The Theatrical Affect of Haunted Houses


In the past several months, I have done two immersive theatre performances. Not ‘done’ as a performer-creator-producer, mind you. And yet saying I ‘went’ to the performance or I ‘saw’ the performance doesn’t do justice to my role as audience. Perhaps it would be best to say the performances were done to me. The first was Ambrose created by Single Thread Theatre Company in Kingston for the local Kick & Push festival and the second was Landline created by Adrienne Wong and Dustin Harvey remounted in Kitchener and Vancouver for the Impact15 festival.

Ambrose is essentially a ghost story set in the building of the century old Grand Theatre in Kingston. Audience members are taken away one-by-one and thrust into a ‘haunted house’ environment that encompasses the entire theatre, onstage and backstage. Pushed and prodded through a series of one-on-one scenes, I encountered a world of characters—a detective, the widow, the mistress, a medium, a trombone playing musician, a seamstress, a voice in the dark—all of whom wanted to know who killed millionaire theatre impresario Ambrose Small. Some insisted that Ambrose was not dead at all but had simply disappeared. (This narrative is based in historical fact. Ambrose Small, Canadian theatre magnate, vanished 2 December 1919, the day after selling his holdings and turning a profit of $1.7M.) During my encounter, my primary emotion was trepidation and worry. I was quite nervous in anticipation that something or someone would startle me—which frequently happened. I was not very happy about being left alone in the dark in the very quiet and very old theatre—which I frequently was. At one point I was instructed to tiptoe quickly and quietly through the full dark dressing room and get out the door on the far side without being seen. I did this so rapidly and so well that I burst panting through the door on the far side, only to find myself outside the building perched on a fire escape balcony four stories up and the closed door behind me with no exterior handle. (I think this was not supposed to happen (?), and eventually one of the characters came to my rescue).

The affect of Landline was in a different key but essentially the same in that the principal mode of communication, of doing something to the audience was not intellectual or even emotional, but somatic. According to my colleague Grahame Renyk’s Anatomy of Understanding, these are ‘gut’ plays not ‘head plays. Landline has been well documented elsewhere. Cast out into the city for a stroll, the audience is accompanied by an evocative and soothing voice asking us to take notice and to be reflective. We are also set up with a ‘scene partner’ in another city who is having the same experience. The effect here is the opposite of Ambrose. We are lulled, we are soothed and lifted brought to recall the simple wonders of our environment. Even the sensation of walking becomes remarkable. It is almost like floating through the city. The ghostly presence of my scene partner thousands of kilometres away is kindly.

As theatre-of-the-real, both of these performances create conditions where the primary focus of attention is on the reality of the always and already real audience member. Distinct from documentary sub-genre of Theatre-of-the-Real where real elements are imported from the actual world into the theatrical frame, in these works the ‘real’ component remains outside the theatrical frame. Audience bodies are not exposed as documentary materials to the fictionalizing pressures of the frame. The ontological tension concerning truth and authenticity does not come into play.

Questions: From a formal point of view, how does immersive theatre with the ‘real’ on one side of the frame connect/reflect/compare to documentary theatre with the ‘real’ on the other side? How do the effects/affects of these differently reality-based performances compare? Am I seeing two sides of the same coin OR two completely different phenomena arising from a similar root — our contemporary preoccupation with authenticity? Can I think of examples where these two effects are blended? Moving forward with the larger book project, I need to get the relationship/interrelationship of these two approaches sorted out in my mind. Onwards…


3 responses to “The Theatrical Affect of Haunted Houses

  1. “how does immersive theatre with the ‘real’ on one side of the frame connect/reflect/compare to documentary theatre with the ‘real’ on the other side? How do the effects/affects of these differently reality-based performances compare?”

    Great question, Jenn. I wonder if it might help to think about the ways in which audience members are invited to “look at” the real that operates in each case. In documentary-style forms, the framing of the real on stage means we inevitably take on a position of witness to the materials that have been gathered and shaped into a telling of something we regard as on some level “true”. That’s not to say that we aren’t also critically engaged with the act of framing (and simultaneously questioning the truthfulness of the telling, its ideological biases, etc – at least I hope so), but simply to note that documentary materials invite acts of witness toward real events and, at least in some cases, can make those acts quite complex.

    In immersive stuff, by contrast, because what’s “real” is me navigating the event of the work, my primary experience is always one of immediate affective engagement. Critical thinking about my experience (hopefully) comes later, but in the moment I’m taken up with the sheer matter of experiencing, partly because my senses are so fully engaged in trying to make my way through the story/the space. What’s “true” in this case are my immediate needs within the work: how to navigate it, how to calm my fears, how to cope with unexpected things popping up all over. While I know this may seem simplistic, I wonder if ultimately immersive forms offer less opportunity for critical engagement because they are so affectively overwhelming: there’s little room for acts of witness, and that perhaps includes me witnessing myself (although I’m “looking at” myself constantly, it’s not necessarily a critical watching; it’s more a “checking in” to see how I’m doing/what I need to do next).

    Which makes me also think this is ultimately about *labour*: what work are audience members invited to do in each case? We talk a lot about how theatre makes us feel, but in truth there’s a very different kind of affective labour in making one’s way through an immersive environment than there is in sitting in front of a traditionally crafted spectacle.

  2. Pingback: The Uncanny and the Real | Upsurges of the Real: a performance research blog·

  3. Pingback: Shop No More: Immersive Theatre as Mall | Upsurges of the Real: a performance research blog·

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