Attention is a highly prized commodity. Movies become background noise during dinner, interrupted by quickly checking up on social media and rapidly typing some response out. Youtube videos lasting over thirty seconds are skipped through to see the punchline as fast as possible, before moving on to the next one, and the next one, and the next one. With so many contenders vying for two seconds of our time, our already short attention spans can feel like they are being quartered. In a world where it gets increasingly difficult to catch our eye, moments where you’re in the moment and fully focused are rare and precious. Maybe in part as a countermovement to all this, ‘immersive’ has become a huge buzzword these last years in theatre and creative communities. So – let’s explore the subject for a bit.
A bit of a heavy opener, I agree. But bear with me. The push that lead me to write this happened two days ago. My sleep schedule was in a bit of a mess – I fell asleep on the couch and ended up wide awake at midnight. So, I launched a game I had been saving for a moment just like this: What Remains Of Edith Finch. You play Edith, a seventeen year old girl who travels back to the house of her childhood to learn about her family, to discover the stories her mother had kept from her. In surreal, dreamlike sequences, you are transported into the minds and memories of family members, and ultimately, you find out how they disappeared or perished. I played through the game in one go, fully transported into the world of the Finches, and it was utterly, utterly beautiful.
What Remains Of Edith Finch
There are a good number of other examples of these first person narrative adventure games, or “walking simulators” as they are sometimes coined. In Everybody’s Gone To The Rapture you explore a 1980s English village where everyone has mysteriously disappeared. Effectively starting at the end of the world, light trails lead you towards lingering remnants of interaction between the villagers, as you slowly find out how the events transpired. Firewatch has you following the story of Henry, who has accepted a completely isolated job in a huge Wyoming nature reserve in order to get away from a painful period in his life. Your only contact is your supervisor, Delilah, whom you converse with via walkie-talkie. As you patrol the reserve, strange things begin to happen, and you are tasked with solving the mystery. In Gone Home, you play Katie, coming home after a year in Europe and finding her family’s house devoid of inhabitants. As you walk through the house, reading notes and triggering memories, you slowly piece together the story. Dear Esther, The Vanishing Of Ethan Carter, Here They Lie, they are all experiences that in greater or lesser extent strip down the game mechanics, and want to immerse the player in a world, an environment, to have them experience a deeper narrative, to have them form an emotional connection. Most often, they are played in a first person perspective – another step towards players being personally connected to the character and the story.
Because of the absence or reduction of elements like difficulty curves, the need for quick reflexes or antagonists, these experiences have somewhat divided the gaming community, with people dismissing them as boring or mundane. And, I can see why some would say that. Because in order for these games to work, you need to believe in the world, you need to be able to shed some of your natural scepticism, you need to open up to the characters, you need to be able to show empathy. It’s not a quick round of Doom to get your mind of things, it’s an emotional journey. With the right frame of mind, these experiences can be incredibly meaningful and valuable. They offer a glimpse into another world like the best books, series or movies do, but instead of being on rails, you are allowed to explore, to take your time and look around, to really become a part of a fictional world at your own pace.
My point is, these games are immersive experiences you can enjoy from the comfort of your home. You can sit in front of a screen, slap a pair of headphones on, and transport yourself into a carefully curated, beautiful world for you to explore. One thing however will always be missing – a human component, the ability to interact freely with characters, actual people standing in front of you, a real connection that is being formed. To actually step into a foreign world yourself, to become a character. And that is exactly what immersive theatre productions offer. Now, I will be the first to admit it – I have not done an awful lot of ‘regular’ immersive shows, and I’m far from an expert on the subject. However, the idea of entering a world, being able to interact with characters, of being a part of the story that is unfolding around you is something that appeals to me very much. As I have said before, I want to be immersed, to be surprised and to step into unknown territory. I don’t want the fourth wall to be pierced, I want it to be absent.
The Speakeasy Society – The Johnny Cycle – Part Three: The Living
Again, this isn’t easy. If “walking simulator games” force you to be present and to open up in order to truly enjoy them, immersive theatre ups the ante even more and really puts the audience on the spot, and that is something that is daunting to a lot of people, including to myself. There’s always a fear of ‘not doing it properly’, of giving an incorrect response, of social anxiety acting up. But important to remember – above anything else, immersive productions are a playground. You can play yourself, or you can take on a different persona, depending on the situation. Often, there are no wrong answers. Actors are trained in improvisation and cherish the fact that there are no set responses. It creates an organic and very real feel to the experience, no two shows will ever be the same. And from personal experience, if the show manages to pull you in, when you truly believe in the setting and you get to that point where you are able to let go of inhibitions, shame or anxiety, it’s a magical moment. That moment where you aren’t in a show anymore, but where you are experiencing an alternate reality.
