Any great art work … revives and readapts time and space, and the measure of its success is the extent to which it makes you an inhabitant of that world – the extent to which it invites you in and lets you breathe its strange, special air.
Immersive theatre is still very much an emergent and morphing genre of the art form, so we are asked this a lot. What makes our work different than a traditional theatre experience?
While there are many definitions of what immersive theatre is, there are a few common threads:
1) It is environmentally experimental. For example, if a show is promenade-style (one sub-genre), the audience moves through the space of the performance, either guided or unguided. But generally the audience is physically, well, immersed in the world of the play with very little space between the actors and the audience members. Rather than just watch from afar, audiences inhabit the same space as the actors. Sets range from being very elaborately designed and detailed, to being performed in a naturally fitting site (this is referred to as site-specific theatre), to the backseat of cars, to a bare black box; the list goes on.
2) The audience is participatory. Whether it is to be a witness to the action, or to take up a certain role (or roles) in the piece, the “line” between audience and actor (this is referred to as ‘the 4th wall’) is blurred and sometimes broken. Some say an interactive element is a part of the definition if immersive theatre, and we are one of them.
We consider our work philosophy in immersive theatre to be necessarily interactive. But wait! Before you stiffen up at the sight of the word ‘interactive’, let me also define what that means. For many people, even theatre-lovers, interactive shows can illicit a visceral reaction of discomfort and a picture of anxiety where, like a magic show, volunteers are chosen (sometimes unwillingly) and often used as a source of laughter at the expense of said volunteer. Or an attendee is afraid that they will “do it wrong” and “mess up the show”. Well, if that’s all that interactive theatre can be (and unfortunately a lot of it is, to our dismay), who would want to go to an interactive performance? We wouldn’t blame you. But we believe interactive performance can be more than these shallow and daunting definitions. In the same vein as improv comedians working together, we see immersive theatre as an opportunity for a synergistic give-and-take where actors and audience co-create.
So now that any shuddering has hopefully subsided, was does “necessarily interactive” mean? Our immersive shows usually have between 3-6 actors, and very intimate audiences of 20-30. Because of this low actor-to-spectator ratio, we are able to really get up close and personal with our audiences, and together we create a one-of-a-kind show for every performance.
Though most of our work is technically unscripted, by creating a strong sense of the world of the play, the characters that live inside of it, and the general order of events/arc of the play (a ‘backbone’ of sorts), when audiences give life to our animal (and we never truly know what ‘our animal’ is until we’ve had preview audiences!), there is still room for creative impulse, with gaps to be filled in- and that’s where our audiences come in. There is no show without the audience. And therein lies the potential for a very real and poignant interactive experience.
We hope to give our audience a safe space where they feel they can be free to be silly, to cry, to laugh—and then we say “yes” to anything and everything, large or small, given to us. Every choice is an opportunity for exploration; every moment one for authenticity. And because of this, every singular show is its own unique experience known only to those who were there.
When creating our work, we always ask the question: “Who is the audience? What part do they play? Are they one entity? Separate characters? Does their role change throughout the show?” With every performance, the audience is the player that the cast has never worked with. This could be a terrifying idea for something we take so seriously; but I believe that true theatre is about giving things away, and allowing true collaboration. As a director, I give great creative license to my actors, and that is itself a giving-away. And then every night, the actors give creative license to their audience; and honestly, the result is astounding. We have found that our audiences really are able to seize the opportunity to create, to play. We have non-theatre-goers and introverts alike respond very positively to our work, and that is what we consider to be a great success.
Our hope is not to frighten anyone into thinking they could possibly “ruin” the show—we believe that every decision is the right one to make. The actor-audience relationship is built on trust. With all our work, we aim to create an environment where every choice is celebrated, even the choice to be a fly on the wall, if that is what you so choose. No one is coerced into participating, but we do hope to encircle and safeguard our precious time together within each performance. And we hope that this enclosed creative space allows each person present—actor and spectator alike—to feel the freedom to contribute as they wish.
Many people say, “Well, I’m just not creative.” And to that we say: Not so! We all knew how to play once; we all knew how to create. We hope to make our audiences feel safe enough to allow that kid out again- the one who may have been deeply locked away, sometimes for many years.
This doesn’t mean that our shows are entirely lighthearted or clownish. Some of our subject matter is quite real and heavy; but that is a truth of Life, and we aim to be truthful, above all. But we ache to entreat the inner child back into our present selves, and we have a hunch that you do too.
Bekah Jordan, Executive and Artistic Director
The 5th Wall Immersive Theatre Company