Stage Struck: Are we, the audience, drowning in immersive theatre?

Attacked by zombies, snogged by actors – audiences are no longer expected to just sit and watch the play

Dive in: Audiences at Punchdrunk’s ‘The Drowned Man’ fought for the privilege of taking part

Dive in: Audiences at Punchdrunk’s ‘The Drowned Man’ fought for the privilege of taking part


There’s a phrase that always gives me a chuckle at the theatre: “You, the audience.” It used to feel like a welcoming note that could save a valuable second by simply addressing its audience as “you”: “We’d like to thank you, the audience, for coming.” But recently it’s begun to sound like an anachronism or a last stand: You, the audience, don’t see yourselves that way.

These days we’re constantly encouraged to get in on the act. The rise of immersive theatre as a distinct genre, where a spectator might don a mask and explore a multi-storey performance venue, has made us direct participants in a sprawling show. Social media campaigns encourage us to tweet responses to a performance, or post pictures, along with a company-sanctioned hashtag, to make us part of the phenomenon, or allies to the marketing department.

Have these immersive experiences got us in over our heads? An ugly trend started to present itself in shows such as Punchdrunk’s The Drowned Man, where audience members who knew that an actor might whisk them into a secret room or snog them began fighting each other for the privilege. Such little surprises accounted for some remarkable experiences, but that competitiveness sours the deal. Can you, the audience, please return to your seats?

Still, the tide may be beginning to turn for the immersive experience. After a much publicised delay, the Secret Cinema club (tagline “Tell no one”) opened its largest event based on the Back to the Future movies (someone blabbed), while another immersive staging of Shakespeare opened in a London tower block (this approach is now so familiar that it seems as ground-breaking as performing the Bard outdoors).

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.

The phenomenon is hardly spent. One of the most anticipated productions at the Dublin Theatre Festival, Anu Productions’ Vardo, could be described as immersive. But as the concluding part of the Monto cycle, it follows a series of brilliant and respectful site-specific performances that assign us the role of both audience and participant: with work this serious, you don’t overstep the boundaries.

What you, the audience, have always known is that to sit, watch, engage and reflect is not passive. In an insightful takedown last week of the radio personality Ira Glass, who dismissed Shakespeare’s King Lear as “not relatable”, the New Yorker’s Rebecca Mead argued that while art is a mirror in which we see ourselves, the demand for “relatability” is lazy and vain: art as a selfie.

That sounds like the toxin of our age and, perhaps, a reason to switch off the immersion. “You, the audience”, sounds like a command. “I, the protagonist”, feels lonely. Isn’t it supposed to be about us?

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