- “Ice Road” (Raucous)
- “The Masque of the Red Death” (Punchdrunk)
- “Hotel Medea” (Zecora Ura)
- “Don’t Look Back” (Voyage Theater Company)
- “The Surrealist Taxi” (Fruit for the Apocalypse)
- “Then She Fell” (Third Rail Projects)
- “The Brothers Booth” (Speakeasy Dollhouse)
- “OjO: The Next Generation of Travel” (Bricolage Production Company)
- “Utopian Hotline” (Theater Mitu)
- “Zoetrope” (Exquisite Corpse Company)
- “Bottom of the Ocean” (Houseworld Immersive)
- “The Grown-Ups” (Nightdrive)
- “ENDURE” (Melanie Jones)
- “Alice’s Adventures Underground” (Labyrinth)
- “The Donkey Show” (Diane Paulus)
- “You Me Bum Bum Train” (Kate Bond and Morgan Lloyd)
The art form has roots in participatory pantomime theater dating all the way back to ancient Rome. However, British theater company Punchdrunk is often credited with founding the modern version of immersive theater that uses space and sensory elements to craft intimate, communal experiences. The company’s “Sleep No More” continues to be the best-known example of the genre. (In fact, TV shows including “Gossip Girl” and “Broad City” have set episodes at the show’s New York City production.)