I’ll be spending tonight in a pair of scrubs, wandering the streets of Hollywood, spying on people.
Tonight is the opening of my debut play—and my debut “immersive” play at that—“The Truth.” The entire performance, part of the Hollywood Fringe Festival, will take place outside, on and around Santa Monica Boulevard, involving the audience (and cast and crew) remaining on their feet and moving throughout the show. That includes me. I’ll be managing the show and keeping an eye on it to make sure it’s running smoothly—in scrubs, because even our crew is worked into the world of our para-science story line. I’m excited and terrified to be premiering, and I’ve been thinking a lot about immersive theater—and other “immersive” experiences while putting this production together, and I’ve been answering some questions about immersive theater from friends and acquaintances who are wondering what the hell has been taking up so much of my time the past few months.
Immersive theater is a bit of a fuzzy term—but a blanket definition is that this term could be applied to any production that “immerses” its audience in the show. New York seems to be at the forefront of the immersive theater world—as it often is in any form of theater with notable productions such as Punchdrunk's "Sleep No More." But Los Angeles has been growing an immersive scene as well. LAist described L.A.’s immersive theater scene as "more underground" and often spearheaded by independent haunted house production teams around Halloween such as the stunt-laden and cinematic "Delusion" or the creepy art installation "Alone" (and for fellow fans of the genre, it is becoming rapidly apparent that horror and immersion are two great tastes that taste great together). On the far end of the horror theater spectrum are the “extreme haunts” such as "Blackout" which can involve some physical aggression. It isn’t all horror either. Many different types of immersive experiences have cropped up, including The Wilderness’ productions such as the stunning depression-era spectacle "The Day Shall Declare It" (currently running in Downtown Los Angeles) and Screenshot Productions’ exercise in meditation, "Shoshin." Some productions are even combining their shows with other interactive elements, such as "The Tension Experience," which seems to be combining the concept of immersive theater with an ongoing Alternate Reality Game online.
What exactly the term “immersive theater” means is still a topic of some debate. Immersive theater newsletter No Proscenium has critiqued production teams using the “I-word” to promote shows that fail to live up to the promise of immersion. A friend of mine complained about the overuse of the immersive billing saying, “It’s everyone’s buzzword lately.” That said, there are many different forms of immersion in theatrical productions, ranging from site-specific shows that have been designed to be staged in a particular location (usually outside of a traditional theater) and full-on interactive shows that pull the audience directly into the events of the plot. Last month "Second Skin" by The West brought us out to the beach to deliver monologues that tied together the stories of three troubled women. It was theater at the beach—well-written, and on a beautiful beach, but we never had to leave our fold-out chairs. But in a show like "Delusion," expect to be pulled aside, singled out and possibly handed props. And in a show like "Blackout," don’t be surprised if you leave feeling roughed up or a little abused.
So while thinking about the different (and wonderful) immersive productions out there and fretting about my own upcoming production, I threw together a very basic guide for audiences new to immersive theater experiences—particularly for interactive shows.
Oh, and if you’re in Los Angeles, go see “The Truth” this month. Because shameless plugs.
Go with it—but follow directions:
Interact whenever you’re invited to—it will make your experience more fun. At shows like this, you’ll often be guided on some level and told what you’re expected to do and when. Listen and play along to optimize your experience. You’re part of this show for a reason; it’s actually been staged around you. Play your part. That said, follow directions and be mindful of any rules during the experience—don’t be “that guest.”
Don’t always expect a clean, linear plot:
Maybe this one’s more particular to my show this weekend…but there are a lot of immersive and interactive theater experiences that not only involve the audience’s involvement to tell the story, but then leave the story up to the audience’s interpretations in a big way. There are all kinds of plays that do this in different ways, of course, but many immersive shows, perhaps due to their already experimental nature, seem particularly invested in abstract storytelling. Fill in the gaps, if there are any, and decide what this production means to you to really place yourself within the show’s world.
Talk about it:
These are the best kinds of shows to see with friends. Even if a show requires you to go through it alone, send someone else to see it. Part of the fun of interactive shows is comparing your experience to others. You’ll get a lot more out of the production if you have someone to share your story with—and you may even learn more about the storyline or the characters involved after hearing the various experiences others have had with the show. Oftentimes no two performances are identical.
For a comprehensive guide to all things immersive in the theater world, look into subscribing to No Proscenium.
Now I’d better go get my scrubs on.