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

Posted on May 3, 2013

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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?

Posted in: Conferences, Museums