What Is Immersive Theatre?

Image credit: Kyle Head (via Unsplash)

By Amelia Field

Traditional notions of theatre usually present upper-class people dressed in their finest wear sitting for two or three hours watching actors perform on intricate stages, audience glued to their seats. This has changed completely with the introduction of independent theatre where tickets can cost as little as £2 and actors may not have glamorous sets or a history in acting. Sometimes these performances can be even better than those which are performed in the traditional way.

However, it could be said that the introduction of cinema, where audiences can see all kinds of animation and special effects, meant that theatres now struggle to attract audiences, especially to new plays. This has seen the introduction of theatre performances based on films such as Mean Girls and Legally Blonde. It was the first step towards understanding that theatre had to evolve and move away from tradition in order to capture the attention of contemporary audiences; and what better way to do this than through getting the audience involved? Interaction with audiences is at the core of immersive theatre, a genre that is gaining more and more popularity and, in contrast with traditional theatre, is full of surprises. 

Immersive theatre refers to ‘a presentation of theatrical form or work that breaks the ‘fourth wall’. This is a relatively recent concept that became popular with shows such as You Me Bum Bum Train and Punchdrunk. And now we see plays such as Alice in Wonderland and The Great Gatsby pulling audiences into the performance. Far from the bright lights of the West End or Broadway, many of these interactive performances are held in old houses or underground venues.

Immersive theatre originates from a 19th-century tradition associated with pantomime where a leader would put out a call and the audience would respond. Audiences are even able to influence the way that the play goes, like in the Tony Award-winning musical, The Mystery of Edwin Drood. During the performance, the audience was asked to vote on who killed an important character, leading to one of seven possible endings. This kind of theatre shows the true nature of the changing audience giving them a sense of power over the outcomes of the performance.

In August this year, while travelling in New York, a friend convinced me to attend a production of Beetlejuice on Broadway. For $45 I thought the show may not measure up to expectations as Broadway tickets can go for up to $200. We were offered partial view tickets which ended up giving us just as much of a view as those sitting at the front. From comedic genius regarding current political events to amazing sets which seemed to appear from nothing, the show managed to capture the imagination of the audience completely. This involved jokes aimed at specific members of the audience, calling upon the audience to answer questions and instructing a certain parent to cover their young child’s ears every time the main characters swore.

Although this specific production wasn’t as interactive as some, it gave me an insight into how skilled actors can be presented with a totally different audience every night and still find ways to get them involved. I believe that this takes a lot more skill than just performing a specific script every night.

Alongside this immersive art form is immersive cinema. On two occasions I have attended the Prince Charles Theatre in London Southbank and had an evening of fun. The first of these was an anniversary screening of The Princess Bride seen with a friend who was a loyal fan. Audience members were encouraged to talk along with famous lines and throw things at the screen when evil characters appeared.

The second occasion was the 30-year release anniversary of Labyrinth starring David Bowie. I was presented with a bag of goodies at the door to be used throughout the screening. A peach sweet to be eaten when Sarah consumes the drugged peach and bubbles to be blown during the masquerade ball among other items. These experiences lead me to leave the theatre afterwards feeling thoroughly entertained and believe that I fully got my money’s worth.

These productions take the viewer out of the role of passive consumer to active participant and create a more complex and well-rounded experience. Despite this, audiences may often not realise the extent of the interactivity of such performances and the lack of separation can cause anxiety. This can mean that actors should ask for the consent of the audience before entering into this performance and giving them the option to not be involved.

All things considered, immersive theatre is a ground-breaking form of art and makes for unique experiences that everyone should enjoy at least once in their life.