I had that moment in The Last Dance, a production by Reuben Feels. The onset of the show, our introduction to the Institute, their rules and restrictions and goals, was good – but I still was experiencing a show, a theatre production. But, as everything began to escalate, and we were rebelling against the Institute, and we were starting to break the rules, something changed. This victorious feeling, this elation, it grabbed hold of me. I didn’t know a single person in that room, but we were all connected, we were all part of this strange universe that was unfolding in Hoxton Hall. It was incredible, and caused this warm glow that lasted well past the end of the performance.
Reuben Feels – The Last Dance
Mind, this complete immersion isn’t even necessary to enjoy the show, often, you can still be an onlooker of sorts, and have a great night out. Maybe there is a learning curve in how to fully get into immersive theatre. Maybe it takes a couple of shows before you can let go. I’m often not at ease in situations where I have to converse with characters. The very first time I had to interact and respond, I got flustered. In a show called Proscenium (Lundahl & Seitl), back in 2013, I was being led through a theatre with a blindfold and headphones on, listening to a story, unaware that I was able or allowed to talk and interact. At a certain moment, I was unexpectedly asked to imagine certain scenes and images, to tell the actor what I saw, and I drew a complete blank. It completely caught me by surprise. And it got me thinking, afterwards, about the possibilities, about how I could have shaped the show in a better way. But then again, this moment of uncertainty, when I was desperately rummaging through my brain in order to find an image that was ‘good enough’ – it created a very honest moment of its own. So, what I initially perceived as a failure really wasn’t. It was an experience that, to me, was very interesting to reflect upon. One of the things that made me perceive it as a failure was the fact that the person I was partnered with for that segment drew such an amazingly rich scene. He was painting a canvas in elaborate detail, describing colours, smells, how the sun felt on his skin. I thought to myself, wow, why couldn’t I give an answer like that? Later however, I found out that that person had already attended the show numerous times, coming back again and again, with a prepared monologue for a moment that was supposed to be spontaneous. I’d honestly much rather have my moment of surprise and panic, and my very bland answer, however silly it made me feel at the time.
So, yes, immersive theatre requires you to open up, to put yourself in a vulnerable position, but it is exactly that position that potentially enables such a profound, emotional impact. I think it played in my favour that during a lot of the shows I went through, I was alone. I had travelled to another country by myself, there were no familiar faces, there was no connection to my real life. No one who knew me, no “peer pressure” to act like my normal self. A minimal amount of distraction, no funny glances to a friend, no “oh wow, look at the situation we find ourselves in now” gesturing. There was a sense of freedom in that anonymity. It made it easier to give in to the performance, to adopt an alternate form of yourself that is able to enter the world of the theatre piece.
Clearly, it’s not easy to grab the attention of your audience and to fully transport them into the world you have shaped as a creator. One of the possible solutions is to completely shatter boundaries between audience and actors – by allowing the actors to touch you. It’s essentially a simple trick, but a hugely effective one. No other medium is capable of doing this to you, creating a real, physical connection to the performers. The intensity of interaction varies wildly. Experiences can utilise very gentle touches, like being led by the hand through a space, to connect you to a character. On the complete other end of the spectrum, horror simulations exist, where the characters are allowed to use a certain amount of force to place the audience in a situation that feels realistically dangerous. Basically, you get the chance to experience your own personal horror movie – and no means of terrifying you are off the table. They can focus on very physical aspects, or go a more psychological route. It allows you to live through absolute nightmare scenarios, in a completely safe and controlled way. It is like nothing you experienced before, and when done right, it makes for very, very powerful theatre.
Cracked vs Heretic
It speaks for itself that these experiences are not for everyone. Becoming a victim of physical and/or emotional abuse is about as far as you can go regarding putting yourself in a vulnerable position. I’ve read other articles on the subject stating people should begin with low intensity level immersive productions, and gradually build up according to the level they are comfortable with. Sounds like solid advice too. But, in my case, after a couple of somewhat immersive theatre productions and a contact haunted house or two, I jumped into the deep end, the way, way extreme deep end. I had read up on the concept of extreme haunted houses and full contact theatre, and it intrigued me immensely. And it worked for me. After the first show, I tumbled down the rabbit hole, and I still seem to be falling. I love the horror aesthetic, I love being nervous beforehand, giving up control, stepping into a scenario that is designed to scare the hell out of me, letting it all happen, and emerging on the other end, with new experiences that would baffle most people.
I think what I might be looking for in these extreme experiences, is the point where I truly forget that I am in a show. The point where I’m no longer aware I’m dealing with actors. I want these shows to make me feel like I’m in an actual nightmare. I don’t get a kick out of being tortured, contrary to what a lot of my friends and acquaintances seem to think. I want to be immersed in a world, where the physical connection to the actors serves a purpose. No mindless put-yourself-to-the-test games. Ideally, it should fit within a concept. Physical contact is a powerful tool to immerse an audience – especially when actors go this far out of your comfort zone. And, experiencing this type of show has taught me to let go more easily, to play along, and has allowed me to better enjoy a “standard” immersive production. It has facilitated my ability to let go of inhibitions, because after laying on a floor, bound, soaking wet, shaking, covered in dirt, there is not much deeper you can go in terms of giving in to an experience. Having to trust in the performers and allowing an intense physical connection, it has put everything in perspective.
