Full Immersion Dept.

Barbarian's  Grand Opening

Barbarian's Grand Opening

A couple of weeks ago Auckland theatre maker Kip Chapman was interviewed for a profile piece by The Press in conjunction with the Auckland and Christchurch seasons of new musical That Bloody Woman. The article was headlined Kiwi director Kip Chapman says theatre companies need spectacles to keep audiences coming. Kip very consciously threw down some interesting provocations regarding the theatre sector, and in true New Zealand style, due to the fact that the article was not written by an arts journalist who might have the time or interest to connect the dots, none of it went any further. I’m probably not going to take it any further either - simply doodle about the details. One of the points Kip raised about immersive theatre in New Zealand had me thinking so I thought I'd write some stuff about that. (Turns out I had 3000 words to write about that, so sozaboutit).

In the article, Kip notes, ‘I’m super surprised that more theatre companies haven’t made more immersive works. TV and film is so good these days. Why would you leave the house? Theatre has to be seen live and we have to engage with the audience and to say, ‘This can only be seen live’…theatre has to do something that’s unique, compared to the brilliant offerings in TV and film. We have to engage with an audience in a way that TV and film can’t’.

I totally agree. Most certainly theatre must utilise its live quality – its bodies-in-front-of-bodies quality - to do what the screen is unable to. So there’s two things I want to delve further into here:

1) Let’s unpick the word ‘immersive’ specifically for a New Zealand context. Why not.

2) I’m interested in our varying thresholds of what true ‘liveness’ means. Is work that is described as 'immersive' the only vehicle for the exploration of the ‘live’?

Currently, in most of the English-speaking theatre world, the term ‘immersive’ has now become catch-all flab; over-utilised to within an inch of its life and emptied of meaning by producers and marketers. In New Zealand - always just a bit different aren’t we - we have a weird mix. Firstly, within the theatre sector, due to our size, I’m not sure we’ve reached peak ‘immersive’ glut, however I think the term is colonised by a certain type of immersive work. Secondly, in marketing to the general public, theatre doing anything with a whiff of audience proximity or involvement gets touted as innovative and the ‘first time ever’. So you have an article in the Dom Post regarding promenade headphone piece The Woman Who Forgot in the New Zealand Festival this year in which the writer notes, ‘immersive theatre has been done before in the United Kingdom but the concept is a first for NZ’.

Blank face emoji.

The contemporary interest in immersing the audience inside the theatrical story world in a style we are now familiar with emerged in the early 2000s in the UK and NZ. (If one was to look at traditions within community theatre contexts and actually lots of different historical movements, this is a total lie, but for our convenient timeline purposes let’s go with early 2000s). The beginnings of work that we now describe as immersive could be seen in work described then as ‘promenade’ performance, ‘site-specific’ or ‘site-sympathetic’. There were various instances of this in NZ - I vividly remember Kerryn Palmer’s work Sniper at BATS in 2004, a STAB commission, which, in creating a war zone, shunted the audience around the side of the building and into the transformed space. In terms of site-specific work, Tim Spite’s company Seeyd made work in old office blocks before they became expensive waterfront apartments; a moment in Sand, when a sunset view of Wellington was revealed was the most memorable kind of coup de theatre. Our own graduating Toi Whakaari drama class of 2004 made a three-year devised site-specific performance, Penumbra, in the basement of Toi Whakaari itself. These latter two examples, while not calling upon the audience to move through or become ‘active’ participants in the space, took their design and formal cues from the space they existed in - something which later became a bedrock of work describing itself as 'immersive'.

At about this same time in the early 2000s in the UK, companies which have since become heavyweights of the immersive theatre ‘genre’ such as Punchdrunk and Shunt, were beginning their first explorations in site-specific work.

