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Is immersive theatre growing up or growing too big, too quickly?

Frogman cast and audience. Photo: David Monteith-Hodge Frogman cast and audience. Photo: David Monteith-Hodge
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Immersive hit the mainstream in the past decade with audiences flocking to work by pioneering companies such as Punchdrunk, Coney and Shunt. But, with growth has come issues around pay, performer protection and commercialism. Lyn Gardner finds out where the industry is heading next

The immersive theatre sector “is growing up”, according to Felix Barrett of Punchdrunk. Barrett is right, and, as is often the case, growing up can be accompanied by growing pains.

In recent weeks, immersive theatre has been in the news for the wrong reasons. Buzzfeed detailed assaults on performers working on the New York version of Sleep No More, the long-running show created by Punchdrunk. Around the same time, the Guild of Misrule looked to raise industry awareness around health, safety and workplace dignity by going public in The Stage about assaults on actors by audience members that occurred during its immersive production of The Great Gatsby.

Immersive Great Gatsby show introduces ‘panic alarm’ for cast after sexual assaults

But there are other questions and challenges swirling around immersive theatre. It has been five years since Punchdrunk last staged a large-scale show, The Drowned Man, leading to murmurings that maybe the company had run out of creative ideas.

But the company says it is a different story: developing immersive theatre takes time. Punchdrunk’s ‘enrichment’ director Peter Higgin, currently in Brisbane where he is presenting a primary school project, The Lost Lending Library, designed to raise standards in literacy, speaking and listening, says: “The beauty of our work, and others like it, is that it is surprising and needs to remain so, so it can’t be every day and ubiquitous. That can mean long waits between shows.” Or as Barrett puts it: “We’re not interested in rolling out old tricks.”

Barrett says Punchdrunk is producing Small Wonders for London International Festival of Theatre later this year (a production for family audiences that will also tour) adding the company has two other projects at significant stages of development – offering different levels of audience agency and therefore requiring different mechanics – including one on a larger scale.

New forms take time to develop and can’t be rushed, but it doesn’t stop loyal audiences feeling frustrated, particularly when they couldn’t get a ticket for the city-wide game show Kabeiroi, for which a limited audience capacity of two drew accusations of elitism.

Higgin recognises that when demand for Punchdrunk’s work is high, it is “harder to put new work out there”, particularly smaller-scale pieces such as Kabeiroi that might be part of a creative journey towards a larger-capacity show. But he and Barrett are adamant that it is only by taking their time that they will keep creating boundary-pushing work.

Against Captain’s Orders, a Punchdrunk show at the National Maritime Museum.Photo: Tristram Kenton
Against Captain’s Orders, a Punchdrunk show at the National Maritime Museum. Photo: Tristram Kenton

Immersive theatre: a selling point

While Punchdrunk experiments, the rest of the immersive theatre sector is growing fast, but the speed of that growth brings challenges. Even the term ‘immersive’ has become overused. It is being used to flog everything from fine dining to frozen roast potatoes. Some theatre companies liberally sprinkle their marketing copy with the word ‘immersive’ because they know it can add £10 to the ticket price.

As Alexander Wright of the Guild of Misrule observes: “People know they can sell immersive shows. Audiences want them. But there can be a point where it stops being art and is just capitalism.” He says Guild of Misrule could squeeze another 100 people a night into Gatsby, but it doesn’t because it knows it would affect the quality of the experience and, most importantly, the storytelling.

Storytelling is something that this next wave of immersive companies has focused on, after some criticised what they saw as a lack of it in The Drowned Man.

This audience’s hunger for immersive theatre can turn it into what may look like a bandwagon. Statistical evidence points to a growing public appetite for the experimental, and marketing and events companies are looking to the theatrical for a slice of the action.

Theatre company Ellipsis Entertainment recently opened Somnai in London, which is described as “a live, multi-sensory experience with immersive technologies”. It reportedly raised £3 million for the production and is aiming to roll out across cities all over the world. Early reviews were lukewarm and suggested £50 a ticket was steep.