Cracked vs Heretic
There is an interesting concept in psychology and neurobiology that is very relevant to these experiences: fast vs slow thinking. Your brain processes information in two distinct ways: First, there is a fast, instinctive way, allowing you to perform very basic tasks, allowing you to quickly judge situations in order to react accordingly, as quickly as possible. It makes it possible for us to quickly read emotions on someone’s face, to run up a set of stairs without calculating every step, and so many other things that we, literally, don’t consciously think about. Next to that, there is a more cognitive, more evolved, more analytical way of thinking, which happens a lot slower, and where more concentration and focus is needed. This concept was illustrated to me during Trylologi, a performance by a Danish brother-sister duo, combining magic tricks and their psychological explanation. At some point, one of the performers is sitting sideways towards the audience, with a large mirror between his legs. The reflection of one half of his body creates the illusion he is simply sitting there, without a mirror. And sitting like that, he starts to juggle. The balls, disappearing and reappearing from behind the mirror, it was mindboggling, for some reason. Obviously, I saw what was happening, but I couldn’t wrap my head around it. The rational, cognitive part of our brain knows what is going on, but watching the performance, the faster, instinctive system kept intervening, surprising me by the ‘impossibility’ of what I saw on stage.
Later, I realised that this concept was very related to extreme haunts. During these shows, you know that you are safe. You know you are dealing with actors, you know you won’t get hurt. It’s all just a show, and in a bit, you will be able to walk out, unharmed. Yet – the faster, more instinctive system in your brain is sounding the alarm. You are in danger, it seems to be yelling, loudly. Making it through certain parts of these shows requires, for me, to silence that instinctive response, and letting rationality win. And, this presents me with a problem. I don’t want to be thinking during these immersive pieces, I want to let it all happen. I want to act and react naturally. So – this might be what I’m looking for. That specific moment where instinct wins. Where I get so scared I cannot hold on to rationality. Unfortunately, I fear that that moment will also be the moment where I will use the safeword, effectively ending the show and the immersion. If that ever happens, I’m quite sure I will be devastated. But, I will have learned a thing or two about myself.
As of yet, I have not reached this point of no return. But, other interesting things have happened. The adrenalin rush you get through some of these experiences can be substantial, lasting way past the end of the show. You feel hyperaware. I have never been skydiving, but I suspect it might be similar? I’ve come out of shows just to go hug the actors, other participants, feeling so in awe, so happy. Other times, shows can leave you shellshocked. I remember me, sitting in my car, trying to regain my breath, puzzling together what had just happened. It had felt like a fever dream, and already I couldn’t remember a lot of the details. Even more spectacular – back in April, I experienced Cracked vs Heretic, an extreme show that lasted for six hours, and another horror experience with just a single day separating them. Basically, during these shows, you are flooding your brain with adrenalin, with dopamine, with endorphins. For a full week after those two shows, I couldn’t focus on daily life. I felt a longing for more, I was missing something, it kind of felt like flying home after a vacation and having to leave a holiday sweetheart behind. It might have been withdrawal symptoms? I wasn’t alone with these feelings. Everyone who had experienced Cr vs H couldn’t shake it. We kept coming together online, talking it over, not wanting to let go just yet. Later, I even realised we had collectively blocked out certain scenes. A short talk with the creators, a week or so later, was able to spark our memory. None of our group had had a recollection of these moments before and suddenly, with just a single sentence as a trigger, I could see the scene vividly, in full detail.
Cracked vs Heretic
That brings me to my final point. The people who are there with you. The talks you have afterwards. The mutual understanding, comparing experiences. The community it builds. I don’t want to go all soppy, but there is truth to it. Living through trauma and fear together binds people together. And talking about what you experienced with people who didn’t just isn’t the same. A couple of months ago, I traveled to another continent – and immediately, I found so many people I connected with. I felt completely at home. Extreme horror theatre really seems to bring people together.
I don’t really have a conclusion to all this. I love immersing myself in worlds and stories. If I watch a movie, I watch it in the dark with headphones on. If I read a book, I don’t want to be disturbed. Some people might be a bit apprehensive of attending immersive theatre, but ultimately, immersive theatre is just a continuation of ways to tell a story. It pulls you in. It’s powerful, it can elicit profound, emotional reactions, create true connections. And full contact theatre isn’t that different, in essence. These extreme horror experiences use methods that might go too far for some, but ultimately, the goal is once again to immerse you in a universe, to make you feel something real, to make sure you are completely present in the moment. From a book to an extreme haunt, they are all just trying to tell you a story.
If you want to read up even more about it, I would recommend these articles by Haunting: