Defining Immersive

TDM Photograph: The Drowned Man

I fell into the world of immersive theatre when Punchdrunk's "The Drowned Man: A Hollywood Fable" opened at Temple Studios in 2013. The mystery and seduction of the piece was mesmerising, and for a time I found myself captured by the explorative nature of the work. 

By the time the production closed in 2014 I had been back a number of times, unlocked a number of secrets and delved deep into the many layers of story Punchdrunk slip into their worlds. Since then it has been exciting to see the work of companies seeking to develop the genre; from R-ft's overnight "Macbeth" to the work of Shunt, Les Enfants Terribles, Gruff Theatre and Secret Theatre amongst others. Productions succeed on varying levels, but what has emerged is the regular post show discussions and dissections raising the question of whether this or that production was actually 'immersive'. It appears impossible to decide upon a finite definition of what 'immersive theatre' actually is, and as a result a great many companies are branding their work under the label only to find that 'promenade' or 'site specific' is perhaps more accurate. Over time these discussions seem to have taken a negative turn. Some describing the art form as a 'fad', others accusing companies like Punchdrunk of capitalist elitism whilst in the same breath, mocking others for riding on their coat tails. I got to wondering if, as an audience member, your expectation / definition is based on the first ‘immersive’ production you see, and sets a benchmark which is limiting in terms of your response to future work.

So if we're trying to shed some light on a definition of ‘immersive theatre’, I'm inclined to refer to the first book I read on it, Immersive Theatres by Josephine Machon, as something she said stayed with me.. 

“Something you are totally submerged in for the length of time the work lasts, aware of nothing other than the event itself, and only actions, feelings and thoughts related to that event are of consequence at the time.” 

If one is truly immersed in the work they are seeing, this ‘definition’ rings true, however Machon is reluctant the formally categorise ‘immersive theatre’ as a ‘genre’. Initially my motivation for addressing this issue was from frustration of so many productions I had been to see labelling their work ‘immersive’ when, to my mind, they weren't. In reading and discussing with enthusiasts, what I've realised is that immersive productions can operate on a ‘scale of immersivity’, a term Machon uses. The blurring of boundaries so prominent in this type of work is what makes it so easy to be drawn into, and there are many different elements to a performance which have a certain effect on the audience member. As human beings we are unique. Some of us are fearful of the unknown, yet for others it can be something to feed off. The most prominent example of this in my personal experience, happened when I encouraged a friend to see ‘The Drowned Man’. In the past she had suffered from anxiety and the whole concept seemed, to her, everything she would hate, even be traumatised by. She came to love the production and like many, became a repeat visitor, however when asked about the moment she decided to let go, said “I wouldn't have ever done it had I not done my first show when I was with someone I trusted. It took putting a 20 year friendship on the line to ensure the gravity of the situation.” Obviously this is an extreme case, but it demonstrates how the environments Punchdrunk create can have a significant impact on the audience member, and it is this visceral response which is so vital in the successful execution of the work. 

Recently I read a really interesting article in Exeunt magazine which if I'm totally honest, saddened me but reinforced the general talk around the genre. Several contributors come together to discuss their experiences and opinions and all make valid points about different aspects of the field. After a conversation with a friend passionate about the subject, their feedback was something I felt compelled to respond to. 

The magazine’s features editor, Alice Saville, makes a point mainly relevant to large scale immersive performances such as Punchdrunk’s work. Her feedback essentially revolves around the nature of the worlds created, and the financial implications of such an undertaking. Felix Barrett, founder of Punchdrunk, has said “There's always the promise of more to discover” and this idea suggests that potentially these productions were intended to be seen more than once, from their conception. Many feel there is a sense that large scale productions are heading towards a time whereby they become, to use Saville’s words, “a capitalist playground” where audience members “play in an environment of invisible restrictions and cost”. Those I have spoken to vary in opinion, but most believe that Barrett’s heart remains in the impact of the artistic experience over the financial success of his company.  Most agree that for the ‘one-off’ visit, ticket prices run slightly cheaper than West End, for a production a little longer in duration. This is value for money. The attractive puzzle of  large scale immersive work encouraging multiple visits is where the question of whether cost outweighs content comes into play. It is a difficult question to answer however. How do you gauge how valuable the content is for one audience member, compared to another? Surely at least part of the money we earn should go towards something we are passionate about? Essentially you are spending money on something you value, just as some might on a season ticket at Chelsea or Wimbledon Final tickets. Perhaps to some extent these productions are heading towards elitism for multiple visitors. There are those who earn enough to fund it, there are others who don't. Neither category should be judged on either their salary or their decision. 

