Immersive Theater and Non-Linear Design

Presented by: Lauren Prisco

Immersive Theater is a relatively new form of performance that relies heavily on the interaction between spectators, actors and a large-scale installed environment. Audience members are mobile throughout, and are encouraged to explore, touch, and interact with the interior elements as a way to enhance their experience with the narrative. “Immersive theatre...makes use of cleverly structured interiors and ingenious invitations for them to explore, addresses their bodily presence in the environment and its effect on sense making, and teases them with the suggestion of further depths just possibly within reach” (White, 2012, p.233). The rise in popularity for this form of theater has also engaged a new type of audience. A participation study by Markusen & Brown (2014) reveals “that theater-goers increasingly value venues, not just performances, challenging owners and directors to curate settings as part of their offerings” (p. 866). This conclusion brings to question why lesser attention has been paid to the actual design of these alternative venues, as it continues to be proven that strategic design is one of the most critical elements in the success of an immersive theater production. While little analysis has been done from an interiors perspective, we do recognize the trend away from the traditional theater venue. Industrial sites and large, vacant spaces provide the perfect template for molding a plot-specific interior. By beginning with a shell of a building, designers have the ability to layer spaces, architectural elements, and design details in order to create an interior narrative complimentary to the story’s plot. This type of layered interior allows a patron to decide their unique path, through which they will follow over the course of the performance. Knowing each spectator will emerge with a different experience, an interior designer is challenged to create an environment with limitless options and intrigue. This thesis will explore the idea of designing a venue that specifically supports an immersive theater production, and considers whether a venue can be created before a narrative is chosen. Research will involve examining the work of dynamic production companies specializing in immersive theater, with specific attention paid to London-based Punchdrunk. As a pioneer in the field, Punchdrunk has produced numerous theater experiences in which the lines between performer, spectator and space are constantly fluctuating. Projects like The Duchess of Malfi, set in a decommissioned pharmaceutical headquarters in the London’s docklands, and Sleep No More, currently running at the McKittrick Hotel in New York City, will serve as primary projects of reference. Preliminary results indicate that space and movement become important tools in experiencing immersive theater. “Space functions as a plateau on which spectators become nomadic subjects immersed in its intensity, hence creating the conditions for this space to be perceived as being ‘in motion; as a site that constantly changes character and dynamics” (Papaioannou, 2015, p. 167). Strategic placement of rooms, hallways, detours and design elements allow for a tactile, physical and emotional plot progression for the spectator. The allure of discovery and the fear of a missed observation propels spectators forward, encouraging movement within the space in an attempt to uncover and encounter the next plot twist. Also clear is the overwhelming success of this theater trend, and the amount of people reached through curiosity and intrigue. “The commercial success of Sleep No More and its infiltration of the zeitgeist have spawned a new wave of productions that find traditionally passive audiences open and even eager for participatory events” (Neher, 2016, p.109). This concept is a powerful opportunity for design, through art, to influence and challenge a new demographic of theater-goers.

References:

  • Markusen, A., & Brown, A. (2014). From Audience to Participants: New Thinking for the Performing Arts. Analise Social, 49(213), 866-883. Retrieved from http://proxy.library.vcu.edu/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&AuthType=ip,url,cookie,uid&db=a9h&AN=101759210&s
  • Neher, E. (2016). The New Immersive Theater. Hudson Review, 69(1), 108-114. Retrieved from http://proxy.library.vcu.edu/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&AuthType=ip,url,cookie,uid&db=a9h&AN=115178713&site=ehost-live&scope=site
  • Papaioannou, S. (2014). Immersion, ‘Smooth’ Spaces and Critical Voyeurism in the Work of Punchdrunk. Studies in Theatre & Performance, 34(2), 160-174. doi:10.1080/14682761.2014.899746
  • WHITE, G. (2012). On Immersive Theatre. Theatre Research International, 37(3), 221-235. doi:10.1017/S0307883312000880
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