Immersion Theater

James T. Murray

The rise of first-person productions like “Sleep No More.”

Three years ago a fractured, mesmerizing riff on Macbeth by British theater company Punchdrunk debuted in Manhattan. Titled Sleep No More, it has played to packed houses ever since. Mask-wearing audience members roam a former nightclub repurposed as the 100-room McKittrick Hotel; on a whim, they can follow any of the actors who wordlessly (and often nakedly) interpret the Shakespearean classic.

In the wake of Sleep No More, audiences and producers alike have awoken to the potential of immersive theater, an umbrella term for productions that upend the convention of a passive audience and fall into one of three categories. Some ape Sleep No More’s sense of promenading wonderment, such as the Brooklyn-based Then She Fell, a stroll through a Lewis Carroll–inspired fantasy world. Others hew more closely to reimagined dinner theater: The just-closed, off-Broadway Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812 set the central love story of War and Peace to a mash-up of folk and dance music as patrons ate, while Queen of the Night uses Mozart’s Magic Flute as the basis for a racy gala dinner. Yet others are intimate pieces aimed at a handful of viewers, such as the trio of Tennessee Williams playlets recently performed in the bedrooms of the Langham, London.

The roots of these shows lie in ’60s and ’70s performance art—think Yoko Ono’s Cut Piece, in which she encouraged viewers to snip a souvenir from her clothes. Today’s interactive productions, though, are tailor-made for a generation steeped in video games—surely one reason they succeed in luring younger theatergoers. “You’re the center of the story, and you control it,” says Natasha composer and performer Dave Malloy. “It’s an exhilarating experience.”

Veteran immersive producer Vance Garrett sees elements of ’90s club culture in the way such performances are now staged. He likens them to raves, where the sharing of experience is crucial. (Indeed, Sleep No More is housed, in part, in what was once the megaclub Twilo.) Most immersive shows also emphasize secrecy, whether in the form of hidden performances or a venue’s address. Secrecy shrouds Felix Mortimer and Joshua Nawras’s ambitious Macbeth in London this summer: It is staged in an empty tower block somewhere deep in east London, which Mortimer says “represents the castle in the story. It’s utterly intimidating, desolate and brutal.” Small bands of spectators will spend an entire night watching the cast, feasting on a banquet with them and even sleeping over.