Is it just me or has immersive become the “in” word to describe theatre productions over the past year or so? I asked this question on Twitter the other day stating that most shows that call themselves immersive don’t even fit into that scheme.
A site specific production is not automatically immersive. The same goes for a promenade performance. I get the feeling a lot of people (even those who work in theatre) just don’t know what immersive actually means. Either that or we are talking about producers selling a product knowing fully well customers won’t get what they paid for.
I watched a production of Titus Andronicus a few weeks ago. The show was staged in a car park and called itself immersive. I loved the show and was impressed by the modern and unusual approach to the material. But Titus Andronicus in a car park was not immersive. It was a promenade production, simple as that. I spoke to one of the performers about this and he agreed that there was no way this production could be called immersive. After all immersive is more than getting a hug or a handshake from a performer and watching the performance while walking through or standing in the middle of the set.
Most so called immersive shows are site specific and/or promenade productions – be it Titus Andronicus in a car park or Here Lies Love in a club-like venue. Some of them may have certain immersive elements but very few shows that are advertised as immersive actually deserve that label.
So what makes a show immersive then? It’s quite simple: An immersive show makes you feel part of the story. It’s not to be confused with an interactive show in which you actually take part in the story and in which your decisions might even change the course of the show. Even though immersive shows usually have aspects of audience interaction, the audience doesn’t actually decide anything. You feel like you are in the story, performers interact with you, it looks like you are a part of what is happening. But everything you see and everything that happens is choreographed and very much controlled. And that is the beauty of immersive shows. They draw you in and make you feel part of them but they never let you take control in any way. Still you will end up thinking about your experiences for days, weeks, maybe even months. Immersive shows often have a much bigger impact on the audience than other kinds of shows.
A performer who has been working with Punchdrunk (the “Gods” of immersive theatre) for years once told me about “The Drowned Man” (Punchdrunk’s last London production and a prime example of an immersive show): “This show is not interactive. We (the performers) and the director decide the course of the performance. The audience is a part of this but they have no influence in what happens in the show. We just make them believe they do.”
That sums it up quite well I think.