A new brand of theatrical entertainment does far more than change the audience's relationship to the stars on stage.
Tired of the old proscenium theater shows? The moldy musical revivals? The self-indulgent moralizing of “important” Broadway plays?
Sick of Hollywood pushing its garbage on you?
There’s reason for cheer. A new wave of theater is emerging – one rooted in the past but enjoying a modern resurgence. It’s known as “immersive theater.” It offers audiences the opportunity to step into another world; to experience wildly imaginative and entertaining stories and the chance to be genuinely moved and feel a real connection to the characters in a story.
And, best of all, it isn’t political. In fact, at worst, most immersive theater is apolitical and, at best, offers up stories and themes opposite those coming out of Hollywood.
It’s so refreshing and innovative that Hollywood In Toto has offered me a regular column to help bring immersive theater to you.
What Is ‘Immersive Theater?’
Instead of sitting in an audience and watching a play being performed on stage, the audience is actually inside the space where the drama occurs.
For example, you may be with a small group of audience members inside a gothic mansion, as the actors perform around you, and you follow them from room to room. Or the story may take place entirely inside a restaurant or a bar. You might follow actors through a cemetery and inside a massive mausoleum. The possibilities are literally endless.
The key element is that you are “immersed” in an environment other than a traditional theater.
Why do this?
Primarily, by having the action occur in a space that serves the story, the suspension of disbelief is easier to achieve. The audience doesn’t have to imagine being in a dilapidated sanitarium, because they actually are there. Being physically present in the space brings that space, and the drama, to life more than a theater ever could.
By placing us in the actual space of the drama, the creators can now enhance the experience for our five senses. In traditional theater, we use only our eyes and ears. In immersive entertainment, all five senses come to the fore.
Fragrances enhance the experience, often in subtle ways you may not even notice. A character may wear a specific cologne or perfume. An old art deco building may have the scent of 1930s New York. You may walk through an herb garden with a duchess.
For your taste buds, some shows offer alcohol or other drinks, or even a three-course gourmet meal as you dine with America’s most notorious serial killers.
And there is touch. In many shows, an actor may take your hand in hers and lead you somewhere. You may dance a waltz with an actor. You may be hugged, carried, caressed, or even kissed. These are often the most powerful moments in shows that I’ve experienced.
Even the slightest physical connection can blast you deeper into the story, bonding you with a character in ways you would never expect.
Some shows may require you to walk from room to room, climb stairs, crawl around a bit, and yes, even sit down. One thing is certain: you won’t be paying $150 to sit in a cramped Broadway seat that makes United Airlines seats seem expansive. You also won’t have to strain your neck, or sway side to side, to see the stage around the head of the patron in front of you.
Greater Emotional Rewards
Why do we consume popular culture? Yes, we want to be entertained. However, we also want to be moved emotionally, to find meaning, to see a reflection of life in art that offers us insights into the human experience.
The emotional rewards with Immersive Theater are frequently far greater – exponentially so – that traditional proscenium theater usually delivers.
Most immersive shows will limit the size of the audiences per show, often to 15 or even less. Thus, there is a more intimate feel to the experience. It’s may seem a little uncomfortable at first. The point of theater is to become anonymous in the dark, and some patrons may be a bit self-conscious initially. That’s normal. Once you get into the show, that feeling subsides.
FAST FACT: Recent Broadway productions like “Rocky,” “Sweeney Todd” and “Natash, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812” all incorporated immersive theater elements in their staging.
The intimacy also means that you will experience so much more from the actors’ performances than from the fifth row of a proscenium balcony. You will notice nuances you never saw in proscenium theater. The best actors use their entire bodies, particularly their faces and eyes, to tell the story. Subtleties that get lost in a proscenium may suddenly give you an entirely new perspective when experienced up close – just as they do in real life.
It is the proximity to the drama, just like real life, that offers audiences the opportunity for richer emotional experiences. Imagine your favorite movie and being able to be right there, inside the action, with real people. In some immersive shows, you are given the illusion of being the protagonist, and the journey may appear to be more about you than the characters themselves.
Some shows have varying levels of interactivity. That is, the show may literally be participatory, in the sense that you will speak with the characters, and may have the ability (or illusion thereof) to influence the action. Most immersive actors have training in improvisational theater, affording them the gifts to steer a scene and provide audiences with the necessary story beats while creating an actual relationship with the participant.
The height of immersive theater often occurs in what is known as “one-on-ones.” An actor may take you by the hand and lead you to a quiet spot away from the action, or perhaps a hidden room. You may be treated to a soul-searching monologue, a palm reading, the exposing of a personal secret or clue, or the moment may be entirely interactive and you are asked to offer up some truth about yourself.
These quiet, intimate moments often have profound impact on audience members – myself included – and are often the most talked-about portions of a show.
How big is immersive going to be? The Walt Disney Company is embracing it wholeheartedly, by including it in numerous upcoming Star Wars attractions and soon, a hotel.
Coming up next, I’ll discuss how to enjoy an immersive show. The “rules of engagement” so to speak, and what to expect from different types of immersive shows.
Lawrence Meyers is a crisis communications consultant, financial writer and former television writer. He has written over 24 hours and produced 60 hours of episodic television. He is also an award-winning playwright, having authored“Porn Rock” in 2016, and “Dark Arts” in 2017. “Dark Arts” is the first-ever play to have an immersive prologue and epilogue, bookending a traditional proscenium show. Contact him at TVWritersRoom@gmail.com