STAGE OF LIFE
Imagine going to see a show where there’s no seats, no stage and you, as the audience member, have to search out the story for yourself.
Radical theater makers across the globe are crafting a whole new type of live performance that encourages the audience to become part of the action they’ve come to watch. Instead of traditional etiquette – sit down, stay quiet, eyes on the stage – immersive theater asks spectators to follow actors from room to room, pick up and inspect stage props and even choose which parts of the story they want to see. By challenging audiences to act alongside the actors, immersive and interactive theater shows are helping to break down the pompous, elitist image of theater that has often deterred younger crowds in the past.
Punchdrunk are a UK company with 15 years of audience experimentation under their belts. Their grandest performance to date, The Drowned Man, involved over 40 actors and took place across four floors of a gigantic warehouse in London. The first 20 minutes of the three hour performance had no theatrical action whatsoever; groups of audience members were simply ejected into random rooms and left to investigate the set. Then, as multiple stories began to play out in different rooms, it was up to the audience members to choose which actors to follow, and which to desert. According to Punchdrunk founder Felix Barrett, the idea behind his production was to “empower the audience to make them feel like they’re the most important person in the space.”
Another UK theatre company, You Me Bum Bum Train, specializes in audience-of-one performances, where each “passenger” has a totally private 45-minute experience as they “ride the train” through a series of interactive rooms. In these plays, amateur volunteer actors make up most of the cast. As founder Morgan Lloyd told VICE magazine, “It’s a volunteer program. [The cast] are often ex-passengers – they go on it, love it and want to be a part of it for the sake of blowing someone else away. We had one guy who was a passenger years ago – he’s postponed his wedding and moved from Canada for seven weeks to work on the next production.”
In 2013, Beirut joined the world of immersive theater via Ashkal Alwan’s X Apartments project. Ashkal Alwan’s resident artists searched both the Bourj Hammoud and Khandaq Al-Ghamiq districts for local characters with intriguing stories. The artists then asked the locals to help them create a ten-minute theatre piece about their life that was to be performed within the locals’ own homes. On show day, audience members were split into twos, given a map of the area and tasked with discovering each site-specific performance one after the other. In some performances, the audience met face-to-face with the locals and asked them direct questions about their lives; in others, the audience was offered food or asked to search the apartment for old family photos.
Events like X Apartments and The Drowned Man have caused some to suggest that immersive theatre shows are more like live video games than pieces of theatre. Even Punchdrunk founder Felix Barrett told The Guardian,”[Our shows are] similar to how in Skyrim you can follow a character and go on a mission, or you can explore the landscape, find moments of other stories and achieve a sense of an overarching environment.” For audiences who have little room to explore make-believe in their adult lives, this thrill is precisely what appeals.