But what is this slippery term ‘immersive’, what is ‘interactive’, and how does it all shake down? In her book Immersive Theatres (note that sweet plural), Josephine Machon spends a whole introduction attempting to contain this term. The important point she makes is that ‘immersive’ is not a genre, with fixed codes and conventions. Indeed, we don’t expect the terms ‘site-specific’ or ‘promenade’ to wield the weight of genre, they are simply useful adjectives - as was once the word ‘immersive’. But once this term was latched onto by tribes of happy practitioners and marketers, confident they’d hit audience gold, no longer having to fall back on the dreaded ‘audience participation’, ‘immersive’ became a kind of mutant genre. Of course the giant net of that term contains a vast array of forms, the corresponding descriptors for which, such as ‘interactive’ and ‘participatory’ can overlap significantly. To complicate things, work that is simply participatory will often be defined as immersive. Work that is immersive will be defined as interactive. And then we get told ‘immersive’ is new in New Zealand and nobody has a bloody clue anymore.

Immersive theatre is experiential. As critic Matt Trueman notes, the term ‘marks a piece of theatre experienced from within rather than as an outside observer. The work happens around you or to you. You are part of it, rather than looking on fundamentally distinct’. Strong immersive theatre carefully calibrates a series of experiences to be explored by the audience member in a space that is all story world, of which there are no boundaries. Punchdrunk’s Sleep No More is the obvious exemplar here – as a mask-wearing audience participant, you are free to roam wherever you please over five floors of warehouse and experience (or miss out on) as much as you want. You have absolute agency in the space. For a word that doesn’t in fact denote genre, it can be said that this style of immersive theatre has become the touchstone definition of the term for many UK practitioners and critics. In NZ, possibly due to the budget concerns (or the amount of volunteers these kinds of works involve) we have not *yet* seen work of such ‘deep’ immersion on a wrap-around scale. Yet we have our own versions, which I’ll get to shortly. 

Punchdrunk's  Sleep No More

Punchdrunk's Sleep No More

So in this style of immersive theatre, no matter how much agency you have in the space, would anything in fact change if you weren’t there? It could be said that this is where the term ‘immersive’ departs from ‘interactive’. Interactive work requires you. Purely immersive work could probably continue on its sweet fruity way without.

Regarding interactive work, two great international examples of companies engaged in pretty definitive theatre of this kind are Melbourne company Pop Up Playground and Coney in London. Both use games (in Pop Up's case, sometimes inspired by video games) and interactive play to create happenings where participants are most definitely not spectators, and are in fact creating the forward trajectory of the piece in the moment, wherever that may go. A whole separate post could be written on companies making work such as this.

While we're on tentative definitions, as an anchor point, I really love this offering by a Rafaella Marcus in this uniformly excellent article in Exeunt titled Is immersive theatre broken (yes, they’ve come on a bit since the wide-eyed previous decade in the UK - the prevailing wariness of the term in this piece is pretty fascinating - do read it). She says, ‘…Immersive theatre absolutely isn’t necessarily interactive theatre – interactive theatre requires the audience in order to exist, to create a narrative, whereas a lot of immersive theatre supplies a great volume of detail, which you are left to sift through like your own dramaturg’.

In the last ten years, the UK has seen some shining touchstones of immersive theatre (some of which is also often interactive), from You Me Bum Bum Train, which relied on the power of around 200 volunteers per show in which participants found themselves giving art history lectures and standing on podiums as the conductor of a full chamber orchestra, to Dutch company Ontroerend Goed’s The Smile Off Your Face, which took singular audience participants on a wheelchair through a space and placed them in increasingly intimate situations, playing on ideas of trust and power (and a show which would truly be my personal hell).

As you can glean from the above Exeunt article, while there have been explosively joyful successes in this territory of work, there have also been numerous derivative failures, in which the relationship with the audience hasn’t been placed under enough scrutiny or treated with the mathematical/logistical attention one needs when a group of humans in a room are offered the ability to do whatever the hell they want. Therefore, like any trend that has its moment, the term ‘immersive’ is viewed with increasingly wary eyes (in the UK at least), which is glaringly apparent in this Irish Times reviewer’s note regarding NZ company Royale Productions’ The Generation of Z in 2014: ‘The Edinburgh Festival Fringe, bastion of experimentation and trends, is tellingly light on immersive events this year. A New Zealand production, The Generation of Z, subjects its audience to a zombie apocalypse, where flailing masses in need of brains may already signal the start of immersive theatre’s parody phase’.

