Participation and Engagement: Why Immersive Performances Are Addictive
Immersive performances have changed the role of the audience by having them engaged and become « spectator-participants » (1). Immersive theatre is synonym of generating « sensory-bodily stimulations » (1) to the public; in other words, as it creates a unique environment, it stimulates the participants senses altogether and makes them more engaged in the story. They wander through the different rooms of the show and their curiosity is sparked by the level of detail (a hotel, someone’s bedroom, a nursery, an indoor forest, etc.). Audience members want to touch cloth and furniture, open drawers and discover hidden secrets. However, as spectators are becoming more participants, such participation doesn’t come down to just «putting additional bodies » (1) in the spotlight.
“Oh, I see! Immersive means that spectators are asked to participate and come on stage, doesn’t it?”.
Hmm…Yes because the whole space is a stage. But it’s not what makes the genre of immersive so interesting and appealing today. Immersive performances are casting huge interest because they include participants much more elegantly than just “having them on stage”.
Immersive performances create the sensorial and body stimulations that will make audience members choose a path, follow a performer or interact with him. It’s like initiating a chain of reactions using storytelling and acting tricks. If participants feel as part of the story — like these audience members in Sleep No More who forget that the pregnant woman is not really pregnant as they run to get her water (2), it’s because the creative team succeeded in producing the right body language, eye contact or audience guidance (I’ll refer to them further down as creative tricks) and creates a visceral experience (3).
That being said, two questions arise.
The first one relates to the creative process of immersive theatre.
1) Succeeding in creating the right action chain in order to produce a genuinely engaging experience relies on an iterative creative process. The creative team has to build the experience by including audience members into the process early on. It’s a similar process to the iteration phase of Design Thinking (4): prototypes must evolve quickly and iterations be numerous to test & learn with the participants’ presence throughout the creation. It all comes down to creating the right causes for expected consequences. After all, the creative process of immersive theatre is a “lean startup” process (5); starting small and building up along the way.
The second question is about intimacy in immersive theatre.
2) How are “sensory-bodily stimulations” able to make audience members feel engaged in the story? What does it come down to?
a) First, it comes down to recreating a real life experience setting. Visual details, smells of rooms and objects, music and lighting are key components for creating an impactful experience. Because audience members are led to follow individual journeys, all these elements suddenly become personalized for their own experience. These elements directly impact the audience’s perceptions, and characters interact with them personally which makes them feel special.
b) Second and unlike stage performances, immersive theatre focuses on reproducing things you wouldn’t normally notice in an arts piece: the tiniest details in human expressions and body language. Looking at a wall, stirring a spoon in a tea cup or reading a book can all be very impactful actions for audience members to watch, as they are unfolding the mysteries of the world they were brought in. These small actions performed in an immersive set are bringing substance and depth to the created world. Who was never amazed by watching an individual searching for something in the street, or one crying by himself on a bench? What is their story and why do they perform such actions? As Punchdrunk’s choreographer Maxine Doyle explains, performers must « be interested » in the actions they perform to « be interesting » to audience members.
c) Last, the creative tricks mentioned above, create audience stimulations and engagement for the simple reason that they create visceral reactions (3): audience members’ guts tell them to go right or peep in a room; their survival instinct wakes up. Felix Barret explains that in order for the audience to feel engaged, he must push them to make “instinctive decisions (…) driven by a base, gut feeling” in order for them to be “physically present” (6). The secret of creating a visceral experience lies in reshaping audience’s expectations: to Barret, “If audiences get used to the rules, change them” (6).
Hence, the generation of “sensory-bodily stimulations” through a) set design elements, b) precision in the performers’ actions and c) shaping a visceral experience by managing participants’ expectations, creates for the audience a sense of intimacy, and intimacy engages the audience.
Participation and engagement are key components of immersive theatre, and they are produced thanks to an iterative creative process and the generation of intimate moments throughout the performance. That’s what makes immersive performances so addictive; the fact that it “feels” like real life in the engagement of audiences.
(1) Tast, M. G. (2016) The Performativity of Intimacy in Theatre. Available at: http://dspace.library.uu.nl/handle/1874/340068.
(2) Frieze, J. (2016) Reframing Immersive Theatre: The Politics and Pragmatics of Participatory Performance. Available at: https://link.springer.com/chapter/10.1057/978-1-137-36604-7_1.
(3) Machon, J. (2003) (Syn)aesthetics and disturbance : tracing a transgressive style. Ph.D. Brunel University. Available at: http://bura.brunel.ac.uk/handle/2438/1231.
(4) Brown, T. and Wyatt, J. (2012) ‘Design Thinking for Social Innovation’, Development Outreach. doi: 10.1596/1020–797X_12_1_29.
(5) Ries, E. (2011) The Lean Startup: How Today’s Entrepreneurs Use Continuous Innovation to Create Radically Successful Businesses. Crown Publishing Group.
(6) Kelly, G. (2015) Punchdrunk visionary Felix Barrett: ‘If audiences get used to the rules, change them’. Available at: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/culturenews/11675468/Punchdrunks-Felix-Barrett-If-audiences-get-used-to-the-rules-change-them.html.