The following is a editorial by staff members with input from many members of the immersive theatre community. It is intended to encourage opinion sharing, open discourse, and conversation amongst our readers on safety and regulation.
Art is designed to make us feel, and great art makes us feel strongly. Whether it’s the betrayal of a character in The Lust Experience, the fear of entering the unknown during Santu Deliria’s Inductio for the first time, or the heartbreak of seeing your friend dead at the end of Have You Seen Jake, immersive theater has the power to make these emotions in fictional worlds feel real. That’s the beauty of it; it’s raw, unadulterated and has the power to push each of us in ways passive entertainment could only dream of doing.
But if people begin to over-regulate this art form in the name of safety, it has the potential to compromise the power and integrity of an experience.
First, let’s get this out of the way: safety is paramount in an immersive show. No one will ever argue that point. Creators and fans alike are working to make immersive theater as safe as possible by mitigating risk—and while imposing a set, uniform list of rules and regulations is one way to lessen that risk, it is not the best way. It only serves to restrict the art and remove the agency of its audience.
That autonomy is essential to art, and the audience that attends immersive theater deserves the freedom to make their own decisions. Imagine how a twist ending would be neutered because a production is made to warn that a show “may contain death” beforehand. Being told of all potential thematic elements in a show, no matter how “dangerous” they may be, only serves to compromise the art.
Furthermore, when discussing safety, what constitutes an unsafe experience? Is it being aggressively handled? Being driven blindfolded in a car? Meeting a stranger on a street corner? Or how about, more appropriately, an un-mopped spilled drink on the floor of a venue? All experiences, like life itself, carry some level of risk—and what one audience member considers risky in a production could be regarded as completely innocuous by another. It’s impossible to predict each person’s reaction to a production unless you are that person. That is both the magic and the challenge of immersive work.
In theory, it would be an interesting concept if productions had a “safety coordinator” watching all physically risky encounters. But in practice, that could cause its own set of issues. How is one qualified for this role? What would a training, validation, or certification process look like? Who declares they are the authority to qualify the coordinators? Does this entity take on liability if something goes wrong with a pre-approved safety coordinator? Creators are well attuned to their shows, dress rehearsals and test runs are proven to identify and reduce problems. Early issues are also detected and voiced by a vigilant and active community and by writers and reviewers who are first and foremost fans and participants.
Having a well-trained coordinator may also be great for large scale productions that can afford it, but it hurts smaller productions that don’t have the budget or staff to support a full-time coordinator on site. This method also favors already established companies while putting an additional burden on new experiences. More seasoned creators who have spent years developing a solid infrastructure weren’t asked to adhere to these restrictions in their early days. New artists should be given the same chance, free from excessive judgment and with access to the full support and unconditional amplification of their voices. Denying new companies a platform and engagement opportunities, unless they stretch themselves thinner with added responsibilities, potentially paying more money when there isn’t any, or eliminating the mystery/give-up trade secrets, potentially threatens to make the next generation of immersive artists either inaccessible to the audiences that would follow them or too timid and unsure of their own potential to make an impact.
These extra hoops could also inspire a level of reverse censorship. Afraid of angering a regulatory body and/or the added time or monetary strain that could come from adherence, innovation or creativity could be stymied as creators avoid subject matter or types of audience interactions that they fear will automatically raise red flags and draw extra scrutiny and invasiveness. The more control is added, the less artistic risk is taken.
At Haunting, we don’t aim to regulate or control anything; our safety efforts are focused on the education of the immersive community, and ensuring the right expectations are set for any experience. Immersive theater only works if the audience is comfortable and participates, so understanding whether a show is a good fit is essential. As such, Haunting utilizes an intensity scale and detailed company profiles for most immersive companies in the genre; these can explain how intense or extreme a production is, the level of contact, and general themes from a given company. This reduces actor risk by ensuring the right audience is at their shows and reduces audience risk by aligning intensity levels and interest.
When you attend an event, you are placing your trust in the hands of a creator. We want artists to innovate, and we trust you to make your own decision if an experience is a good fit because you are the expert on yourself. If you’re unsure of an experience, there are many resources available to you: read our reviews, look at previous shows, talk to your friends, and ask the community in our Slack forum. If you still have questions, email the creator; most are more than happy to ease your fears without revealing specific content.
It’s important to note that not all experiences are made for everyone—and that’s okay. Every audience member is different. Some like fantasy worlds to explore, while others want an aggressive horror experience. It’s your choice if you want to do it all, try to push yourself with more intense events, or just want to stick to what you know and enjoy.
Understand, we are by no means advocating a lack of guidelines for common-sense physical safety in experiences. We will always strive to investigate safety issues and report any risks we find to our community. Knowing this, we would like our readers to know what productions are available to them and use the resources found here, found with creators, and found amongst their peers to judge whether or not an experience is right for them. We will personally vet as many shows as we can, with the knowledge that the “unknown” is inherent in the appeal of immersive theatre; but we cannot in good conscience act as gatekeepers, denying our community access to what shows are available or denying the chance for creators who have given us no reason to doubt them the chance to connect with an audience. We believe you can use what this community has provided to make intelligent choices.
This article’s intention is to start a conversation, and to provide a counterpoint to those who may disagree. An educational ratings system agreed upon mutually respectful conversations between promoters and creators in the interest of audience safety and awareness is unquestionably important. It is precisely this service that Haunting provides— setting expectations for all participants in partnership with the artists we hope to support. But one-way guidelines that restrict access for those who do not comply and over-regulating an art form that is still in its infancy is simply coddling a community that does not need, nor want, to be coddled.
Haunting is, and will always be, a home for artists and audiences looking to try something new, push boundaries, and have the freedom to make their own choices.