A Theater Without Qualities

A Theater Without Qualities

Immersive theater has no real style—except to fetishize its look.


What happens in a typical immersive performance makes the curtain call improbable. The proceedings—part theatrical event, part bacchanal—have very little in common with conventional stage drama. Immersive theater takes place, as it has in New York City, London and Sydney over the last few years, without a proscenium or stage of any kind, in deserted warehouses and hospitals, improvised hotels and film studios, clandestine bars and nightclubs. An audience is usually either herded into groups or scattered, sent out on a two- or three-hour self-guided detective hunt through clots of elaborately outfitted, interconnecting rooms. What passes for a story is assembled, and in the loosest possible way, inside a multilevel, fully functioning theater set: hidden passageways, scraps of newspaper, handwritten letters, unlit corridors, empty parlors and bedrooms are as perplexing as the packs of wandering actors, singers and dancers who, unheralded and for unpredictable amounts of time, convey through rations of song and speech a ramshackle plot.

Immersive events, which cannot properly be called plays (just as they cannot properly be called musicals, operas, happenings or dance pieces, though they contain many elements of each), presume an audience acquainted with a peculiar canon of source materials. Elizabethan drama, Hollywood movies of the 1940s and ’50s, the vaudeville skit, Gothic novels, Hale’s Tours and Scenes of the World—amusements that appeal to seemingly disparate sensibilities are gathered together and ratified as the chief, clamorous heritage of the immersive theater. Immersives also demand nothing less than succumbing to a fantasy of infinitude. Each room is a colossal cabinet of curiosities designed to be devoured in an exhaustless, fascinated stare. And, like the Wunderkammer, whatever rouses the stare is finally less important, and maybe less interesting, than the continual sense of indiscriminate intrigue that gives each event its tonicity. This is one reason why it is difficult to talk about immersive performances as works of art; insofar as curiosity can ever have a claim on our experience, it will always be a blunting, paltry response to any number of situations. But as to whether curiosity can be a trait of a work of art—or an adequate reaction to the theater, film, literature and dance of recent years—remains to be answered.

The earliest examples of immersive theater are British. Punchdrunk, now among the most familiar theater companies staging immersive events, was founded in London in 2000; others, appearing as early as 1999, include Coney, dreamthinkspeak, Lundahl & Seitl, and the Louise Ann Wilson Company. In New York, Third Rail Projects, Stageworks Media, Woodshed Collective and the Civilians have been performing at different times since 2001, although it was undoubtedly the arrival in 2011 of Punchdrunk’s Sleep No More in Chelsea nearly a decade after its London premiere that more than anything helped popularize the idea of immersive theater in this country. Productions have been held inside opera houses (Beautiful Dreamer), churches (The Tenant and Be the Death of Me), department stores (Before I Sleep), art galleries (Infinite Conversation), sheep farms (The Gathering) and abattoirs (Underground). Adaptations are preferred to original scripts. Sleep No More, for instance, uses characters from Macbeth and Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca (although Hitchcock’s version may be the likeliest source, given the prominent use of the film’s score, heard throughout the performance). Other productions have drawn upon Hamlet, Crime and Punishment, The Cherry Orchard, The Magic Flute, The Duchess of Malfi, Alice in Wonderland, Büchner’s Woyzeck, Roman Polanski’s The Tenant and Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. The sources are conveyed indirectly, as when sections from Lewis Carroll are uncovered in the cabinets and drawers of Third Rail Projects’ Then She Fell; or they can be announced, overstated, as in the titles of the performances, such as Dominic Huber’s Hotel Savoy, from the novel by Joseph Roth.

Most of the action is dispersed across rooms cluttered with objects: suitcases, yellowing notebooks, taxidermic birds, glass jars filled with candy, rotary telephones, playing cards, cutlery and drinking glasses. Music—whether newly composed or adopted from old Hollywood movies—plays continuously from concealed speakers or from antique radios. At the performance of Sleep No More I attended in New York, there was no obvious relationship between the score and the rest of the event, and, with very few exceptions (a frenetic, strobe-lit dance-hall sacrifice and a ghostly, lip-synched version of Peggy Lee’s “Is That All There Is?”), music functioned as a tonic, heeded or discarded completely.

