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How is immersive theatre staying afloat during lockdown?

CoLab Theatre’s Crooks 1926. Photo by Matthew Kaltenborn
CoLab Theatre’s Crooks 1926. Photo by Matthew Kaltenborn

Before the pandemic, immersive theatre was one of the fastest-growing arts sectors. Theatremakers from Les Enfants Terribles, Secret Cinema, Hartshorn-Hook and more tell Anna James about diversifying their work during lockdown and their ideas for staying safe when shows can reopen


What do audiences want from immersive theatre? Connection, escapism, intimacy, the opportunity to get dressed up and party? Whatever it is, until early this year, it had been bringing ticket-buyers in their droves to the seemingly unstoppable immersive market. Then, coronavirus.

People wondered whether immersive work (an increasingly unhelpful term for the multitude of companies and shows sheltering under its umbrella) could provide what audiences wanted in the digital and socially distanced world we now find ourselves living in.

For many, the genre had become associated with intimacy – up-close-and-personal encounters, discovering secret corners of intricately created worlds. People returned obsessively to Punchdrunk’s Sleep No More in New York to “collect” the fabled one-on-ones with performers; there are Facebook groups for trading information about hidden storylines at Secret Cinema. Audiences seek out the feeling of connection, of being chosen, and the opportunity to shed their identities for a night.

How can theatre be intimate yet distant?
At first glance, this seemed to beg the question: how could this possibly work via a Zoom call or in a strictly socially distanced space? Surely, immersive theatre would be doomed: decimated by the effects of the coronavirus pandemic. Instead, for the most part, creators are not just embracing the challenge, but see their work as uniquely well-placed to clear the specific hurdles that the pandemic has created.

“We’re outliers,” Oliver Lansley, artistic director of Les Enfants Terribles, says. “If there’s one thing this sector is good at, it is adapting and innovating and thinking divergently. We’re used to coming up with solutions to bizarre problems.”

Lansley’s mindset is as consistent across the sector as the work being produced in response to coronavirus is varied.

“It’s what makes immersive theatre quite powerful,” adds Owen Kingston, artistic director of Parabolic Theatre, which makes interactive shows in which the audience influences the outcome. “We’re used to pioneering and trying out new forms – that’s where we live.”

“We’ve always had to react to spaces that are not traditionally theatres,” says Fabien Riggall, founder of Secret Cinema. “Ever since we first existed, we’ve been working in reacting and creating the ability for people to lose themselves, and it wouldn’t work without tight rules around storytelling.”

‘Secret Cinema shows bring people together, to feel part of something bigger’

Secret Cinema, which had just finished its run of Stranger Things as the coronavirus hit the UK, was quick off the mark. As well as developing a socially distanced music experience and online worlds for children, it has just wrapped up an eight-week Secret Sofa series. Spearheaded by Matt Bennett, group creative director, each Friday night around 700 people watch a film simultaneously before meeting online, via Zoom, for an “after party” that features games, singalongs and improv all led by in-character actors.

“It’s recreating that energy,” Bennett says. “That anticipation, the excitement about playing. That’s what Secret Cinema shows are so effective at – bringing people together, to feel part of something bigger, and making them realise they’re not alone in the world.”

This speaks to what all immersive creators are currently trying to do – distil the components of their work, pinpoint what it is that their audiences come to them for and work out how they can provide that in digital and then socially distanced formats. “Everyone is trying to find out what it was that was important or relevant or special and finding ways to tease it out of digital spaces,” says Nick Murray, an interactive arts producer.

“There’s a lot of potential,” says Sofi Lee-Henson, who runs multi-sensory experiences through her company X-NN. “My proposal is to explore what interaction and experience can be online, and not to think of it as a big production or that it has to be perfect from start to finish.”

Lee-Henson is about to work with the Co-Reality Collective on the Mean Time Night Market, a digital version of a real-life Brooklyn event where box trucks are turned into mini interactive worlds for a night. The online equivalent will be an “e-street”, accessed via a central website where audiences and other artists can explore the “trucks”, which will offer everything from comedy to burlesque to a virtual toilet queue via Zoom.

“For the past few years I was always trying to catch up to what the big companies were doing,” Lee-Henson says. “But now I’m not trying to be a little fish in a big pond. I’m about having a load of small fish around you and moving together as a big shoal – that’s more interesting than: ‘Oh, look, a whale.’ Hopefully this event will bring together the shoal.”

For Lansley the focus has been escapism. Les Enfants Terribles, which was midway through its run of United Queendom at London’s Kensington Palace when the theatre lockdown hit, has just run The Prism, in which viewers could explore a set of loosely linked scenarios that were created remotely by performers. “For me, it’s about a sense of wonder and exploration,” Lansley says. “Wanting to give artists and audiences the opportunity to escape and disappear and explore and find themselves in a wonderful world that was nothing like the world they’ve been stuck in for weeks.”

