Immersive theatre boasts some of the nimblest artists in our sector, says producer Richard Jordan – but it is also at the sharp end of this crisis. Let’s hope these thrilling and groundbreaking productions can return as soon as it’s safe
One of my most memorable theatregoing moments was Punchdrunk’s immersive show The Masque of the Red Death at Battersea Arts Centre in 2007.
It inhabited the whole building, with the audience masked and encouraged to explore. At one point, I was pulled into a robing room where, in a one-on-one encounter, a character dressed me in a cloak before I was pushed back out into the world of the show.
Stepping into the production made the whole experience visceral. Many of those who experienced The Masque of the Red Death still talk about it today, it has become the stuff of legend. This has often been the case with site-specific and promenade productions where audiences have consistently and passionately embraced immersion into these worlds.
The Edinburgh Fringe has long served as a platform for immersive shows and hotbed for these theatrical experiences, staged in spaces from swimming pools, to front rooms, to multi-storey car parks or moving vehicles, to council chambers. In recent years, the form has also moved from the alternative arts scene into the mainstream.
The Edinburgh Fringe has long served as a platform for immersive shows and hotbed for these theatrical experiences
A week before coronavirus put the UK and much of the world into lockdown, I had been visiting the Adelaide Fringe. The last production I saw there was a new work by young talented British-based companies The Flanagan Collective and Goobledigook Theatre called The Gods the Gods the Gods.
Their latest show played with both form and location, set in a site-specific nightclub environment in Adelaide’s Botanic Gardens and performed late-night to a tightly packed audience, who watched it play out across the dance floor. In the weeks since seeing it, as the world has become engulfed and changed by the coronavirus crisis, I have come to wonder when I will next attend a site-specific production in this form.
As the crisis continues, and we hear more concerns about social distancing that run right down to discussions about whether we will ever shake hands again, the idea of attending another site-specific show has begun to feel a remote one.
The more I think about this, the more I feel grateful for experiencing so many site-specific and promenade works over the years – both good and bad.
Before embarking on my career in the theatre, I was influenced by shows including pioneers Grid Iron’s early immersive work at the Edinburgh Fringe in intimate spaces with small audiences as well as seminal works in larger buildings such as Bill Bryden’s promenade productions of The Mystery Plays at the National Theatre and his mind-blowing The Ship for Glasgow European City of Culture. These all helped open my mind up to theatre’s many possibilities.
Immersive and site-specific theatre will, of course, evolve in new ways in the future. The recent flood of digital theatre as a result of stay-at-home lockdowns has shown how the industry adapts.
Immersive theatre boasts some of the nimblest artists in our sector, but it is also at the sharp end of this crisis
By its nature, this particular art form’s greatest strength is its fluidity – frequently through the necessity of having to adapt to its surroundings. Nonetheless, creators in this sector, many of whom are smaller independent artists, are understandably very worried. They are at risk of being forgotten in the flood of industry voices calling for a bailout.
Immersive theatre boasts some of the nimblest artists in our sector, but it is also at the sharp end of this crisis. These can be frequently complex and expensive shows to produce, and with the talk of social distancing, where does that leave an immersive production?
It will be a considerable time before we may ever see audience members confident enough (or a performance even allowed) to dance again in a show with a stranger such as at London’s immersive Great Gatsby or New York’s Sleep No More – which were both enjoying extended runs when the lockdown began.
It will require a lot of hard work to rebuild a position for this art form – who knows how long it will take and what it will look like at the other end?
Immersive theatre has produced many thrilling and groundbreaking productions, which have inspired and encouraged the next generation of young artists watching them. Let’s hope it can continue to do so, and the audiences return, as soon as it’s safe.