The many Faces of Immersion

The many Faces of Immersion

Immersive theatre is constantly evolving. As a genre, it is by no means a clearly outlined category but shares some blurry boundaries with other forms of art and entertainment. In the following, I will present three forms that may count towards the category of immersive theatre but have their own very distinct features: Site-specific theatre, narrative spaces, and immersive art shows and games.

1. Hitting the streets: Site-specific theatre

Sleep No More (Punchdrunk, New York)
Sleep No More (Punchdrunk, New York) 

Site-specific theatre is a form which probably fits best within the definition of immersive theatre. In fact, site-specific theatre was central to the early efforts in the 1960s to move away from traditional theatre by removing the stage and playing the audience within the performance itself. Leaving the proscenium arch behind, innovative theatre companies hit the streets to find locations and buildings that could serve as unconventional spaces for theatre, such as depleted warehouses, abandoned hotels, or a forest. Sites are chosen based on their unique properties to amplify storytelling or add to the atmosphere of the show. Often the term “site-specific” is being thrown in whenever a performance does not take place in a conventional theatre space, which makes it hard to pin it down on a narrow definition. Site-specific theatre is not per se interactive, but often requires more involvement from the audience members. As such, site-specific theatre is related to promenade theatre, where the audience is expected and encouraged to walk around the venue or move with the actors from one location to the next during the show. While the audience may not necessarily be involved in the action of the play and become part of the story, they are at least in the middle of the action. The “immersion” here, thus, refers predominantly to the audience being immersed in the physical space of the performance, by being allowed to roam and explore the environment of the story as the performance happens around them. One example of site-specific theatre is Punchdrunk’s Sleep No More in New York, or The Burnt City in London. The Audience has to wear a mask and remain silent at all times during the show but is otherwise at liberty to move from room to room and follow the story arch (“loop”) of any actors they choose. However, they remain passive witnesses of the story and are not intended to interfere with the performers’ acting.

2. No one home: Narrative Spaces

RHIZOMAT (Mona el Gammal, Berliner Festspiele 2016)
RHIZOMAT (Mona el Gammal, Berliner Festspiele 2016)

Narrative Spaces have become more and more popular, in particular during the pandemic, as these shows allow more easily for social distancing or can even be implemented as completely virtual spaces. Narrative Spaces usually do not require any performers. Rather, the plot is told through a physical space and the material objects that inhabit it. The audience members are encouraged to explore and make sense of the space around them, by observing and interacting with the objects they find. In this sense, narrative spaces are hands-on art installations or museums that invite visitors to actively engage with their surroundings and immerse themselves in the carefully designed set. Narrative Spaces prove that rooms can tell stories just like actors. In a sense, the physical or virtual spaces themselves can become performers of an event. The plot, then, reveals itself within these spaces through the atmosphere and a myriad of clues, found in letters or notebooks, a broken mirror or an undone bed. Perhaps also a noise, an overheard phone call or a distinct smell. It is as if one were not entering art spaces, but crime scenes. Within a Narrative Space, everything that lies unsuspiciously and carelessly in its place suddenly becomes a showpiece and circumstantial evidence. As Mona el Gammal, one of Germany’s most innovative and prolific creators of Narrative Spaces, puts it:

“[The visitor] does not watch from a distance, but becomes a co-player who must experience and make sense of the space with all of his or her senses. The audience fills in the absence of the room’s inhabitants, assembles the fragments of the story and is invited to explore the circumstances of other people and the mysteries of other places and times. Inside the Narrative Space, each spectator finds his or her own version of a story.”

3. Entertainment or gamified art? Immersive shows and games

Shell Game – Lost in Paranoialand (Schaubude Berlin).
Shell Game – Lost in Paranoialand (Schaubude Berlin).

This last category refers to a rather broad and multifaceted group of immersive productions, which are often highly interactive and playful. While fulfilling all the requirements of creating an immersive experience for the audience, I am undecided about how far these productions can still be considered “theatre” in a broader sense. A number of theatre companies have ventured out to discover new formats that include interactive gameplay in a physical or virtual space. In February 2022, I attended a performance by Anna Kpok at the Schaubude in Berlin, called Shell Game – Lost in Paranoialand, which was advertised as a “participatory theatre-game”. After their spaceship crashed on an alien planet, the audience is tasked with solving puzzles, following the emergency protocol and organising the days until rescue. The performance heavily relied on the audience members taking on an active role in the play, interacting both with their material surroundings and the performers, as well as with each other. In the end, it was the individual and collective choices and actions of the audience that determined how the story unfolded and ended.

There are now also a variety of more commercially oriented production companies offering immersive experiences, which seem to cater more for entertainment seeking crowds rather than art enthusiasts. These events focus on the fun and excitement of the visitors while triggering serious reflection on the issues raised is seldom of concern. One example of this is Secret Cinema in London. Perhaps, even the recent trend of Escape Rooms, where visitors explore one or multiple rooms and solve puzzles, could be counted as a form of immersive theatre. Unfortunately, the notion of an “immersive experience” has become somewhat of a buzzword that is used more and more ubiquitously to describe any kind of unconventional or – in the broadest sense of the word – interactive show or installation. In particular, technology-enhanced art shows that include any form of augmented or virtual reality (AR/VR) have been on the rise lately, such as the Van Gogh “immersive experience” that has been on display in numerous European cities.

Source of featured image: https://img.buzzfeed.com/buzzfeed-static/static/2018-02/6/17/campaign_images/buzzfeed-prod-fastlane-03/performers-and-staffers-at-sleep-no-more-say-audi-2-21096-1517957616-0_dblbig.jpg

 


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