Total Immersion

Punchdrunk, Masque of the Red Death

Emerging theatre-maker, writer and Total Theatre Magazine volunteer archivist Ciaran Hammond plunges in to investigate immersive theatre and performance.

I want to talk a bit about immersive theatre: where it is, where it was, where it’s headed and what’s changed. However, writing about how any aspect of theatre has changed over a significant amount of time is hard for me; I am but a young fledgling and haven’t been at this theatre business for that long, so my personal experience doesn’t provide me with much scope. What’s more, the gigantic umbrella term ‘immersive theatre’ covers a form that continues to grow and contain within it more and more sub-genres, making it even trickier to gain a perspective.

Luckily, I’ve spent the past nine months sifting through Total Theatre Magazine’s print archive in preparation for digitisation – and the process of scanning and data entry has given me plenty of opportunity to get to grips with the content. So I’ve had the chance to dive into the collection to gain some perspective on the continuously growing behemoth of immersive theatre.

In 2019, the prevalence of immersive theatre continues to expand, within the world of theatre and performance as well as in the wider arts and entertainment industries. Whilst new works push audiences into exploring their own agency, the terms ‘immersive’ and ‘experiential’ have made their way into the common vernacular: For example, Guild of Misrule’s The Great Gatsby, an immersive, late-night, party based on the events from F Scott Fitzgerald’s novel of the same name, now often features in The Stage’s ticket sale announcements, next to big West End musicals. And within the corporate world, the abundance of immersive and experiential entertainment is becoming the 21st-century staple for banker’s birthdays and high-end Christmas parties. As we approach the end of this decade, immersive theatre seems to have cemented itself as a significant part of the overall landscape, not only of theatre and performance, but also of live entertainment generally.

It is sometimes thought that this is a recent phenomenon, but the Total Theatre Magazine says otherwise.

Let’s go back a decade or so: Punchdrunk (founded in 2000 by theatre-maker Felix Barrett, with choreographer Maxine Doyle, and producer Colin Marsh) had already made their mark with shows such as The Firebird’s Ball. They were commissioned to create a whole-building work by Battersea Arts Centre, and the result was The Masque of the Red Death, a site-responsive blend of dance, physical theatre and immersive installations based on a collection of Edgar Allen Poe stories, which took up huge portions of the old Battersea Town Hall (built in 1893), filling the building with secret passageways and shows-within-shows. The show was a massive success, running for seven months in 2007–2008, and playing to 40,000 people, many of whom had never been to the theatre, never mind to an experimental, site-responsive theatre show. (‘Being There: Punchdrunk's Masque of the Red Death’, Volume 20/1).

But we can go back, and back, even further in our quest. In 1999, Shunt premiered The Ballad of Bobby Francois, in which the audience were brought inside the true story of Uruguayan rugby players-turned cannibals stranded in the Andes (‘Shunt, The Ballad of Bobby Francois’, Issue 11-4). The piece was originally performed at their Bethnal Green venue, Shunt Arch, before going on to be performed the following year at the Edinburgh Fringe, where it won a Total Theatre Award ('Total Theatre Awards 2000', Issue 12-3). Starting with an airplane crash, the audience are invited out of the wreckage to observe expressionist snapshots of the events that unfolded.

Both of these productions, should they be performed now, in 2019, would be arguably just as resonant. Through reading about them, both still come across as dynamic and unique. I can imagine Masque of the Red Death happening again at BAC this year, and can picture The Ballad of Bobby Francois fitting into an evening slot at Vault Fest – interestingly, Darkfield’s FLIGHT, has been on at the festival this year, an immersive show which also revolves around an airplane crash. (Darkfield comprises Shunt founder member David Rosenberg; Glen Neath, an associate artist of Shunt; and Andrea Salazar.)

So now we have some context on where immersive theatre has come from, but where exactly does it stand now? To get to grips with this, let’s look at the significant changes in the wider culture, before picking out the changes within the smaller world of immersive theatre.

