On the Art of the Immersive, or Is This Even Theater?
About a year and a half ago, I was discussing a project with a theatrical mentor and made the error of using the word ‘immersive’ in my general description of the idea. His right eye twitched. His face got a little red. “Immersive?!” he shouted. (I’m exaggerating somewhat.) He spun around twice, and spat over his left shoulder. “Don’t tell me that. Everyone says their work is immersive now. It’s meaningless!” I stumbled through some response to his outsized reaction using alternative but still relatively meaningless modifiers such as ‘audience integration’ and ‘proximity,’ but it was too late. I had lost him. Plus, he made a good point. When I said immersive, what did I mean?
According to the Free Dictionary, the word “immerse” can mean either ‘to cover completely in liquid’ or ‘to baptize by submerging in water’ or ‘to engage wholly or deeply; absorb.’ But none of those definitions matched my intended allusion. There’s also an electronic usage, in that the immersion “provides information or stimulation for a number of senses, not just sight and sound.” Then, there’s the top hit when you search the word in Google, which is a computer application (of a computer display or system): ‘Generating a three-dimensional image that appears to surround the user.’ There are also examples of the term being used when referring to virtual realities brought about via technology, the blurring of real and unreal, but that’s not precisely what we mean when we use the word either, at least not when talking about a theatrical experience.
So, okay. Let’s see. I meant that the piece of theater utilized the following elements:
- Audience agency (the audience is able to roam freely throughout the performance environment)
- Proximity to performers (the audience can get very close, although in my example they could not touch)
- Arranged in such a way that it can be experienced in any order without detracting from the overall experience (i.e., logically fragmented)
- Housed within a larger, heavily designed environment or world that is not a theater, or at least not readily recognizable as such
What I didn’t mean included:
- Interactivity – nothing the audience did could affect the outcome of the performance or alter the performance itself, nor was the audience really considered ‘part of the performance.’
- That the performance was site-specific (i.e., a play set in a fountain might actually be staged in a fountain, making it site-specific, but not – I would argue – fully immersive.)
Of the work that I’ve seen in the past that would consider itself immersive (Sleep No More, Queen of the Night, various work in grad school that certainly borrowed most if not all the requisite elements, In The Basement Theater Company’s production of The Lady in Red Converses with Diablo and most recently the newest Third Rail Projects offering The Grand Paradise – for which this article is actually a response, more on that soon), I would venture to say that the most emblematic and successful execution of this model was via Sleep No More. I saw it fairly early in the run and didn’t have a lot of information going in (which was most likely for the best.) I remember most clearly the thrill of entering a vast unknown space and being given free reign to wander it as I pleased. I often found myself avoiding the more popular ‘areas’ (the space in which Lady Macbeth takes a bath naked, for example, well-frequented for exactly the reasons you might assume) and just wandering about amid the taxidermy and low lighting and past the mysterious nurse’s station on the 6th floor. There was a vague sense of annoyance at having to share the experience with the other audience members (and I’ve heard that they’re letting more people in per performance now, and that as a result the experience has become rather hectic, with crowds of audience-as-voyuers chasing after central characters a la paparazzi trailing Miley Cyrus) but overall it was the agency that felt like a new idea. Instead of being shown a specific story point at just the ‘right’ time, seated in an uncomfortable theater seat, trying hard to ignore the rampant coughing of the theater goers around me, I could just go, see, do, become part of the environment – in short, I was free to immerse myself as I saw fit. My interior experience was the primary event. I had the ability to gather bits of story from each ‘scene’ that I witnessed and make sense of it however I liked. Importantly, I knew a rough version of the story I was seeing coming in (a mix of MacBeth and a Hitchcock film that I hadn’t seen, but oh well). This allowed me to enter and engage within a pre-conditioned framework of prior understanding which then alleviated the anxiety of ‘maybe missing something’ or ‘not knowing what was going on.’ Plus, it was just really cool-feeling to wander around the hallways wearing my weird Eyes Wide Shut mask, even though it made my glasses fog up sometimes.
Of course, to make a piece like Sleep No More costs millions of dollars. Six floors of a warehouse in Chelsea? Super cool – super expensive. Thus, I guess, a vague justicifcation for the $195 (or whatever it is now) price point of entry exists. However, across town, around the same time, a company called Third Rail Projects was doing their version of immersive theater on a much smaller budget, called Then She Fell. Like Sleep No More, the show took place in a heavily designed and repurposed space, and it took a pre-existing story (Alice Through the Lookingglass) and turned it into an ‘experiential/fragmented’ narrative, with multiple versions of Alice running around.
Which brings us to the just-opened The Grand Paradise, which is Third Rail’s follow-up to Then She Fell and just opened at a custom-built location near the Jefferson L stop in Bushwick, where it will run (at least) through March 31, 2016. Prior to viewing, I experienced a good deal of excitement and anticipation in terms of what the ‘next’ would be in immersive entertainment, both from the standpoint of a creator and an audience member. Which is to say – I was looking forward to seeing it.
