From Secret Cinema to the Crystal Maze: Why Immersive Theatre is So Damn Popular Now

By James O Malley on at

Later today, the Rage Virus will be once again released in London. Still a few years shy of 28 Years Later, the latest Secret Cinema immersive experience will be kicking off at a secret location somewhere in the capital. This time the event will be themed around the cult 2002 horror film 28 Days Later, and will see audiences dodging zombies in a recreation of post-Rage London before grabbing the popcorn for a screening of the film itself.

Secret Cinema isn’t the only company that does this sort of thing. Just last month, a Kickstarted interactive recreation of the Crystal Maze gameshow opened its doors near Kings Cross, and Goosebumps Alive brought the classic kids horror franchise to Waterloo’s subterranean vaults. That's before you consider the global success of immersive theatre companies like Punchdrunk, or the insanity that is You Me Bum Bum Train. What’s clear is that immersive theatre has become increasingly popular in recent years and has continued to blur the line between performance and a game of playground make-believe. But why? What makes experiences like this so compelling? We asked some experts to find out.

Secret Cinema's huge Star Wars event

Why So Popular?

Tom Salamon, the writer and director of Goosebumps Alive puts the success of the new form down to it being a more “visceral” form of entertainment. “So much of entertainment is passive, and happens at you—film, theatre, music—people began to look for ways to place themselves in the middle of the action”, he told me, adding that “it’s akin to being in the movie as opposed to sitting in a darkened theatre, watching a screen.”

Creative producer Andy Franzkowiak, who has previously helmed a number of immersive productions agrees: “you leave an immersive theatre production with a different story to tell to others who came with you”, he explains. “Many shows involve one on one experiences that allow for extra titillation/excitement [too].”

Andy also points to Punchdrunk, which pioneered the form in the early 2000s. But he also thinks that part of the rise is not just due to audiences - but the appeal of immersive theatre to performers themselves. “From a practitioner point of view it is full of experimentation and utilizes a multitude of art forms, a great space to be in when creating.”, he says.

All The World’s A Stage

So what makes immersive theatre so compelling? How do the people behind it make their productions work - and how do they handle the differences from the traditional stage?

When making an immersive production, it isn’t simply a case of the actors stepping off the stage, according to Alistair Spalding, the Artistic Director and CEO of Sadler’s Wells theatre.

“It changes everything because the audience member is no longer confined to a seat, watching a show on stage. Artists and producers in productions like these have to predict much more carefully what the audience will do – how they’ll react, move, or behave. This adds an extra layer of dramaturgy because you’re not just directing the performers, you’re also directing the audience.”

“In immersive you’re always looking to place the audience in heightened, larger than life scenarios and give them a feast for the senses. It doesn’t always have to be active or participatory, but you want to be touching and hearing and seeing things all around you”, explains Tom.

“It’s entering a different universe that’s all encompassing for a few hours; surrounding, enveloping and engrossing. In Goosebumps Alive we wanted to build locations both grand and intimate—it ranges from the audience placed in the middle of a massive cornfield with gruesome scarecrows that come to life, to a little tent in the woods meeting a runaway girl, to a mad scientist's basement laboratory filled with man-eating plants.”

One of the biggest challenges in any production is the audience - how do you get them to play along? Andy explains that in his experience, it is about “inviting them to participate in a moment, hold something, explore somewhere” - and this invitation must be decisive. “It’s amazing how quickly audiences will start to play along”, he says.

“Typical theatre tropes can also help, in terms of lighting and sound – their senses are heightened by anticipation, grab this anticipation by seamlessly welcoming them in and giving them a world to enter, with information and curiosity raising elements.”

Giving them the right information at the right time is also important, as it helps establish the ‘rules of engagement’, and teaches the audience how to interact with the world that has been created. Referring to an earlier project, “Deadinburgh”, in which an unknown pathogen has taken over Scotland’s capital, Andy described how he did this.

“We gave the audience roles within the project, as a collective they had a duty to the story, either as UN agents or the last few healthy citizens of Edinburgh. Each of these roles has a standard, recognised set of rules that people immediately assume, with all the hierarchical, societal norms.”

“If the moment they step into your world isn’t designed well then it is very hard to pick up the illusion and momentum – why are they now in another world. It is sometimes best to discombobulate, make them feel uncomfortable, senses are up, and the audience member’s attention is totally committed, looking for clues, excitement and safety of a confident character to hand themselves over to.”

“You cannot rely on the audience playing along, so it’s a fine line – but there should be a pace to the world, that is set by the action, soundtrack and the need of the audience to understand what is going on.”

Telling a story in an immersive situation can also be a challenge. Unlike on the stage, where the action takes place in front of you, in a linear fashion, in an immersive experience ensuring that the audience encounters all of the parts of the narrative (and in the right order) isn’t a given.

As Tom explains, this ‘problem’ actually suits Goosebumps Alive rather well, as the show is structured like a collection of short stories.

“The challenge of non-linear storytelling is that three act structure goes out the window. Audiences will experience it in different orders, so instead of arcs, you try to create moments. The trick is to orchestrate vignettes that can be seen in different sequence, yet culminate in a cohesive fashion that ties together the story and feeling in a satisfying way. Of course, with short attention spans, you can set up a 10 minute moment and then have your audience move on to a new section without being concerned about them getting bored; there’s always something new right around the bend.”

Andy concurs, saying that “If there are crucial plot points this must involve shepherding the audience to the right place, and with the right tools and knowledge to interact with this moment.”

The Future

Immersive productions are becoming ever more ambitious - but where will it go next? I asked the producers whether they thought VR could be the next leap forward.

“VR technology is developing at a quick clip and I’m sure will provide engrossing experiences in ways we can’t imagine right now,” Tom told me - though Alistair is slightly more sceptical and told me that “There’s a lot of talk about virtual reality being the future of things like gaming and digital media. I’m not sure quite to what extent this will be the case in theatre performance.”

Andy though is already at this experimental stage, and is currently working on Energy Renaissance, as part of Utopia 2016. This is a production that will use VR to help audiences visualise the area around Somerset House as though it has been decarbonised.

But VR isn’t an end in itself. “The technology has to help tell the story, and not just be a gimmick’, Andy says, likening the use of VR to 3D as a tool that if not used correctly, can just come across as gimmicky.

More broadly, Tom has been thinking even bigger - taking these experiences even further away from their traditional theatrical origins. “Long form experiences for single participants that unfold over weeks or months will emerge, with people in cities hundreds of miles apart participating in synchronicity toward a common goal or leading to spaces where simultaneous events occur.”

“Imagine someone in the West Village of New York City working with a stranger in Montmartre in Paris, sending information back and forth, helping each other to decode locks that when opened, provide a synched-up simultaneous event for the two of them. It’ll provide a world community for like-minded people.”

Alistair seems to agree that this sort of increased interactivity is the future. “What I am certain of is that we’ll continue to see a trend of theatre-goers being invited to be inside the work somehow, to feel like they have some sort of power over the outcome. We are afforded so much choice and control over various elements of our lives nowadays that we want the same flexibility and variety to be available in our theatre performance experiences.”, he explained.

It certainly doesn’t seem like this new artform is going to go away any time soon, and all indications point to Secret Cinema’s 28 Days Later being a huge success. In fact, you could say that it looks set to be all the Rage.