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Georgina Bednar: To thrill again, immersive theatre should return to its risky roots

Punchdrunk's Masque of the Red Death Punchdrunk's The Masque of the Red Death
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It is fairly safe to say that immersive theatre became a big deal with Punchdrunk’s The Masque of the Red Death at Battersea Arts Centre in 2007. This typically subversive art form, which up to that point was largely frequented by other artists and audiences ‘in the know’, became the hottest ticket in town.

Masque was a turning point for me and I think many others; hidden rooms, secret piano players, all against the backdrop of a stunningly designed dance whirlwind. Script? More like military plans.

Over the course of the following five years, involved in immersive productions as an associate with Coney, I played my part as a futuristic space hero, hijacked a Birmingham library and spent nine months in Kensington Palace as a… well, if I am honest, I am still not entirely sure what I was – but it was good fun.

And now this anarchic art form finds itself in a funny place. Some serious players have left the scene, and in the words of Punchdrunk’s Felix Barrett, there is a sense of anticipation for the next company to “pull the rug from under the audience’s feet”.

In a recent article (below), Lyn Gardner brilliantly identifies the most significant shift: that of experience over art. It was a change I clocked, although subconsciously, in 2014. I had seen Rift’s Macbeth – a huge site-specific overnight takeover of Balfron Tower in London and, soon after, Alice’s Adventures Underground at the Vaults.

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

Even with the vast creativity of Les Enfants Terribles and unchallengeable skill of Emma Brunjes Productions, this piece was essentially promenade theatre repackaged for the Time Out conveyor belt.

To move forward, I think we might need to go back to the start. Though truthfully, we know 2007 was not the birth of this style of work. Live artists have been doing it for years. I remember talking to the late Jules Wright, founder of the Wapping Project, who dedicated her life to risky theatre work.

She told me of one of her first immersive pieces, years before Punchdrunk, in which she flooded a disused warehouse for audiences to navigate by boat.

In her later years, she was making smaller work: intense films responding to Ibsen, set in brutally cold site-specific locations. I think she would have a thing or two to say about the state of play now. No doubt she’d give us a kick up the bum and tell us to get riskier.

And I think the definition of risk in this context is in needing to begin with the creative seed. What is the starting point of this work? If the starting point is experience and cash, as Gardner points out is a trend for the new brand of ‘theatre start-ups’, then one type of work will be created. If the starting point is audience transformation, the result will be a different thing.

Last Friday, I sat in an entirely dark box with 12 others to experience Seance, the work of veteran theatremaker David Rosenberg. Unlike so many immersive shows I have seen, it was small, performer-less (I think) and, well, entirely transformative in ways that were both reflective and entertaining. For me it holds up as a model of how artists can keep innovating, and risk doesn’t mean you have to ‘go big’.

There are genuine issues to face down. How do these smaller pieces cover their costs? And if they are small, are they destined to be seen only by the elite?

The answer to both could be in how long they run for. If more people can see the work, and the shows pick up a head of steam, could this help solve the questions of access and cash?

Maybe it can even offer something genuinely risky at the same time, capturing that thrill of more than a decade ago, of those immersive works that emerged into the mainstream.