I’ve been doing a lot of immersive theatre lately. (Fun, but hard on the limbic system. That is a thought for another post.) What has struck me particularly is the length and detail of emails I receive from the performance company that precede the event.
First, these emails specify where to go – invariably these performances are not held in conventional theatre spaces. I have been told to find a large stone in a park, to go to a dock, to a specific bus stop (TTC bus stop number 13937), to a community hall, to a cemetery, to a church basement, and to a ‘farm’ 30 minutes’ drive outside of Whitehorse (“Head south out of town on the Alaska Hwy.”). Actually, I have also been told to meet in the lobby of a theatre, the show itself unfolded all over theatre. I think I was everywhere in that building except sitting in the stalls. You also don’t always end up where you started. One time I was warned that it would be a 20 min walk to return to the start (If indeed you want to return. I didn’t.) Saying that the play is happening at X Theatre is not enough.
Then, these emails tell me what to bring or not bring. Sometimes you need to bring your own chair. I have been asked to bring something to leave behind or exchange. I have also been asked to bring nothing — really nothing. As in “Don’t.” No jacket, no bag, nothing. I have also on two occasions had my all stuff taken away including my shoes. (And later returned. This takes coat check to a new level). Also often audience members need to bring things for comfort and security. Please bring water. Please wear bug spray. (Those mosquitos on Toronto Island in July were fierce!) Please wear sunscreen and a hat. Wear long pants to protect you from the elements. Please dress warmly and wear sensible shoes. Bring a fully charged cell phone. Again conventional theatre makes no such demands or imposes such restrictions. Our comfort is provided for. It is an all-inclusive experience.
For Cellar Door Project’s recent play New & Used set in Brian’s Record Option, a local Kingston record store, tickets were sold in advance at Brian’s Record Option. This choice allowed audiences to find the location ahead of time. (I had never been to the store). And also to get a sense of its unique ambience. To say that Brian’s is overflowing does not do it justice. The narrow storefront is absolutely packed floor to ceiling with records, tapes, CDs and books. There is barely enough room to pick your way through the aisles. Even the word ‘aisle’ seems too generous. When I arrived to buy my ticket, I couldn’t quite open the front door because a new shipment of posters had arrived and were blocking the doorway. This encounter serves the same purpose as the pre-show email to set the audience’s horizon of expectations. And in this particular case reminds one to take an antihistamine because of the dust.
Finally, I am told/warned about what I need to do or what I might expect. These range from the practical to the existential: “Here are a few tips that will help you experience the revolution fully.”1 “Be prepared. The rules of reality may not always apply.”2 “Bring yourself. Remember that impulse that led you to purchase your tickets. Be open for anything. Be ready for adventure.”3 Immersive theatre experiences pose challenges for those with allergies (You will be given things to eat.), those with mobility issues (You will need to walk a lot, run, climb stairs, navigate uneven ground, sometimes blindfolded or in the dark.), those with phobias (There will be loud noises. You will be in confined spaces.) On several occasions I have been asked to sign liability waivers. (And once to wear a life jacket.) This is not theatre for the faint of heart. But this is also theatre that is not what we might generally term accessible. (What about that?)
All this to say that I am wondering a bunch of things:
- How does the pre-show email contribute to the shaping of my theatrical experience? Do I confront the experience differently when I am actively engaged in preparations? The pre-show email is a new addition to the range of elements encompassing performance (marketing, geography, architecture, programmes, etc.) and is open to materialist analysis.
- How can immersive theatre address potential concerns about accessibility? Or are these performances simply not FOR certain groups of people? (These inherent limitations potentially replicate an elitist philosophy that environmental theatre sought to avoid when it left the theatre institution in the first place.)
- To what extent are these emails simply part of the shaping of emerging conventions. Much is implicitly assumed as common knowledge about how to go to a traditional theatre. For example, I don’t need to be told when I go to the Shaw Festival that I will be sitting in the dark for 3 hours with limited mobility or that I must not speak during the performance. By contrast the conventions for attending immersive theatre are still new and need to be explicitly articulated. (Cf. pre-show announcements about cell phones. Unheard of 20 years ago. And potentially unnecessary 20 years hence).
1Counting Sheep, Lemon Bucket Orkestra
2Off Limit Zone, Dopo Lavoro Theatrale
3It Comes in Waves, Bluemouth Inc. & Necessary Angel