What is ‘Immersive Theater?’
Do you ever find yourself getting bored watching television? Falling asleep while reading a book? Ever wish you could be a part of the story? That your choices mattered? Immersive theater provides this opportunity.
Immersive theater is defined as any sort of artistic expression that immerses you inside of a fictional performance (Winters, 2017). It differentiates itself from traditional theater by providing agency: an active role for you to create your own identity. You can observe, engage, and interact with the fictional world and the actors within it, often in any way you’d like. Further, interactions can be on a personal level, an intimate exchange between living people. These allow for choices that have the potential to ripple throughout the narrative, influencing further actions without real consequence. What you share can be deeply personal and what they respond with can inhabit your mind far after the show ends. It is a playground that engages participants in a meaningful way.
When I asked Bryan Bishop, senior reporter at The Verge, what immersive theater was to him, he explained that “immersive theater represents freedom. To explore. To play. Freedom to step outside the bounds of my day-to-day life and wander into something unexpected, thrilling, even dangerous. It’s an opportunity to look into the mirror and wonder who I can be, and discover if I have the courage to do what it takes to become that person.” Further, it provides an opportunity to become part of a narrative and offers the thrill of discovery. Each world holds so many secrets, mysteries, and moments just waiting to be discovered. Once you fall in love with immersive theater, you’ll want to keep coming back to find new fictions that resonate with your being.
“Immersive theater represents freedom. To explore. To play. Freedom to step outside the bounds of my day-to-day life and wander into something unexpected, thrilling, even dangerous. It’s an opportunity to look into the mirror and wonder who I can be, and discover if I have the courage to do what it takes to become that person.”
– Bryan Bishop
Recommendations to Newcomers
Immersive theater can be intimidating upon starting out. With a varied range in intensity and in vulnerability required, often people don’t know where or even how to start. First, I would recommend to do some research on events. While approaching an event blind can be exhilarating, immersive theater only works if the audience is comfortable enough to fully participate. An understanding of whether a show will be a good fit is thus paramount—and is why researching an event is so important. Most reviews keep information hidden as to not spoil any portion of the experience, but Haunting has made a compilation of what’s out there, what to expect, and if it’s the kind of show someone might be looking for. We leverage heavily from previous shows to do this assessment. Furthermore, there’s an intensity index if you’d like to use it to build up to more extreme shows or find similar shows at an intensity level that you enjoy. Check out the Immersions page for a compilation of this research. Once you become more attuned to what you are comfortable with, then stop researching shows–as the act of discovery is often a magical moment.
I asked members of the community what advice they’d have to newcomers, and unanimously, they responded that newcomers be present, be vulnerable, be emotionally open when going through events. Ben Taylor, stage manager for Alone & Screenshot Productions, responded that “immersive theater works best when you’re willing to give yourself over fully to the experience. Believe in the world. Believe in the people. Be emotionally open.” He emphasized that the physical intimacy of immersive theater requires more vulnerability from the audience as they are required to be active and can’t enjoy a performance passively. But Bishop said that was the same advice he received when he started out—he thought he knew exactly what it meant, but he was wrong. And that’s exactly the point.
If he could give any advice going back, it would simply be this: “play.” Forget about what you think you know, what embarrassments you may have, or even any expectations you have of the show, and just have fun! Bishop wishes he had heard this advice earlier because there’s “nothing that will get in the way of a rewarding immersive experience than being self-conscious and thinking too much about it.” When you engage in anything creative, your biggest enemy can be your own internal critic—telling yourself that you’ve made a bad choice, gone in the wrong direction, or made yourself vulnerable by cutting a little too close to the bone. The same thing is true with immersive experiences, and the best way to combat this is to just leave everything at the door and play along in as many different kinds of shows as you can. It may not come right away, but before you know it, everything else will drop away, and you’ll be there, in that universe, having fun, and making choices you’re inspired to make. That’s what “being present” is at its core.
As discussed above, there is a wide range of intensity. Stuart Chait points out that it’s important to “start off with the less intense ones” and that jumping into more involved and demanding shows “could make you uncomfortable or uncertain of how to proceed.” We recommend starting off with shows like The Speakeasy Society when trying immersive theater; Delusion or CreepLA when trying horror immersive theater; and Alone or Screenshot Productions when trying immersive theater where they can touch you. However, others participants like Tucker Barkley is glad he “dove in full-fledged to extreme [immersive experiences], but [he] does feel like it may have hindered [his] ability to enjoy the less intense shows as much.” Therefore, I recommend knowing yourself. Some people are cautious and like to build up to a desired intensity level (you don’t ever have to do an intensity level beyond what you are comfortable with), while others would rather jump into a show because they know they can handle it. Finally, it is also important to understand, as John Longino says, “not everything will please everyone, and that’s fine; let each experience be what it is and continue to support those that you find appealing.”