A scene from Difference Engine's Heist. Photo: Keith Lim
A scene from DifferencEngine’s Heist. Photo: Keith Lim

The danger is, as Felix Mortimer of RIFT observes, that when everyone wants to leap on what is seen as a gravy train, immersive becomes “a byword for something that’s a bit crap”.

Punchdrunk says finding new forms is risky. Jon Cooper of DifferencEngine, which produced Heist, and has an immersive production of The Hollow Hotel opening at the Biscuit Factory in Bermondsey in late April, suggests while “quality can be an issue in immersive theatre”, it’s also just as much “an issue in traditional theatre. Some shows are very good and some are bad”.

Immersive theatre comes in many forms, from the binaural-in-the-dark shows such as the mini masterpiece Seance, produced by Glen Neath and David Rosenberg, to Curious Directive’s groundbreaking Frogman that combines VR technology with storytelling. Then there is Caroline Sabin’s work in Cardiff, which has ranged from Curious Zoo – an immersive show that took place in her own home – to the upcoming Mysterious Maud’s Chambers of Fantastical Truth, a haunted house tale.

Frogman review at Traverse Theatre at Codebase, Edinburgh – ‘technically innovative’

Changing the landscape

Talking to people in the industry about immersive theatre over the last few weeks, there is an awareness that it is one of the fastest-growing sectors. It is also one in which increasing numbers of theatre companies are operating without subsidy as they try to work out how to push the creative boundaries and make sustainable models.

More than one person described immersive theatre as a bubble, but, if so, it is one that has no obvious signs of bursting.

Immersive theatre may have hit the mainstream in a serious way over the past decade but it is nothing new. Practitioners such as Geraldine Pilgrim and Mike Pearson, of Brith Gof, have been using immersive techniques for decades.

Robert Wilson and Hans Peter Kuhn’s extraordinary HG at the Clink in 1995 was a huge influence on many theatremakers, including Punchdrunk’s Barrett, as was Deborah Warner’s St Pancras Project for LIFT in the same year.

Wilson and Wilson’s House in Huddersfield in 1998 offered another version of a form that operates under many names. It was described using terms from ‘site-specific’ and ‘interactive’ to ‘pervasive’ and ‘multi-stranded promenade’, to show how it broke down the invisible boundaries between the spectacle and the spectator.

In the last decade or so, the term ‘immersive’ has become strongly associated with the work of Punchdrunk and its detailed creation – in mask shows such as Faust and Masque of the Red Death – of alternate worlds. Through the employment of cunning design, lighting and sound, audiences feel as if they have dropped down a rabbit hole into a parallel universe, and one in which they can roam freely.

But immersive is not a one-size-fits-all model. Some shows use new technologies; many don’t. Some are one-on-one experiences; others are large scale. Some take place in an enclosed venue; others use the entire city or use landscape as their set. Some use text and others don’t.


Five seminal immersive shows

Souterrain – Wildworks (2006-2007)

The Cornwall-based company took its retelling of Orpheus and Eurydice to sites in the UK and France. It brought the story to life in a different way each time, from working with ballroom dancers in Hastings, to young bikers in Gosnay and a gospel choir in Amiens.

Ontroerend Goed – The Smile Off Your Face (2007)

The Belgian company blindfolded its audience of one, bound them and put them in a wheelchair, leading them through what has been described as “sensual moments” with different sounds to tastes and smells. It started at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, then had a future life making its way as far as Australia.

Punchdrunk – It Felt Like a Kiss (2009)

Created with Damon Albarn and Adam Curtis, Punchdrunk staged its show in an empty office block in Manchester. It used archive film, installation and music combined “with the disorienting whirl of a fairground ride”.

Dreamthinkspeak – Before I Sleep (2010-2011)

Inspired by The Cherry Orchard, Before I Sleep was based in a long-forgotten department store in the centre of Brighton and became the biggest-selling production in the history of the Brighton Festival and Brighton Dome. It was seen by 21,000 people.