So that brings us (somewhat uncomfortably) to ask how does this all sit in a New Zealand context? (What’s so fascinating about the above is the question of time and the development of trends in all this. Stylistic and formal preoccupations of theatre are temporal. We may be at bottom of the planet but it’s to our detriment I reckon if we're not taking up an international lens and acknowledging global theatre shifts. It’s something I’m always interested in when companies travel to Edinburgh: how shall that work sit globally? With Generation of Z, as the above reviewer indicates, it would appear - from a critical perspective at least - that that one could have been a bit behind the immersive eight ball. Or perhaps the form was simply not explored to the fullest. Regardless, I’m pretty sure those who want zombies aren’t too fussed about global theatre trends).

In New Zealand I think we may often define work as immersive when it is in fact possibly interactive, but more likely participatory. Hackman’s Apollo 13, directed by Kip Chapman (and pictured below), is an interesting case study. If we were to apply the definitions above (already a problematic act, considering the mutability of the word and the fact I’ve spent all this time saying it’s not a genre), taking ‘immersive’ to mean a wide ranging play area, usually not a theatre, in which audience have complete agency - considerations which have come to increasingly encapsulate the term, internationally at least - Apollo 13 does not necessarily accord. Yes, the audience are sitting at an incredible fully reconstructed 1960s Houston NASA control centre, however due to the very nature of the space, the strictness of the Houston Command story world, and the various roles the audience take on, this wouldn’t allow total free range play. Then again, that space station is most certainly an immersive environment. I mean, if that is not an environment which could be described as 'immersive', what is, right?

Apollo 13 could be defined as interactive. Yet it is interaction which will never affect the ultimate narrative trajectory. No matter how many mathematical formulas are solved or phone calls are made by the audience, Gene Kranz and the Houston audience/participants will most definitely see the crew of the Apollo 13 return. Therefore while the audience have interactive moments with the players of the story world, their interactions are limited to what is required for the narrative to move forward on its inexorable way. Perhaps Apollo 13 would then more accurately be defined as participatory. In any case, I don't think in a New Zealand context that Apollo 13 couldn't be described as ‘immersive’, and I'm not using this as a case to show arbitrary usage of the term at all, however by raising even this one example it’s possible to perceive how mercurial and problematic such a catch-all phrase, hijacked as genre, can be.

Hackman's  Apollo 13

Hackman's Apollo 13

But let’s return to Kip’s provocation in The Press: firstly, he notes that he’s surprised 'that more theatre companies haven’t made more immersive works' (it may have been that he was referring to our mainstage companies and not the whole lot. As the journalist did not define this, one will never know. I have taken it to mean companies in general). I challenge this. I’m wary that this director may defining ‘immersive theatre’ in his company’s image. In New Zealand, I don’t think the problem lies with deficit of this work, but with definition. For our small size, in New Zealand we have an abundance of practitioners willing to engage the audience by utilising immersive and interactive techniques. Secondly, Kip notes that theatre must find ways to engage audiences when TV and film is so good. While I absolutely agree, he implies that immersive work is the way to do this. I don't know. I’m not sure our only route towards ‘liveness’ is through whatever that thing is that we call 'immersive'.

To tackle (conveniently) both these points, here are some New Zealand companies who in the last five years have been creating work that in some instances could be described as immersive, in most instances interactive and in nearly all instances participatory. While none of them emulate ‘immersive’ in a Hackman or Royale Productions style (or even for that matter the aforementioned free range UK style), each one of them considers the liveness of the theatre state, the fact it is very much not a closed-off narrative world, and I'm pretty sure each would share an implicit maxim that would go something like Kip's 'this can only be seen live':

