Immersive Musical Theater
What makes a musical theater production immersive? Immersive Musical Theater goes behind the scenes of the Off-Broadway musical “Here Lies Love,” created by David Byrne and Fatboy Slim, which invites the audience to dance along. It also explores Broadway’s “The Great Comet of 1812” and showcases Third Rail Projects, which has produced over 40 immersive shows.
Feldman: At a certain point, theater was the only acting art form.
Now that there are movies and television,
that convention is no longer as natural to a lot of audiences.
So the question is, if you want people to go to the theater,
how do you get them to go to the theater
and not feel like it's some old-fashioned experience
where they're stuck in their seat
and they feel constrained?
Wick: Audiences crave to be closer to the action,
and movies and that
most certainly a traditional theatrical setting
set can't provide for people.
The only way to do that is immersive theater.
Pearson: After so many years of a digital lifestyle,
people were both yearning for that type
of real live tactile experience
but at the same time wanting to retain
that kind of agency that they have
when they're behind their little computer screen proscenium,
and they're in control of everything.
Ricamora: They can stand next to people and chant and shout with people,
shake hands with the performers,
and be effective in a very visceral,
physical way that doesn't really happen anymore
because people are so tethered to devices and TVs and screens.
Abraham: They want to be close.
They want a sense of proximity,
and they want to be part of something that feels like it
could only happen there at that moment.
An immerse experience just heightens those aspects.
Macapugay: Whatever you bring out to them, they throw it right back to you.
You are really experiencing the emotions of the audience
because you're that much closer to them.
Feldman: Immersive just means that the audience
is immersed in the production,
and that can mean a lot of different things.
It can mean that the production surrounds them in some way.
It can mean that the production surrounds them
and bleeds into the area where they're seated,
or it can mean that they have a lot more agency and mobility
within the theatrical space.
There is a wing of theater, especially lately,
that does like to do that.
Well, "Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812,"
originally it was staged in a very small theater
where there are only 70 or 80 people seated at cabaret tables.
Action was staged on this kind of catwalk
that wrapped around all of the audience,
and the actors often sat down at tables
and had little interactions and flirtations.
People passed notes.
People served food.
So there was definitely an effort
to make the audience feel included
and welcomed into the production.
And when they moved it to Broadway,
they took extraordinary pains to try to replicate
the experience of that much smaller space
within a 1,500 seat proscenium theater.
Meyer: "The Comet" has existed for years prior.
I think it was 2013 they started where they had Ars Nova,
a space that was originally meant to be immersive,
and now they're taking a proscenium,
which is something that is,
you know, you're sitting in your seats,
and you're watching the thing on stage like normal
and trying to see if they can turn a proscenium
setting into an immersive setting.
I really do wish that we could have had some footage of us
walking into the Imperial for the first time
because I feel like it was just a bunch
of children on Christmas morning.
Just wide-eyed, jaws dropped.
A large chunk of rows from the front row were removed
so that the stage could be built outward.
There are banquettes built onto the stage,
more platforms and railings,
a giant doughnut and pits and bars,
so it really has been transformed
to mimic a supper club.
Meyer: They engineered the set design so everybody
can see all the main action from any angle in the space,
be you seated up on stage or be you up in the mezzanine.
That adds to the immersive nature of the sound
and the feel and the look, and it brings a 1,200 seat house
really down to feeling much more intimate.
Many of my friends who sat in the rear mezzanine,
or way up in the back, are like,
"I felt so close to the action."
It's because of the way the space is designed.
It's because of what we do as a company in the space.
Wick: The creatives were placed as their highest priority
to maintain the immersive and intimate aspect
of what the original Ars Nova production
was with this Broadway transfer.
What's so wonderful is that we are encouraged
to use the audience as our scene partners
and basically take the action out toward them,
to include them into the story.
That maybe sometimes, in a proscenium setting,
that fourth wall is there,
and the audience isn't necessarily called upon
to invest themselves in the story as much as we do.
The musical begins actually with all of us running out
holding a giant basket of dumplings,
asking, "Who wants dumplings?"
and handing them out or throwing them at the audience.
Meyer: One thing about the immersive nature of the piece
is the sound design.
I guess they're calling it something like 360-degree sound.
Truly, like, I will be sitting next
to you singing a tenor one-line.
I'll sing the high tenor part, but then you'll also hear, like,
someone next to you who is not sitting
next to you singing a soprano part or a base part.
And you feel like the sound washes over you
from all directions.
It's a 1,200 seat house, and the sound and the lights
and the set are really what I think bring it
into this intimate level
that doesn't exist without those technical aspects.
Wick: It's incredible.
Our lighting design actually developed an iPad app,
essentially, that tracks all of our individual blocking.