You Me Bum Bum Train (2015)

Created in 2004 by Kate Bond and Morgan Lloyd, YMBBT always kept a veil of secrecy. The 2015 iteration was also on an individual basis, and punters signed a non-disclosure agreement making coverage of its contents sparse. It proved wildly popular. Stephen Fry said he was “buzzing from the wonderfulness”

Pushing the audiences’ boundaries

Like Punchdrunk, Coney and Shunt – all significant recent pioneers in the sector – many of the newer companies are putting audience experience at the heart of what they do. Then they are pushing it further.

“In those Punchdrunk shows, you felt like a voyeur,” says Cooper of DifferencEngine. “What we’re trying to do is cast the audience as the central protagonists.” In the company’s 2014 show Heist, the audience had to plan and execute a robbery. When the show opened there were 13 different journeys through it. By the time it had closed there were 40.

“We respond to the audience. It teaches us what it wants, and we try to imagine it,” says Cooper, adding that most people entered the show thinking they were going to be brilliant at committing a robbery and most were very bad at it. But they enjoyed the experience of being “an amazing failure”.

Becky Brown of Specifiq, a company that has worked extensively in the museum and heritage sector and has created pieces for Tower Bridge among others, agrees that audiences for immersive theatre are changing.

“Initially it was a traditional theatre audience looking for something different. But now there’s a whole new audience out there, a generation used to controlling and curating their own world who are looking for a mix of immersive storytelling, game-playing content and social interaction. People want to be heroes in their own story, not passive witnesses.”

Shunt’s The Architects, at the Biscuit Factory. Photo: Tristram Kenton
Shunt’s The Architects, at the Biscuit Factory. Photo: Tristram Kenton

David Rosenberg, who has been making immersive shows for years, initially with Shunt, says audience ideas around choice have changed over the last 10 years, arguing that “everyone consumes and creates so much content in so many different ways that we now expect choice to feed into live performance”.

Nonetheless he is sceptical about how much agency audiences really can have in shows. “I can’t think of a show I’ve seen where the audience really make a difference. I’m inclined to think agency is as much an illusion in theatre shows as free will is for all of us.”

Owen Kingston and his company Parabolic are among those trying to prove him wrong. Kingston had been making theatre for years and was running a small venue in Croydon when he went to see Punchdrunk’s The Drowned Man five years ago.

“I’d always been interested in unusual audience and artist dynamics, but seeing The Drowned Man ruined me for anything else,” he says. It also kick-started a new company. Later this month his production of For King and Country opens at the Colab Factory in Borough, which also hosts the Guild of Misrule’s The Great Gatsby.

If Coney’s 2009 show Small Town Anywhere re-imagined how theatre and narrative might operate with no actors, but only a role-playing audience, then For King and Country offers a variation. The actors have no scripts but must constantly improvise in response to the audience.

Set in a Second World War era England that has been invaded by the Nazis, it casts the audience as “designated survivors” who must make decisions about how to respond to the unfolding situation. As in Metis’ 3rd Ring Out, in which London is threatened with flooding as a result of climate change, decisions made by the audience may come back to bite them.

Kingston calls For King and Country “game theatre” but says that storytelling is at the heart of what it does and, while there is no script, there is a structure. He recognises that it won’t appeal to everyone but argues that Parabolic’s work, and that of other companies, “can and does attract large numbers of people who would never darken the door of a conventional theatre”.

That observation is borne out by statistics. When the Guild of Misrule, which has recently staged a version of Gatsby in a disused local pub, as part of Theatr Clywd’s spring season, worked with Sheffield Theatres and York Theatre Royal on versions of the show, a whopping 40% of those who attended were new audiences.

Is it ‘real’ theatre?

This feels like good news for the theatre industry, yet often one of the questions raised around immersive work, by those running and programming theatres, and working in the subsidised sector, is whether it should be classified as theatre or as ‘an experience’. Kingston argues that the theatre-versus-experience question is loaded and it is important to separate the artistic content of immersive experiences from the way they are marketed.

“I fear many people asking whether these shows qualify as ‘theatre’ or ‘experiences’ are failing to do that [separate the art from the marketing] and doing some immersive work a great disservice in the process. There can be an inherent snobbishness behind the question – that in order to qualify as art an ‘experience’ must be worthy in content, very serious in its approach, marketed primarily to a theatregoing audience and intended to be enjoyed by the intelligentsia. That in order to be true art, the work must lose money, be reliant on state funding and be primarily enjoyed by the few not the many.”

