In Arts + Entertainment

How Immersive Theatre Developed A Cult Following

Forget watching the stage - the performance is all around you.

Sleep No More has been running in New York City since 2011, but you won’t find it on Broadway. In fact, you won’t find it in a theatre at all because the world’s most successful immersive theatre performance unfolds over six floors and 100 performance spaces in a converted warehouse.

Audiences roam these spaces freely, choosing which actors to follow and what to explore over the course of three hours. There’s no right or wrong way to approach the performance – the non-linear approach is more like an open world video game than traditional theatre.

Sk!n Photo: Darshen Chelliah

When Govin Ruben came out, the first thing he did was talk to his friend about what he’d seen, and he soon discovered that they’d had wildly different experiences. “I think that’s the best form of immersive theatre, where you let your curiosity guide you,” says the co-founder of performing arts company Terryandthecuz. He jokes that this approach in direct contrast with his own creation Sk!n, which is “immersive in a different way – you have no choice, we just tell you what to do.”

The piece was inspired by hundreds of interviews with victims of human trafficking. As the show begins, audience members hand over all their belongings and are asked a series of intrusive questions. They’re given a number and arbitrarily divided into groups, each of which will experience Sk!n in a fundamentally different way.

Sk!n Photo: Darshen Chelliah

This dehumanising aspect of the performance would risk becoming didactic if presented onstage; instead Ruben creates a space for empathy and reflection, which makes the more traditionally staged segments even more powerful. The conventional and immersive elements are interwoven, as when a haunting contemporary dance piece ends with several audience members being driven off in a shipping container on the back of a truck.

Seance takes place entirely within a shipping container, though producer Nathan Alexander is coy about what actually happens. He insists that “part of the charm of the show is to keep it as secret as possible,” but is happy to reveal that the simulated seance occurs in pitch darkness and utilises binaural technology.

Each audience member gets a set of headphones that relay sound in such a way that it seems to come from above, behind and around. With the element of sight removed, all of the other senses are heightened and noise-cancelling headphones also have the effect of isolating the audience members. As a result, there’s no way to tell what’s happening to the person next to you – “everybody experiences the show completely differently.”

This ability to participate in a group activity while still interacting with the work on an individual level is a key part of the appeal of immersive theatre. For a generation encouraged to collect experiences rather than things, it’s a way to combine the desire for shared memories with unique perspectives.

The Sequence Photo: Alone

Perhaps no show prizes this aspect more than Alone’s The Sequence, which is staged for an audience of one person at a time but plays to almost 100 people a night. Co-creator Devin Paulson says “it’s roughly under the umbrella of immersive theatre, but generally we just call ourselves an experience. We set up a concept and then people go through it and they have their own experience and they derive what they will.”

Rather than a narrative, Paulson and co-creator Lawrence Lewis begin with an idea or emotion and then explore a series connected themes, placing the onus on the audience to draw meaning from the work.

The Sequence Photo: Alone

Like Seance, they try to keep an element of secrecy around the show which is a cross between an art happening and a haunted house. Outgoing audiences describe reactions like fear and terror, but it is the fear of being alone and not understanding what’s happening rather the cheap thrills of a haunted house or slasher movie.

“It’s unnerving, but in the same way that many aspects of life are unnerving,” Lewis explains, adding that they are trying to bring people out of their comfort zones and dislocate them from their normal lives.

In an age when broadcasts and mass shared experiences are becoming increasingly rare, demand for these innovative immersive performances is only growing.

The Sequence has just wrapped up a sold out run in Melbourne and talks have already commenced for a return. Sk!n dates for Darwin and Brisbane are currently being planned and Seance will tour the country for the rest of 2018. Sk!n runs at Bendigo’s Capital Theatre from March 1-3 and Melbourne’s Abbotsford Convent from March 7-11. Seance is in the Garden of Unearthly Delights as part of the Adelaide Fringe until March 18.

Published 28 February, 2018