Immersive theatre makes audience part the action

Audience members given active roles and responsibilities in shows

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 11 July, 2015, 5:44pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 11 July, 2015, 5:44pm

Aerialists descend in a giant chandelier and lift a guest back up with them, a showgirl leads an audience member back in time to a 1920s Parisian nightclub and actors single out guests for a mysterious experience yet to come.

Immersive theatre productions such as Sleep No More, an adaptation of Macbeth by Punchdrunk that has been running in New York since 2011, have brought audiences into the performance.

But simply putting on a mask to follow the action through vast, rambling warehouses or old hotels is not enough for some audiences. The latest immersive theatre gives them roles and responsibilities.

"It is a necessary step in the evolution of the form," says Noah J. Nelson, editor of the immersive and interactive theatre guide No Proscenium. "Somebody had to try this and there is a real chance it could take off."

Cynthia von Buhler, the creator of Speakeasy Dollhouse: Ziegfeld's Midnight Frolic, which is playing in New York, believes directors and producers are just touching the surface of what is possible in immersive theatre.

In her show based on the death of Ziegfeld Follies showgirl and actress Olive Thomas in 1920, guests are transported back to Prohibition-era New York and the Ritz hotel in Paris, where Thomas died.

Audience members, many dressed in period costumes, enter a hidden theatre in New York's Times Square for a show within a show. Guests are given roles and some create their own, blurring the lines between the audience and actors.

Opened in April, the production has received mostly favourable reviews. One New York Times critic praised the cast though said the work could have been a more satisfying experience had Von Buhler "paid as much attention to guiding the audience through as she does to designing items like the passport each visitor is given".

"Spectators can't be expected to understand, for example, that the circumstances of Olive's poisoning in the hotel room are depicted differently at each intermission," the critic wrote. "Not knowing that means missing out on some of the drama - and a key element of Von Buhler's inquiry."

A few blocks away, American playwright and producer Randy Weiner has transformed the former 1940s Diamond Horseshoe nightclub in the basement of the Paramount Hotel for his show, Queen of the Night, based on Mozart's opera The Magic Flute. Costumed performers escort guests into the club. Some are whisked away for private meetings or given markers, signifying a role in the show that includes circus acts, dance and a sumptuous feast.

Running since the start of 2014, this production has also been well received, TimeOut New York wrote that if the show "rarely seems quite like theatre, it is certainly immersive ... this is how it might feel to be a strawberry dipped in chocolate".

Amy Moyes, of Phoenix, Arizona, says she was looking for a new experience when she chose Queen of the Night. "We wanted something outside the box and we got what we wanted," she says about the show, which has tickets ranging from US$152 to US$595.

Nelson believes the latest shows could not have happened without the success of Sleep No More by British theatre company Punchdrunk.

Sleep No More co-director Felix Barrett says that by bringing the audience into the play and blurring the rules, he hoped to create a sensory experience greater for them than just sitting in a theatre.

For his 2013 piece The Drowned Man, his company turned a cavernous building next to London's Paddington station into what looked like a full-scale Hollywood movie lot.

Masked and on their feet, audiences were encouraged to assemble the story for themselves from clues deposited around the building - and by following a cast of 34 - to seek the identity of a mysterious figure who meets a watery death.

Barrett and co-director Maxine Doyle are now planning to take the immersive theatre concept further in a future project involving travel to a mystery city.