Some of the more intense shows will touch you, may grab you aggressively, or may even simulate terrifying situations. As these require precision and care on the actor’s part, it’s important to not fight against the experience, but rather move with it. However, giving yourself to an experience like this requires trust in the creators of an experience. If you do not feel like you can trust a company, then you should not do an experience. Research what others say about an experience, ask your friends, or email us (Haunting trusts all experiences on our Immersions page). And implicit in that trust is that a safe word exists for any shows with contact. Kimberly Stewart recommends that “if a show becomes dangerously uncomfortable, don’t be ashamed to use the safe word. That word is there for a reason. It’s peace of mind. It lets you give in to the experience, knowing that if anything begins to feel out of hand, you can immediately return to safety.” There is bravery in using a safe word.
Be Present, Be Vulnerable, Be Emotionally Open
Personal Impact of Immersive Theater
As Immersive Theater is a personal experience for each participant, I asked members of the community how it has impacted them on an individual level. The main responses fit into three main categories: 1) emotional response/catharsis; 2) artistic inspiration/revitalization; and 3) social bonding/community.
It’s this emotional expression that is a core to immersive theater. As an active medium, experiences aim to evoke a feeling, whether it’s one deep within or an external connection with an actor or idea. A connection with an actor can elicit a gambit of emotions. In Shine On Collective’s recent Devoted series, participants built a relationship with a girl named Cara. This included in-person events, but also extended to online messaging and the mailing of mementos. Stewart shared with me the closeness she had with Cara and the bond they formed over the experience: “Cara needed me so badly. She was vulnerable and allowed me to see the darkest parts of her, but, also the love.” And it was this bond that provided an emotional response when Cara ultimately died, and even speaking of this now, Stewart’s eyes get a little watery. Further, immersive theater often dons the lens of self-reflection. In a recent Screenshot Productions show, you were asked to face yourself in a mirror and a disembodied voice asked you to reflect upon what you saw. Jenny Hoover recounted her experience to me: “I burst into tears as I started giving myself the credit that I’ve never really given myself before. Telling myself I was a good person and that I would be okay. I even told myself I loved me—how often do you take the time to tell yourself that you love you?”
Immersive theater can prove to be a cathartic experience. Sarah Musnicky finds it difficult to emote in normal life. But in this medium where you are forced to share emotion, “the live events provide [her] with a very cathartic experience.” However, she also shared that trying to establish connections and how much personal information to share can feel stressful for her. Many reiterated her sentiment that sharing secrets with strangers in an event can feel liberating. Despite the fiction at the surface of all impactful immersive moments, there is a kernel of truth at the center, which resonated with many people. Tim Redman shared: “I’m in charge of too many things in my life, and [immersive theater] allows me not to be. I love that I can lose control of things for a while.” These situations allow people to feel free and escape from their normal life.
Immersive theater also provides “Emotion without Consequence”—the idea that some experiences place you in an emotional situation but ultimately there is no aftermath from those emotions. Thus, these situations can empower people, allow people to see a side of themselves they may not have seen, or give them an opportunity to experience emotions they may not feel often (or ever) in a controlled environment. Tom Kircher shared that immersive experiences “allow [him] to deal with or face insecurities or fears that [he’s] repressed or struggle to deal with.” By dealing with them in a safe environment, he can work towards getting over them and grow as a person. Beth Hipple said she is no longer afraid of certain things—she just “got her first tattoo” and even is “no longer afraid of spiders.” Danielle Portney sometimes fears choice in life–playing scenarios in her head and succumbing to indecision because her choice may be an incorrect one. Immersive theater provides a playground for her to make a wrong choice that has no lasting consequence and help her feel more comfortable making decisions. Finally, Crystal Gropp says that after an experience, “all of [her] senses come alive. [She] feels everything so much more.” To Crystal and people like her, day to day stresses melt away after an intense experience, providing a euphoria that enhances everything else and can last for days or even weeks.
“I burst into tears as I started giving myself the credit that I’ve never really given myself before. Telling myself I was a good person and that I would be okay. I even said I loved myself—how often do you take the time to tell yourself that you love you?”
