The Drowned Man

Immersive Theatre at its Best

We’ve all done the Shakespeare plays, and we usually know exactly what to expect, even if they play an adapted, modern version. You sit in the National Theatre hall, the stage is right in front of you, and the players enter the stage at some point, have a series of dialogues,  perhaps some running or dancing, and at the end they’ll all take a bow. It’s actually not that different from going to one of those NT Live screenings, only it’s slightly more three-dimensional.

I dare to say that Punchdrunk's 'The Drowned Man' is the best promenade theatre piece I've seen so far.

I dare to say that Punchdrunk’s ‘The Drowned Man’ is the best promenade theatre piece I’ve seen so far.

However, you’d have had a different experience if you had gone to In the Beginning Was the End, a theatre production without a stage, without seats, and with no clear distinction between actors and audience. You’d have been left alone in the middle of the underground maze of passageways below the Somerset House, and ‘things’ would just ‘happen’ to you. Crazy scientist characters walk by, talk to you in strange languages, and pull you to the next room, where in a flooded office people are having a meeting underwater. The whole situation is just bizarre, although soon you begin to understand that you are the one in charge of how the play develops. It is an innovative way of storytelling, one that centres around the audience and its experience, instead of an immobile storyline. It’s much more interesting than seeing yet another version of Hamlet, because we all know how that ends.

Another fantastic example, and a much bigger production with a much bigger budget, was Punchdrunk‘s The Drowned Man. A promenade performance spread over three floors of an old warehouse, the set design was absolutely magnificent and done with a perfect eye for detail. Every room contained a vast array of storylines and secrets and the scale of the production made it impossible to follow or understand them all. Visitors – already slightly disoriented by the fact they’re wearing a mask – walk up and down the warehouse to follow actors into rooms and through magnificent sets (they built a whole forest for example), and come out equally confused and intrigued. Participating in the show feels like playing a live video game, where you walk alone through a dark set and don’t know what’s going to cross your path. The infinite number of options means each visitor’s experience is completely unique and irreplicable. I heard other guests say it was their seventh time attending the show, and they still hadn’t seen it all.

Absent was commissioned by Shoreditch Town Hall and LIFT Theatre Festival.

Absent was commissioned by Shoreditch Town Hall and LIFT Theatre Festival.

This autumn the makers of In the Beginning was the End (Dreamthinkspeak) are back with a new promenade show, called Absent. It is set in the bowels of Shoreditch Town Hall, which they turned into a glamorous old-fashioned hotel with some strange long-term guests. Through peepholes and mirrors you find yourself spying on the hotel’s most prominent guest, and slowly you find out there’s something wrong with her. Each room gives you more clues to what has led to her current state and  the producers have paid attention to every little detail. However, the whole play only features one live actress, the rest exists of videos and elaborate stage design, which does make it seem a little empty. Perhaps my expectations were raised too high after their previous show, but the ‘immersion’ I felt then is disappointingly absent here (hence the title?).

I wonder if those immersive promenade experiences could be applied to other art forms too? We all know Secret Cinema does a fantastic job with that already, bringing you inside a film by recreating the set around you and making intricate connections to scenes you’ll later see during the screening of that film. But could it be applied to more abstract art forms as well? Could one turn a book into a live story? I guess Alice’s Adventures Underground is an attempt at doing that. And what about creating an immersive sound piece? Even that has been done, with Fiction at the Battersea Arts Centre this year, which only required a pitch black room and headphones for each visitor and still managed to give me goosebumps when the voice-over whispered all of her secrets in my ear.

Casten Höller's slides bring visitors from the top of the Hayward Gallery to the exit.

Casten Höller’s slides bring visitors from the top of the Hayward Gallery to the exit.

Then what if you tried to create an immersive museum exhibition? It sounds contradictory, but there are many examples already. There are gallery rooms that simply invite visitors to play with the art, for instance the Rain Room at the Barbican, Martin Creed’s balloon room, and Carsten Höller’s entire Decision exhibition (yes, that’s the one with the big slides hanging out of the building). Recently museums have tried to incorporate multiple senses in the experience as well. The National Gallery’s Soundscapes exhibition offers a musical context with each painting, imagining what each work would have sounded like if it were created with sounds rather than paint. And the Tate Sensorium lets you listen, feel and taste things while looking at a painting, to make you use all of your senses at the same time.

They’re al fascinating ideas and could be taken even further in the future. And seeing how popular immersive art forms have become, that will no doubt happen. I know I’ll be part of the experiment.

— The Tate Sensorium is open for another week, Absent is on for another month, but all the other shows mentioned above have currently finished. Their producers and artists are regularly announcing new shows though, so it’s worth checking their websites every now and then. 

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