  1. Jo Randerson’s and Thomas LaHood’s BARBARIAN PRODUCTIONS last year created Grand Opening (pictured above) in Wellington’s Cuba Carnival, in which audience members/participants were taken through the backstage areas of The Opera House where various characters and creations lived in each of the dressing rooms - in this case the entire theatre became the story world of the piece - eventually emerging on to the stage to become the performers themselves. In the last election year, Barbarian also created Political Cuts, in which you can receive a free haircut in exchange for political conversation. They also made Sing It To My Face, an inter-generational music project in which four different generational choirs let each other know how they really feel about society in a theatrical performance of a fully scored choral arrangement. Barbarian are concerned with community, the power of the non-performer and the subversion of the idea that performance is an elite arena in which only ‘professionals’ can take part. Therefore their work is deeply participatory, interactive and in some cases that inherently involves immersion in the given space.
  2. Auckland-based Nisha Madhan and Stephen Bain create work under the banners of THE TOWN CENTRE and FUTURE HOTEL. Much of their work is participatory, working in public and found spaces and plays with ideas of agency and ritual. Nisha’s most recent work TITLED placed the audience in situations of bureaucratic form filling, games, journeys through tubular passageways, high ritual, and naff office parties. Stephen also co-created I Wanna Be Na Nah Na Nah Nah, a headphone piece in which participants walked around Ponsonby streets, taken back to a very different Ponsonby of 1983. What’s already interesting about these first two examples, is while by rights some of their work could be defined as immersive, they would probably never define themselves as such. (Which is possibly an indication of the increasing 'genre' stamp of 'immersive').
  3. BINGE CULTURE are a Wellington company who make work centred on the live encounter. They have become whales beached on the Wellington waterfront and in many other spots around the country. A riot for all ages of audience/participants, Whales finds random city-dwellers all pitching in to save a pod of ‘stranded’ whales. Interactive yes, immersive if we take a wide lens on the term.
  4. In her recent work CAR, Virginia Frankovich played on the fact Aucklanders spend an inordinate amount of time of their waking lives in cars. Ignoring the confines of the theatre, she created an immersive work which took six audience members on a ride throughout Auckland city.
  5. Leo Gene Peter’s company A SLIGHTLY ISOLATED DOG’s most recent work at Circa Theatre in Wellington used all the participatory power of the audience to tell the story of Jekyll and Hyde. While this piece would not be described as immersive, it carefully built participatory trust in the relationship between the storytelling troupe of French narrators and their audience to build touch points around the narrative and create a ton of delight.
  6. Holly Chappell and Tom Eason's company TWO PRODUCTIONS created The Powerful Event in Christchurch in 2013. This was a self-described immersive show which took place on a vacant lot in the CBD. The company created corporation Nouveau Monde Global, and enlisting the audience as employee candidates, it played on what it takes to stand up and make decisions for your city. 
  7. All of Trygve Wakenshaw’s work. Trygve’s work is fuelled by the live encounter. (Can we still call the international new mime rockstar ours? Who knows).

There’s seven. As you can see, while some work by these companies could be called immersive, some definitely couldn’t and some work probably doesn’t want to be. But all these practitioners acknowledge and are fuelled by theatre’s liveness. In at least four examples there is also a deep interest in the local, which, on an equal footing with liveness, is theatre's secret power over mass media. 

In the long mysterious road of engaging audiences, full immersive spectacle is undeniably one attractive answer. But to quote Stephen Bain in a previous post, 'I think we tend to feel a little bit like, because we’re all doing theatre, we want everyone to like all the theatre. But nah. I don’t want the same audience as other people and for everyone to like all the same things. It’s quite good to do things that people just don’t like, or which has a completely different audience - there’s strength in that’. Scooping the audience up in an immersive spectacle is one way to acknowledge and to sure razzle dazzle em. But if the essential question is ‘how do we make this work live in the moment with this group of people?’ as we can see above, there are lots of possible answers, of which GET THEM OUT OF THOSE DAMN SEATS AND IMMERSE THEM may only be one.

My final point is a confession. I quite like sitting on my bum in the dark with other humans, watching and listening. I can be as bored as the next person by dead, hermetically-sealed lounge-room theatre but I also acknowledge that watching and absorbing is not in fact a 'non-engaged' state. There is a whole lot of stuff going on in that body and mind while we watch. As that Irish Times reviewer notes ‘to sit, watch, engage and reflect is not passive’. As we know from the Popup Globe, (immersive theatre in one way, immersing audiences in an idea of 16th Century London) the spectacle of space is an audience puller, but sometimes when it comes to 'immersion', I wholly empathise with that guy in the Exeunt article when he says, ‘It’s all very clever, and from time to time it might sweep me off my feet, but I think I’d rather just sit and watch, thanks very much, without a silly mask strapped to my bonce’. And mate, that's alright too.