Over the past 10 years immersive theatre has seen a boom. The ‘experience economy’ has become an economic and cultural trend, with companies not just selling a show or event but ‘a memory.’ Its appeal outside the theatre world has increased, the trend has spread overseas and advertisers fall over themselves to make the next ‘immersive experience’. But then Covid-19 struck.
The sector’s biggest strength is that it breaks the rules of conventional theatre. The audience physically traverse detailed sets and are challenged to interact with the story’s characters in close proximity. But in the time of social distancing that strength is a weakness.
When the pandemic hit we were midway through our latest immersive show, United Queendom, and as soon as one of the crew suspected he was ill there was no alternative but to cancel the run. At the time I wondered if we’d been too draconian but then a week later all the theatres understandably shut.
These unprecedented times have asked a lot of our industry but we’ve always been innovative and that hasn’t stopped. People have adapted. In Germany, there is a drive-through rave with people dancing in their cars; Alexandra Palace and English National Opera are putting on drive-through performances, and many other companies have moved their content online.
At Les Enfants Terribles we have decided to move online. Our show The Prism takes inspiration from Choose Your Own Adventure books and will let viewers pick from multiple pathways of videos recorded by the general public. We hope it will not only help members of our industry, making the most of whatever lockdown scenario they find themselves in, but also appeal to a diverse demographic.
But what happens after the lockdown? Will things ever be the same again? Theatres will reopen but we are still mainly in the dark as to what that world will look like.
In some ways, immersive theatre represents pluses and minuses for a post-lockdown world.
Alice’s Adventures Underground, which we first produced in 2015, offered a potential answer to this problem. Though it was created to answer a different problem, we now find ourselves with a potential solution.
The show has an audience of only 56 entering Wonderland every 15 minutes, so although our capacity per night is 672 the actual audience size per show is 56. And then, we divide the audience into four groups of 14 for the majority of the show. With restrictions about audience numbers this model seems to be a good way forward while having larger capacity per night to pay for it.
But this doesn’t solve everything – consumer confidence is our driving factor, as well as protecting actors, crew and staff. This might involve audiences wearing masks but what about actors? And their proximity to the audience? Will we have to install Perspex glass between them? I hope not.
We need to clean, clean and do more cleaning
Ultimately, we have to be market leaders. We need to clean, clean and do more cleaning; think about temperature tests; and have larger spaces for movement. We have to reassure our audience we are actively thinking about a post Covid-19 world and address the issue.
Immersive theatre will bounce back – the audience demand is too great. The question is: when can we and the audience take the plunge?
The Prism launches on June 14: enter-the-prism.com