I was riveted. In the middle of the night, the counselors had all the 6th-grade campers huddled in the cellar of one of the camp lodges. Above our heads, the big guy playing the Slave Catcher dragged chains back and forth. We could see him through the slats in the rough floorboards. Stomping and screaming at the counselors playing the Abolitionists and Underground Railroad conductors, he railed about “returning the property to its rightful owners.” I looked down at the mildewed dirt flood. By “property” he meant us.
In the middle of the night, we’d been shaken from our beds and split into groups with kids we didn’t know. Seconds later we were running through the woods of southern Michigan, a ragtag group of 12-year-olds from the Detroit area who didn’t even know each other’s names but shared this visceral, multisensory, and immersive experience with each other one night in June before we knew the meaning of any of those words. This was more than a history lesson: we could smell, hear, touch, see, and almost taste the story. We each had a part to play and, even though it had been planned out, it felt like we really would decide whether we reclaimed our freedom or not. The story of Harriet Tubman was familiar but being moved to terror and tears, and actually trying to reach the river’s safety made her heroic selflessness real to us. We exerted agency, we felt urgency, and we pursued the clear objective of the north star.
After running from the sounds of bloodhounds, hiding out in ditches, barns, and cellars, we finally got to the river by the light of our Underground Railroad conductor’s battery operated lantern. Our relief lasted only as long as it took for our counselor to betray us, as scripted, to another Fugitive Slave Catcher. She took a bag of money from him instead of delivering us the promised boat and safe passage across the river into the relative safety of the north. We watched others get in canoes and paddle to freedom following the stars. My adolescent self sat down in the mud and cried.
There are obvious issues with some of the methods these teenagers used in creating this educational experience, but even now I can’t hear the names of Elijah Anderson or William Still without feeling something deep down because of that one night in 2001. I was shook and schooled. I think that this experience was a catalyst for my passion for immersive theatre.
Immersive theatre surrounds you, arrests you, and pulls you into its orbit. At an immersive theatre event you often have agency to move, explore, or even ask questions. The boundary between actor and audience is often blurred and sometimes non-existent, though immersive does not necessarily mean the audience always participates. Often an immersive piece is created for a specific space (we call that “site-specific”) but that’s not a requirement. Immersive theatre can be high-tech virtual reality with actors or as low-tech and gritty as The Catamount’s recent production of Raush I’ll tell you about later. But let’s get down to brass tacks and try to define immersive theatre.
Immersive theatre pieces often have several of the following characteristics:
-Audience shares the performer’s environment
-There is often a hands-on or art installation element
-Each attendee has a unique perspective on the piece and a personal experience
-Engages many of the five senses
-Tells a story, often a well-known tale with a twist like The Odyssey or Alice in Wonderland
Most have been terrified in a haunted house, felt transported in Disneyland, explored the installations at Meow Wolf, or been moved to tears by the narrowing staircase in the Hall of Remembrance at the Holocaust museum, but few have experienced a combination of the listed ingredients. Yet. It’s a new medium, especially in Colorado. Punchdrunk and Third Rail theatre companies in New York have made immersive theatre experiences mainstream in the last few years. While happenings and boundary-pushing performances has been around since the 1960s, a production called “Sleep No More” brought immersive theatre to the forefront of the theatre world in the last decade. When I was in New York a few years ago doing a fellowship at a theatre in Brooklyn I saw the production alone. Wearing a neutral mask like the other audience members, I explored the three-story hotel and followed a wordless interpretation of Shakespeare’s “Macbeth” set in a prohibition era hotel.
In “Sleep No More” the audience is free to roam the entire building during the performance. Multiple scenes happen simultaneously so, depending on where your curiosity leads you, each person sees their own combination of moments where actors collide in addition to the three large group scenes. Two bars serve food and drink in character with the production. Several rooms, like a doctor’s office, post office, taxidermy museum, have hands-on material elements you can poke around in. “Sleep No More” is the poster child for immersive theatre because it has all the constituent elements.