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Oliver Lansley. Photo: Michael Leckie
Oliver Lansley. Photo: Michael Leckie
Sofi Lee-Henson
Sofi Lee-Henson

Prioritising connection
At the other end of the spectrum, focusing on human connection over escapism, is Jury Duty, a new show by Exit Productions and Tom Black. Featuring Black alongside Joe Ball, artistic director at Exit, it runs via Zoom for 12 participants who take the role of people selected for a remote hearing. “I realised,” says Black, “that if you can create a scenario where the audience member is their own character, if they are ‘in world’ in their own front room on their laptop, then you’ve done a lot of work on how immersive an experience can be in this environment.”

The show was developed as part of a digital R&D process called Cabin Fever, organised by Ball. “We were partially R&D-ing the ideas of four shows that can be done in lockdown,” says Black. “But we were also R&D-ing research and development itself. Can you run a two-week R&D without all sitting in the same room?” A publicly available handbook of their findings, which were largely optimistic, has been published on Exit Production’s website.

However, these shows aren’t just digital stopgaps or ways to fill time. Bertie Watkins, who runs CoLab Theatre and its two associated London venues, is keen to develop work that is “robust” enough that a version can be run digitally or socially distanced without much disruption from evolving government rules. He’s working on a “Covid-proof” version of Crooks 1926, the show that was running pre-lockdown, and a new web-hub called Immersive Online, which he describes as “Netflix but for interactive experiences”.

There is no current consensus on which financial model works best for digital events. Some shows are charging set ticket prices, but many are working on a donation basis, and several companies are choosing to donate any profits to charity. “Perceived value of something in real life and the same thing online is wildly different,” says Murray. “How much is something like this worth? That value is so skewed as soon as you put something online. But if the lockdown went on for another six months or a year, God forbid, there is no way this kind of donation system could continue – no one can survive like that.”

Cressida Peever. Photo: Tobias Peever
Cressida Peever. Photo: Tobias Peever
Bertie Watkins
Bertie Watkins

Not every show survives
Of course, many shows haven’t survived the pandemic, and everyone is dealing with hugely uncertain finances and time lines. Secret Cinema’s Dirty Dancing has been postponed until next summer, and its big autumn show has been delayed, along with Punchdrunk’s The Third Day and Les Enfants Terribles’ new large-scale show that had been set to open in September.

But these shows will almost definitely go ahead at some point. The situation is much more uncertain for smaller companies and shows at earlier stages of development. Cressida Peever, who wrote both of Shotgun Carousel’s immersive productions (2018’s Divine Proportions and 2019’s Red Palace), went freelance in November and now both the immersive shows she had been commissioned to work on have been indefinitely postponed. She’s just adapted her most recent play Joan for audio with director Katharine Farmer.

One of the projects Watkins was producing, with drag production company Tuckshop at the CoLab Factory, was “Category Is… Romeo and Juliet”, which is now in limbo. Billed as an “immersive ballroom retelling of Shakespeare’s greatest hit”, it was about to start casting. Watkins is still optimistic they’ll find a way. “It’s Pride month, and Black Lives Matter is having so much incredible attention right now,” he says. “It’s our duty to try to get something on that is representative of the struggles today, and what better show?”

The director of Category Is, Omar F Okai, (also the co-founder of the Black British Theatre Awards, which is operating virtually this year) is embracing thinking outside of the box. He is keen to test the potential of using screens more innovatively to allow a socially distanced audience to explore while capturing the atmosphere of a voguing ball. “We have to shift, and rapidly,” he says. We can’t go: ‘Oh you can’t have a screen if you’re doing Shakespeare.’ Well, you’re going to have to.”

Another company grappling with how to stage work that relies on a very specific atmosphere is High Rise Theatre. It was about to restage its 2018 immersive show, Lil.Miss.Lady, a history of grime music as seen through the eyes of an aspiring female MC that takes place at a rave. “It doesn’t really make sense in any other way,” says Dominic Garfield, co-artistic director. “There’s movement in it, there’s sweat. It’s packed, and stuffy, you have to be shoulder to shoulder with people – the point of it is the community.”

The company is exploring ways to show elements of the production online, perhaps prefaced by a live DJ set, as well as trying to keep its NewGens mentoring project up and running and ensure its next big immersive project can happen as soon as possible. The UK Drill Project combines an “anti-exhibition” about drill music, a rave and an immersive element where audiences are invited to listen to different kinds of music – from opera to Michael Jackson to drill – and have the way their brain reacts recorded.

