Immersive Mind

Immersive works that explore the mind, mental health and relationships are highlighted. Using different formats to deal with psychological themes, these participatory works put viewers at the center of intimate issues.

AIRED: June 01, 2021 | 0:26:23


Adelman: I think people are excited

about immersive theater right now

because they want to be part of these stories.


I love documentary theater being immersive.

You're using the words that were actually said,

and so because I think it's so important to tell history

and find a way to connect people with history,

I think those two worlds just go really well together.


Petre: Immersive theater feels, in a way,

as, like, a civic activity

where, like, you are a part of a group,

and it's really a unique, special thing

that hopefully, you can take something away from that

and bring that into your real life.


Schechter: You really are a part of this story.

There was one particular audience that got so invested,

one of them screamed, "This is a setup!"

And they were looking for evidence

just as a reporter would.


Chlapecka: A quality of an immersive show is the ability

to look into the magic circle,

poke the web, play in the world,

exit the magic circle,

and sort of reflect on those things that you experience.

It's exciting to sort of see

how that could not only exist,

but be transformative.




[ Eerie music plays ]

[ Woman screaming ]


Szekely: "Nellie and the Women of Blackwell"

is an immersive guided experience,

and it's actually a documentary theater play.

So it's actual documents, in this case,

"10 Days in a Madhouse,"

which was penned by Nellie Bly in 1887,

and we take the audience in there

and let them experience what she did, from what she ate,

how she slept, the patients that she met,

and eventually, how she got out.


Adelman: Nellie Bly is trying to make her mark

in the journalism world,

and she had the idea that she wanted to report

about what was happening at Blackwell's lunatic asylum.

And so she went to her editor and said, "I want to do a story.

I'm going to go undercover,

and I'm going to legally get myself admitted.

And I'm going to see what's actually happening there."

And he said, "Great. I don't know how I'm gonna get you out,"

because there's no way to send any message at all,

"so good luck to you, and I hope you find things."

Let's see -- reasons for admission,

1864 to 1887.

Immoral life, imprisonment, jealousy and religion, laziness,

marriage of son, masturbation and syphilis.

Adelman: And then she ends up in the lunatic asylum,

where she says, "I'm going to act sane.

I'm going to see what they do,"

and it's about her journey seeing the other women there,

because about 80% of the women who were there were sane.

And as she went there, she found that out,

but in those conditions, the women gradually start

to lose their mind or they get sick.

Women: Breakfast!

Wake up, lazy bones!

Schechter: Investigative journalism,

the kind that Nellie was doing,

this reporter work, was going in and living it,

not just viewing it as a spectator,

so it makes perfect sense to me

that this story could only be told

by having an audience go immerse in the experience

and understand it as Nellie did

because she wasn't a spectator, and neither are you.

The audience starts off with Nellie

as she enters into the editor's room

and what it's like for a woman,

because women were not allowed in the editor's room ever,

to kind of go and confront that and pitch her story

and kind of be negated from the beginning.

And then once you're in the asylum,

the nurses take over, and then Nellie loses control

and the audience is really at the mercy of their whims.

And sometimes, that doesn't make any sense,

and sometimes, it's unfair.

Be gentle.


I said be gen-- What did you say?

What are you looking at?

Perhaps you want to join her.

[ Coughs ]

That's what I thought.

That tough skin of yours made nearly impossible to clean.

Schechter: The audience is treated

as patients in the lunatic asylum,

and it's designed in such a way that the audience

can really appreciate what it takes to do that

and really empathize with the women in this asylum

who didn't belong there and, you know, kind of get

that sense of advocacy that Nellie had.

And, you know, it's a question of how will they react

and what will you do if you were in that situation?

Come on over. Uh...

Hello? Is -- Is someone in there?

Schechter: We happened to end up

with a cast of of all women,

and then that also became just the more decisive choice

because we're telling the story of the women

in Blackwell's lunatic asylum,

and the men were really ancillary to that experience.

And yet they have so much power,

even though their physical presence isn't here

and the women whoare here, flesh and blood,

feel so powerless, even though they're right there.

[ Pounding on door ]


[ Breathing heavily ]

I heard about these women.

These women are considered to be

the most violent on the island.

Szekely: So I started off just what she did in her life

over the course of her life

because even if you write something as a journalist

of how you're feeling, and I read

"10 Days in a Madhouse" multiple times,

it's a composed thing.

So I really looked at what her actions were in her life

so I kind of got a better understanding

of what her character was, and then with every audience,

it's different because I'm talking to people,

different people every single night.

And their reactions inspire new reactions

and new discoveries in me, as well.

You make the bed.


On the scale!