And here is where I offer a series of caveats, somewhat influenced by the mostly positive coverage the show has garnered thus far (although, if you read them, no one actually reviews the show, they just offer a list of experiences without comment on the value of said experience). Perhaps the cast was still working out the details. It’s possible that I was missing something, or quite a lot, in terms of the structure or story-telling system of the experience (unlike both Sleep No More and Then She Fell, the show relies on more of a theme than a pre-existing story, leaning heavily on confessional monologues that dwell on the anecdotal and nostalgic – for the ‘70’s, which was before I was born and so have not so much built-in affection for). Maybe the show offers more to repeat viewers, and that I’d have a more satisfying experience if I went a second time? (And to that point, why is it that food reviewers get to go to the restaurant three to four times before writing a review, and theater reviewers only get to go once?) Perhaps my expectations were in some way misplaced, or too high, or … I don’t know. The show certainly follows the ‘rules’ of what makes up the immersive experience. And yet, all I can tell you is that my overall experience was one of bafflement verging on boredom. And bored is not an experience you want to be having when you’re in a little room with a performer who is gamely taking her top off (she had a bra on underneath) and kneeling before you to (oh god what is she going to do…) take your hand and trace your palm while staring into your eyes, seemingly waiting for some response that you are ill-prepared to provide. Does this sound sexy? I guess it could be – but The Grand Paradise offers you so little context on how to receive these moments that it’s more like someone suddenly coming up and caressing you on a late-night D train to Coney Island.
The show presents you, at the beginning, with a version of yourself. After ‘taking a flight,’ you will find yourself in what is described by the performers as a tropical paradise but is actually a not-quite-fully-enough designed dungeonous brick interior (that scene in American Beauty came to mind, where Annette Benning’s character is trying to sell a house with a pool and the prospective buyer says, “I mean, I think ‘lagoon,’ I think ‘waterfall,’ I think ‘tropical’. This is a cement hole.”) And okay, it’s not that bad – there’s some water and some sand, but it’s somehow not complete or entirely convincing. The small rooms tend to fare better, perhaps due to the ability to focus on the details and not the bigger picture.
So, back to the bigger picture. You arrive, and ‘they’ arrive. ‘They’ are a cast of fellow travelers, who will essentially stand in for the experience you’re expected to have while at The Grand Paradise. There is a simple framing device that underlines this – a porter comes out, takes their suitcases at the beginning, and returns them at the end. And so, for the most part, the show functions via tracks, in that you are guided from room to room and generally witness one of these (cast member) travelers having some kind of an experience in relation to the locals, who live and work in this version of paradise. The audience is split up and it seems that there are multiple tracks happening – I saw a lot of the same three or four performers throughout, and despite my attempts to escape the track (you’re allowed to go through doors if they’re open, and they occasionally open all the doors, causing a flood of audience members back into the central space, presumably trying to figure out if anything else is happening), I was always firmly guided back into a room I had already been in to watch performers I already had decided I wasn’t all that into do something slightly different than what they had done before.
So – given that I wasn’t able to wander away from the moments / scenes / experiences that I found to be boring, I felt that I had little agency to engage with my surroundings, which had a generally negative effect on the way I was able to experience the show as a whole. And again – I understand that this is how this show had to be, given that the square footage of the space is not particularly vast, and that there is an emphasis on single and multiple tracked audience experiences – you are intended to be viewing this either alone or in small groups, and the cast is very good at making sure that the right amount of people end up in the right room at the correct time, which is certainly no small technical feat. But, if that’s the case, wouldn’t you, as the show’s creators, go to extraordinary means to make sure that those experiences are – I don’t know – engaging?
By examining this disconnect between the content of the experience in relation to the show at large, I’ve arrived at a theory that the show may have been reverse engineered. In contrast to Then She Fell, which starts with Lewis Carrol’s texts and utilizes the immersive experience to tell a different (new) version of them, The Grand Paradise seems to have started with a ground plan and tried to build out thematically from there. As a result, it comes off as, ‘Well, what can we do to justify this room?’ as opposed to ‘This is the room that tells this specific part of the story.’
I will say this – there was more physical contact in The Grand Paradise then I’ve ever experienced in a performance, which was interesting. There was even a brief cuddling interlude. But I wasn’t really sure how to receive any of this attention, given that I wasn’t entirely sure what experience I was supposed to be having, or who the people touching me were intended to be. Essentially, the show wants to succeed at being purely experiential, with interludes of dialogue that are spoken in character (but not ‘to’ character – i.e., interchangeable), and maybe it does. My closing argument, though, would be to question whether or not that approach even functions as theater. Another way of putting it – if you took the story-telling components and removed them from their immersive environments (let’s say, just put them on a stage and looked at them), would they provide any entertainment value? Any depth of understanding? Any insight?
Or perhaps I’m just missing the point. Maybe it’s enough to be touched, not moved.