Rethinking why immersive theatre is compelling. It might not be the immersion after all.

On Wednesday night, I went to Sleep No More again. It was the second time I had been to the immersive theatre piece which has inspired so much conversation within the sector, and revisiting it prompted a shift in my thinking. Much like Ed Rodley, I’m pretty sure I’ve been focussing on the wrong aspects of immersive theatre this whole time. I’ve been thinking about the immersion, but I’m not sure that’s the bit that is most interesting.

Every time I meet someone who has been to SNM, I talk to them about it. I want to know if they had a one-on-one experience with an actor (a transformative, intimate experience in which an audience member is pulled into a secret room and participates in a scene alone with one of the SNM characters); I want to know which rooms they saw that I didn’t. I want to hear about which characters they connected with; whether they tasted the lollies in the candy store; what moments they saw and experienced and how they compared to my own moments. What was shared? What wasn’t?

These conversations serve as cultural touchpoints; moments of connection. “Were you there? What was your experience like? Was it like mine?” And with this discussion – which I’ve been having for six months now – I’m beginning to suspect that the reason SNM is so successful may be less that the experience is immersive but the fact that it is complex, compelling, and difficult to understand or complete alone. With 17 hours of content, of which only three can be experienced in a single performance, and more than 90 different rooms in which the action takes place, SNM is a social experience because it needs to be; because the performance cannot make sense without the offered experiences of other people. The story is necessarily incomplete without the pieces that other people can share. And it matters that the story is incomplete.

You see, not only does the play have a plot and a story, but everyone who attends it does too. Everyone who goes to SNM leaves with a narrative of their own experience, whether good or bad. They leave with a story to tell; a reason for a conversation and connection; a piece of cultural currency. And so when I’ve been trying to make sense of the story, I’m simultaneously trying to make sense of my own.

With this, Sleep No More manages to be at once very personal, and highly social. My experiences, my one-on-ones (…of which I have now had four), they felt unique to me. But I can go online and read about how others have been through the same things, and look for small differences or similarities. I can seek out more knowledge about different characters or the set. I can offer up my experiences and find out about yours, and we both gain from the experience of doing so. The disorientation of the play is shared and it is set up to encourage reactions – both reasons why people may feel confident interrogating it further after they leave. I have never had an experience like that in a museum.

When we discussed museums and immersive theatre at Museums and the Web 2013, Seb Chan asked Diane Borger (plenary speaker and producer of the show) about the show’s superfans and how it became possible for the show to remain mysterious and interesting once people were posting every detail of every encounter online. But I’m starting to wonder if those obsessive superfans and their online and offline discussions aren’t kind of the whole point.

In a piece on Sleep No More as an Internet-based augmented reality game, Drew Grant writes:

Yes, this play is an ARG, although it doesn’t have to be; it can start and end with your experience during a performance. But the show does have bonus material that will lead you to real-life encounters with the characters outside of McKittrick Hotel, provided you can figure out how to unlock Punchdrunk’s coded website. There have been location-based clues at Grand Central and IRL meet-ups for those who are as obsessed with solving the seemingly endless mysteries of “Sleep No More.”

The discussion around SNM grows as its NYC season extends; its world extends far beyond the walls of the McKittrick Hotel as stories of the performance and its secrets are shared and dissected by those who have attended it. And yet it hasn’t stopped being interesting. So can museums create this same sense of urgency to know more, to figure out or ‘solve’ a show or a story within the museum? Do we need to create disorienting experiences, experiences full of gaps to do so? Would that even be desirable in a museum context? And if so, can we make the story the visitor tells of their experience as compelling as the stories within the exhibit itself.

What do you think?

11 thoughts on “Rethinking why immersive theatre is compelling. It might not be the immersion after all.

  1. When you write “it is complex, compelling, and difficult to understand or complete alone” you could be talking about any number of exhibition experiences . . . although I’m pretty sure that if you spoke to the curators or exhibit designers they would see those as failures – rather than the natural reality of a ‘good experience’ – a conversation starter rather than the ‘final word’.

    I’d also point to discussions around creating effective story worlds –

    Mike Jones -> “If the world and its characters can easily or quickly solve their problems then the storyworld is unsustainable.”

  2. “Do we need to create disorienting experiences, experiences full of gaps to do so? Would that even be desirable in a museum context?”