Schechter: The best part about doing this kind of work

is seeing the reactions of your audience

and then preparing the actors for the variety of responses

that can happen with various audience members.

You know, there are just so many factors that you don't think of

when you're in a traditional proscenium-style theater,

so it was definitely a great challenge.

But I was really excited about the possibility

of having that audience be another character in the play

and figure out a way

to make the movement seamless into this space

and be embedded in the storytelling

so it's not like, "Okay, this scene is over,

and now we're moving to another scene."


We built it to be a platform

so that you can plug in as many different cartridges,

and every time you play the cartridge,

you can get a totally different experience.

That's sort of how we explain to people

why our space exists and what capacity exists to.

This is my first immersive piece that I wrote,

and I came in thinking about the space.

And I've done a lot of environmental theater,

and so I did come in thinking,

"Okay, how can -- you know, how can I use all the spaces?"

One of the reasons why we gravitated very specifically

to "Women of Blackwell"

was most immersive pieces out there are fictional.

For a while, we've been thinking of the medium.

How can we expand that medium

to tell a broader story or a story about people

that have no voice in the atmosphere?

All of the changes we proposed were to be made.

And the article, well...

[ Newspaper rustles ]

See for yourself.

"Inside the Madhouse.

How the city's unfortunate wards are fed and treated."

Schechter: I think it's one of the first

immersive theater experiences on a true event.

A lot of them are fictionalized, and that comes with great power

and a great responsibility to tell the story authentically

and not just have this be like a haunted house

or just have cool effects for the sake of it.

And it reflects on real experiences

that are happening today.

You know, this story might have happened

in the late 1800s,

but the way we treat mental health

and the way we treat outsiders has not changed enough.

And there's still a long way to go.

One of the things I really struggle with

is how do you get someone to understand a story

that they've never experienced?

How you do that is you have them walk in that person's shoes,

and if you immerse them in the world,

it's a great way, hopefully, for them to get at least

a little bit of an understanding of a story

that did not happen to them.

This way, they come in

and they actually are put into the situation

so they can say, "You know what?

That reminds me of something I went through

in this period of my life."

As a result of my visit to the asylum,

the city of New York has appropriated

a million dollars more for the care of the insane.

Schechter: At the end, you know, there's this advocacy piece,

which is, "What did you see?

You know, what do you do and how do you fight for what you saw?

How do you speak up for those who can't speak for themselves?"


Adelman: We're living in a time

where there's a lot more activism happening,

and I think when there is more activism,

people want their voices a part of it, as well.

So they don't want to just sit back and see it

and then say, "Thank you very much."

They want to go through it themselves

and they want to be able to have some agency throughout it,

and I think that's what immersive theater does.

It gives you a chance to bring your own voice,

your own wants and needs to it,

and I think that's kind of the time we're living in right now.



Chlapecka: In Linked Dance Theatre,

we specialize in site-specific

and immersive dance-theater work.

The focus around is sort of every day,

I think that we like to call our work impressionalistic

and a little bit less film noir

than a lot of the other dance-theater work you see.


Slack: We were doing proscenium work,

mainly telling stories through dance.

Our first two pieces

were completely proscenium dance pieces,

but then it was around 2015 where we started

to really sort of delve into the more site-specific

and then eventually, the fully immersive.


"Remembrance" is a project that sort of came about

as we were looking at applying for a space

on Governors Island.

They have these beautiful homes

that they open up for artist residences,

and we wanted to tackle a different issue.

And Alzheimer's is something that's super personal.

My grandmother has Alzheimer's, and struggling sort of

with the realities that are going to come to pass

in the very near future with Alzheimer's

and struggling with the sort of relationship

that I was sort of losing with my grandmother,

her being in Arkansas and me being in New York.

It sort of came about as a topic

that we really wanted to tackle,

and it's also personal for Kendra, as well.

Yeah, my grandfather struggled with dementia

later on in his life,

and many of our company members, as well,

had family members with dementia and Alzheimer's.

So it was something

that we all had sort of personal experience with

and felt it was important to communicate.


I think the immersive form specifically,

it has a unique opportunity

in the way that it really puts people inside a story.

I think it helps people to understand topics

on a more visceral level,

so that's really what we were wanting to do,

was not only to sort of put people

inside the mind of this woman, Margaret,

but also to be able to interact with her

to really try and understand her life

on multiple levels.

I have to do this.


I think you're being unreasonable.

Slack: The ultimate concept ended up being

that this house, Margaret's house,

that you came to

to help celebrate her 60th birthday,

it ultimately ended up representing her mind and --

And all of the rooms

and sort of nooks and crannies inside of her mind.

