Can immersive theatre get too close? Maddie Haynes reflects on intimacy and the artist’s duty of care towards the audience
‘You look like you’d be into something different.’
It’s the middle of the 2017 Edinburgh Fringe, and two men in dark suits named Harold and Arthur hand me a flyer. They tell me that, to start their immersive horror experience, all I have to do is text the number on the back. Any time, night or day.
That evening, I text.
They ask if I would be happy to meet them and so, with a scare-loving friend in tow, I go along to their suggested bar, The Devil’s Advocate. (Yes, judge me, because you’ve never been hooked in by a pair of charismatic immersive-horror-theatre-makers. Well done you!)
The evening begins with Harold (or Arthur) whisking us upstairs to the terrace, while his counterpart buys us all drinks without asking for our order. I instinctively swap the drinks over when Arthur (or Harold) brings them to the table.
‘Why would you do that?’ he asks.
They tell us that they’re researching for PhDs about people’s beliefs in the supernatural, and ask if they can record our conversation. We chat about mythical owl gods, souls and ghosts, which my friend loves because she spends her weekends giving ghost tours of the city’s underground tunnels. Everyone’s getting along now, and we go to a vodka bar (my choice) to continue.
Here they pay for two more rounds of drinks. At one point, a clearly very drunk woman comes to our table, crying and telling us that she can’t find her cousin. My friend and I go to the toilet with her to help her calm down and, before she leaves, one of the men hands her a card with a number on it.
‘These people will help you.’
After this we play a truth game, which involves us answering such whimsical questions as: ‘What’s the worst thing you’ve ever done?’ and ‘How would you kill someone if you had to?’ I can’t see whether the voice recorder’s light is still flashing.
Both men have disturbingly specific answers to the latter question, with one of them saying, ‘I’d strangle her. There’s something very erotic about asphyxiation.’
Soon after, they nod to each other and proclaim us to be ‘ready’:
‘What would you say if we told you, you could have everything you ever wanted, and all you had to do was say yes?’
They tell us that life is all about knowing ‘the right people’; that they’re members of a community that’s full of them.
‘We think you’d both fit in extremely well. Please consider our offer. You can reach us any time.’
They hand us each a business card with the words The Pact on it, along with the number I’d texted. Then they stand and each raise their right hand, on the wrists of which I see a black tattoo of an eye. They speak in unison:
‘Praise be to Hoo.’
The following morning, I get another text from Harold and Arthur.
They remind me to reach out to them if I ever need help ‘realising myself’, and tell me ‘She will watch over you always’ (‘She’ presumably being their all-seeing owl god, Hoo.) When I don’t respond, they send me another text seven hours later. They want to know if something they said has made me feel uncomfortable.
Three years later, I’m clearing out old rucksacks in a bout of isolation boredom and I find the flyer for Harold and Arthur’s ‘show’. With a renewed fervour to work out what the eff that was all about, I do some digging, trying to find any blog or review site that might mention their names. Finally, I do find them.
Harold and Arthur are performers Jonathan Curd and Kiran Tanna, and their work The Pact featured at the 2017 Edinburgh Fringe. It was a show after all, then. I’m filled with relief, confusion, and some disappointment. I was counting on having a cult to fall back on if the arts stuff doesn’t work out.
If anything, it’s more disturbing to me that Curd and Tanna’s cult isn’t real. There’s an unspoken contract between all theatre-makers and their audiences: I agree to be immersed in your created world, and you agree to release me from it at the end. With their creepy follow-up texts and promise to be ‘here as long as you want us’, the Harold and Arthur experience not only refuses to release me, it refuses to end at all. Issues of consent and responsibility seem to be nowhere on their radar, they even inexplicably handed their fake cult business card to a distressed woman who I very much doubt was a planted stooge.
Miraculously, this grim double-date is not enough to put me off immersive theatre forever. In fact, during the pandemic I’m desperate to enter another world and feel that unique intimacy (now that most touching is illegal). In August 2020, I go to the Donmar Warehouse’s production of Blindness: an installation that uses light and binaural sound to tell José Saramago’s story about a group of infected civilians incarcerated in a military ‘hospital’ during an epidemic of… well, you can probably guess. Directed by Walter Meierjohann from an adaptation by Simon Stephens, the piece features an immersive sound design by Ben and Max Ringham, with a monologue delivered through headphones with frenzied desperation by Juliet Stevenson. To account for social distancing, pairs of adjacent but opposite-facing seats are spaced two metres around the performance space. Her intimate whispering is caught so well by the binaural microphones that several times, I catch myself turning around in my chair to check that she’s not actually standing behind me.
