What is Immersive Theatre? - Dank Parish

We can be forgiven for asking; the term is bandied around with indiscriminate applications to all kinds of works taking place outside the scope of what is considered to be ‘traditional theatre’. It could simultaneously describe a forest-set, modern-dress version of Thomas Middleton’s ‘Women Beware Women’; a one on one confessional with a priest inside a portaloo at an arts festival; an interactive post-apocalypse survivor puzzle utilising virtual reality, a multi-sensory dream-world inside a disused swimming pool, or a portable escape room experience set in the back of a van. These applications, in their multiple manifestations, can be a little bewildering, particularly when trying to define ‘immersive theatre’, a term now so wildly misappropriated it muddies the waters of classification it tries so hard to clarify.

The problem is further compounded when we consider the term ‘immersive theatre’ is also used to describe events which only pay lip service to ‘theatre’. Reflecting the trends of a growth in  the experience economy, (21% increase 2018-2019,) consumers are seeking out fresh and unique opportunities. Many events claim to be ‘immersive theatre’ and then simply throw up decor, hire a DJ and employ some (usually under-paid) actors to dress in context-specific costumes and greet punters as they enter. Glorified ushering.  Essentially such experiences are either music nights or banqueting experiences with theatrics hap-hazardly imprinted on top. Such experiences, we believe, aren’t prioritising, with any virtuosity or sophistication, the opportunity for exploring the social contracts that exist between performer and audience, and therefore don’t fully immerse either performers of punter in a shared immersive experience.

We believe that in order to qualify as  immersive theatre a company should place, at the forefront of its practises, an empirical and ever-shifting study into the intimate relationship between space, content and audience, with the audience’s experience being at the forefront of  its consideration. Immersive theatre should place the audience in the centre of a world, with the potential to investigate a story via multiple routes in a constantly renewable process of discovery.


DANK PARISH PROCESS

We always start with the world we are trying to create. The world itself is the transformative catalyst and by focussing on the ‘rules’ of the world boundaries are set in place which instantly require creative interpretation.  Immersive theatre, in its essence, looks at the relationship between environment and subject, so to start with the environment at concept stage is to set in motion the trajectory for further creative discovery.

By establishing the boundaries and rules of our world we make the rehearsal process fully immersive for our performers. Our performers will enter our world with the same level of naivety as the audience eventually will. We want our actors to be challenged, waylaid, provoked, surprised and inspired by the creative choices they find, the kind of choices you can only make when you aren’t thinking about making artistic choices. They are reacting to a reality which attempts to define them and enriching that reality as they do so. 

This way of working is directly comparable to fantasy gaming, be that Dungeons & Dragons, ‘choose your own adventure’  Fighting Fantasy Stories, or online RPG’s. All hail the rise of the theatre nerd! This way of working is never divorced from the horizon of reactions we are looking to provoke in those who inhabit our spaces. We hold at the pinnacle of our artistic objective the realisation that any narrative is only useful in terms of how it is ultimately adapted by the players within our game-spaces.

This way of working grants the actors a vast amount of ownership. They are the story. It also allows the ensemble, very quickly, to achieve a level of complicity with the material, far deeper than much text-based theatre where the space between you and your part requires multiple feats of imaginative gymnastics to bridge the supposed gap. 

As devisor-participants within the rehearsal process our actors stumble on discoveries without forethought, in response to the macro-rules of the governing world. This complicity also allows actors a sensitive understanding of the plight the audience will be placed  in when they first enter.. When the actors are complicit with the material, so are the audience.

An Immersive world should feel different to reality. On a game-playing level, we are keen that an audience must also learn the rules of the world they are placed into. It’s not enough for us that an audience member can simply demand information form an actor in role; have they learnt the rules of etiquette which govern that society? have they ascertained code-words? Have they been sensitive to the prejudices of the character they are speaking to?  To this end, a major question for us is how the world dictates the behaviour of its residents. This work involves exploration of distinct physical movement signatures, development of in-world lexicons, sign systems, behavioural inhibitors, interaction starters, and hidden agendas.

One of the most important areas of consideration, throughout our process, is sensitivity to ‘the frame’. Some of the events we have worked at are so immersive that the boundaries between performer, content and audience have all but evaporated into the shared chaotic ether. For this reason actors are trained as marshals, spotters, as members of a  supportive ensemble, there to ensure that a level of awareness of play, an awareness of ‘performance’, is at all times evident, so audience members are aware of their role and never placed in potentially threatening situations.


DANK PARISH FORMS

Over the years we have crossed over into a host of different artistic disciplines and  forms because they allow alternative perseptives within a unified concept. However, our shows do exhibit some recurrent structuring impulses and methodologies, the most unifying of which are:

1- The active/ passive audience. The irony of some immersive theatre work is that the show is too adamant in demanding interaction form its audience. This aggressive immersion often has the exact opposite effect, it induces self-consciousness and reinforces the sense of audience member as outsider. Conversely, some audience members are avid game-players of insanely conspiratorial tendencies, endlessly trying to unpick the game behind the game behind the game, so convinced they are of increasingly elaborate (and hidden)  discoveries to be found within a show’s narrative. We bring a breadth to our work which allows for both eventualities; options to voyeuristically see, or hear, moments of intrigue around you, or to be enlisted by a character and sucked into a narrative rabbit hole. 

