Immersive Theatre – How Theatre companies do it

Last week I went to the theatre to see a play that a friend had written. It was being performed at my local theatre in Coventry, The Belgrade. As I had not taken my mum to the theatre for a while, I thought it would be nice to get her a ticket too. All we knew about the play was that that is was ‘a fast-paced, energy fuelled love story for a lost generation without hope.’ (taken from the Belgrade brochure) We walked into the theatre to be confronted by an empty space, a structure that looked like the frame of a room, a toilet cubicle, with an open door, and lots of space. There was nowhere to sit and nowhere to put our winter coats, so we stood rather awkwardly in the middle, and tried to chat above the loud club music that was blasting from the speakers. At that moment it occurred to me that this immersive theatre stuff is all well and good, but how do the actors and designers enable us to know what to do?

A lot of it is down to shared experience, and what are our own expectations, what we read from signals and what we understand our own roles to be in any specific environment or context. Goffman’s frame analysis goes into detail about how these clues are given, and how we know what to do, but I will go into detail about that in the teachers’ blog, so read that too if you can.

For you, I thought it would be good to provide examples of theatre companies that do communicate well what we have to do, how we are to be involved and what our roles are. This video is a good introduction to immersive theatre, if you are not quite sure what it is. If you have heard of Punchdrunk, then you may have seen ‘Sleep No More’. In this short film the producer, Randy Weiner talks about his work. This short film describes the staging environment, the shift in audience roles and influence immersive theatre has had on today’s theatre scene.

One of the key things that works in immersive theatre is the IMPLICIT invitation. This is where a convention already exists, from cultural or personal experience, about what the nature of your participation is, and therefore nothing needs to be said or described. An example of this is in Shunt‘s ‘Dance Bear Dance’. I could not find any video of this, but here are two examples in the show of implicit experience:

  1. SPACE – The performance space is a casino and the actors are croupiers. The audience were given some gambling chips, and this was enough of the clue that they could take their places at the tables and begin to gamble.
  2. SOUND – The actors had all left the room and then a phone began to ring. The audience did not answer for a while, but then eventually someone answered. The caller at the other end of the line gave instructions about what to do next.

(Information taken from ‘Audience Participation in Theatre: Aesthetics of the Invitation‘, Gareth White, p40-41)

Another example of an implicit invitation is in ‘Stop!’ by Greenwich Young People’s Theatre, where an actor offers his hand to someone the audience to shake it. Of course the audience member obliges our of habit, courtesy or automatic response. This leads to a conversation and interactions, the audience member then entering the scene to find their role. (ibid)

Another company worth looking into is:

Box Clever, and their productions ‘Something Beautiful‘ and ‘Time for the Good Looking Boy‘. Here is a clip:

Another way to immerse your audience is in sound. This article outlines what Shunt were aiming for this their audio events in London streets.

Biblography:

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