Breaking the Fourth Wall

Breaking 4th wall

The fourth wall is a term used to describe the imaginary “wall” between the performers and the audience. The term is derived from the theatre, where the proscenium arch (the frame around the stage) creates the illusion of a wall separating the performers from the audience. The term “breaking the fourth wall” is used to describe instances where this imaginary wall is “broken”, that is, when characters in a play directly address the audience or otherwise acknowledge their presence.

In many immersive theatre shows, the fourth wall is broken by bringing the audience into the same playing space as the performers right from the start. While this can be seen as a means of audience empowerment, as viewers are not confined to their chairs, it can also create a sense of discomfort and apprehension, as viewers can no longer orient their behavior to familiar conventions, roles, and structures.

Immersive theatre shows provide the audience with different levels of structure and guidance. While some performances are highly structured with the audience taken from location to location as one group, others have performers politely prompting “lost” spectators to head in the right direction. Some immersive theatre shows also allow the audience to roam freely in any direction to multiple locations at their own leisure.

Similarly, immersive theatre shows also grant varying degrees of participation and scope for active involvement to the audience. Those degrees can be grouped as follows:

  1. Spectators that wander around freely in the space of the performance
  2. Giving spectators the option to interact with the objects around them
  3. Interactions between spectators and the performers, or other audience members
  4. Allowing spectators to assume their own role in the play, perhaps even changing the course of the performance.

Some immersive shows do not include actors at all but function as a “narrative space”, in which the viewers – somewhat like detectives or explorers – wander through a cosmos that they must discover and make sense of for themselves through circumstantial evidence.

In all of these cases, however, the theatre show can merely create an environment and structure that allows for immersion but cannot create the immersive experience itself. It is up to the audience, in how far and in what way they want to get involved, and thus, to curate their own immersive experience.

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