Immersive Theatre in Colorado
I interviewed artistic director of The Catamounts, Amanda Berg-Wilson, in March about the collaborative process of devising an original immersive theatre piece. She was just starting the devising process for a piece called Rausch. The creative team of Amanda Berg-Wilson and Patrick Mueller, choreographer and director at Control Group in Denver, started with the term “Rausch.” Raush is a term from German philosophy describing the intoxication and loss of self we feel in the face of the power of nature. When I talked to Amanda I wanted to know how the ensemble starts creating a site-specific devised theatre piece. It’s necessary to start with clear expectations from all the creatives involved. Everyone needs to know it’s not going to be a standard rehearsal process. In intensive Saturday rehearsals groups of actors are set tasks and allowed freedom to explore the themes of the piece. Using the framework of the myth of Persephone, actors followed writing prompts, did extensive character work, and wordlessly improvised the strongest moments of the story. When I asked how a director casts for a devised piece like this Amanda smiled, “I want to surround myself with performers who have an open presence, an openness and excitement to try new things. Also, I see others’ work and try to surround myself with those I admire.” All ideas are welcome in this process, but not all make it into the finished production. “The best idea in the room always wins” when the group acknowledges the need to sometimes kill their darlings to temper the piece.
A month ago I attended a rehearsal for Rausch in the foothills outside of Boulder. Patrick Meuller lead the ensemble in a warm-up in a field and the work began. I watched as Amanda helped the actress playing Persephone integrate her botanical movements into the forest glade she would perform in. I played the part of an audience member for Hermes as she rehearsed a beautiful monologue on the banks of the river and howled at the moon. I talked with actor Betty Hart who is simultaneously performing in Rausch and rehearsing with the Colorado Shakespeare Festival. “This is wild, in every sense of the word!” she gushed.. The actors were clearly overjoyed to be involved in the creation of the piece and not just meat-puppets moving back and forth as directed. They had a say in how their character told the story. But what better way to find the heart of a character than by asking the actor who knows them best? Check out Kit Baker’s piece on this site for more details on Amanda’s storied career, local productions, and his experience at “Rausch.”
In my quest to learn more about how to make devised work I found myself in the living room of an old Victorian mansion in downtown Detroit. Petting her pit bulls and sitting on the couch next to Sherrine Azab, I learned from her experience as artistic director of A Host of People. The company has been devising work to show in their living room, parks, theatres, and abandoned buildings for a while. Sherrine and her husband, Jake Hooker, left New York City for Detroit a few years ago and have been bringing together the community in Detroit through their socially engaged work. The ensemble devises work in their attic and brings it down three flights of stairs to the neighborhood a few times a year. “It’s all about finding people who are game, both audience members and performers. It all starts with people who are up to try something new.”
Immersive performance experiences appeal to millennials disproportionately because of this “gameness.” In fact, the Wallace Foundation recently published a study where they found that over 30% of the audience at Denver Center’s Off-Center immersive productions were millennials. In an artistic medium where the audiences are dying, this is big news. Immersive appeals to young people for a number of reasons but mostly because it arrests them from passively viewing (which many do all day on their phones), surrounds them in an alternate environment away from their controlled routines, and makes them feel unique.
Last Sunday I attended Rausch to see what all the running around in the hills of Boulder contemplating Greek myths had yielded and I wasn’t disappointed. I can’t give too much away, but suffice to say it was transporting, moving, and odd. Joan Bruemmer-Holden playing Demeter longing for her lost daughter moved me to tears. As a new mother, I felt new feelings as she folded her absent baby girl’s clothes and mourned. Several audience members, myself included, experienced a powerful one-on-one moment wherein a personalized fortune was gifted on the spot. The piece transported me to The Inbetween, disorienting and riveting me in a way I hadn’t felt since that night on the Underground Railroad at 6th-grade camp.
All you need to have a performance is a space, an audience, and performers. There are no rules beyond that. No rules beyond surrounding the audience with meaning in whatever form it takes. When I bike around Fort Collins I see the theatrical potential of every space. Every storefront, empty factory, abandoned warehouse, backyard, and historical home if rife with site-specific performance opportunity. In fact, I’ve written and am directing such a piece at the 1883 Waterworks in collaboration with Judy Bejarano of Impact Dance that will happen on September 21st and 22nd. We will tell stories where water and humans collide through movement and reflection of the power of water in Colorado. We’re all game, are you?