And you actually got to walk around in her mind,

and opening different doors

would lead you into different parts of her memory.

We were trying to give people a sense of this woman

as a whole person,

not just as a person with Alzheimer's,

but also to ask that question of what happens

when you can no longer remember your memories.

Are you still you?


When you're crafting an immersive piece,

I think there are some big questions

you always have to ask yourself.

The first one is, like,

why is this meant to be immersive in the first place?

But for us, another really important thing,

because we are so committed

to using movement in our storytelling

is what purpose does the dance serve?

Are we just putting dance in there

because we're dancers and we like dance?

Or is it actually contributing something to the story?

We want to make sure that

that movement has weight to it,

so in this show, in particular, movement --

any time she was, like, dancing or moving,

she was actually forgetting.

Yeah, it was the process of the memory degrading,

is what we wanted to express through the movement.


Because you were in Margaret's mind,

part of the entrance and exit

was the reality that Margaret would eventually forget you,

so when you were let out of the experience,

you were told, "We're sorry, Margaret has forgotten you.

We hope you won't forget her."

So you sort of came to the realization

that you were in her mind

and now she no longer knows who you are.

And that, to me, I think really hit home is that, like,

there's a time in which every sort of person

who has Alzheimer's forgets a face or a name

and can't remember you, and that, I think,

is like a weight that you sort of realize

and sort of carry after the show.


I think immersive have something a little bit more

in how it can be transformative for someone

because they were actually able to be in it

and to experience it themselves

in an embodied way where you really can't

if you're just sort of sitting in a theater seat.


There's a level of agency that gives

and creates this liminal space for this audience member

to, like, feel the texture of the world

beyond that which is, like, reality,

so it's sort of like

there's something that's a little bit extra.

And I think that friction

between, like, what we know is real

and, like, what is sort of proposed in an immersive show

is actually what creates that transformative message,

sort of creates that space for an audience member

to sort of transcend reality for a moment

and then sort of come back down

and then transition back into reality.


Something that we always talk about

is what it means to be human

and the sort of making sure

that our work always sort of resonates

on a very human level

so that when people walk away, we want to make sure

that they feel a resonance in who they are

because I think that especially, I think, during these times,

we're sort of questioning

who we are as humans on this planet

and what we can do to sort of either

help someone understand the world a little bit better

or to help someone cope with something

that they're struggling with.

And I think that our work

sort of transcends the whimsical sometimes

and really digs into what it means to be human

and our flaws

and all the things that make us beautiful.


Hello, hello, hello, welcome to

"A Cocktail Party Social Experiment"!

[ Cheers and applause ]


See you guys in a few minutes.

So, "A Cocktail Party Social Experiment"

is a weird hybrid of a lot of different things

that have come from different parts of my life.

It's a mix of immersive theater, a story slam, game night,

and sort of, like, boozy voyeurism

kind of all wrapped up into one thing.

Some wonderful willing participants

put their name in this here bucket,

and I will choose the guests, but one at a time.

And the rest of us for the next 75 minutes or so

will have the pleasure

of watching this experiment unfold.

I'm an actor by trade.

Starting in like 2012, 2013,

I started doing a lot more immersive theater,

so I always sort of grew up in that atmosphere.

And then when I was acting,

I always had a bar or restaurant job.

I worked on "Queen of the Night."

That was my first big immersive theater show,

and I was tasked with doing a lot of like cocktail

or bartending one-on-ones.

And I created this one little three-minute thing

where I would make a cocktail for a stranger,

and they would tell me a secret.

And by far, it was my favorite part of the evening.

When I left that show, I went back to my restaurant job,

and I realized that those two things were not so dissimilar.

Dmitry will then ask the guest of honor

the question on that page.

When we turn the sand timer over,

the round has begun.

What is it about a cocktail or a drink that facilitates,

like, the sharing of secrets of this kind of intimacy?

Bartenders are always sort of like secret keepers,

unpaid therapists,

so I started to think about how to create a cocktail experience

that sort of felt somewhere in between

going to a regular bar but not quite theatrical,

like it's putting a little bit of a container around it.

What is a recent teachable moment you've experienced?

You can try as hard as you like with someone,

and it's pretty much their decision to make

as far as how far they will go with you.

And being up there, you feel like a little bit

of this hotseat kind of feeling, especially not knowing

what question you're going to be asked.

There's no, like, preparation, but afterward,

if you allow yourself to go there,

then you just you realize how easy it was.

In a lot of ways, kind of like a therapist.

Like, release your demons, and --

or at least I was able to.

I felt really good about it.


Petre: It's built for participants and voyeurs alike.

