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Where to see shows that plunge you into the action
So many companies call their shows "immersive" these days that the designation has become almost meaningless, seemingly just a shorthand for cool. But some theatres, like the five we're highlighting today, epitomize the label, creating adventurous and groundbreaking work that incorporates all (or most) of the six elements that define the genre at its best.
1. An immersive show, first and foremost, offers a different physical environment from a traditional theatre. The audience doesn't just sit and look at a proscenium stage -- often there's no sitting at all. The work is frequently site-specific, crafted for a space not usually used for live performance.
2. Immersive theatre tends to stimulate the senses more intensely; some engage all five.
3. Immersive productions sometimes double as hands-on exhibits, offering theatregoers an opportunity to explore show-related "artifacts" as part of the experience.
4. Immersive shows sometimes give participants the sense of a uniquely personal experience, one where the individual has a certain amount of control.
5. At the same time, immersive productions often emphasize social interactions, either through directed tasks in small groups, or by fostering a looser party atmosphere.
6. Of course, like engaging theatre of any kind, immersive shows must ultimately tell a coherent story -- even if it's one that theatregoers largely piece together on their own.
Founded in 2000, this UK-based company helped kick off the immersive theatre craze in NYC when it brought Sleep No More stateside in 2011. An engaging if dizzying mix of design, dance and wordless drama is employed for this interpretation of Shakespeare's Macbeth as if retold by Alfred Hitchcock and Isadora Duncan. The action unfolds in a former Chelsea nightclub, which was redesigned into an opulent but abandoned World War II-era hotel. On its half dozen floors are approximately 100 dimly lit rooms, some of which don't feel like rooms at all, such as a graveyard that seems to generate its own fog. Theatregoers, who are all given masks to wear at the outset, wander through these chambers on their own, examining the environments as a loud film noir soundtrack plays, and watching various startling tableaux vivant, such as Lady Macbeth washing her hands naked in a bathtub. There are also ample opportunities for interaction as characters rush up and down the stairs.
What's next? Sleep No More is still packing in crowds today. So while Punchdrunk continues to create other work internationally -- now labeled "site sympathetic and experiential" -- this is its NYC flagship.
Also founded in 2000, this Brooklyn-based company has mounted multiple immersive shows in NYC and beyond, notably The Grand Paradise, set at a beach resort during the hedonist 1970s, and Ghost Light, which took place in and around Lincoln Center's Claire Tow Theater, offering a kind of backstage tour of theatrical lore. Third Rail's most enduring success is Then She Fell, a theatrical trip through a wonderland of Lewis Carroll and his writings. The show takes place in a former Williamsburg school building redesigned as a mental hospital, complete with stern-looking nurses in 19th-century habits. They escort the intimate audience of 15, individually or in small groups, into rooms where they meet and often wordlessly interact with familiar characters such as the Mad Hatter, the White Rabbit, the Red Queen, Alice and Carroll himself. Tasty, mostly alcoholic beverages are served in medicine vials, which makes this a 21-and-over affair.
What's next? Then She Fell continues to run in Brooklyn, and the company just announced Midsummer: A Banquet, a mounting of Shakespeare's seasonal comedy that includes a multi-course tasting menu. Created in collaboration with Food of Love, the show is scheduled to run at Union Square's Café Fae from July 15 to September 8. Since the company is constantly creating new work, it's worth signing up for the email list to find out what Third Rail is up to.
As a recent Yale School of Drama graduate, Anne Hamburger founded En Garde Arts in NYC way back in 1985, long before anyone was using the term "immersive theatre." But it's obvious that the company's work, which Hamburger simply called site-specific, pioneered the genre. In 1991, for example, it staged Charles Mee's Another Person Is a Foreign Country in an abandoned, dilapidated nursing home on Central Park West. Hamburger shut down the company in 1999 and moved to the West Coast, where she enjoyed a fruitful stint as the executive vice president of Walt Disney Creative Entertainment. Eventually, she moved back to NYC and resurrected En Garde Arts; since 2014, the company has created a new and eclectic body of work, including immersive theatre pieces such as 2015's three-day Big Outdoor Site-Specific Stuff festival and last year's Red Hills about the Rwandan genocide, which unfolded in a series of evocative installations on the ninth floor of an office building.
What's next? Coming up are four developmental performances in the company's Uncommon Voices series, all taking place at Brooklyn's The Commons Café at 388 Atlantic Avenue. June 10: Music Lessons, written and performed by Ed Napier, retraces his process of becoming an artist. July 8: $#!THOLE COUNTRY CLAPBACK, written and performed by Tony nominee Pascale Armand, about her family's journey to American citizenship. August 5: Threshold, written and performed by Emmy-nominated actress Amy Brenneman, is about her life as a caregiver and artist. September 9: Balboa Is Not Drowning, written by Kevin R. Free and performed by Hadestown Tony winner André De Shields, is described as "a queer exploration into August Wilson's Century Cycle."
Founded in 2006, this troupe is renowned for its 2017 immersive hit KPOP, created in collaboration with Ars Nova and Ma-Yi Theater Company, a wildly entertaining "tour" of a Korean pop music factory. Lesser known, but in some ways even more spectacular, was Woodshed's 2015 show Empire Travel Agency, in which approximately two dozen cast members, backed by an army of designers and crew, took just four theatregoers at a time on a terrific and sometimes terrifying adventure that combined an international spy thriller with a sci-fi murder mystery.
What's next? Because of all the logistics that go in to creating such complex pieces, Woodshed doesn't have anything new to share… yet. There are persistent rumors that KPOP may come back so joining the troupe's email list is the best way to find out when that's confirmed.
5. This is Not A Theatre Company
Despite its name, this is indeed a theatre company, founded in 2013 by director Erin B. Mee and playwright Jessie Bear with the goal of expanding both what a play is and where it can be performed. Notable works include 2014's Pool Play, which took place entirely in the indoor swimming pool at the Waterside Plaza apartment complex, and Versailles 2015, a realistic-feeling house party in Mee's actual apartment, complete with hors d'oeuvres and the sort of mingling that made it difficult to distinguish performers from audience members. The seemingly casual conversations eventually revealed the play to be a meditation on privileged New Yorkers' self-centered indifference to global crises. The show was remounted the following year as Versailles 2016 in collaboration with En Garde Arts, in Anne Hamburger's suburban Hastings-on-Hudson house.
What's next? Although no live shows are scheduled at this time, you can experience the company's innovative "podplays" by going to a designated site and listening to the performance on your smartphone. Ferry Play takes place on the Staten Island Ferry and lasts as long as the ride. The Subway Plays are a trilogy of "site-specific, sensory podplays" that you listen to while taking either the 7, the N or the L (depending on the play). They bring yet another dimension to the evolving concept of immersive theatre.
Jonathan Mandell is a drama critic and journalist based in New York. Visit his blog at NewYorkTheater.me or follow him on Twitter at @NewYorkTheater. Follow TDF at @TDFNYC.
Top image: Nicholas Bruder as Macbeth and Sophie Bortolussi as Lady Macbeth in Sleep No More. Photo by Yaniv Schulman.
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