If you read Theatre Room regularly, you will know that I have written on a number of occasions about the ever-growing popularity of Immersive theatre, especially in Europe. You also know that I am drawn to this form, especially as a way as bringing new audiences to the theatre and challenging theatre students take risks in their exploration of the possibilities in performance. All things ‘immersive’ are clearly drawing audiences and there is lots of ‘jumping on bandwagons’ at the moment. It was with some interest then that I read Lyn Gardner’s Theatre Blog in The Guardian this week. London-centric, by its nature, but certainly making a point that is worth considering wherever you are:
Immersive theatre: living up to its name, or just an overused gimmick?
Immersive theatre has become ubiquitous, but too often such billing is just a commercial come-on designed to sell tickets
My, there is an awful lot of immersive theatre around at the moment, particularly if you live within reach of London. You can watch Titus Andronicus performed in a car park in Peckham, visit Dorian Gray’s townhouse in Greenwich, pretend you are a spy in CoLab’s London-wide, digitally-augmented Fifth Column or – if you’ve £200 to spare – spend the night in a London hotel and watch the immersive play Backstage Tour.
Some of these shows deserve the tag. But I’m beginning to think that immersive has become one of the most overused terms in British theatre, in similar vein to that other much misused term, site-specific (or site-responsive), which is likewise often bandied about with little or no justification. Standing around watching a show in a room that appears to have been designed by an Oxford Street store window dresser doesn’t magically make the audience experience something immersive, no matter how many stuffed animals you incorporate into the set.
It you want an enjoyably sly swipe at the immersive phenomenon, take a look on the excellent Exeunt site, where Natasha Tripney has cleverly reframed her East Coast trains journey back from the fringe as immersive theatre.
The rise of immersive theatre undoubtedly reflects an interest from audiences – often audiences who may not think that traditional drama in traditional theatre playhouses is for them – in experiencing theatre in a different way, one that allows them to be part of the story and feel as if they have dropped down a rabbit hole into another world like Alice. In some instances where the audience can genuinely roam where they want, the experience is more akin to gaming than traditional theatre.
Some companies – Coney, Lundahl and Seitl, Punchdrunk, Ontroerend Goed and Look Left Look Right among them – have perfected the art, finding ways that make sense of why the audience is present at all and allowing them to play their part. Such companies don’t mistake mere intimacy (lovely though it can be) for immersion, and in some instances give us genuine agency.
But I keep on seeing shows that claim to be immersive, and turn out to be anything but. Performing a show in a car park (Titus) while Southern trains constantly thunder by, so that Rome appears to be situated at a railway junction, or making audiences run away from zombies in an underground space in Edinburgh (Generation of Z on the Fringe), doesn’t make it immersive, it just makes it a show in an unusual – and not necessarily suitable – location. That’s fine. But short-changed audiences will quickly learn that immersive shows often don’t deliver on what they promise, and they will stay away.
Strong and portentous words from the venerable Gardner, and she is rarely wrong, in my opinion. Her reference to The East Coast Trains Show written by a fellow critic Natasha Tripney, and published in Exeunt is definitely worth a read (and a wry smile). Beautifully tongue-in-cheek, but harbouring similar grievances expressed by Gardner and a sense that she too has experienced one too many pieces of immersive theatre that simply are not.