What is immersive theatre? Jonathan Mandell of HowlRound writes, “Immersive theatre creates a physical environment that differs from a traditional theatre where audiences sit in seats and watch a show unfurl on a proscenium stage with a curtain.” The Space, a performing arts and community center in East London, contends that immersive theatre requires the audience to play a role. Whether immersive theatre requires an audience to move with the action is a matter of contention. Two productions I’ve attended in the past year did not require the audience to move. I contend they were immersive pieces. More on those later.
I’ve posed the question of immersive theatre because of an article posted by St. Louis Magazine online: “St. Louis Gets its First Taste of Immersive Theater with ‘Hamlet: See What I See.’” My gut reaction to this headline was “What the f***?” Apparently, the fact-checkers at St. Louis Magazine are taking some time off. They’ve missed at least four immersive experiences in the past year here in St. Louis: ERA’s Trash Macbeth, YoungLiars’ The Burrow, A Midsummer Night’s Dream with Cocktails & Curtain Calls, The Phaedra Phestival? Surely you can’t have ignored OnSite Theatre Company!
Maybe this was a one-off? An accident? A quick Google search about The Immersive Theatre Project garnered answers. In addition to St. Louis Magazine, both the Riverfront Times and Alive Magazine had similar messages: St. Louis was getting its first glimpse of immersive theatre AND the world was getting a premiere of immersive Shakespeare. Very wrong on both counts.
Before I go any further, this needs to be said: I enjoyed Hamlet: See What I See. It was a well-done treatment of the text and a fun time despite my allergic reaction to ash—It was a bad day to run out of Zyrtec…—I loved the feeling of excess and the idea we were court spectators throughout. It had its problems, but I am here neither to review nor critique.
I am here to address the issue of whether this was St. Louis’ first immersive theatre experience. As I and many others (Ms. Judith Newmark of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch among them) have pointed out, no it was not.
How would we know this? As someone who frequents theatre in St. Louis, I have been to most of those immersive shows I mentioned above. Let’s talk through them.
- Trash Macbeth with ERA – After receiving our tickets into the space (a goblet if memory serves) and a piece of script, the audience milled about the lobby area of The Chapel, our venue for the evening. Periodically, Emily Post (portrayed by Ellie Schwetye) would appear to announce that the doors to the dining room would soon open. When they were finally opened, Ms. Post directed a different member of the cast to seat us. Some of us sat at a feast table and some sat in the pews along the walls. The actors interacted with us, asking after our evening and giving us tidbits of information about their lives. When the action of the play began, we the audience were addressed as if we were guests in the room. Remember the script I mentioned? Turns out, we were a guest, King Duncan. Our scripts directed us to wait to speak until we heard the ringing of a bell. It came and as if we were reciting a prayer, the entire audience spoke the words of King Duncan. We had become the Royal We.
- The Burrow with YoungLiars – This production breaks the idea that audience must play a role but surpasses the idea that immersive theatre must seek to create a physical environment. After arriving at the Centene Center for the Arts, the audience is taken down into the basement down a staircase, through a hallway that will flood should it rain, through an opening in the foundation of the two buildings that make up the center, and finally into a small room. The room was beautiful. Kristin Cassidy has created a mole’s home using brown crate paper she has worked by rolling in it and painstakingly place all around the room. The square box has become an elongated oval. Mismatched seating and suitcases littered the space. It is tight, dimly lit, and creates the feeling of being underground.
- A Midsummer Night’s Dream with Cocktails & Curtain Calls – A pub crawl. This experience was a pub crawl. For me, how different! How fun! Shakespeare and alcohol? A perfect match. Each act of the play took place in a different bar. As we made our way from bar to bar, characters would continue the action of the previous act and set up for the next act. I wish I could recall more, but there was a lot of alcohol. Suffice to say, it was a very different experience.
- The Phaedra Phestival – I missed this one. I was very sad to. A wedding, a panel discussion, and a phuneral. I’ve heard traditional narrative was erased altogether in favor of creating a “real” environment. A friend of mine, Taylor Gruenloh of Tesseract Theatre, attended the wedding. As a huge fan of narrative and story, he was bemused by the wedding. Taylor doesn’t mind the actual ceremony part of a wedding, just the reception. So, when the ceremony was done and the reception began, he wasn’t so keen on the idea. Taylor spoke to a member of the company producing the wedding. She said, in paraphrase, “Relax. There’s no narrative. It’s meant to give the feeling of a wedding.” Taylor left after that. After all, it’s what he would do at an actual wedding.
I’ve heard tell of other moments of immersive theatre in St. Louis. OnSite Theatre Company did it for years before going on hiatus. I’ve heard tell of a Dracula production inside the old Lemp Brewery. There’ve probably been others that haven’t been talked about.
I truly wish Kelly Hummert and her company Rebels and Misfits much success. By various reports, she has three to five more immersive productions planned. Keep them coming! Just give credit where credit is due: Lucy Cashion, Jeff Skoblow, and many others.
I enjoyed Hamlet: See What I See. It was a stunning feat and an engaging piece of immersive theatre. It was not, however, the first.
Sean Michael is a local actor and director, founder of The Scene Shop, and executive director of Tesseract Theatre. He has been seen on stages from St. Charles to Grand Center. See what’s next for him on his website.
**DISCLAIMER: The opinions expressed in this post are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of THE SCENE SHOP.