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.