The world is a stage

‘Im­mer­sive theatre’ takes you to the street, into the of­fice, out of the tra­di­tional box seats


We’re barely into the fi­nal year of the 2010s, a decade of fun­da­men­tal change in theatre in North Amer­ica, from lead­er­ship to ground­break­ing im­prove­ments to rep­re­sen­ta­tion on stage (hello, Hamil­ton).

But it’s clear the big­gest trend in the last10 years has been im­mer­sive theatre.

Since the British com­pany Punch­drunk part­nered with the Amer­i­can pro­duc­ers be­hind Emur­sive to un­veil

Sleep No More in March 2011 — in which masked au­di­ence mem­bers packed into the McKit­trick Ho­tel in Chelsea and fol­lowed per­form­ers at will — “im­mer­sive theatre” has be­come the buzz word for plays that break the tra­di­tional the­atre­go­ing mould.

Last year saw the trend lit­er­ally break­ing bound­aries: Talk is Free Theatre pro­duced The Cu­ri­ous Voy­age, a three­day-long im­mer­sive pro­duc­tion that sent au­di­ence mem­bers from Bar­rie to Lon­don, Eng­land.

And last week, the Toronto Fringe’s Next Stage Fes­ti­val pre­sented its first im­mer­sive, site-spe­cific pro­duc­tion with Athabasca, cre­ated by Toronto’s Con­ver­gence Theatre.

Au­di­ence mem­bers gather at an of­fice build­ing in the west end, where they over­hear a heated ar­gu­ment be­tween an oil com­pany PR rep and an en­vi­ron­men­tal ac­tivist.

“There is some­thing sub­ver­sive about not do­ing this in a theatre. It cracks open the pos­si­bil­i­ties,” says di­rec­tor and Con­ver­gence co-founder Aaron Wil­lis. “That isn’t to say the old con­tract of sit­ting in a chair and watch­ing some­thing isn’t still valid, but there are pos­si­bil­i­ties to en­rich it.”

Wil­lis has pos­si­bly the sim­plest def­i­ni­tion of what im­mer­sive theatre is.

“Your body, as an au­di­ence mem­ber, be­comes im­por­tant. Where you’re sit­ting, who you are. You’re not just sit­ting back and watch­ing,” he says.

His first im­mer­sive pro­duc­tion, along with his wife and co-founder Julie Tep­per­man, was 2006’s Au­toShow, seven short plays in or around a real car.

At that time, the term “site­spe­cific theatre” com­monly de­scribed plays that took place out­side a tra­di­tional theatre, usu­ally mean­ing the lo­ca­tion was di­rectly re­lated to the sub­ject mat­ter.

“I never re­ally thought about it as a genre. We started work­ing in it mostly out of ex­pe­di­ency: it was cheap when there was no venue. But we dis­cov­ered that peo­ple en­joyed that kind of theatre ex­pe­ri­ence and that we en­joyed cre­at­ing them,” said Tep­per­man.

To­day, Con­ver­gence is one of the most well-known im­mer­sive theatre com­pa­nies in Toronto. In 2015, Tep­per­man cocre­ated one of the most suc­cess­ful im­mer­sive projects in the GTA — Sheri­dan Col­lege’s sprawl­ing, sold-out mu­si­cal Brant­wood — with di­rec­tor Mitchell Cush­man of Out­side the March Theatre, an­other of Toronto’s top im­mer­sive com­pa­nies.

“I try to ap­proach work strip­ping away as many pre­con­cep­tions of what a theatre ex­pe­ri­ence is as pos­si­ble. I think that’s what’s re­ally ex­cit­ing about a lot of im­mer­sive work,” says Cush­man. He and Out­side the March broke onto the Toronto scene in 2011 with Noah Hai­dle’s Mr. Mar­malade, a quirky and darkly funny play about a young girl and her adult male imag­i­nary friend that Cush­man set in a real kinder­garten class­room, en­hanc­ing the story with the au­di­ence’s child­hood mem­o­ries of such a space. Cush­man has since in­cor­po­rated im­mer­sive el­e­ments into more tra­di­tional set­tings, in­clud­ing Trea­sure Is­land at the Strat­ford Fes­ti­val and Jerusalem at the Street­car Crowsnest.

