Engaging students in immersive theatre

by Anna Sycamore DeMers

in Audience & Community Engagement

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(This post is part of the Audience (R)Evolution online salon curated by Caridad Svich for the TCG Audience (R)Evolution Convening in Kansas City, MO in 2015.)

As a college theatre professor, primarily teaching a millennial generation of students, who do not know an age without technology at their fingertips and in their pockets, I often have discussions regarding the future of audiences in the theatre.

The first day in all my theatre classes begins with the question, “why is theatre relevant?” This often elicits a range of answers from ‘because it’s entertaining’ to ‘because it has live performers’ to ‘because old people like it.’

Why do we make and see theatre? The essence for me is the ephemeral nature and the connection between the performers and spectators that makes theatre alive and relevant! There is a unique energy that exists in this exchange that does not exist at the movie theatre or at home in your living room watching your television.

But back to my students (who at the moment are predominantly not theatre majors and have little prior experience even as audience goers) and the question, why theatre and how do we keep it relevant as we move further into this technology-driven culture? To my surprise, the answer for many students is “immersive theatre.”

Last fall, when I informed my Introduction to Theatre students that we would be taking a trip to New York City to see a show and that I wanted to take a poll to see what they would most like to see. As I began to offer up the current titles on Broadway several of the students interrupted and asked if we could go to that ‘one show with the masks?’  At this point in the semester, I had already introduced them to a wide-range of performance styles, genres and traditions including commercial Broadway theatre, diverse cultural practices, contemporary and postmodern practices (akin to the “downtown theatre scene”) and various other live performances such as neo-circus, burlesque and music venues. I had also discussed my own personal experience with Punch Drunk’s immersive theatre experience, Sleep No More.

I must say that I was surprised by the enthusiasm for Sleep No More as I had assumed that because this population of students live in close proximity to NYC and receive a bombardment of advertisements for Broadway on local television stations, that they would want the glitz and glam of a big musical or a play with “famous people,” but they all agreed that Sleep No More sounded exciting!

I was thrilled by this choice and excited myself to see what their reactions would be to this experience! On the night of the trip, many students arrived dressed up, despite being advised they would do a lot of walking. We took a chartered bus and were dropped off directly in front of the theatre. Their energy and excitement was palpable along with a bit of confusion and perhaps some anxiety about wearing the masks.

The students were allotted the full time of the cyclical performance, arriving at 7:30 and concluding at 10:30pm. After I had assured that all the students had entered, I also donned my mask and began the adventure. Due to the anonymity created by the masks, and the vastness of the space, there were only a few times that I was able to identify my students during the performance. However, nearer to the end of the night, I went out into the bar area to check on things and found a couple of different groups huddled around tables having conversations. I told them that there was a grand finale of sorts and that we should all go back in. This resulted in a whirl of us weaving in and out of rooms to find out way to the grand ballroom. It was fun to see them climb into different nooks to view the final banquet scene and hanging.

On the bus ride back to campus, the students were a buzz with conversation. I was sitting in the front of the bus trying listening and then I moved closer to the back so that I could hear even more. The voices were full of energy, sharing different moments and surprises they had encountered. Most importantly to me as the professor is that theses conversations were not “mandated” or professor driven. They were spontaneous and passionate.

During our next class session, after attending Sleep No More, we had more formal discussions on their experiences: what did they find compelling, was anything confusing, did they at any point feel uncomfortable, etc.

The mystery appealed to the students, their ability to choose where they went and which story/character they followed. They were also intrigued by the extreme physicality of the performers and that even though they did not speak very often, a story was communicated to them. I also believe that the physical nature of immersive theatre/performance had a great impact on these students. They were engaged in and with their bodies along with their emotions. As a practitioner of psychophysically based acting techniques this is especially rewarding. The students not only had an experience as a spectator but they also had an experience as an actor.

Without a doubt, these students were greatly impacted by this immersive performance and will likely seek more experiences like Sleep No More.


Anna Sycamore DeMers is an acting, movement and ensemble theatre educator. She is head of the Theatre Program at Middlesex County College. Her teaching is influenced and based in the practices of Lecoq, Grotowski, Laban/Bartenieff, the Margolis Method, Viewpoints and contemporary dance techniques. She has a Master’s of Fine Arts from Sarah Lawrence College with a focus in directing and movement, and her B.A. in Theatre from Rollins College. She approaches theatre making and teaching from multiple perspectives as a director, dancer, choreographer, playwright and new media designer. Recent New York area credits include: The Human Variations, four devised, site-specific performances with (Blueprint Theater Project/NYC), Speaking Of… a dance-theatre piece with (NuWorks Festival NYC, Your Move: Jersey City Dance Festival). Additional directing credits: Twelve Ophelias, The Lover, 9 Parts of Desire, Mary Zimmerman’s The Odyssey, and The Other Shore. She is a member of the Association of Theatre in Higher Education and the Association for Theatre Movement Educators. www.AnnaDeMers.com

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Audience (R)Evolution is a four-stage program to study, promote and support successful audience engagement and community development models across the country. The Audience (R)Evolution grant program was designed by TCG and is funded by Doris Duke.

  • Anne Basting

    Thank you for this! I have found that students are deeply engaged in immersive theater, not just as an arts experience but also as a civic experience. A collaboration with Sojourn Theatre to create Finding Penelope in 2009 with theater students had a profound impact on their lives as artists and as community-members. http://www.thepenelopeproject.com