Carlo D'Amore on The Problem With Immersive Theater

Within the past few years, the word immersive has become a catch-all phrase linked to cool and innovation. It’s inescapable. It’s used to describe everything from a dining experience to a VR experience. However, just for clarity's sake, I’m referring to immersive as a word used to describe a live theatrical, non theatrical, experiential event or a happening. Something that happens live and in front of us. I was part of a panel at the Overlook Film Festival in New Orleans, talking about an interactive project several colleagues and I from the Interactive Play Lab had created during 2017’s SXSW Festival in Austin Texas. Everyone at this film festival was, in my opinion, gaga over immersive. “Immersive!” “Immersive!” “Immersive!”

The idea is simple… in theory. Submerse an individual, client, or participant into something. In doing so, the individual has a 360-degree experience that would rock his/her world. To that aim, some incredible atmospheric worlds are being created. The ambiance is carefully created with lavish sets and intricate design elements. It’s cool (sometimes), different (sometimes) and yet, in my opinion, it is not enough!

The problem with immersive in this genre is that it is often lacks the interactive aspect. So all this work, creativity, craft, time and financial resources are funneled into creating the world and yet the participants can typically only watch. Most often, they cannot speak, cannot dictate anything, cannot engage or play, but rather must simply be an observer. So, in essence, this is not as immersive as one would hope, rather a staging tool for theater that happens in non-traditional settings, or even what most aptly should be called promenade theater.

So, the sandbox is created, the children (the audience) are invited in... but in most cases, they can only stand at the edge and watch the older kids (actors, dancers, aerialists) play. I’ve experienced countless immersive theater productions wherein we (the audience) are told what and how we’re expected to engage. So many of these productions start by telling the audience things like “Do not speak!” “Do not disrupt the performers!” “Stay in a single file line!” “Do not wander away!” I don't know about you but... what a buzz kill! I have seen and felt first hand my excitement about an immersive experience be dashed, and I’ve often felt like I was being reprimanded. Sleep No More does something very novel in that they allow us to engage with the set and environment, but NOT with the performers, and certainly NOT with the story. So yes, open drawers, wander anywhere you want...and sure, for some people that’s fine and novel and intriguing for others it's nothing, but as we all know NOTHING is for everybody.

So what gives? What’s the fear? Is it that you don’t want the audience to destroy the work? Is it that you don’t want a drunk to ruin it for everyone else? Fair enough… I’m a creator as well, so I don’t want the audience to ruin it but there’s a way, and it lies in interactive! The problem is that creators of immersive work often times don’t have the tools to make it interactive. It’s a skill that is simply unknown to the majority of the world. How do you really make something interactive? How do you co-create with an audience member? How do you allow them to change the outcome? How do you make them play? How do you teach your performers to not freeze if an audience member speaks to them? How do you engage with the audience, how do you have a conversation and not speak at them? How do you take an offer from an audience member and silently and deliberately encourage it?

Live in Theater has mastered our version of interactive. We have taken the time to design experiences that encourage spontaneous play. Our experiences do this in an effortless way. We work with the audience at every performance, from our murder mysteries, to our corporate and team building events in NYC. It all starts with call and response. Listen we get it, most non-performers hate the idea of being center stage. A room full of people staring at you can be intimidating. Especially while you play the role of a rookie cop… or while you pretend there is a meteor aimed for earth. How do you act? We don’t always have the answers but what we do have is a willingness to allow our audiences to play in the sandbox with us. We want them to play in imagined circumstances that will put them face to face with characters and situations that are unique and otherworldly.

Real interactive is the key to allowing audiences to play. Why is play important? In a world where it’s all work and no play, you get a society of zombies and tech drones. Not fun!

If you'd like to find out more about our interactive theater techniques and workshops please reach out here. We would love to share our knowledge base with you!

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