    The knowledge we have in our museums is full of gaps already. We’ve just been covering them up to present ourselves as “authoritative”. This is where transparency and engagement can start to intersect.

  3. Seb, I wonder whether it’s a semantic thing. I’ve been sitting in a lot of curatorial meetings this week, and have heard statements to the effect of a narrative not being “sophisticated” enough, and “too easy”, which to my ear sound very much like “difficult” (in the good way) and “complex”.

    I think you’re onto something with the story world link.

    The duration of SNM’s popularity beyond the venue reminds me of the devotion fans of videogames have for those with deep, immersive soryworlds. Check out this article on Shadow of the Colossus, which was released 8 years ago, is long past active development and still has fans plumbing its depths.

    When I wrote about the seeming paradox of making something hard to get into being a good thing I was thinking about exclusivity, but on further reflection, this seems to all bend back toward Papert’s notion of “hard fun” – the idea that our connection to a task is commensurate to the effort we have to expend to master it. Another term to describe it – “fiero” – was coined by the Italian psychologist Isabella Poggi and has become popular in certain game design circles to characterize the players’ pride and exhilaration when they triumph over a game challenge.

    Since it’s Friday, I’ll end with a little Nietzsche, “What is happiness? The feeling that power increases – that resistance is being overcome” Game, on, Friedrich!

  4. I think you are on to something – the success is about “the fact that it is complex, compelling, and difficult to understand or complete alone.” It’s a puzzle, and humans love puzzles.

    I actually have had at least one museum experience like this at the Museum of Jurassic Technology ( – the website is awful and also indicative of the difficulty of comprehending the place). While it’s not nearly as big physically as SNM, my post-visit experience and conversations about MJT have been uncannily like your description of sharing the SNM experience with others (which I also have experienced). I live near the MJT, so I visit often, and send visitors there a lot so I can compare notes! It’s a unique experience in the museum world for sure. Lawrence Weschler wrote a book about it > Mr. Wilson’s Cabinet of Curiosities (

    Re whether we need to create disorienting experiences? I think we already do in many ways, unintentionally – per Seb’s comment. The architecture of many museums is very confusing and disorienting – so even before visitors enter a gallery they may be a bit un-moored. And wasn’t this the point Larry Friedlander was making in his plenary at Museums & the Web? He said “make it hard…don’t connect the dots.” (

  5. I think you could definitely do something similar with a museum. For me, being pretty shy, I don’t talk to many people when I go to places like museum. A few weeks ago, however, I was visiting the canadian museum of nature and instead of wandering through the whole museum as normal, one of the staff members came up to my boyfriend and I and started telling us all about the collection, things we couldn’t learn just from wandering through and reading plaques. Not only have I told more people about this experience, but I also want to go back because now I feel like I still have a second experiences to have in the museum just going through it alone.

  6. The discussions I’ve been reading about Sleep No More remind me of The Lizzie Bennet Diaries, which was incredibly social. The series took Pride and Prejudice, and managed to not only tell the story in a new way (video blog), but also create pathways for viewers to explore more of the characters lives outside the main video blog. Each character had a twitter account, some had blogs, there were spinoff videos, and many of these were only casually mentioned at the beginning. You had the choice to go down the rabbit hole, explore these characters, and then discuss what you found with other fans.

    I only started following the discussions halfway through, but there was a marked shift in the depth of my emotional engagement with the story, and this was a story where I already knew the plot before I started.

    1. Carly, I hadn’t heard of this until now but it looks really interesting. Do you remember what sucked you in at the beginning? And do you think it would have had the same impact if you hadn’t already known the plot before you began?

      1. The ability to really dig deeper into the characters lives and motivations was what hooked me. I was skeptical at first (Pride and Prejudice on YouTube sounded horrifying, but I was curious), but they did a great job of bringing the characters to life. A good example of this is the Netherfield Ball – you not only get to watch the video of Lizzie’s perspective, you can also read twitter conversations between Caroline and Bing Lee (the LBD version of Bingley), and between Caroline and Darcy. Even Lydia has a spinoff vlog, and it allows you to understand and relate to a character that I never liked before.

        The other main draw was you could actually interact with the characters. You can mention a character on twitter and they might even respond. Definitely strange to be able to ask Lydia Bennet a question, but what Pride and Prejudice fan hasn’t wanted to ask her what she was thinking?

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