It’s a cliché to say the show is an assault on the senses, but it’s hard to find other words for how this story is told. A bright bar of light is shone less than a metre in front of my face before plunging the space into darkness again, to heighten the intensity of my manufactured ‘blindness’. (There’s a whole other conversation to be had here about the ethics of presenting disability as an experience.) In a scene that almost has me removing my headphones and going full ‘I’m a Celeb,’ women in the compound are being traded to a group of men in return for food, and I panic that I’m going to have to listen to sexual violence in this hyper-isolated, mentally and physically anxious state. So much of Stephens’ work incorporates some element of abrasiveness, but something about experiencing this in isolation feels more threatening than usual. Without live performers with whom to feel a shared energy and exchange, this intensity of emotion becomes a lonely, one-way barrage. Even the friend I came with is facing the other way. I imagine how much more threatening The Pact would have felt if I had been alone.
This feeling of isolation recurs throughout the immersive works I experience through lockdown, and I’m alone again for Headlong Theatre and Coney’s work Ghost Caller. This time, from the comfort of my own bedroom, I’m asked to text the number provided (OH NO) before tossing a coin. Once I text to let them know I got tails, I’m told that I’ve summoned a ghost, and I receive a call. The call is a recording of a script by Luke Barnes, performed by David Morrissey (or Leanne Best if you got heads, or Jamal Ajala on BSL), in which Morrissey is the ghost of someone I know who has died. Morrissey’s character asks me to think of him as anyone: it can be a distant acquaintance or a loved one. In this way Headlong allows me to choose my level of personal investment, though I would argue that it’s hard not to choose someone close to you when asked to think of someone who has passed away.
Again the level of isolation feels risky; at least at the Donmar there are ushers to step in if the experience becomes too intense. Whose responsibility is this when I’m being asked to have a deeply personal experience in an empty room with a recording on a phone call? To their credit, the company text afterwards to let me know that there ‘a number of bereavement charities who can offer support free of charge’, though they fail to name any of them.
A work that seems to strike the right balance between immersiveness and responsibility is Dante or Die’s User Not Found, which transforms their site-specific show of the same name into an immersive video podcast for mobile devices, exploring what happens to our online personal data after we die. The brilliance of User Not Found is how it plays with immersion in both form and content: my phone screen shows the narrator’s phone display, who in turn looks through the contents of his late ex’s devices. Halfway through watching I get a text and, for a moment, I’m not sure if it’s for me, performer Terry O’Donovan’s character, or the dead man at the centre of the show. Who owns what data becomes complicated and, rather than being a massive theatre faux pas, my phone’s interruption brings an extra layer of meaning to the work. I’m immersed in User Not Found’s world, but never to such a degree that I feel I can’t get back out if I choose. Unlike The Pact or Ghost Caller, I am not made to be the protagonist of this work, and my own personal grief is not an essential component of the story. In this way, Dante or Die show an awareness of their responsibility to earn and respect the audience’s trust. They lead me with care and purpose into their character’s world, rather than requiring that I make myself wholly vulnerable from the outset.
The question of responsibility in immersive theatre isn’t new. Big-hitters like Punchdrunk and Secret Cinema have been trying to iron out the details of their duty of care for years, and ten years ago critics were writing about the questionable ethics of Badac’s The Factory, in which audience members were subjected to what was essentially noise torture and bullying to ‘immerse’ them into the world of a concentration camp.
Now is a critical time to revisit this conversation though, since the question of who bears the responsibility of taking care of the public has been brought to the fore by the pandemic. Just as we are discussing whose job it is to protect the physical health of individual members of society, it’s important for us to ask also what the parameters of the social contract are in the world of theatre. Traditional performance spaces have in-house staff whose role it is to cater to the public’s needs, but clearly that responsibility becomes increasingly difficult to allocate as we move performance out of those spaces, and even harder as performance moves away from liveness. Immersive makers ask for enormous amounts of trust from their audiences: it’s more vital than ever that this trust is respected as theatre is forced to be less of a shared experience.
This is the problem with trying to sustain an experience-centric arts industry during a pandemic: often when a performer can’t be present, companies are trying to substitute their absence by ramping up the intensity and personalisation of the work. Theatre-makers are finding ways to create the digital or remote version of my cult boys – something that tangles up the audience member’s own life in the work; that asks ‘Who do you know that has died?’ or ‘What’s the worst thing you’ve ever done?’ and expects an honest answer. I have no problem with making such personal demands of an audience, but I do strongly believe that if theatre-makers are asking audience members to be vulnerable, the minimum requirement is that they consider their responsibility of care, and create a support system in case that vulnerability is pushed too far.
Without that contract of trust between themselves and their audience, immersive theatre-makers are essentially mysterious strangers, handing their audience a drink and expecting them to drink it. Until that trust is earned and the responsibilities clearly defined, you’ll have to excuse me for swapping our glasses.
Featured image (top): Dante or Die: User Not Found
You can watch the User Not Found video podcast here
Maddie Haynes is a writer and performer living in Manchester. Her work combines storytelling and dance with accessible science communication. Maddie took part in the Total Theatre Artists as Writers programme 2020.
Insta: @itsmaddiehaynes | Twitter: @maddie_haynes | Facebook: @maddiehaynespoetry