What is Immersive Theatre and Why Should I Care?

Even if we are not deeply versed in the theatre, most of us share an understanding of the familiar social script of going to a play. On the stage, actors move around, talk, touch a set, props, and each other, and maybe dance or sing. On the other side of the fourth wall, the audience voluntarily sits still, silently, in the dark, facing forward.

Immersive may be a buzzword right now (if I see another ad for an immersive television set, I’ll scream), but to practitioners, immersive theatre means something pretty specific: a style of performance in which audience members are in the “world” of the play, not separated from it by the boundary of a stage.

Nina Simon, the Executive Director of the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History, observes that cultural institutions traditionally are unidirectional, with the audience absorbing content that has been wholly crafted by an institution (or artist, or curator, etc.). The same goes for theatre. In immersive theatre however, the audience participates in creating the very content of the experience. It's not just bidirectional, fostering interaction between audience and actor, but multidirectional: the audience interacts with actors, with other audience members, even with the physical space, creating feedback loops that affect everyone involved.

When you take away something as deeply engrained to the theatre experience as the stage, and give the audience more agency, it’s easy to get disoriented. As an audience member at an immersive show, you might ask yourself, where do I look? Where do I sit or stand? Can I talk? Even to seasoned audience members, each immersive they attend can feel like the Wild West.

Enter experience design, a frame of mind that is the lifeblood of great immersive theatre. A term also frequently used in tech, in immersive, experience design is a holistic approach to crafting the audience’s journey from the moment they buy a ticket, to the moment they leave the show, integrating front of house, performance, and production. Experience design considers how we help the audience understand their role and how we convey the rules they should follow - rules that keep everyone safe and on the best track toward a meaningful experience. Experience design also includes creating a physical space and designing points of interaction that reinforce those roles and rules, and the big picture "idea" or narrative of the work.

At its core, experience design is about seeing through the eyes of the audience. Dr. Temple Grandin, a professor of Animal Science at Colorado State University, famously reconceived the design of livestock facilities by paying close attention to the behavior of animals, considering the “cattle’s eye view” of farm systems and reducing animal stress in the process. Immersive artists apply the same principles, carefully considering and testing audience responses and impulses.

Every event can benefit from the experience design thinking we use in immersive work. Here are some takeaways for your next event:

1.       Make sure that the audience is top of mind. It sounds obvious enough, but guests can tell when you’ve contemplated and prepared for their every move and when they’re an afterthought. Do guests need to bring their phones for mobile bidding? Did you tell them in advance – and provide charging stations? Details count.

2.       Treat everything that happens between ticket purchase and arrival in the playing space as part of the experience. How many times have you had an evening out marred by not being able to find parking? Or by a bad check-in experience? Pay special attention to these early encounters with the guest. After all, there’s no way to make a new first impression.

3.       Embrace the creativity that comes when you realize you don’t “have” to do anything. Familiar social scripts are there if you need them, but there’s room to adapt event formats even in traditional institutions. If you plan carefully and conscientiously, communicate clearly, and walk a mile in the shoes of an audience member, you can always write a new script for a great event.