Immersive Theatre and the Freedom of Choice

by Adam Green

in Artistry & Artistic Innovation

Post image for Immersive Theatre and the Freedom of Choice

Punchdrunk’s Sleep No More (photo credit: Sara Krulwich/New York Times)

Twenty years ago — good god, yes, twenty years ago — I played the legendary computer game Myst for the first time. I had never experienced anything like it. Games I had played up to that point had a very clear structure: collect this triforce to save Zelda; headbutt that questionmark block to accrue coins; build a city and send out a settler. So when I loaded Myst, I had absolutely no idea what to do. The prescribed narrative was … broken. A strangely beautiful world existed, but all I did was walk around rooms, completely confused.

Myst was the most successful of its ilk: “graphic adventure” games, in which the gamer is a first player protagonist, solving puzzles, exploring a world, and interacting with objects to progress towards some sort of completion. And most inconceivable to me, it had different endings. Players could experience a finality completely different from one another. If instead of punching out Mike Tyson, you could also retire and become roommates with King Hippo and Bald Bull, and open up a lemonade stand. This blew me away — and millions of other people as well; it was released to popular acclaim and lucrative sales.

Breaking out of pre-ordained narratives is one of the large, overarching themes of immersive theater, the trend popularized (and, according to some fed-up critics like this guy and that gal and this woman, over-saturated) in England and rising in America. “Choose Your Own Adventure,” “video games,” and “roleplaying games,” are a couple of the shorthand comparisons this wave of the experiential trend has evoked. And it’s easy to understand why: while an exact definition is still in flux, immersive theatre productions tend to operate in dynamically fluid settings, allowing the audience a more active, voyeuristic, and central role, while also individualizing their experiences.

The London company Punchdrunk dates back to 2000, and describes their immersive work on their website FAQs as thus: “The physical freedom to explore the sensory and imaginative world of a Punchdrunk show without compulsion or explicit direction sets it apart from the standard practice of viewing theatre in unconventional locations. … (T)he non-linear narrative content coupled to the high degree of viewer freedom of choice make it a singularly intense and personal experience.”

Punchdrunk’s import of Sleep No More — first ‘staged’ in England in 2003, then resurrected in Boston (2009) and New York (2011) — wasn’t the first of its kind, but was and has been the most successful popularly and financially. The show continues not only to sell out despite the high price tag, but also attract repeat visitors. Much like a websearch for popular videogames will reveal walkthroughs, maps, and cheats, googling Sleep No More will reveal walkthroughs, maps, and cheats. And Gawker’s handy guide to finding all the nudity.

And much like when I first loaded up Myst and thought to myself “Um, now what?,” going to the McKittrick Hotel for a preview early in its run — and without reading anything about it, save that it was kinda like Macbeth, and you could get drinks at a bar — I soon found myself wandering around rooms and playing with objects (like eating out of jars at ye olde candy shoppe). The hotel — well, three abandoned warehouses overhauled for a couple of million dollars to be a multi-leveled arena sporting close to a hundred rooms/environments including a graveyard, infirmary, ballroom, detective’s office — was as much as an open-ended playground as the computer game was two decades prior.

Third Rail’s “Then She Fell” (photo credit: Chad Heird)

My thirty-something reaction of “Holy crap, this is just like Myst!” is not unique; Third Rail’s director Tom Pearson said as much in this Forbes article about their own critically-acclaimed immersive theatrical production of the Lewis Carroll-inspired Then She Fell (currently playing for a similarly high price tag in New York at the Kingsland Ward at St. John’s).

Another apt analogy for immersive theater experiences is the later breed of popular videogames, MMORPGs (Massive Multiplayer Online Roleplaying Games): World of Warcraft, which broadens the walls of exploration even further, enables interaction and shared experiences with other people. Or, um, dark elf necromancer avatars of other people.

As reductivist as these comparisons may seem, there’s a reason why the trend has risen in popularity, and it goes beyond Myst or World of Warcraft. The whole “Hey, what’s over here” curiosity, eschewing typical forms of structured narration, stems not just from these expanded walls of gaming, but from the flattened world of the Internet, which enables vast informational exploration, as well as highly-personalized experiences.

In the twenty years since Myst became one of the best-selling video games of all time, the Internet has become an entrenched part of life; news aggregators cull reading lists geared to our specific interests; book, movie, and television recommendations cater to our tastes; and social media sites invade our privacy to find out who we hooked up with in 9th grade to evaluate what kind of pants we’d like.

