Why Immersive Theatre for Young Audiences?
I am attracted to Immersive Theatre because I believe it embraces the essence of what makes Theatre unique from other entertainment/art forms. Theatre’s uniqueness comes from the fact that it is “live,” so that the audience, artists, and art are all present with each other in time and space. This is true in traditional theatre, although the proscenium arch puts a divide in that space between audience and art. Immersive Theatre plays to Theatre’s strength by removing that divide between audience and art. By removing that divide, the event becomes even more live as the audience becomes a part of the art and the performers have to be even more present and responsive to their audience. London theatre artist Chris Goode describes “The Cat Test” where “an ordinary domestic cat is released into the midst of a theatre event, and if the event can refer to and/or accommodate the cat without its supporting structures breaking down — the structures of the event, not of the cat — then the event is said to be ‘live.’”[i] Authentic Immersive Theatre will always pass The Cat Test.
But why Immersive Theatre for Young Audiences? I believe Immersive Theatre has the potential to create space for young people to practice the agency that they lack in their everyday lives. So many facets of a young person’s life are rigidly controlled by their caretakers and society, but an Immersive Theatre space can create opportunity for young people to have power and control over their selves and the space around them. However, not all Immersive Theatre is designed to give its audience agency. Often an Immersive TYA show can be more like a theme park ride or a funhouse: an entertaining live experience, but one that is on-rails and unresponsive to its audience. I strive to create Immersive Theatre for Young Audiences that creates a space in which young people can assume agency.
Two Dimensions of Agency: Choice and Influence
In order to create this kind of Immersive Theatre, I break down the idea of agency into two major dimensions: Choice and Influence.
Choice is the degree to which an audience member can control how they move and behave in the space. It is their agency over their self. When an immersive performance has a high degree of choice, the audience is free to move around the space and curate their own journey. The audience decides where they want to travel and how they want to experience the world. They can act as their own cinematographer, finding the best angle to view the action; or as an editor, choosing what order and at what pace to experience different scenes. A performance that has a low degree of choice is linear. Audiences are shepherded and corralled from point to point and rather than audiences having control over their selves the show itself coerces and controls the audience. An Immersive TYA performance may fluctuate along a spectrum of choice, giving its audience freedom in one moment and coercing them in another, but Immersive TYA is at its best when it gives its audience more control over their choices.
Influence is the degree to which an audience member can affect the world and performers around them. It is their agency over the world. On the extreme low end of the spectrum is a performance that will be the same every single time regardless of the audience’s actions. Perhaps the audience members can choose what order they see each moment in, but the moments themselves are unaffected by the audience. The other extreme is much harder to imagine: the events and moments in the play are entirely dependent on what the audiences do. Here is where Immersive Theatre walks a fine line between being improvisationally responsive to the audience and eschewing all structure entirely. Just like choice, influence within an immersive performance can fluctuate along a spectrum. If an audience has too much influence, then the performance loses all of its structure and can fall apart, but if an audience is unable to influence a performance then it might as well just be a film.
Tips for Cultivating Agency in Immersive TYA
If the idea of Immersive TYA that gives young people agency is exciting to you, consider these tips:
Treat the young audience as co-inhabitants of the world
What is the audience’s role? How are you casting them? How do they relate to the world? How do they relate to the actors? How do they relate to each other? How does status and power function in this world? How can you make your audience act/feel like experts in this world? What is the relative weight that the performance gives to audience members’ actions versus the performers’ actions?
Create a strong frame that has flexibility within it
What is your invitation to the audience? How detailed and specific is the world you have created? What playable actions do you give your audience? What do you ask your audience to do? What can your audience decide to do? What can your audience ask of the world and the performers? How do your performers and the world respond to the audience?
Train actors to be facilitators, shaping an experience for the audience
What is the balance between scripted performance and improvisation? What verbal and non-verbal cues can actors look for to affect their performance? How can you build feedback mechanisms into the performance to check whether the audience is “on board?” How can you structure rehearsals to prepare actors for the unpredictability of a young audience?