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Four Successful Strategies for Teaching Immersive Theatre

Examination boards made a concerted effort within the 2016 specifications to broaden the practitioner foci and acknowledge more ‘immersive’ twenty-first century theatre practice. In this post I suggest specific resources and strategies to support students when they are researching and creating their own devised work, including our two free Student Guides to Researching & Creating Immersive Theatre.


Immersive Theatre has become an invaluable tool to work with as part of my practice and has resulted in the production of the most exciting work which I have ever seen students create. Throughout my career I have used immersive techniques within my teaching methodology and practice and have also devised full scale productions with BTEC and A-Level students for Key Stage 5 assessments. These range from an adapted promenade version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream in a palace and a devised performance for an audience of three, with the action taking place in cars in the college car park. Two years ago, my Year 13 A-Level Drama students developed a piece exploring mental health, which was a promenade performance in the basement of the school entitled ‘The Suitcase Project’. At present, there are many challenges regarding practical devised work and COVID restrictions. However, at the very core of immersive theatre is how it lends itself to small audiences of one, two or three people. Therefore, this style is certainly one for students to consider as a chosen practitioner, as they can create personalised, intimate ‘journeys’ and experiences.


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What is Immersive Theatre?


‘Immersive theatre’ is a term which has become widely adopted in recent years and is characterized using installations and expansive environments, mobile audiences, and elements of participation (Gareth White 2012). The roots of immersive theatre can be traced back to Artaud’s revolutionary innovations on ‘Total Theatre’ but more modern influences come from Boal, Brook, Schechner and Beck. To prepare students thoroughly for exploring immersive theatre both theoretically and practically, it is essential to understand its theatrical roots and evolution. A key figure to explore is Antonin Artaud and his theories on ‘Total Theatre’ in which he proposes to abolish the stage and the auditorium:


A direct communication will be re-established between the spectator and the spectacle, between the actor and the spectator, from the fact that the spectator, placed in the middle of the action, is engulfed and physically affected by it.’ (Artaud 1958: 96)

Artaud’s ideas hugely influenced the performance theory and practice of the 1960s and beyond in terms of stage design, actor-audience relationship, and highly physical performance styles, with current immersive theatre companies adopting many elements from his revolutionary manifesto for theatre. In her book “Immersive Theatres- Intimacy and Immediacy in Contemporary Performance” Jospehine Machon discusses the impact which Artaud’s theories had on the wider innovations of the modernist period such as Boal’s propositions about the ‘coercive’ in his seminal work Theatre of the Oppressed, Schechner’s theories on ‘Environmental Theatre’ and Julian Beck’s experiments with The Living Theatre (32).


Due to the multi-disciplinary aspect to immersive theatre, she also cites installation and conceptual art of the 1960s onwards, with its intimate aesthetic and participatory relationships, as integral to the development of the genre. Interestingly, she suggests that Joan Littlewood’s plans for “Community Architecture Art” and ‘Fun Palaces’ are also significant in development and evolution of current immersive practices (Machon 2013: 37).


Punchdrunk- Practitioner Focus


Within the 2016 A-Level Drama specifications there is a clear focus on students using the techniques and working methods of an influential practitioner or recognised theatre company when working with texts and devising their own work. Edexcel and AQA specifically refer to the company Punchdrunk as a company which could be used to inspire and influence the work of students. Punchdrunk, a British company formed in 2000, has ‘pioneered a form of immersive theatre in which roaming audiences explore intimately epic storytelling inside sensory theatrical worlds’. (Machon 2013: 3).


Artistic Director Felix Barrett is keen to define the company’s work as ‘site-sympathetic’ rather than ‘site-specific’. This means that the work is created for the site where it is to be performed, as opposed to responding directly to that site’s history or context (White 2012: 223). The company have adapted a range of classic texts since 2000, including Woyzeck, Faust, Macbeth and The Tempest. In their earlier work, the company selected and distributed scenes from the texts within the space, so that each audience member encounters them in an individual and unique way. They become the epicentre of the work, going wherever they want, touching whatever they want. (Machon 2013: 83) However, a key aesthetic of Punchdrunk’s working method is the use of masks for the audience members which inhibit speech and creates a certain anonymity which in turn encourages risk and fearlessness. There are also brief opportunities for one-to-one encounters with characters in more intimate spaces.