Cush­man rec­og­nizes that a ma­jor part of the rise of im­mer­sive theatre has to do with au­di­ences’ de­sire to shake up the tra­di­tional se­quence of: ar­rive, sit down, watch, clap, leave. That’s a view­point shared by Daniele Bar­tolini, founder of DLT, which spe­cial­izes in pro­duc­tions cre­ated for ex­tremely small au­di­ences, of­ten sin­gle spec­ta­tors who travel from scene to scene out­doors or in large build­ings. Both Cush­man and Bar­tolini cre­ated works fea­tured in The Cu­ri­ous Voy­age.

“The feed­back that I re­ceive most is, ‘I want to be scared.’ The feel­ing of not know­ing what’s go­ing on. Peo­ple re­ally en­joy that part and I’m hear­ing that more and more,” Bar­tolini says.

But as we near10 years of Sleep No More in New York City, Wil­lis, Tep­per­man, Cush­man and Bar­tolini worry about the buzzi­ness of the word im­mer­sive, now gen­er­ously ap­plied to din­ing, travel and vis­ual art projects, and even some big-bud­get theatre pro­duc­tions that ad­here quite strictly to the sta­tus quo. A news re­lease for the Cana­dian Opera Com­pany’s Hadrian this past fall de­scribed it as “im­mer­sive,” with­out demon­strat­ing any of the trap­pings that mark an im­mer­sive pro­duc­tion.

“It’s a great word to sell an ex­pe­ri­ence with. But the range of what that ex­pe­ri­ence is is so vast. … It feels so gen­eral now. It might as well be re­placed with ‘cool,’ ” Wil­lis says.

Bar­tolini agrees. He feels the word is of­ten used to get at­ten­tion. Tep­per­man hes­i­tates to use it in con­ver­sa­tion.

“If it’s go­ing to be site-spe­cific, there needs to be some­thing pur­pose­ful about where you’ve cho­sen to present that story, and you’re ac­tively look­ing for ways to en­gage with that space. … The dan­ger is that im­mer­sive theatre be­comes a shel­lac over top of some­thing, and it doesn’t of­fer as mean­ing­ful or deep an ex­pe­ri­ence as I think it has the po­ten­tial to,” Cush­man says.

“I’ve def­i­nitely seen some projects where if you stripped away all of the im­mer­sive el­e­ments, there would be lit­tle left at its core. And that’s the work that makes me a lit­tle frus­trated as an im­mer­sive theatre artist, be­cause I feel like we are just scrap­ing the sur­face of what’s pos­si­ble and I don’t want it to be a fad.”

With Athabasca on­stage un­til Jan. 20 and the Sleep No More­like dance/theatre hy­brid Eve of St. Ge­orge at the Great Hall on Jan. 17, the first month of 2019 would sug­gest im­mer­sive theatre is not slow­ing as a trend in Toronto.

But the ques­tion that re­mains is: How will im­mer­sive theatre com­pa­nies re­sist the temp­ta­tion to sim­ply one-up each other, cre­at­ing big­ger and more elab­o­rate con­cepts that risk artis­tic in­tegrity and turn im­mer­sion into a gim­mick?

“Maybe it’s a ques­tion of in­ves­ti­gat­ing. If the play can be done on a stage, do it on a stage. Athabasca could ex­ist on a stage and the ar­gu­ments are still there — it’s still a play of the here and now. But this en­vi­ron­ment, we hope, will heighten the level of en­gage­ment,” Tep­per­man says.

Cush­man, on the other hand, is think­ing about ex­pand­ing the def­i­ni­tion of theatre in gen­eral, as well as im­mer­sive theatre, with a pro­duc­tion com­ing to Toronto this sum­mer that in­volves es­cape rooms (an­other sky­rock­et­ing ex­pe­ri­en­tial trend within this decade).

“I think that ide­ally it will re­main a lit­tle bit fluid and open to in­ter­pre­ta­tion, that peo­ple will claim it in dif­fer­ent ways. I just think that when peo­ple are claim­ing it, they at least should have an un­der­stand­ing of what it means to them,” he says. “If not, then I think that the word is in dan­ger of los­ing mean­ing.”


Amy Keat­ing and Philip Ric­cio in Mr. Mar­malade, set in a kinder­garten.

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