Shop No More: Immersive Theatre as Mall

shopping-mallFollowing up a citational reference from Liz Tomlin, I finally picked up Elinor Fuchs’ The Death of Character: Perspectives on Theater after Modernism. Like Hans-Thies Lehmann (Postdramatic Theatre), Fuchs is writing in the early-to-mid nineties. And like Lehmann, she notices an increasing interest in non-mimetic presence and the displacement of fictive characterization. Fuchs traces the changing landscape and the progressive “death of character” through Brecht, Beckett and Pirandello. This much I expected as I worked through the book. What was unexpected however, and which I hadn’t encountered as a citation elsewhere is a later chapter where she describes her audience experience with two ‘early’ (late 1980s) immersive plays: John Krizanc’s Tamara and the cheesy dinner theatre Tony n’ Tina’s Wedding. First of all, I think this is super-smart that in the early 1990s she is putting these two things, high and low, together. She doesn’t yet have the word ‘immersive’ as a quick shorthand to categorize what this is. (Obviously Elinor Fuchs doesn’t need me to tell her that this is brilliant. She was “all that” already.) Her description of the two events and her experience of them gives me an intellectual frisson to follow her as she thinks this through and sorts out what is happening and how she feels about it.

“Tamara erased the zone between the place of action and the place of seeing. It required of me a continuous seeking out and imaginative introjection, which the act of literal consumption made explicit. It created a new theatrical space. for me, an intermediate space between my personal autonomy and a fictive world whose principle was the stimulation of desire. New in theater, it nonetheless feels culturally comfortable…I am in a theatrical department store… a theatrical shopping mall” (132).

Distinct from the immersive theatre as haunted house that I have written about in a previous post, Fuchs identifies another kind of locational metaphor: immersive theatre as shopping mall. Traditionally the principal audience action has not been choosing. Choosing in theatre theatre is new, but as Fuchs points out we are good at choosing…when we are shopping. Audience action in these terms is structured as consumption.The performance is commodified as a thing you ‘get’ or ‘have.’ Underneath the simple act of choosing is an evaluative or competitive framework. Since there is no longer a singular POV experience, it is no longer possible to see it all. And without seeing it all, the main impelling goal for the audience pertains to acquisition, to get the ‘best’ or the ‘most.’  You gotta get ‘em all. Curiously, as Fuchs notes, the marketing for Tamara offered discounts, even memberships, for repeat audiences. One would want to return to try to experience different ‘tracks’ and so to ‘complete’ the experience. Similarly, more recent immersive productions tie ticket price/perceived value directly to unique audience experiences. Higher ticket prices are associated with perks (like private one-on-one scenes) within the immersive environments or occupying a ‘higher’ role in the fictional world.1

One way that this resonates with me and opens new avenues is through thinking about audience labour and Jen Harvie’s critiques of immersive theatre. This kind of multiplicitous theatre environment caters to our sense of individuality. We are receiving a boutique experience (another shopping word), tailored to your personal preferences. Do you want to be Bride or Groom? Follow the servants or the lady of the house? You need to do the picking – this is what shopping is. Audience members are both the ‘customer’ to be catered to but also contribute their labour to the performance through occupying fictional roles in the world of the play and also in their active desire to ‘shop.’ (This is why shopping is so tiring.) And also consistent with Harvie’s ideas these immersive environments are also like a mall where although the choice feels infinite, it isn’t. T-shirts only come in a limited number of sizes and seasonally-trendy colours and you need to find one that fits/you need to fit in.

Another way this metaphor of theatre as shopping mall is productive for me is in thinking about the necessary incompleteness of my experience in the production. I cannot have it all. Not only that but I am acutely aware of what is going on concurrently that I cannot access. I cannot participate in what is happening in other rooms, or on other tracks. My attention is split between what I’ve got and what I can’t have. This essential lack in the experience also resonates with shopping and the melancholy dissatisfaction of not-having it all. Perhaps this is where uncertainty and failure enter the equation. And so we are back to insecurity that manifests formally in immersive structures so as to reflect on insecurity in the world at large.

 

NOTES

1 For the fourth and final part of ZED.TO by The Mission Business called ByoRetreat participants could buy tickets on a sliding scale. Buying the cheapest ticket relegated you to the role of BRX epidemic evacuee. If you paid more you could be a member of ByoLogic paramilitary security or an anarchist operative with the rebel-hacker group EXE. Those paying the highest ticket price were cast as members of the ByoLogic Board of Directors. http://zed.to/

WORKS CITED

Fuchs, Elinor. The Death of Character: Perspectives on Theater after Modernism. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1996.

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