Compared to more mainstream entertainment media, theatre is often misrepresented as being too traditional and stagnant. Which is why it is exciting to see theatre companies breaking the stereotypical mould and branching into thrilling new avenues. One of the newer aspects is immersive theatre, where the audience helps to shape the story and their own theatrical experiences. I recently had the pleasure of seeing two very different immersive productions and I am excited by the prospect of seeing more.
The first was Coney Theatre’s production of Early Days of a Better Nation, at the Warwick Arts Centre. It is an original script ,and is presented as an evolving story, with each audience member contributing to the plot. The synopsis is simple; the audience and the cast are citizens of a fictional country that has been ravaged by a civil war and are now meeting to create a lasting peace. At stake are millions of lives, a rare environmental resource and regional stability.
While it might sound like an elaborate Model United Nations summit, the production has distinct theatrical elements to it. The actors, despite being fluid with their lines, are still playing pre-determined roles. Similarly, while there is no “stage”, all the rooms being used incorporated sets, props and lighting to represent the various geographical regions and social strata that created the conflict in the first place. While admittedly in its early stages – with audience suggestions during a Q&A including using more light and sound effects, and creating a tiny bit more structure – the nature of the show means no two viewings will be the same.
In London, The Drowned Man was performed by Punchdrunk in collaboration with the National Theatre. Unlike Early Days, this play had a fixed script which the audience could not change. What made it immersive was how it was viewed. The action takes place across four storeys of an old warehouse, with forty characters simultaneously acting out two major and eight minor arcs. Audience members could follow whichever overarching plot or whichever character they pleased, following the action on foot and placing themselves within the physical confines of the play.
The stories were staged to be on a perfect loop, starting and finishing multiple times before the grand finale, allowing viewers to see different plots or perhaps the same one from different points of view. Once again, the staging meant that the each group had a different experience, but this had an even more complex layer as each individual within the same audience group could also take away a unique experience depending on which story they followed.
Both Punchdrunk and Coney have a history of producing interactive plays, with the former having recreated some of Shakespeare’s work using a similar immersive model. What makes this truly intriguing is that the agency lies not with the action on-stage – not that there is a “stage” in the traditional sense any more – but with the viewer. The cast and crew might try and draw your attention in a particular direction, whether through dialogue or staging, but it is eventually up to you to decide what you take out of it.
This is especially refreshing because theatre, unlike film or television or even books, is often misconstrued to be less involved with the target audience. Yet, it is the very physical nature of theatre that allows these productions to take shape, something that would be impossible to conceive with any other medium. The only concern is the commercial aspect; Early Days of a Better Nation had to do a limited run while The Drowned Man was expensive even by London’s standards.
The sprawling scope of the plays meant they had to balance out their novelty with selective dates or pricing in order to be viable and competitive. Hopefully, this is only because immersive theatre is still in its early stages. This is a truly innovative experience and I sincerely hope more theatres and companies start following suit.