'Exhausting, frenetic, and organised like a military operation – that’s what immersive theatre is like,' says Anna Savory
You’ve gone for a night at the theatre. Tickets presented, coats deposited and you’re ready to take your seat in the auditorium… Instead, you’re herded into a room and handed a playing card (turn it over to reveal your suit) or perhaps it’s a glow stick (break it to reveal your colour) or a lollipop (suck to turn your tongue a particular shade). On the basis of this, you and the rest of the audience are sorted into groups and welcomed into a labyrinthine series of sets which form the stage. You are literally in the play, straddling the gap between audience and extra. You’ve been immersed in the world of immersive theatre.
Immersive theatre has seen a huge surge in popularity in the past decade. Once the preserve of visionary companies such as Punchdrunk, it’s now almost a theatrical mainstay. The past few years have seen lauded immersive productions of Alice in Wonderland (from the ever-brilliant Les Enfants Terribles), Hammer Horror and, running at the moment, The Great Gatsby.
If you’re searching for the next big production, however, you’ll have to look further than the usual West End venues. Immersive theatre is more normally staged in ‘spaces’: underground catacombs, private mansions and former multistorey car parks are all favourites.
This allows for sprawling sets and starts the audience off on an unsure footing. It is easier to be sucked into a world of fantasy if you’re already in a bizarre space – such as a railway storage tunnel. Without being hampered by the practicalities of scene changes, designers go all out, creating a huge, interactive playground.
Recent experiences with immersive theatre have seen me eating jam tarts stolen from the Queen of Hearts, having my hair stroked in a huge 1920s game of truth or dare, and being splashed with questionable bodily substances during a harrowing rave scene in a production of Trainspotting. Immersive theatre derives particular glee from immersing its audience in situations they might not necessarily want to be immersed in.
Part of the enduring, and growing, appeal is just this: the experience, good or bad, revolves around you. The viewer is no longer passive in immersive theatre. They are at the centre of the action, and that is very much what a new generation of theatregoers are looking for.
Audiences have a great sense of agency in immersive theatre, but no actual control. You can find your own way round the world, talk to the actors and influence their performances – even choose what scenes you view – but you can’t effect real change or alter the plot.
Because of the additional chaos of the audience being centre stage (or centre space), immersive productions are run with a rigidity of plot and timing that belies their atmosphere of freedom. The logistics are a nightmare, with multiple groups from the same performance often moving round the set at any given time. Actors are armed with walkie-talkies, to prevent group one crashing into group two; to ask another performer to stall for time; or to warn each other about troublesome audience members.
An actor friend recalled a role she had in an immersive murder mystery. She welcomed the 7.30pm audience in one room, then saw them sent on their way with other actors as guides. She then had to dash through a series of behind-the-scenes walkways, changing costume as she went. The producer spoke to her through an earpiece, counting down the seconds she had left before it was time to burst in on the final scene of the 5.30pm performance and arrest the man whodunnit.
That’s what immersive theatre is like: exhausting, frenetic, and organised like a military operation. But still it offers its audience an entire world to explore and elevates them to something slightly more than your average, passive viewer.