I is for Immersive Theater

| April 29, 2014

Immersive theatre: when the wall came down…

In the words of critic Adam Green, “while an exact definition is still in flux, immersive theatre productions tend to operate in dynamically fluid settings, allowing the audience a more active, voyeuristic, and central role, while also individualizing their experiences.”

This genre situates its audience outside the safety of their theatre seats, immersing them in the site, rather than having the site viewed through the fourth wall. The explosion of such theater has been explained by several critics for how well it maps on to our increasingly interactive digital lives. As Green writes, “the broken-down walls of our world and what we can explore dovetails well with the broken-down walls of an artistic experience.”

“Immersive Theatre and the Freedom of Choice.” http://www.tcgcircle.org/2013/04/immersive-theatre/

Perhaps an even more direct testament to this connection is the fact that the genre is being reviewed not just by theatre critics, but by the digital gaming world as well. A blog ranking the best games of 2011 included the darling production of immersive theatre, Sleep No More, calling it “the closest thing to a real life video game I’ve ever found”.


So perhaps rather than being the ones driving instincts to a more interactive, implicated relationship between our subjectivity and our realities, the artistic world is trying to explore and heighten this digitally-provoked sense of self by pushing it off the screen and into our embodied encounters.

Interactive, immersive work has been evolving since the middle of the 20th century. For example, John Cage and the ‘Happenings’ of the 1960s explored a much more interactive relationship with their audience. Like much of the art of its time, this came with a heavily normative, political agenda (for example, Cage’s Happenings were meant to destabilize bourgeois identities enforced by concert ritual). More recently, art theorist Jacques Ranciere takes this idea further in a lecture The Emancipated Spectator:

Spectatorship is a bad thing. Being a spectator means looking at a spectacle. And looking is a bad thing, for two reasons. First, looking is deemed the opposite of knowing. It means standing before an appearance without knowing the conditions which produced that appearance or the reality that lies behind it. Second, looking is deemed the opposite of acting. He who looks at the spectacle remains motionless in his seat, lacking any power of intervention. Being a spectator means being passive. The spectator is separated from the capacity of knowing just as he is separated from the possibility of acting.224

Clearly for Ranciere, the politics of theatre enforce all kinds of dynamics of hierarchy, social control, power, and the passivity of the masses: “Theater in general is a bad thing, that it is the stage of illusion and passivity, which much be dismissed in favor of what it forbids: knowledge and action.” (As an aside, it might be worth comparing levels of political engagement of theatre audiences with, say, sporting participants?) Regardless of the argument’s possible merits, it reveals a trend in narrating immersive interactivity as a normative, democratizing act representing the liberation of the audience from social control.

How much the normative dimensions have fueled the explosion of this genre, and how much it stems from instincts cultivated by our increasingly digital environments is perhaps up to each person’s cynicism to decide.