Immersive theater prizes a principle of instant disposability; any yellowed notebook, any rendition of Peggy Lee is a fugitive prop, doomed to narrative insignificance. In Sleep No More, three six-floor warehouses on West 27th Street, elaborately designed and christened the McKittrick Hotel, are densely stocked with rooms crammed with objects that only marginally have anything to do with what the audience may already know about Shakespeare’s play and Hitchcock’s film. The production is controlled less by a scenario or by its performers—as characters, they reveal very little, preferring to keep quiet—than by a viscous mood, anchored as it is to a solemn, unstinting lasciviousness. Like a multimillion-dollar peep show, Sleep No More promises an inevitable Big Reveal. It’s not uncommon to be approached, kissed, guided by the hand, winked at, petted or embraced by the actors, nor is it unusual for members of the audience to compete for their affections by chasing the performers, or by standing next to them or crowding in on their paths. But the halted gratification that comes with not being separated out for special treatment among an audience of anywhere from fifteen to 400 wandering people is different from what goes on during a striptease, which works only insofar as it turns a packed house into a solitary pair of eyes. Everyone, and therefore no one, is singled out, enthralled in a state of phantom singleness by a stage act that annihilates the rest of the room in one single flash of flesh.

There is hardly any consensus over what to call productions like Sleep No More. The name “immersive theater” is just one of several rival designations: “site-responsive performance,” “interactive theater,” “participatory event” and “audience-centered experience” are others. Regardless, these events are a recent addition to the long line of attempts—in the theater and in the arts more generally, and accelerating at the start of the last century—to put the audience at the dead center of an outrage, or to include an audience in the creation of a performance. The Futurist evenings, led by Marinetti, Mazza and Palazzeschi beginning in 1910, with their streetside poetry readings, music and irredentist speeches; the anarchic Dada syndicate at Cabaret Voltaire, thickened by the noise and nonsense speech of Hugo Ball and Tristan Tzara, who dreamed of setting up a “circuit of absolute unconsciousness”; Walter Gropius and Erwin Piscator’s unrealized total theater—“the goal of this theater,” as he put it, “is to overwhelm the audience”—with its elaborate rotating auditorium and film projections, abandoned in the late ’20s; the happenings and Fluxus events of Allan Kaprow, Claes Oldenburg, Robert Whitman and George Maciunas. Immersive theater follows a history of dissociated responses to the problem of how to put the audience to use.

* * *

Jean-Paul Sartre, writing in the 1940s, approached this problem as an extension of the larger, now-perennial debate about the relationship between theater and cinema. The theater, for Sartre, depends on a guarantee of “absolute distance” between the performers and the audience—distance being the prized domain of the opaque and anti-psychological presentation of character. (This is why Sartre calls Firmin Gémier’s 1918 production of The Taming of the Shrew, which had the cast pass through the orchestra aisles, a failure.) Unlike the “guided vision” of movies, depending as they do on proximity to the image, in the theater, Sartre insists, “I see with my own eyes and I am always at the same level and in the same place.” What Sartre called “participation” was his way of naming the closeness, the temporary enforcement of someone else’s point of view, that he thought typical of the film camera (his example of this, literal as it might be, is Lady in the Lake, a middling 1947 Robert Montgomery vehicle shot almost entirely from the perspective of its protagonist). The advantages of film are therefore the advantages of “a carnal relationship with an image, not merely knowledge of it.” But the stage drama maintained its pre-eminence in Sartre’s view; there was little room for what André Bazin would call, in an essay some years later, a “cinematographic theater.” The live drama, in Bazin’s account, “acts on us by virtue of our participation in a theatrical action across the floodlights,” although he doesn’t share Sartre’s conclusions. Instead, a rapprochement is in order: “One could well imagine a corresponding revolution on the stage which, without ceasing to be faithful to the spirit of the theater, would offer it new forms in keeping with modern taste and especially at the level of a great mass audience. Film theater is waiting for a Jean Cocteau to make it a cinematographic theater.”