In Punchdrunk’s New York production of Sleep No More, based on Macbeth, the audience are told at the start of the piece that “Fortune favours the bold”, suggesting that the braver and more curious you are, the more you will be rewarded. In my experience, once students are given permission to be curious and playful in a live performance, they are at first slightly overwhelmed but then begin to feel empowered by the control and freedom they have as an audience member. It is essential that students experience this feeling, from the perspective of the audience member, to develop their own work. However, it is often difficult to find high quality immersive productions to take students to, especially now. So here are four effective teaching strategies & methods for introducing immersive theatre to students:


1) Explore and Reject the ‘Traditional’


In the first lesson of an Immersive Theatre scheme of work with A-Level students (Year 12), I always start with an in-depth discussion and debate around the experience of theatre for the audience. There are many ways to do this, but essentially you are actively discussing and interrogating the notion of a ‘traditional’ theatre experience. In her book Immersive Theatres, Jospephine Machon specifically compares the expectations and conventions of an audience for a ‘traditional’ theatrical performance directly with that of an immersive one (2013: 54). This can be an excellent starting point for students when they approach immersive work; the consideration of what constitutes a ‘traditional’ theatrical experience for an audience prior to exploring a more immersive or participatory one whereby:


the perspective of the proscenium stage ostensibly falls away, the action no longer enforced within the confines of a single scenic picture, the staging takes place throughout a found or transformed environment” (Levin 2014: 68)

I usually use the following question as a key question to start the lesson and then ask the students to list the responses in order of importance for them:


As an audience member, what do you expect when you go to the theatre?


…be entertained

…be asked questions

…be shocked

…feel emotion

…experience tension

…learn something about ourselves

…follow a clear story

…be given answers

…gain insight into interesting characters

…experience something new


This is a great way into discussions around the experience of the audience member in live theatre, before moving onto looking at immersive theatre as a form, more specifically.


2) Create & Deliver an Impact Session


Whether students have had a chance to see live immersive theatre or not, I always introduce immersive theatre through an ‘impact session’. This has a dual purpose- to introduce both the stimulus for the project and the key elements or features of immersive theatre. This should essentially be a mini performance in two or three different locations or areas of a room, which introduces students to several key aspects of the immersive and participatory experience. For example, an in-role facilitator greets viewers and set the tone of the piece, questioning, provoking and giving permission for audience members to respond; establishing an atmosphere of mystery and intrigue, and introducing problem-solving exercises, encouraging risk-taking and ‘curiosity’ using letters and clues. They could also be given clipboards and encouraged to make notes and read all the materials they see. At the end of the session, students should share and discuss stimulus material which was interesting. They should also identify key features of Immersive Theatre using a success criteria, citing examples of how these were used. Most importantly, allow them time to discuss and examine how this made them feel as an audience member.


A-Level students taking part in an impact session in school for 'The Suitcase Project', about mental health in the early and mid nineteenth century.


A-Level students taking part in an impact session in school for 'The Suitcase Project', about mental health in the early and mid nineteenth century.





3) Research, Research, Research…


It is near-impossible for students to experience live immersive work at present. However, they can still undertake wide research online. Give them plenty of time to do this and set a specific research task prior to introducing the scheme of work. I find that it’s a topic students usually love looking further into and presenting ideas on. We have put together a resource for you to download and use in your lessons. Our Student Guide to Researching Immersive Theatre can be downloaded for free from our Resource Library here.


