Upstaged: Immersive theatre

Upstaged: Immersive theatre

By NellFrizzellIdeasTap 06/09/11

With interative theatre descending to secret tunnels and courting big business, has all the world finally become a stage? And if so, when do we get paid...?

If your idea of immersive theatre is inviting some friends over to watch your cat drown, then allow me to explain. 

Over the last few years theatre has leapt off the stage like Lady Gaga at Lollapalooza and we, the audience, are now expected to play along. No longer is it enough to pay your £20, get to your seat before curtain up and gently sink into a reverie about your hot Swedish dentist; these days you have to invent dialogue, interact with characters, take initiative and form plot arcs. You might as well join Equity. You can always use the Public Liability Insurance to set some stuff on fire.

But, has immersive theatre jumped the shark? Has it become too ubiquitous? When even Lyn Gardner starts interrogating strange drunk men in Southwark basements about secret codes perhaps we, as audiences, have become too comfortable in our new “roles”.

During Look Right, Look Left’s Edinburgh production You Once Said Yes, one “participant” spent a happy hour-and-a-half blindly wandering around the Scottish capital, fully under the impression that he was taking part in an interactive, immersive theatre experience. He was chatting to flyerers, wandering in to strange shops, swinging by half-empty pubs and buying useless trinkets, all the while convinced that this was pushing back the boundaries of performing art. In fact, he had wandered off the plot hours ago, somewhere between a purple inflatable cow and an air hostess wielding a clipboard and bag of pencils and was merely starring in a play of his own making called The Myopic Tourist Enjoys Edinburgh.

Of course, when done well, immersive theatre can be incredible. Punchdrunk, Budgie, You Me Bum Bum Train and Look Right, Look Left have made careers out of disorientating, disconcerting and displaying audiences. When I first heard a friend describe wandering around the tunnels of the Battersea Arts Centre, chancing upon masked men and sinister ballrooms in Punchdrunk’s Masque of the Red Death, I was enchanted, excited and envious in equal measure.

However, upon hearing that Punchdrunk have collaborated with PlayStation to create a new show marking the release of a new video game (Resistance 3, for those of you in the audience with engorged thumbs), I can’t help but wonder if immersive theatre has lost some of its sparkle. A Darkness Descended is a stinking, sweat-drenched, apparently terrifying plunge into the world of video games, taking place under Waterloo station. But, is it really new? Isn’t this the trench experience of the Imperial War Museum, but with added Sony subsidy? Isn’t it all – and no one has more of a problem with this term more than me – a bit of a sell out? 

Commercial concerns aside, the sheer volume of immersive theatre must, at some point, reach saturation point. Audiences are so emboldened by their immersive experiences that surely, eventually, we won’t need the theatre company at all. We can simply walk into public spaces, pick up a public telephone, receive some invented orders and then launch ourselves on the city as shrieking, running, jabbering, over-familiar “characters”.

Now I think about it, perhaps Dorothy, the bearded woman who wore a greasy anorak and kilt while walking up and down my childhood street was just an immersive theatre pioneer. She certainly never broke character. Even when she was hitting bin men with her book bag.


Illustration by Narcsville.

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