2. Game -playing elements. Our shows typically involve some sort of game-playing or interaction. The level to which this is at the forefront of the show’s rendering is contingent on the linearity of the story involved.  In an extant world (eg Peaky Blinders) we cannot introduce games which unseat James Shelby as the head of the Shelby organisation, but we can ask them to spy on him as he conducts illicit deal in the VIP gambling den. In other words, it’s about knowing what the audience can, and can’t affect.  In a show which places interaction at the forefront of its objective, we’ll typically prioritise adept improvisers. Our work here is too accept all the audience offers, to constantly generate content in response to their contribution. 

3- Physical Theatre Work. Part of embellishing the passive audience experience is creating a physical performance tapestry which generates narrative without demanding direct audience participation. Also, having worked in immersive environments which happen over vast areas, including huge multiple storey-buildings and  inaccessible audience balconies and platforms, we utilise a vast pool of physical theatre performers and stage-fighters whose work is instantly intelligible at distance.

4- Ritual experience. In each of our shows there are moments of shared ritual between audience and performer. These collective moments might  be an election day announcement, a funeral, a boxing match or a game-show. These moments are important for 2 reasons. On one hand they serve as congregational opportunities to pose, indirectly, the politics of space and our social applications within them, they demand of all participants, an awareness of self within the collective. These ritual moments also serve as nodal points within the performance,  structural moments of cohesion within the infinity of personal missioning. 

5- Narrative depth. All our shows contain multiple levels of detailed lore and mythology. These levels are key to our performer’s complicity. We ensure our shows always feel as though they are breathing, living things, that they are functional even when audience members are not present.  These hidden narratives are accessible to punters should they take time to excavate with individual actors but, even without exposing, these hidden levels provide an imaginative coherence to all in-world actors and therefore provide a constant creative resource enabling sustained function within performances which can last up to 3 days. The most interesting thing is that which is yet to be found…


DANK PARISH ETHOS

We are a parish. We have to collaborate. We hold at the core of our ethos the belief that any idea is only as good as the person you are bouncing it off. We are inclusive.

We believe in social interrogation. We lurk on the peripheries.

We believe in shared ownership. Ethical collaboration involves the frank admission that without the contribution of every artist within a piece it simply couldn’t happen. 

We believe in enhancing the actor’s status to that of a devisor, a writer, a director, we challenge these roles because the actors are ultimately the artists who generate front-line content.

We believe in exposing the space between things, frontier civilisations, forgotten worlds, we want to feel as though we are constantly wandering into uncharted territory.

We believe in exhaustive levels of detail. Detail is infinite, it applies to the huge scale of the spaces we inhabit, the buildings and the spectacles and to the minutiae of tiny words inscribed inside hidden spaces. There is always something else to find.

We believe in playing with the essence of communication/ social contracts and the shifting frame between audience and performer

We believe in pushing boundaries, we believe the exploration of people and their relationship with world should continue long after the show has finished.

We believe in creating transformative spaces which genuinely allow people to step outside themselves

We believe in creating safe, lovingly curated spaces which allow people to play, precisely because they feel safe and well looked after.

We believe creativity (and it’s poorly cousin, credulity) is humanity’s unique gift.

We want to be constantly immersed in the process of our shared inspiration.


DANK CURRENT RESEARCH INTERESTS

The recent boom in experience economies and immersive theatre events has brought us tantalisingly close to an appreciation of the function of theatre from antiquity to the modern age. Our work at BoomTown particularly, highlights the intimate relationship theatre has to religion and politics. As the boundaries between audience and performance diminish and we create transitory worlds we question our roles within, and contributions to, it.

Within our immersive theatre events we are increasingly aware of 2 very distinct forms of creativity, both of which must be in attendance for transformative work to happen. Dionysian creativity calls for upturned norms, blank social slates, stepping into the unknown, transcendental performance, and (potentially chaotic) abandon. This kind of creativity comes very close to fulfilling a socio-spiritual need- the desire to purge, to rebel, to demolish and recreate. The expression of this creativity is essential for society to exist at all; it is ‘creativity as social pressure valve’. It can be a place to share all the things society doesn’t let to talk about.

However, for this to be curated we cultivate robust Apollonian frameworks; clearly appointed performance frames, vigilant stage management, care systems, focussed performer-audience consent philosophies, and crisis prevention strategies. We hold the space so others may compromise theirs. 

Every great historic shift is composed of an essential ideas revolution, a turmoil and extremity of conceived possibility and antagonistic reflection, irredeemable contradiction, chaos and cruelty, all these ideas and potentialities expressed as art, profoundly dark and tear-jerkingly beautiful.  Through the building of shared artistic communities which interrogate behaviour at its most willing we realise our power as creators…. and within that, redefine the function of art itself… Art as apology. art as excuse. art as justification, art as revolution, art as control. art as ritual. art as journey. art as invitation. attention as currency.

In any environment we are all creating shared stories. Within this, immersive theatre becomes a training ground for all orchestrated reality… and also the place to unpick it.