It’s a utopian ideal. Immersive theatre, as ideally proposed, is a form of theatre that allows its participants to not only become a part of, but live the show. Indeed, the immersive theatre market in the UK has been booming over the past few years, with an immersive adaptation of The Great Gatsby one of the country’s most beloved plays. There’s something truly special to be said about living a night out as a 1920s bachelor, just once. Maybe again. For one moment, you get to not simply watch a show, but live an experience. That, clearly, is captivating for swathes of people.
However, is immersive theatre truly the next step of the theatrical form? It presents many risks and challenges unique to the format – and it’s difficult to draw a line between works that are genuinely challenging, versus tourist trapping novelties. An example of the former is the play Torch, staged in St. Helen’s, Merseyside. Torch received rave reviews from The Guardian (Wyver 2019) because it delivers a strong social message that is universally resonant, yet born from a specific space and culture. St Helen’s is a town with high rates of domestic abuse, with the premise of Torch allowing for women to reclaim their own voices. The play explores boundaries in a way that parallels the lack of boundaries found in broken social spaces. The experience is haunting, evocative, and thought-provoking. It is also site-specific, specifically making use of the location it takes place in to draw from a rich cultural context that couldn’t be replicated anywhere else.
However, a key challenge of immersive theatre is ensuring it does not shift the burden of the performance onto the audience. Doing so upsets the balance that lends the way to a meaningful experience. Spectators inherently come to a theatre to spectate. To ask them to participate, one needs a strong reason. As such, having engaged performers is the key to commanding an audience – a frequent sin committed in immersive theatre is having an audience that outnumbers its actors. As a result, “the show’s success depends not on performer energy but spectator passion.” (Gillenson 2013)
It’s just disappointing that a lot of shows don’t have very high artistic aspirations.
Another challenge in immersive theatre is simply the defining question of – what is theatre? If theatre is about narrative, it needs to have a clear one set in place. How much scripting is required to ensure you don’t simply have reality? This is a frequent critique of series like Gatsby, which do not tell a traditional linear story, but simply create a roleplaying experience for its guests. As noted by Nosheen Iqbal’s 2020 article for The Guardian, “At the moment, the problem is that a lot of different work is lumped under the immersive banner. Maybe we need different names for different genres within it.” Theatre director Andrzej Lukowski was quoted in agreement by saying, “The fact that it wants to be called theatre is interesting,” he says. “It’s light interaction, drinks at the bar and a middlebrow party night. But that’s fine. If they were taking up a West End theatre you might quibble, but they’re often making use of abandoned buildings. It’s just disappointing that a lot of shows don’t have very high artistic aspirations.”
A similar example of an unsuccessful immersive theatre show is The Wolf of Wall Street, based on the Martin Scorsese film. The play is more akin to a theme park ride than an immersive show, with audiences scarcely getting the chance to truly influence the performance and its story. The play simply moves from setpiece to setpiece, rarely making deep commentary or allowing for an involved sense of engagement. The play is too heavily controlled, which draws into question why it is immersive to begin with. Finally, and most disturbingly, Kate Wyver’s review for The Guardian (2019) noted that here was a tendency for “over-zealous audience members [to] use the characters’ vile behaviour as an excuse to echo it themselves”. An environment that is unsafe for performers, spectators, and society alike is one that does not belong in the theatre.
Gillinsen did, however, write a second article (2013) where she offered advice on how to make an engaging interactive experience. My biggest takeaway is her fourth point: immersive theatre creators should keep it simple. It’s easy to become indulgent and run fantastic amid a huge space or want to create an experience spanning numerous buildings, sets, and locations, but it’s hard to create a good show. If you’re able to hone down your immersive theatre experience to its brass tacks, you can create a stronger, consistent story, and provide something truly enrichening to your audience.
Immersive theatre is not simply a replacement for theatre, but another way it can be created. Immersive theatre is a form that itself has a large amount of maturation to do, and it remains in question how large a niche it truly is among the credible theatrical audience. If we want immersive theatre to truly be meaningful, we need to create a sense of intimacy, a sense of confidence, and use the format simply because it allows for the best possible story to be told.