I remember the first time that I picked up one of those Choose Your Own Adventure books based on Enid Blyton’s Famous Five stories. It eschewed Blyton’s gentle stories for a more interactive experience. But it was an experience that left me feeling hollow. Screw up, and you can just turn back the pages. Get it right, and the story is gone too quickly.
Two decades on and the new wave of immersive theatre has left me with the same feeling. Often typified with site-specific pieces and non-linear plots that the audience is invited to interact with, immersive theatre has sharply risen to become a goliath, and almost expected standard, within the industry.
Perhaps this is to do with a freedom of choice – both for audiences and for theatre companies. The theatre industry is behind the times and scrambling to adapt. But when looking at the options open to them often venues crucially forget that story and characters are king to theatregoers – not a fleetingly brief, if sophisticated, brush with interactivity.
This said, companies such as Punchdrunk and Shunt are leading the way with others not far behind. Manchester’s Library Theatre embraced this with 2013 show ‘Manchester Sound’. A fusion between the acid house scene and the Peterloo massacre it left many audience members scratching their heads, whilst others were wowed by the unconventional experience of wandering around a disused warehouse to the sound of their adolescence.
The whole experience is akin to climbing into your television and wandering around the set. But this pursuit for site-specific and immersive theatre often lacks a central long-term emotional core. The thrill is often only is a short-term hit. For my part, I’m horrified by the possibility of an immersive experience becoming the norm rather than the exception.
I believe there are a number of inherent problems with immersive theatre. Artificially deflated audience sizes that yo-yo depending on the venue generates a demand that cannot necessarily be fulfilled. Additionally, in a time where theatres are struggling to get bums on seats, how sustainable is the immersive theatre industry? Caught in a trap between Fringe and mainstream, the costs of fitting out a bespoke venue one way or another will be passed on to the audience.
Is a truly immersive experience worth £20? £30? These factors risk making the whole experience of immersive theatre become accessible only to a certain elite – whether this be the first in the queue or those that can afford it.
Some of the best immersive theatre I’ve seen has been variation on promenade. Lass Productions’ live Coronation Street perofrmances place you walking around an authentic Manchester boozer, being served by the iconic Rovers Return staff during the interval. Such a deft touch immerses you in a world more effectively than trying to offer an audience experience to blow the mind.
At a challenging time for theatre, engagement with audiences is crucial to the medium’s survival. Time will tell if immersive theatre has the survival instinct to adapt and become a complimentary, rather than revolutionary change.