In 2019, It’s a commonly held view that modern audiences are after a more direct and involved experience with whatever media they consume. Our current engagement with technology is based on a back and forth of information between user and device. The openness for, and excitement towards, this new mechanism of engagement is rife: Netflix’s latest episode of Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror, Bandersnatch can be seen as an active step in testing an audience’s acceptance of this level of interactive engagement. This is an acceptance that is arguably the product of the 21st-century explosion of consumer-accessible technology, and our continually developing connectivity to the digital world. The reflection of this within theatre and other artforms is massive. The majority of contemporary art galleries now feature some sort of virtual reality exhibit or exhibition (such as Saatchi Gallery’s Salon 009: We Live In An Ocean Of Air by Marshmallow Laser Feast).

Then, there are the exhibitions and installations by artists that explore the VR digital world and the possibilities of this in tandem with other artforms, such as experimental sound composition – see, for example Bjork’s exhibition, Bjork Digital, which played at Somerset House in London in autumn 2016, and is currently still touring the world), and Laurie Anderson’s VR collaboration with Hsin-Chien Huang, Chalkroom.

Within immersive theatre, makers are using VR and other immersive technology to expand and explore the realms in which audiences can be immersed (such as last year’s dreamlike Somnai by dotdotdot, and the use of audio guides and in-world smartphones in Dante or Die’s User Not Found).

This utilisation of technology is popping up everywhere, but when used within immersive theatre, does it actually develop the core functioning of the work?

Looking back to the 00s and 90s, it appears that the objective of most immersive theatre makers was to pull audiences into a world, exemplified by the above mentioned shows by Punchdrunk (Masque) and Shunt (Bobby Francois) – as well as numerous other performances by both companies: Amato Saltone (Review, Issue 18-2), Dance Bear Dance (Review, Issue 14-3), The Firebird Ball (Site Lines, Issue 17-3) and Faust (Review 19-1) – which all encourage the audience to become voyeurs of the action.

But as theatre has been doing such a good job of ‘immersion’ for a while, is using new technology for a similar effect really a progression? How different is walking through an immersive set with performers leaping over your head to being uploaded into a haunted house through a VR headset? Perhaps the sensorial experience is different: with live performance being able to incorporate all the senses, and technology being able to deliver these sensations in altered and experimental ways. However, the level of engagement still remains the same. As in, the relationship between the sensorial input and the audience is one-directional, the audience receives, receives and receives, without giving back (or at least, without giving as much back).

I don’t mean to devalue the magic that the clever use of tech can create in immersive work. I’ve seen some beautiful binaural work lately – Darkfield’s other show SÉANCE stuck with me in a significant way for a good while after seeing it – but my point is that the development of technology has been more useful in affecting how we view the medium as audiences, and that with a new perspective comes new ways of engaging with work. Sleepwalk Collective’s heavy integration of audio and visual design into their performances give the technical elements of their work a stage presence as valuable as that of the performers, and although work such as theirs isn’t necessarily ‘immersive’, it demonstrates a readiness to accept a new level of technological integration.

This extent of technological integration has been predicted and explored by artists and theatre-makers since the 1990s – and there is evidence of this in the Archive. A notable contributor to this is performance artist, Stelarc, whose work questioned the presence of technology within people’s bodies and the political implications of this symbiosis. One of his performances, Split Bodies: Voltage In / Voltage Out (discussed further in ‘Invaded Bodies’, Volume 8/2) was a dance piece but not in a traditional sense: electrical circuits were connected via Stelarc’s muscles, so that when timed charges were sent around the circuit, they caused him to perform a choreographed dance, completely out of his control. A useful overview of his approach, work and attitude can be found in the article ‘Tomorrow’s Theatre Today’ (17/3). Although not in such a distinct body-horror-esque direction, technology’s integration into everyday life (hello, Alexa!) has definitely moved forwards and continues to be reflected within theatre and performance.

In the past ten years, one avenue of performance work has experienced a booming growth. Forging their own path within the immersive theatre landscape are makers of ‘interactive’ theatre. Early experimenters of this form include Coney, who initially created a game called The Gold-Bug as part of Punchdrunk’s The Masque of the Red Death, before moving on to generate a huge body of work, becoming the market leaders in theatre that uses game structures; and Ontroerend Goed, who have led the way with their game-based and/or ‘intimate encounter’ interactive work, which is just one strand of their practice – winning the first of two consecutive Total Theatre Awards for Experiment & Innovation in 2007, for Smile off Your Face.