I think there are some people who only want to participate

and not be a voyeur,

and there are people who only want to be a voyeur.

For people who want to be voyeurs

and kind of watch this thing unfold,

I think sort of watching these eight strangers

navigating around each other with these rules

but really, this is an opportunity

to, like, get to know each other, in my opinion,

in a more meaningful way.

For a voyeur coming into this space,

someone who wants to watch,

I think they can very much be hooked

by the storytelling aspect of the evening,

and it's great cocktails and great music.

And I think, even though the randomness

at which people are chosen to participate,

they're going to be bringing their own energy.

I still think the structure

and the structure the evening holds for them.


Someone else came up to me afterwards,

after the after the experiment tonight, and said,

"Well, someone in the audience was sort of yelling

and adding things to that.

Was that part of the show?"

And I was sort of like, "It happened, so sure."

You know, like we're playing this game and you're watching,

but if someone is shouting

but adding to the conversation, I don't think that's something

that should be shut down.

It never happened before,

but if someone's shouting like, you know, "You suck," you know,

then maybe I'll be like, "Sir, you know,

this is not your party.

You can go to a different party."

But, yeah, it's a part of the fabric,

so part of this evening was, you know,

someone shouting their thoughts about X, Y, and Z.

Great. Great. Thank you for coming.

This girl who was my best friend for many, many years,

and we got into this weird fight.

And her family was being just really, really nasty

about a bunch of different issues,

and I kind of called them on it.

And she didn't stand up for me.

I was pretty nervous, actually,

because it's not normally something I would do,

but my friend wanted me to put my name in the hat.

And I was like, "Okay, I know I'm not going to picked,"

but when it just came to, like,

listening to people and responding,

it became a lot less nerve-wracking and pleasant.

But I don't regret anything, necessarily.

I think we're all kind of coming to a realization

that in this cultural moment,

it's much easier to be looking at our phone

than to be talking with someone else.

You know, you're really putting yourself out there

if you're, like, at a bar and you're like,

"I'm not going to look at that.

I'm going to be like, 'Hey, you.'"

You know, it's like it's very vulnerable.

How do you handle your anxiety?

Sometimes, I don't know if I'm anxious

or if there's just a physical problem, right?

And so my brain says,

"Oh, this is anxiety," or vice versa.

Petre: Some of the most emphatic feedback

I've been getting have been from people who are between

20 and 21, 25 years old.

I realized that they've been inundated

with, you know, smartphones and screens

and everything since the day that they were born.

I do think that there is a resurging interest in things

that feel analog, in things that are more about connection,

because even though your smartphone is supposed to

connect you to other people, it's been proven with, you know,

many, many studies that you actually feel more alone.

So, and I think that cuts across all the demographics,

a feeling of isolation.

So I'm trying to figure out some way to get people

who wouldn't normally be in the same room together together.

You know?

I think, honestly, everyone there...

gave genuine answers, contributed openly.

There was a sense of community but also a sense of, like,

"Let's help this person find something,"

whatever it was.

A lot of immersive theater experiences I have seen

have been catered towards, like, "This is for me,"

even, like, these, like, immersive museums, like,

which are just, like, chances to, like,

take your photo by something.

It's like, "How can I get my photo next to that thing?"

It becomes a little selfish and a little insular.

And so I think the thing that I'm trying to break

with this thing is, "Okay,

the audience is feeling more engaged.

What can I do as a maker of this experience?

What can I tinker with to kind of get them to lean on,

lean forward in their seats?"

And so that's the attempt.


"Reality is stranger than fiction."

That's an age-old saying,

but, like, I feel like with,

we can tap a little bit more into that

because, you know, if you make a narrative from your life,

whether it's like the bad stuff or the good stuff, whatever,

you know, the ability to be able to kind of shape it up

into a narrative where maybe it's sort of like

leading to a better place is universal.

It makes us all feel good,

and I feel like that's a really great

point of connection for everyone.


Slack: The feeling of being inside a story,

the feeling of feeling other bodies next to you

that are moving and moving through space,

it really is a unique form in the sense that

I think what it could potentially achieve for someone.


Schechter: Everyone will have different experiences,

and that's the truth of anyone's journey in such,

you know, a harrowing place like that

is they all experience different things.

And we wanted to encounter what are the causes

that the audience is passionate about,

and how can we move to a place of getting those stories told?


Lee: It's not just you're being a witness,

you're also an integral part

of how that story plays out

and what those characters are feeling.


There really are no rules, really,

and we're all trying to figure out

what can immersive be together.

It's really cool to be a part of the community at this time.

It's so interesting to see where things started

and where things have progressed to.







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