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On Immersive Theatre

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  04 September 2012


This article considers what might be implied in the term ‘immersive theatre’, asking what kinds of ‘interior’ audiences are invited to become immersed in. To facilitate my argument I draw on performances by two London-based theatre companies, Shunt and Punchdrunk, as examples of immersive theatre which use architectural interiors: extensive environments which audiences explore in order to find the performance, and sometimes to give performances themselves. I begin with a description of how these physical interiors and the audience member's movement through them becomes part of the dramaturgy of the work, before moving on to a critique of the term ‘immersive’. This critique is initially based on analysis of its metaphorical character, using an approach derived from cognitive linguistics, and is developed through Josephine Machon's (syn)aesthetics and Heidegger's phenomenological aesthetics.

Copyright © International Federation for Theatre Research 2012

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1 Charlotte Higgins, ‘Immersive Theatre: Tired and Hackneyed Already?’ Guardian Blogspot, 7 December 2009,, accessed 29 January 2012.

2 Michael Coveney, ‘Stage Directions: Immersive Theatre’, Prospect, 19 August, 2010,, accessed 29 January 2012.

3 Particularly The Smile off Your Face (2003), Internal (2007) and A Game of You (2010). Internal begins as a kind of performative speed-date, and becomes a provocative, manipulative dialogue that can continue by post after the end of the performance itself. Ontroerend Goed are based in Gent, Belgium.

4 For example, They Only Come at Night (2007), a vampire story, or Anthology (2010), an intertwining set of seven different narratives. Slung Low are based in Leeds, UK.

5 You Me Bum Bum Train is Kate Bond and Morgan Lloyd's evolving single-audience-member journey, different versions of which have been presented since 2004.

6 For example Etiquette (2007), in which two audience participants wear headphones and receive instructions and words to speak, creating a performed dialogue.

7 In Uncle Roy All Around You online participants viewing a virtual city communicate with live participants who move around a real city, cooperating to find and follow clues.

8 In A Tender Subject the audience move through a series of spaces containing installations and performances, several of which have powerful smells – disinfectant, mouldy bread, damp, the perfume of a field of growing hyacinths.

9 Worthen, W. B., ‘The Written Troubles of the Brain: Sleep No More and the Space for Character’, Theatre Journal, 64, 1, (March 2012), pp. 7997CrossRefGoogle Scholar, here p. 96.

10 Boal's propositions about the ‘coercive’ are most famously expounded in Theatre of the Oppressed (London: Pluto Press, 1979); Schechner's Environmental Theatre (New York: Applause, 1995) includes a sustained discussion of the potential of participation; The Living Theatre's experiments are well documented in Tytell's, JohnThe Living Theatre: Art, Exile and Outrage (New York: Grove Press, 1995)Google Scholar.

11 Jacques Rancière's essay ‘The Emancipated Spectator’, Artforum (March 2007), pp. 271–91, stringently takes issue with the political potential of participatory performance, but only to insist that the inherent emancipatory potential lies with its opposite: a respectful distance between performer and audience member. Bourriaud, Nicholas, Relational Aesthetics (Paris: Presses du Réel, 2002)Google Scholar, draws on Félix Guattari to conceptualize the emancipatory potential of participatory art as based on its ‘thermodynamic’ effect on frozen aspects of subjectivity.

12 Shown at the Gagosian Gallery, London, October 2010.

13 For further information about the company see, accessed 31 March 2012.

14 For further information about the company see, accessed 31 March 2012.

15 See my essay ‘Odd Anonymized Needs: Punchdrunk's Masked Spectator’ for a longer discussion of their use of masks, in Oddey, Alison and White, Christine, eds., Modes of Spectating (London: Intellect, 2009), pp. 219–30Google Scholar.

16 Stanislavski, Constantin, An Actor Prepares (New York: Routledge, 1989), pp. 79102Google Scholar.

17 McConachie, Bruce and Hart, F. Elizabeth, Performance and Cognition: Theatre Studies and the Cognitive Turn (London: Routledge, 2010), p. 2Google Scholar.

18 Lakoff, George and Johnson, Mark, Philosophy in the Flesh (New York: Basic Books, 1999), pp. 63–9Google Scholar.

19 Ibid., p. 64.

20 Hart's chapter is ‘Performance, Phenomenology, and the Cognitive Turn’, McConachie's is ‘Cognitive Studies and Epistemic Competence in Cultural History: Moving beyond Freud and Lacan’, both in McConachie and Hart, Performance and Cognition, pp. 52 and 29, respectively.

21 The Purkinje effect describes ‘the change in colour sensitivity as a visual stimulus [moves] from the centre of the visual field, to the periphery’. Roekelein, Jon E., Dictionary of Theories, Laws and Concepts in Psychology (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1998), p. 92Google Scholar.

22 Machon, Josephine, (Syn)aesthetics: Redefining Visceral Performance (London: Palgrave, 2009), p. 14CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

23 Ibid., p. 14.

24 Ibid., p. 17.

25 As cited by Bennett, Susan in Theatre Audiences (London: Routledge, 1997), p. 44Google Scholar.

26 Though I am generally immune to the ‘ontological queasiness’ which Sophie Nield (citing Nick Ridout) feels in these situations. Nield, Sophie, ‘The Rise of the Character Called Spectator’, Contemporary Theatre Review, 18, 4 (2008), pp. 531–44Google Scholar.

27 Stoppard, Tom, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead (London: Faber and Faber, 1968), p. 47Google Scholar.

28 Heidegger, Martin, ‘The Origin of the Work of Art’, in idem, Basic Writings, ed. Krell, David Farrell (London: Routledge, 1993), pp. 139265Google Scholar.

29 Ibid., p. 180.

30 Ibid., p. 170.