– Jenny Hoover
One of the strongest responses I received when talking to people about immersive theater’s impact was how they felt artistically inspired or reinvigorated from these experiences. This ranged from participants to creators. Many people in the community transitioned from fans of the genre to creators of their own immersive theater experiences because of this inspiration—this includes Nicholas Sherwin Jr. of Screenshot Productions and Anna Mavromati of Shine On Collective. However, moving from participant to creator is not an easy choice and requires an immense passion—whether it is to create something artistic, tell a story, or bring awareness to a social cause. The organizers of Have You Seen Jake? reinforced that starting a new immersive theater endeavor “requires an intense dedication professionally, personally, and financially.” Apart from a select few, immersive theater is so small-scale, personalized, and underground that creators do not make a profit during a performance’s run. These projects are mainly passion projects for those who have an art they want to share with the world.
Beyond that of creators, immersive theater also has an artistic response in the participants as well. Maxwell Robison recounted a story to me in which he was in a very bad place in life. He had lost his creativity and just didn’t care for his work anymore. But he went through an intense immersive experience where he reflected on his life. He thought “If I am not afraid to die, then why would I be afraid to succeed,” and the lasting effect of that realization is still pushing him in his work today. Brad Ruwe shared a similar story in which he was at a crossroads in his life and career. After an involved discussion with a character where they discussed passion in life and work, it “lit a fire under [his] ass to push himself into applying for his dream job.” Sharing something personal with an actor and learning about your wants and dreams through the experience was a common theme among participants. Finally, Musnicky shared with me that these experiences made her start drawing again and Julie Rei Goldstein shared that a decision she made in an experience had consequences she was not prepared for and thus, forced her to be more self-aware in choices she makes in her life. These inspirations can range from life-altering to small afterthoughts—but immersive theater does find a way to stick with you long after a show is complete.
Creators need an immense passion for immersive theater to create something artistic, tell a story, or bring awareness to a cause.
Part of the emotional growth and catharsis comes from discussions with the community. Some of my most memorable moments are gathering with friends after an experience, having a drink, and discussing what each of us experienced. “What happened in that scene for you? Which door did you chose?” The choose-your-own-adventure style of some immersive experiences lends itself perfectly to discussions and theorizing over a drink with friends. Both The Tension Experience and Have You Seen Jake? have led to the formation of very close communities that some refer to as “families” in which monthly meet-ups are commonplace. Both communities (and there is plenty of overlap) have active message boards filled with philosophical conversations, bountiful theories, and plenty of inside jokes. Pete Metzger reminisced that one of his favorite memories was meeting up with friends for an all-day scavenger hunt organized by Alone, in which his group solved puzzles together and theorized on what the Enola Foundation truly was. Moments like this are ones that truly help bond a community together.
Furthermore, immersive theater bonds a community together quicker than most other passions/hobbies out there. And there is a scientific backing back for this. Vulnerability and loss of control (key tenets of immersive theater) are two main facilitators of creating a deep bond between two people. These are inherent in most forms of immersive theater, but when looking at events that push you out of your comfort zone (especially extreme haunts), the levels of fear, anxiety, and stress really push people into a vulnerable state with no control. This begets close friendships and bonds between people. Thus, whether it’s caused by stress-induced vulnerability or just opening up to others, immersive theater facilitates deep connections with friends.
Finally, this community is filled with gracious, accepting, encouraging, and supportive people. On The Tension Experience forum, Kimberly Stewart, Sean Rich, and other committed community members spent hours welcoming new members and privately answering questions and inquiries. Solving puzzles prior to Alone events brought together the community to help encourage those who had trouble with them. But this community also extends beyond just the participants, it also includes the writers, directors, and actors involved in these productions as well. Sherwin discussed the importance of cross promoting each other’s work and sharing resources like actors, techniques, and rehearsal & performance space. The immersive theater community is a complete circle with everyone that falls in love with this medium paying it forward and spreading the word, one by one.
Some of my most memorable moments are gathering with friends after an experience, having a drink, and discussing what each of us experienced.
Immersive experiences may touch you emotionally in profound ways and may even change the way you see yourself in the world. The people that I spoke to formed bonds with characters that felt real and became engrossed in narratives so dense that they cause favorite films to pale in comparison. They made lasting friendships, conquered fears and insecurities, and embraced professional dreams. Audience members ranged from intellects who loved theories and logic to emotional ones who adored craft, style, and narratives—and every mixture of the two. But the end game for immersive theater are the feelings that you are left with following an experience—the good or bad, joy or pain, fear or wonder. It is an art-form that brings out the humanity in a person. To end with a quote from Ben Taylor: “Immersive theater is not just a story you heard, it’s a story you lived.”