It is difficult to ascertain the level of importance the creators place on how much money they make. The more extensive the production values, the higher the cost. That's just simple fact. Lauren Mooney from Exeunt considers the issue of whether our expectations are higher based on the price tag of the ticket. Universally those I have spoken to feel that yes, there is a need to see evidence which justifies the cost, whether it be through design or content. An artistic institution such as Punchdrunk are ambitious and do not solely focus on large scale work; there is also their Enrichment programme which creates wonderful educational experiences for young people and most recently, the Greenhive Green project working in a care home with residents including some with dementia. Here the therapeutic elements of their work are surely invaluable, and if a decent portion of their profits are injected into this aspect of their work, I'm all for it. Barrett and his team obviously want to see where they can take their practice, perhaps agreeing with a philosophy that I've always adhered to that if you stop learning, you begin to unlearn. One should always move forwards to avoid getting stuck. I am by no means saying their progress should suffer whilst all available funding goes into Enrichment, merely that it is a way to balance professional development with enriching the lives of the wider community.
Playwright, Duncan Gates wonders whether ‘immersive’ still knows what it is. Rosemary Waugh, reviews editor for Exeunt, touches on the differences between immersive theatre and interactive theatre. Both refer to the audience being part of the show. Using Punchdrunk’s immersive approach as a template to respond to this, nothing an audience member does changes the narrative of the piece. Those who believe this, in my opinion, are carrying a certain amount of self importance with them. As Gates rightly says, essentially the audience member “walks around the set and perhaps interacts with a performer here or there”. They are not ‘involved in the story’. Even the coveted 1 on 1 experiences are structured merely as a device which makes an audience member feel privy to some secret information, but this information does not progress the overall narrative in any way. As much as one might feel involved, in reality they are not, and in terms of being part of the story, Felix Barrett has said that the audience are only visible to the characters when they are in a state of heightened emotion or madness. The remainder of the time they are merely invisible observers. 

Macbeth Photograph: Rift's Macbeth

Moving away from Punchdrunk to consider more ‘interactive’ productions, Artistic Director of the Old Red Lion Theatre Stewart Pringle, references “Heist”; a production where I would say audience ARE involved and for the most part, DO have an effect on the narrative. The production worked on the premise of a collective experience. A ‘team’ entered a story where they worked together to steal a painting. You were assigned a character name which you adopted throughout, instantly creating a sense of immersion, and together embarked on an adventure which took you through a number of scenarios building up the plot. With “Heist” you succeeded or failed, a limited number of outcomes granted, but your actions did have consequences. I worked with a team mostly containing people I knew, plus two strangers. Despite having a bond with the majority of the group, I can admit to still feeling tense and anxious in the right places. There was perhaps a slightly less immersive feel than other productions as, despite my response to the situation, there was a strong element of fun involved which perhaps would not have been present if I had genuinely been in as much danger as the plot ought to have had. The production was also the first time I had entered sans mask, a device I realised really enhances immersive practice.