Companies such as Shotgun Carousel and High Rise are a vital part of making theatre more diverse and it’s imperative these voices aren’t squeezed out because of the pandemic. “Immersive work is hyper-intellectualised,” Garfield adds. “It has taken me quite a few years to have confidence in those rooms. That’s going to be something not a lot of us are going to be able to cling on to. Those people are making great work, but there’s obviously going to be a lack of a certain voice.”

The UK Drill Project. Photo: Tristan Bejawan
The UK Drill Project. Photo: Tristan Bejawan
Dominic Garfield. Photo: Tristan Bejawan
Dominic Garfield. Photo: Tristan Bejawan

Community-focused work
The Big House is a theatre company that works with young people who have been through the care system and are at a high risk of social exclusion. “It’s very important for us to keep theatre alive,” says Maggie Norris, who is chief executive and artistic director. “We have to be nimble and flexible in our approach.” That mindset has produced The Ballad of Corona V, a socially distanced piece written by David Watson, in which pods of six move from scene to scene. “Our primary focus is to make sure people are feeling safe,” Norris says. “But also to offer a profound and moving individual experience.”

Other companies are also starting to commit to opening in a socially distanced format. One such is The Great Gatsby, London’s longest running immersive work. Produced by Louis Hartshorn and Brian Hook, it will open again – with significant amendments – on October 1 as Gatsby’s Masquerade Ball.

Hartshorn says: “We have a duty to try to be part of that process of getting the industry back on track and start employing as soon as we can – it doesn’t mean taking any undue risks, but there has to be someone who goes first.” Hook adds: “The answer can’t be to wait for it all to fall apart. We’re going to be open about what’s good and what’s hard and what’s scary.”

Hartshorn-Hook has invested a great deal of time and money into amending the show from both a creative and logistical perspective. The company has worked with Charlotte Bence at Equity “every step of the way” with regards to crafting guidelines for the amended show, including individual return-to-work policies. Cast and crew have also been encouraged to speak directly to Bence with any questions or concerns. “There’s also an individual basis to it,” Hook explains. “We have a responsibility to talk to each cast and crew member and see how they feel, what they need and how we can work with that.” Hartshorn adds: “Individual solutions for individuals is the only way this can work.”

The company is confident it can still provide what audiences are looking for. “Where we won’t have an audience dancing together, we’ll have new moments,” Hartshorn says, highlighting that the smaller audience numbers for the same size cast means a greater level of interaction. The company also has the advantage that sister productions in Korea and China are on a different virus timeline to the UK and have been able to feed back about what works and what doesn’t.

Digital Immersive Work

Mean Time Night Market, X-NN/Co-Reality Collective
A virtual “street” full of performances to explore inspired by a real-world secretive New York event.

Jury Duty, Tom Black/Exit Productions
Twelve participants take on the rule of a remote jury.

England Expects, Parabolic Theatre
Participants take on the role of the crew on a 1940s British warship trying to get home.

Immersive Online, CoLab Theatre
A platform for alternative adventures to be done within lockdown and afterwards. “Netflix for interactive experiences”.

The Pop Up Playhouse, Coney
Playable pieces for a variety of ages and numbers. All currently free to play.

Advice for the rest of theatre
The immersive world might be the quickest back on its feet because of its inherent flexibility, which has also piqued the interest of the mainstream theatre sector. “We’ve certainly had more phone calls from traditional theatre producers,” Hartshorn says. “It will be really interesting to see what is active in the immersive sphere as a result, it might well lead to a massive boom.”

Of course, immersive theatre was arguably already in the middle of a boom that has featured high-profile recent successes as well as a few failures. Even more activity in the market could be a double-edged sword. “People think it’s easy cash-grabbing,” Kingston says. “Come and have a go if you think you’re hard enough. You’ll find it’s difficult, but you might just make something incredible that you never would have made in your conventional formats and that would be the best thing – more makers discovering its power.”

To assume immersive theatre will be hardest hit by the current situation because of its sense of unpredictability and intimacy is to disregard the detailed work that goes into creating that feeling within a strict set of parameters.

There are undeniably huge hurdles ahead, particularly with regards to protecting smaller companies and diverse voices, but Les Enfants Terribles was already leading small groups (or bubbles or hubs as they might be referred to now) around a space in Alice’s Adventures Underground in 2015. Shotgun Carousel has been providing moments of intimacy with space between the audience and performer since it entered the immersive market in 2018. Secret Cinema has been creating detailed digital worlds since its production of Bladerunner in 2010. It’s now time to see what creators do with the tools they already have and what they add to them.

Ultimately, the very nature of immersive theatre – and what audiences keep coming back to it for – is what ensures its ability to evolve. “Nothing will be normal again,” Riggall says. “The future is lost. It’s time to reimagine everything.”

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