Meet our panel: We have given our panellists pen-names and used stock images but their biographies reflect their real career details…
Velma Lee is a 32-year-old actor, comic and improviser
|Vivian Lee is 38 and has played leading roles at the National, the RSC and the Royal Court, alongside regular TV appearances|
Adam Lovett is a 45-year-old actor who has appeared in film, BAFTA-winning TV, at the RSC, National and West End
|Charlotte Osmand is in her 30s and has worked as a stage manager on and off the book in venues across the UK, as well as in event management|
Albert Parker is 60 and has appeared as a regular in soaps, two BAFTA-winning sitcoms, theatre and TV
Beryl Phoenix is in her 40s. She has played leading roles at the RSC, worked on new plays, and toured both nationally and internationally
Peter Quince is a 72-year-old actor working in theatre
Adam I’ve never been in it, but I absolutely love watching it. Are we talking experience as a performer or audience member?
Peter I haven’t done any truly immersive theatre, but I’ve done a lot of work in the round and in small spaces where the audience is very close. I remember doing a soliloquy in the round and being able to see two members of the audience snogging – a vivid reminder that I wasn’t holding their attention.
Albert If it’s what we also call promenade theatre, then body odour and halitosis are high on my memory list.
Velma I did loads, bloody loads, in my younger years. It’s super hard work.
Beryl I went to an immersive piece in a library, and I was put off by the other audience members. You were put in groups and so were stuck with them.
Albert Being shoved around a small space to watch someone mumble through a script sitting on a dustbin lid pretending to be the caterpillar from Alice in Wonderland is not my idea of fun.
Velma That’s a very derogatory way of describing it, Albert. I think it gets a bad rap in the industry, but it obviously makes a lot of money and people love it.
‘It’s hard to create and requires huge amounts of effort and attention to detail, but if you get it right, it’s magical’
Charlotte This topic made me think of something Lyn Gardner said last year, I think, about the Edinburgh Fringe in particular, but which I think applies to immersive theatre too – that you need to take care of the audience. My first experience as an audience member was with a well-known immersive company and I had a horrible time.
Peter Are people aware that sexual harassment from the audience is an issue here?
Jon Pretty much every actor I know who has done immersive theatre has a groping story. Grim. There was a notorious article in Gawker about where to stand if you wanted to see nudity in Sleep No More on Broadway, along with a paragraph about how much the ‘journalist’ enjoyed feeling up some buff young actor.
Vivian The audience needs to understand what their part of the contract is. I’ve heard of audiences at The Great Gatsby turning up pissed, being able to buy drink the whole way through, vomiting, groping the actors and passing out. The house should not have allowed that.
Jon Safeguarding should be prioritised as much as anything else in the show, and often isn’t.
Velma I think it’s important to remember it’s a lot of young actors’ passage into the industry these days. And it can be a place where you can be taken advantage of because of that.
Peter A lot of it is very exploitative financially.
Vivian Personally, I’ve never felt ‘immersed’ when at that type of show. The contract between audience and performer becomes too loose or something. Also, unless you have a gigantic budget, it’s all a bit ‘home-made pin curls and sequins from Claire’s Accessories’. It feels sometimes like a beautiful funfair, or a living museum. But I’m sure this says more about me than the genre.
Beryl My thoughts exactly, Vivian.
Velma It can be magical in the right hands.
Adam The execution needs to be good – you can’t just fall back on the concept of it being immersive. I’ve really loved Punchdrunk shows because of the care and detail that went into them, but other shows, such as Secret Cinema, just felt aimless and sloppy to me.
Charlotte This type of theatre is a lot harder and more expensive than people think.
Velma Exactly, Charlotte. And often the actors are made to do things on a loop with no proper breaks, or end up as glorified ushers.
Beryl I’m sure the right piece in the right place would be extraordinary, but I do think there are lots of lower-budget versions that don’t quite hit the mark.
Adam I met someone who was working with Equity to establish standards for performers in immersive shows. He said actors are treated appallingly.
Vivian There is a lot of money to be made, and I suspect it rarely trickles down to the performers.
Velma But I think the absolute worst element, as an actor, is that if the show isn’t any good, you are literally talking to the audience. You have to deal with people telling you to your face it’s no good.
Jon Oh man, I hadn’t thought about hecklers. Quick, tell me something good, or I’ll have immersive practitioners out for my blood.
Velma But also, that’s why it’s magic when it works. If it’s amazing – then you are face to face with someone in rapture.
Adam It can be utterly magical and I hate when people pooh-pooh the entire genre. You wouldn’t diss all theatre if you saw a few bad productions.
Velma It takes away all the stuffy theatrical types – this is where young diverse people experience theatre.
Adam It’s hard to create and requires huge amounts of effort and attention to detail, but if you get it right, it’s like entering another world. Magical.
Velma I think we can fall in the same trap as people saying: “I hate musical theatre.” It’s lazy.
Charlotte It needs the right people directing and managing it. Some of my ‘bad’ experience was that the cast wasn’t told how to deal with audience members who wanted to watch the show but not get involved (I am one of those).
Adam We need to be open to theatre reinventing itself. If we’re just doing Tom Stoppard revivals in proscenium-arch theatres, the same old white people will go and theatre will become a museum art form. Lots of people who would never dream of going to the National Theatre are thrilled when Punchdrunk announces a new show.
Jon Dryden Taylor is an actor, writer and editor of The Green Room. If you work in theatre and would like to join in the conversation, email email@example.com