This idea of fun links to what Tim Bano, freelance arts writer for Exeunt, mentions regarding the issue of cooperation versus mischief in interactive and immersive theatre. I fully understand the idea of entering into an experience after a couple of drinks and feeling ‘playful’, however I do feel it depends on what type of performance you're at as to whether you should. Productions like “Heist” or “Dr Leon: Neural Enhancement”, a brilliantly funny yet still unnerving 1 to 1 experience created by Run Horatio, leave room for the audience member to be a little more relaxed. Due to the small number of participants, whatever state you are in and however you respond ultimately only affects you. “Dr Leon” took place in a flat in the Balfron Tower in Poplar and placed the audience member in an appointment with a team of specialists whose treatment would make you ‘better’. I attended alcohol free and I must say, as amusing as the experience was, I did find myself questioning whether I could completely trust certain aspects of my ‘appointment’. A drink might have taken that edge off which, for me personally, would have lessened the impact. I was able to enjoy the experience both for its comedic quality yet still retain that sense of anxiety.  There is something to be said for an experience where you make your own choices in the moment and only have yourself to blame at the end of it all! 
In contrast to this, in my experience within large scale productions, the presence of tipsy, mischievous audience members forces the performers to alter their path to ‘deal with them’. On the whole their behaviour is destructive to the whole immersive experience; they make themselves part of the action, destroy the world of the story and to my mind, ruin the experience. If I wrote the rule book, audience would be assessed at the door before entry. Often the productions involve consuming alcohol, but I believe you should at least begin your journey sober...and without your mobile phone! Bano also reflects on the idea that if you enter an immersive experience in the right frame of mind, soak up the atmosphere, embarking upon the experience with an open mind and a willingness to improvise, then you can leave having been moved and exhilarated by it. This was often the case for me at “The Drowned Man”, but I also have a clear memory from an experience at the Balfron Tower at Rift’s “Macbeth” when at 2.00am, I was woken by three witches who took me from my bed into the living room of my assigned flat to perform a ritual. In both cases there was certainly a level of intensity created by being in such close proximity to the performer, and the use of candlelight magnified the otherworldly quality of the moment. However I would not necessarily say the encounter was fully immersive. In the middle of the night I was barely awake, let alone focused on being in the world of “Macbeth”, nonetheless I was affected and significantly moved by the experience. 

Rosemary Waugh suggests if you are given a choice in these interactions, whether the opt-out clause prevents it being an immersive experience. This is an interesting one depending on who you ask. To quote a friend I have made through a mutual appreciation, “An invitation to interact should always be that: an invitation that I am expressly allowed to turn down. The fact that someone might refuse an invitation the first time will not necessarily diminish the enjoyment.” The suggestion here is that if you reject an invitation, that's still part of your journey within the ‘world’, therefore you are no less immersed. One is still allowed to make a personal choice even though one does not have an effect on what is taking place. In a Punchdrunk style production, there is the element of choice as to whether to engage in a 1 on 1, and in my experience, most people feel that happening upon the invitation unexpectedly is the most rewarding. Punchdrunk performers follow a strict code of conduct regarding these encounters; “never to force anyone. To offer a hand in hope, not expectancy, and if the audience member decides they don't like it, let them go”. The audience member might be feeling an element of anticipation or fear, but the reality is, they are only there because they have agreed to when invited. However, if we look at a completely different experience like being a passenger at one of  You Me Bum Bum Train’s crazy rides this question of opting out isn't as clear cut. From what I've heard through the veil of secrecy, each scene is around 2 minutes long which I guess is so short a time that if you did panic, the moment would be over very quickly. Some passengers have said, “it would have been terrifying if I'd been given time to think about it, but it all happened so quickly there was no time to be scared of embarrassed…The atmosphere was very positive so you felt encouraged to do everything, but I can see why some might ‘time-out’”. The difference in approach here sees to be a question of pace; both have an opt out, but it would seem to be in the case of YMBBT, if you did time out, it would be a lot harder to re-engage with the action, compared to merely disappearing back into the shadows in a Punchdrunk world.

So are we any closer to defining ‘immersive theatre’ through breaking down the ideas put forward by the contributors to the magazine, or indeed those who have given their opinions to me for research? Do we actually need a definition? Josephine Machon suggests that we seek to define it only because we think in doing so, it will help us understand what is behind the work in terms of process and message. I think there is something in this idea. There are certainly physical and sensory elements which seem to be something audience members require to be ‘in the world’; scenography, soundscape, lighting, human contact between performers and performers and, in some occasions, performer and audience member. When these devices are correctly blended, some become fully immersed and others experience moments of immersion at various times during the artistic experience. Immersive Theatre is constantly evolving thanks to the continued efforts of companies such as those I've mentioned who, together with Coney, Dream Think Speak, Arbonauts and others, strive to push the boundaries and experiment. Perhaps once we accept this evolution and realise that whether we are immersed from beginning to end in a performance, experience stolen moments, or even something different which seems to have a familiar feeling to it, we are still feeling and experiencing. Maybe then we won't be debating a label or classification anymore, we'll be ‘immersed’ in a much more stimulating conversation of where this movement is leading. 

You Me Bum Bum Train Photograph: You Me Bum Bum Train>

Many thanks to:
Michael Badelt, Laura Daniell, Em Foster, Honor Harger, Jude Monk McGowan, Mei Parsons, Claire Richards.