The broken-down walls of our world and what we can explore dovetails well with the broken-down walls of an artistic experience. For an audience increasingly used to swiping / clicking to discover more of the world around them, the appeal of giving the ‘player’ more freedom makes sense. How interesting would it be to see what Hamlet’s bedroom at Elsinore Castle looks like (copies of Sartre’s Nausea and Nirvana posters, probably), or follow Tuzenbach off to his duel with Solyony?

The big, hand-wringing question, of course, is whether immersive theatre, putting the individual ahead of the communal, destroys the shared experience that we generally associate with theatre.

But as this excellent academic-y piece on immersive theatre suggests, the collective experience may just be shifting. As Jacques Rancière says in his book The Emancipated Spectator: “…in a theatre, in front of a performance, just as in a museum, school or street, there are only ever individuals plotting their own paths in the forest of things, acts and signs that confront or surround them. The collective power shared by spectators does not stem from the fact that they are members of a collective body or from some specific form of inter-activity. It is the power each of them has to translate what she perceives in her own way, to link it to the unique intellectual adventure that makes her similar to all the rest in as much as this adventure is not like any other.” (p.16-17.)

Woodshed Collective’s “The Tenant” (photo credit: Blair Getz Mezibov)

Even as its very definition remains a bit nebulous, some immersive theater companies still offer boundaries for audience members: Sleep No More mandates the white masks and prohibits talking; the Woodshed Collective’s excellent 2011 production of The Tenant in an NYC Upper West Side church hewed very close to a script and steered clear of audience interaction.

Other immersive theater companies use more improvisation, requiring involvement from the transported spectators. But relying on audience as participants can be risky not only for its unpredictability, but also for its potential to alienate: I’m often reminded (well, of course I am) of the rap entourage Bone Thugs-N-Harmony, who during a mid-90s televised performance, exhorted audience members to jump to their feet and participate in their performance of “Tha Crossroads.” This stressed me out tremendously, even at home. Or, more to the point, during a preview for Hair at the Delacorte before its Broadway transfer, when I was — argh — pulled onstage at the end of the show to dance with the cast and other audience members. I mean, cripes, can’t I not join this Warcraft thieves guild if I don’t want to?

As the Internet, social media sites, and interactive gaming are still evolving curiosities, likewise the immersive theatre trend will also continue to evolve, and answer similar questions for itself. How can the experience be both individual and collective; what level of interaction is most palatable; how much can we explore in our ever-evolving “viewer freedom of choice” before it’s overwhelming? As it continues, it’ll be fun to see.

Adam Green is a New York City actor and writer. He’s appeared at numerous off-Broadway and regional theaters, and has premiered works by David Ives, Rajiv Joseph, and Rebecca Gilman. He’s an affiliated artist with the Shakespeare Theatre in Washington D.C., where he’s a two-time Helen Hayes Award nominee and Emery Battis Award winner. He’s played a mute dancing ghost clown at New York City Opera, opened for the Magnetic Fields on tour, edited and wrote for the travel guidebook Let’s Go (Rome / Italy), and run a fantasy baseball league since 1992. Adam received his B.A. in English from Harvard, and his M.F.A. in Acting from NYU.

  • David

    I can’t tell whether you’re being facetious about Myst and Sleep No More being an open-ended playgrounds. If they’re playgrounds, they’re ones where the teeter-totter doesn’t tilt, the swings are bolted in place, and the slide entrance is sealed off by a glass pane. Both experiences off you the opportunity to wander around beautiful environments that you can gaze longingly at, and do little else with; no meaningful choices to speak of. I love both, but Myst is pretty routinely considered by most people in the games world today to be a highly dated example that misses out on most of what makes games unique. I also loved Sleep No More, but I feel like it’s at the same point in development, and Punchdrunk is really missing out on the chance to push the medium forward.

  • AWG

    I would say that in the same way Myst opened the gates for, essentially, choose your own adventure video games, it’s possible that Punchdrunk’s production is laying parallel groundwork.

  • joe

    Hi Adam,

    Great piece. For weeks, during the few spare moments during my time off, I have been searching for immersive theatre shows that I can attend. Do you happen to know where I can find current shows and purchase tickets?

    Thanks, and happy holidays.