The Parallels Between Designing Immersive Theatre and User Experience

Image: Lemonade and Laughing Gas

As someone who came into UX design from a theatre background, I’ve been itching to write about this subject for a while now. When I first began learning about the user-centred design process, I was struck by its similarity with designing immersive theatre. This article explores how the design methods and techniques used in each field overlap and how they can inform one another.

As many are aware, the word “immersive” has become considerably overused in design in general, moving the term further away from its literal definition to often being used to describe static experiences. For the sake of this article, I’d like to clarify that I am using “immersive” as defined by the concept of ‘immersive theatre’; to describe performance where the audience member is an active participant and experiences the piece from literally being inside it. This can include walking around the set, touching things and interacting with performers. In many immersive shows, the decisions that the audience members make have a bearing on the actions of the actors and the direction of the story.

The design approach to immersive theatre is audience-centred, very much like the user-centred design process in UX. Designing for the individual is at the core of both practices. Understanding the decisions that they are likely to make and the why behind these decisions is essential to designing the appropriate environment and outcome for their actions. This is why it’s important to consider questions of empathy. What kind of emotions will the audience be feeling? What kind of environment were they in before they entered the show? Are they stressed/anxious? How can we remedy this? Design decisions are frequently questioned throughout the process to check how they will impact the audience. Every feature must have a purpose. Superfluous additions can become confusing distractions to the essence of the performance.

“[Early immersive productions] did not achieve such praise for being immersive per se. Instead, the depth of experience for their audiences was a direct result of precisely how, and why, they were invited to participate in the first place.” — Persis Jade Maravala and Jorge Lopes Ramos

Just as user flows and storyboarding are core practices in UX design, audience journey is a key focus in designing immersive theatre. The same story-oriented techniques are used to keep the focus on designing for the individual experience and making sure that the audience have a purpose within the narrative.

Much like user testing a Minimum Viable Product, running shows with test audiences before the final stages of development are essential to see if the intended reaction is being achieved. Audiences are unpredictable and making improvements after testing is inevitable, just like iterating based on testing is a fundamental part of designing UX. Designers’ assumptions about how users will interact with a digital product are similar to those about how a live audience will react. For example, a designer may assume that focussing a spotlight on an object will indicate to the audience that someone should pick it up. If the continuation of the performance rests on this action and the audience doesn’t follow this cue, things can get a little awkward! Uncovering these assumptions and fixing them can often only be discovered through testing. It’s the same as assuming a mobile app user will know which button to press in order to advance a screen. After testing, one may realise that that button wasn’t so obvious after all. Whitney Quesenbery discusses this is in her wonderfully written article, ‘Designing Theatre, Designing User Experience’:

“The thousands of hours I’ve spent taking notes in a large, dark theatre while watching the action on stage do not differ much from the time I’ve spent carefully observing users at work. In both cases, applying your observations is the key to improving the design. “Did that scene take too long? Was the lighting too bright or too dark for the mood of the scene? Were there technical glitches?” You review mistakes and mismatches after rehearsal and consider new ideas before trying it all again. It’s iterative design at its best.” — Whitney Quesenbery

Both UX and theatre design are chockfull of problem solving. Variations of UX workshop exercises such as ‘How Might We’ and ideation could absolutely be adopted by performance practitioners. For example, imagine a theatre company that’s devising a production of Romeo and Juliet where half the audience are Montagues and half the audience are Capulets. How might we establish a sense of loyalty within the audience to their assigned house? How might we create tension between the two halves of the audience? How might we dress the audience in order to distinguish their house? This is where ideation can be used to answer these questions and you can have the most fun. Personally, I haven’t seen these specific exercises used in theatre workshops before (which often focus on acting), but they could add real value when applied to the audience-centred design process.

Immersive theatre often includes elements of gamification. As with apps where users are rewarded for their time spent using them, gamification in theatre is often used to encourage audience participation and risk-taking. For example, renowned immersive theatre company Punchdrunk are known for their ‘one on one’ experiences, where an audience member finds themselves alone with an actor. Naturally exhilarating, fans of Punchdrunk will often spend their shows deliberately seeking these out and ‘collecting’ them like Easter eggs in video games. Another example, AΦE’s WHIST, has audience members with VR headsets wandering a room working to ‘unlock’ sculptures. Each sculpture contains a different experience and has a direct bearing on the narrative. As technology progresses and becomes cheaper, many theatre practitioners are steadily adopting virtual reality to create more personal audience experiences.

Image: Paul Plews via Creative Review

Multi-sensory techniques used in immersive theatre can overlap with UX, service design (particularly in-store customer experiences) and virtual reality design. A lot of fun can be had when designing extends beyond the visual. The more senses that are stimulated, the more immersive a performance becomes. Sight, sound and touch being the most obvious, but also smell and taste as immersive dining experiences gain popularity. I recently participated in a VR themed UX hackathon and found myself drawing from techniques I’d explored in sound design: specifically the use of binaural recording to create a sense of proximity for partners in long distance relationships. The technique makes a recording listened to through headphones feel as if it’s happening live in the same room. The experiences I’ve had with binaural techniques in live theatre have been astonishing! It’s only a matter of time before binaural audio is commonly used for designing virtual reality.

In terms of research methods, it would be interesting if theatre designers borrowed more from from the field of UX. Thorough research and interviewing is often used to develop characterisation, but what if it was used to develop concept? If more immersive theatre companies interviewed their potential audience members at the earlier stages of the design process (as is commonly practised in UX), this could potentially open up conceptualisation during the devising process that may have remained unrealised.

The boundaries of theatre design are stretching as practitioners are adopting interactive technology and reaching out for material from their audiences. Counter to this, digital design is becoming more multi-sensory, particularly with VR gaining traction. I continue to use tools and techniques in my UX work that I learnt from theatre design all the time. Not just technical design skills, but soft skills such as empathy, curiosity and communication. As human computer interaction becomes more common in theatre, I believe that we’ll start to see a lot more people entering UX design from live performance backgrounds.

Further Reading