4) Set Ten Key Questions for Students


Theatre-maker and producer Sarah Sansom has produced several immersive, site-responsive, and site-specific shows, including Punchdrunk’s 2017 show Kabeiroi, which was an immersive indoor and outdoor production that ran for five hours across multiple London locations. Sarah says that the experience was designed to essentially create a shared yet individual experience for each audience member, as audiences travelled across London in pairs, they were often navigated by instructions through the specially designed phone app they shared, which led them to key moments of intrigue and discovery, that then led them towards the next location or scene of their experience. She suggests that students could think about immersive theatre as sometimes more akin to ‘gaming’ than live theatre, as audience members can often become the protagonist in their own story, seeking out and creating their own role, and even destiny.


Sarah also cites the importance of having a very well organised infrastructure, “holding the show” backstage, meaning that the production and technical elements such as lighting, video and sound cues would be planned in such a way that would help navigate audiences and keep them to desired timings. This skill, which Punchdrunk do incredibly, is best achieved with a rigorous, yet highly flexible plan. She says:

"audiences can get so excited in an immersive show that they can go very easily go off track, become distracted, get lost etc, so some of the art comes with ensuring they are not only cared for and safe whilst exploring new territory, but the infrastructure is in place to help them follow the route(s) intended to complete the experience."

An example that could demonstrate this in Kaberoiroi, was with the consideration that audiences had to travel across various locations, so a detailed awareness of all eventualities that could take place needed to be thought through in advance. Any potential risks were imagined, and then mitigated, so that the show could run its course without problems. Asking yourself a series of ‘what if?’ questions and making sure you have a satisfactory answer to each question is essential. Let’s call it ‘scenario planning’.


And finally, Sarah has helped us to create a checklist of ten key questions to consider if students are creating immersive theatre. Students can revisit these questions throughout the process, and this will help them to focus on the core elements of immersive theatre and what they are trying to achieve.


10 Key Questions for Students to Consider when Creating Immersive Work


Always remember that the audience experience is paramount!


1. What is the narrative structure of your performance? (Do they follow the same narrative? or are there more choices?)


2. What is the physical set-up of the space, through it, for the audience? (This connects closely to your choice of narrative. It is a good idea to use an aerial view of the performance space and ‘map out’ the route the audience(s) will follow)


3. What will be the experience of the audience? How you incorporate problem-solving?


4. How will you make your performance multi-sensory? (Think about ALL senses and audience’s experience of the whole body- sight, sound, smell, touch, touch). ‘Immersing’ audiences into different ‘worlds’ can be achieved through this consideration.


5. What does the performance build towards? E.g. a climax/ surprise/ a prize for the audience?


6. How will you find a balance between flexibility and control when you plan and devise your piece? How will you plan and prepare for the fact that each audience or audience member will move at a different speed through the performance?


7. How do you plan to test your performance on practice audiences? (Sarah says “this is crucial to understand how people react differently, and to help with timings” so build this into your planning and production schedule early on)


8. How will you use production elements (lighting, sound, video etc) within your performance? What different kind of considerations might be appropriate? E.g.: If using lighting, are stage lights appropriate or would work better, if you are working in more intimate space?


9. How could you incorporate live and/recorded sound into your performance? Will the sound be surround-sound, for example, to create a much more ‘immersive’ experience? If recorded, how will the sound cues be played, (what is the ‘source’) when and by whom? Sarah says “production and technical elements have to be inventive enough to be both flexible and rigorous. If the cues are not followed, the show can fall apart.”


10. How will you make your performance fully accessible? Undertake a comprehensive Risk Assessment to ensure that it is both accessible and safe for both actors and audience members who may have disabilities, or other conditions that could affect participation. How can you ensure your production has considered different peoples needs in advance?


References


  • Artaud, Antonin. The Theater and it’s Double. New York: Grove Press (1958)

  • Levin, Laura. Performing Ground: Space, Camouflage and the Art of Blending In. London: Palgrave (2014)

  • Machon, Josephine. Immersive Theatres: Intimacy and Immediacy in Contemporary Performance. London: Palgrave (2013).

  • White, Gareth. "On Immersive Theatre". Theatre Research International 37.3 (2012): 221-35.


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Our Researching & Creating Immersive Theatre Student Guides are available to download from our free Resource Library. Fill out the form below to access them, along with many more time-saving worksheets & templates:


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