Currently, interactive theatre seems to be centred round creating theatrical structures wherein the audience are able to have much greater autonomy, so much so that the audience exist in the story on the same level as the characters. The core methods still utilise games, but now push for greater audience agency. A company who are particularly pushing for this is The Lab Collective, who are making multi-narrative work in which the performers also work as facilitators for the audiences’ experience, encouraging them to play along with the games and tasks set out, the outcomes of which greatly affect the journey and endings of the performance. Structurally similar to videogames, in these shows, performances consist of a variety of different formats including, installations, workshops, promenades and traditional end on scenes. In The Lab Collective’s show Incoming/Exodus, audiences become immigration officers in a post-Brexit, post-London world, and assist the characters in laying out new regulations for a new UK.

We can also see a cross-pollination of this type of work into other places, outside of the regular theatre and performance venues. In the past eight years, Boomtown Fair (which takes place on the second weekend of August, annually) has provided a huge space for this breed of interactive theatre. Primarily a music festival, Boomtown has expanded to now feature themed and immersive districts which make up to form an entire city (influenced, no doubt, by Glastonbury Festival’s various interactive fields over the years, including the late lamented Lost Vagueness). Each of these districts has its own narratives and characters, made up from a massive pool of theatre companies, circus performers and installation artists that help with the unravelling of a city-wide grand narrative that comes to a finale at the end of a five-day party. In following a particular mission or quest, audiences can traverse the entire festival, travelling between high-tech utopias, to a reconstruction of the Wild West, into a holiday land for filthy rich socialites from the 1980s, and finishing up in a cage in a pirate’s den. Interactions they encounter along the way range from intimate one-on-one installations, to helping to stage large outdoor happenings. The context of Boomtown as a festival and the variety of different formats it makes possible to explore gives makers a far more liberating environment than any performance venue could. Working there as a performer myself, I’ve found the audiences at Boomtown are the most generous and giving audiences that you’ll find anywhere in the world.

Work that flourishes at high levels of interaction, such as this, can be jarring for audiences unfamiliar with it. Many times I’ve witnessed, when attending a play in a traditional theatre venue, audience members choosing seats far away from the aisles and stage in case ‘the actors come over and talk to you’ – and that’s for non-immersive productions! It seems that for many, immersive theatre is waiting, looming in the shadows, readying to strike. This perception, and the fear around it, is hardly surprising: most media and art is passively consumed, and it’s only really been since the advent of videogames in the late 80s and 90s that such an active engagement has been required. Now that those who first grew up with videogames are out making theatre, it is little surprise that they are incorporating narrative structures akin to those in role-playing videogames, as well as board games like Dungeons and Dragons.

In my recent interview with Dirty Rascals, artistic director Pavlos Christodoulou, when asked about what recent changes he’s noticed in the landscape of theatre and performance, said that there is ‘something about agency and the hotness of… escape rooms and that kind of thing that has felt like there’s a willingness on the part of audiences to become authors of their own experiences… in the wider culture outside of performance work as well.’ Let’s compare that response on the nature of interaction to Hannah Sullivan’s in her 2011 article on time spent with Proto-type Theater, ‘Immerse Yourself’ (23/3). Reflecting on the then-current state of immersive theatre, and its appeal, she asks ‘I wondered if it was a question of proximity that defines it (the “feeling a performer’s breath on your neck” aspect), or if it was the senses (being dragged into a scenario by the ears, mouth and nose). Either way, it is definitely a question of audience relation and engagement.’

Although both focus on a new sort of audience engagement, I feel that these two different perspectives – eight years apart – highlight a recent shift in the perceived function of immersive theatre. In 2011, the discussion was still around the process of how we invite and include audiences into the theatrical world. Now in 2019, there appears to be more of a discussion about how we push, pull, provoke and stimulate audiences once they are in this world – and it is evident that theatre makers are continuing to explore in this direction, and are inspiring their audiences to come on the adventure with them.