That view reflects some of the attitudes I’ve heard in recent conversations. Many of the younger generation of companies exploring immersive theatre see themselves in the same way as tech start-ups, only their field happens to be theatre.

Most of these companies operate under the radar of traditional theatre structures. They don’t look to traditional theatre audiences and they expect to attract an audience without any need for traditional theatre reviews. They often never seek funding and expect that the work they make will at least wash its face and hopefully turn a profit.

When it comes to pay, most companies pay their performers, although in some cases not always at Equity or Independent Theatre Council rates. Attitudes have changed since 2015, when You Me Bum Bum Train came under fire for asking performers to work for free. The view now is that the climate has changed and companies would not get away without paying their creatives.

This has its advantages in that the shows are not subject to the gatekeeping that has so often afflicted immersive theatre that is trying to operate within the subsidised sector. As Barrett points out, if you write a play you can send it to the Royal Court and somebody will decide whether it’s worth putting on, but it is far harder and riskier for theatres to take a punt on what is essentially an idea.

At a time when theatre faces a significant funding squeeze, it is positive that a rising generation of theatremakers is getting on and doing it without applying to an already oversubscribed National Lottery Project Grant.

The disadvantage is that there is little quality control, and although the work produced has a proven ability to tap into new audiences and breaks down the traditional barriers to engagement, it seldom – Punchdrunk aside – explores the participatory and community possibilities of the form. It also mostly takes place in London, because that’s where there the largest audience is found.

Perhaps most importantly, because every show is so different and the performers working in the field, and sometimes audiences too, are having to work out the rules of engagement as they go along, it can leave both feeling uncomfortable and, in some cases, threatened and unsafe.

Cast and audience collide

Some companies have been forced to beef up recent performances with more security and have introduced tiers of code words for the cast and crew to cope with audience behaviour. In The Great Gatsby, they introduced hidden whistles, torches and radios. Others have complained that drunk audience members proved problematic.

Aerialist Rebecca Rennison: ‘We need ushers to keep drunk audience members away from performers’

Wright says with Gatsby they have tried to tackle the problem by describing the show in a different way: “We used to use the word ‘party’, but now we don’t.” Nonetheless, like many other immersive shows, a substantial amount of the income comes not just from ticket sales, but, from the bar. While Wright knows having a drink is all part of the experience for many, bar staff are backed up if they refuse to serve the inebriated.

Colab’s Bertie Watkins makes the point that while immersive theatre may drop audiences into an alternative universe, “We can never assume that because someone is in a different world they are a different person”; the people who act aggressively and inappropriately in this fictional world are often the ones who try it on in the real world.

All Colab shows now include audience inductions in which the rules of the show are explained before it begins and they also have safe words for performers and audience members. “Nobody likes to stop a show, but we make it clear to audiences that we will if the rules are overstepped.” CCTV is being used increasingly by some companies, depending on the nature of the show.

As Equity’s Emmanuel de Lange points out, those who are inexperienced in staging a traditional theatre show can receive advice from organisations such as the Society of London Theatre and ITC, including on the safeguarding of actors. But there are no guidelines for immersive theatre.

It is something that many, although not all, working in the industry want to change. Some of the younger companies are part of an informal network known as the Gunpowder Plotters (named because the they first met on November 5), who meet monthly to share ideas and best practice. Safeguarding is very high on that agenda.

Punchdrunk is about to start hosting free workshops for early-career artists working in the immersive field and is eager to share what it has learned over the years, both about making and safeguarding.

Barrett and Higgin want to see a wider conversation that feeds into the publication of some guiding principles. Nonetheless they are aware that this is an area of practice situated on moving ground. And it is a whole sector that is constantly moving and looking for the next selling point.

“Nobody knows what the next big thing is,” says Barrett, “but it will come and it will shift the paradigm. Everyone is trying to pull the rug from under the audience’s feet. But that still means that those of us who are making this work must start from a place where everyone involved knows what the boundaries are and, if necessary, how to press the ejector seat.”

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