Cocteau’s own view of cinema, restated by Bazin, as an “event seen through a keyhole” could be the leading metaphor of the immersive event. We are teased by the possibility of a moving-picture show on the other side of any door. Being able to watch means consenting to anonymity (in Sleep No More, masks are distributed to every person in the audience, and they are worn for the length of the evening). The Belgian filmmaker Jacques Feyder’s belief that ”everything can be transferred to the screen, everything expressed through an image” has become, with the onset of immersive theater, the expression of potentially any image through any event. When Felix Barrett, founder and artistic director of Punchdrunk, said in an interview that his productions sponsor “contact with the real world,” that they supply a necessary corrective to a world “viewed through the lens of a computer screen,” it should not be forgotten that he was speaking as the spokesman of an immensely intricate, overwhelmingly prankish genre of spectacle. Taking Barrett at his word ultimately means denying the closeness of his confections to the screen world. Sleep No More, like any immersive event, has the effect of a flat display extended into three dimensions: one often wants to swipe past, to scroll through to the subsequent picture. If cinema is an event seen through a keyhole, a secret movie in the making, then Barrett’s immersives are creations—saturated and lubricious—propped up by late images: what we get in Sleep No More are less the trappings of a possible film set than an assortment of visual qualities fully habituated to the screen, from certain films, commercial advertising and television. It would be redundant to take a picture of anything in Sleep No More: the impression is that the picture has already been taken, and taken repeatedly, long before the production ever began.

It is difficult to identify the style of these events; there may be, in fact, no real style to speak of at all. Immersive theater instead fixates on the logic of the look, which is distinct from a style in that it forgoes sensibility—the sensibility of the dramaturge, the painter or the filmmaker—in favor of the template (like a website), the visual preset (as with Hipstamatic). A look can evoke, but never originate, a style; it varnishes an object with an instant expression, drawn from a familiar source (the Kodachrome snapshot, film noir, Technicolor musicals) that can be reproduced endlessly and without variation.

Both looks and experiences—the kinds on offer in the immersive production—are instigators of curiosity. And curiosity, once it becomes the dominant response, neutralizes whatever summons it. Thus the aptness of Barrett’s remark, “We don’t want people to say ‘I went to the theater last night.’ We want them to say, ‘this happened to me last night.’” The performance in a theater without qualities can be anything its audience wants it to be—and, therefore, perhaps nothing at all.

* * *

What may be the most remarkable example of immersive theater to appear recently in New York can be found not in a former warehouse or supper club, but in a museum. One is asked to plunge beneath the street; a narrative is designed by portions of crumbled architecture and in the shape of dark, crowded wedges of space. In any given room, images—some projected onto walls in a slideshow chronology, others tacked down in plexiglass encasements—either eulogize or convey a monstrous, imperishable dread. Recordings of police sirens and telephone answering-machine messages are perpetual, as are the surveillance videos of Mohamed Atta and Hani Hanjour walking through metal detectors at the Portland and Dulles airports. In one room, a Lower Manhattan storefront has been preserved: a display of hanging shirts, sweaters and blue jeans (“Sale: $29.99”), covered in ash, recalls a contemporary art installation, as do any number of other artifacts throughout the 9/11 Memorial Museum. An art installation, by the way, is usually either built for a single person—namely, the artist, as when Dawn Kaspar created her own fully functioning studio for the duration of the Whitney Biennial a couple of years ago—or administered to an audience in pieces, like the thousands of chocolates handed out during Oscar Murillo’s recent show at the David Zwirner Gallery in New York, which re-created a candy factory from the artist’s hometown. Immersive theater is simply the premise of installation art pushed to its limit: an enormous gallery of looks.

One leaves the indulgent, living-color gruesomeness of the 9/11 museum schooled in a witless cosmogony. The world we’re presented isn’t the whole world, not quite. Its circumference measures the extent of a few familiar feelings, unfurled as the meager official response to a catastrophe that, like any genuine work of immersive theater, was so often compared to a movie.

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