So when my clarinet is traveling through the audience,
my sound is amplified throughout the theater
but is concentrated on the speakers directly above me
going up to the mezzanine, which is genius.
I mean, if you are in an acoustic setting,
obviously you would hear a distant clarinet
if it's over there, and you would hear it
more proximally if it's right next to you.
And so he basically took that idea but applied
to the Imperial Theater, which is not an easy feat,
but is mimicking actual acoustic.
Meyer: Using the space in the way that they have
and not having a specific,
oh, we have this set piece of the living room coming out,
this set piece,
but just allowing everything to be everywhere,
you're kind of giving the audience permission
to not be literal about what they're watching.
You're giving the audience permission to understand
this story that we're telling about Natasha and Pierre.
You're giving them permission to understand it
on a broader spectrum,
and the war going on out there can be applied to today.
Wick: This is most definitely my first time
being able to be submerged in this sort of
including the audience to get on board with us
and to shake their eggs and to, you know, get rowdy
and to also cry with us because at the end of the show,
all of the ensemble comes out into the audience
and sits with them.
And when we all sing together,
we sing from many different points
wherever we're sitting all throughout the theater,
and it's a very emotional show.
There's oftentimes when I'm crying.
And it's beautiful to be able to look around
and to welcome the audience as a part of the show, too.
Feldman: Sometimes shows will use interactive
or immersive elements
to bring the audience into a relationship with it
in a different way or to bring the audience
into a feeling of being in the show.
Welcome to Club Millennium!
Feldman: For example, "Here Lies Love"
was a musical about Imelda Marcos.
Everyone in the audience was standing
in what was sort of a dance club, effectively.
There were these moving platforms
that the action was happening on.
It was Fatboy Slim and David Byrne who wrote the music,
and so it had a dance club feel, making you part of this disco
and sort of partying along with Imelda Marcos.
It gave this complex audience identification
where at once you were watching the show,
but also seduced into being part of the world
that it was depicting,
making you feel that you are not just an observer,
but that you have been sucked in to the action.
"Here Lies Love" traces the story of controversial
former First Lady Imelda Marcos from her humble beginnings
as a country girl in Leyte
up through the People Power Revolution
after she and her husband were in power for almost 20 years.
So it's a big trace in time from a young girl
to the power behemoth
that she was at the end of her fall.
Abraham: I saw it at The Public Theater in New York,
and I went because I'm a huge David Byrne fan.
It was an incredible experience on every level for me.
I think the main thing that I took away from it
that I think makes it truly unique
is that it's both an immersive experience
that you're in the theater with the lights
and sound all around you, so it's very tactile.
You feel like you're part of the environment,
but it's also incredibly powerful narrative storytelling,
so you're getting the history of this period in the Philippines,
and you're experiencing these really complicated characters
in this truly, you know, theatrical storytelling
in the midst of the immersive experience.
And to do both simultaneously, I think,
is a very hard thing to do.
Butiu: I've heard David talk on this before,
in that he always kind of pictured it almost,
like, in a night club with maybe a couple of, you know,
stages where a narrative was being told
in a kind of dance club type of setting.
But I think what Alex Timbers, our director,
did was just take it to this entirely other level
where in a theater, you have people
who are in a dance club space and platforms move
and things turn and the space transforms,
and they utilize visuals and video and the music
to incorporate this incredibly immersive feeling.
So I think it did start out
as kind of that kind of nugget of an idea,
but then throughout the years, it's just really grown
to this incredible theatrical experience.
Abraham: One of the parts that really immersive experience
brings to the narrative of the show
is that David and Alex have really put you in the situation
in a way of the Filipino people going through this history,
so you become sort of seduced by the Marcoses and their campaign,
and then things turn and you feel the betrayal much more
because you're in the environment with them.
Sometimes they get surprised because they know the history
of what the Marcoses have done to the Filipino people,
and so they walk in with it with a certain judgment thinking,
"Are we glamorizing their story?"
and rightfully so, right?
But then during the campaign trail
when you're seeing the story of two people that want to succeed,
that have every hope of making the Philippines a better place
and you're a voter in the show,
and then you're, like, hyping up.
And by the end of it when you see that they voted,
you're, like, you're so happy for them.
And then you're like, "Wait a second!
I think that was not... What? How did that happen?"
You know, you realize that the audience members,
like, we became complicit with the story
without realizing it.
It's also, on a basic sort of performance strategy level,
because the audience can move around and dance to dance music.
And one of the difficult things that musicals have had
to grapple with in recent years is that music has changed,
and that a lot of the times it's louder and bouncier and dancier,
and audiences who are stuck in their seats
can't really participate in that fully,
can't really get into the groove of it.
So when they can, you want to bounce around with it.
And the "Here Lies Love" ended with this enormously successful
faux concert presentation, and it was impossible
not to be sucked up into this enormous energy vortex,
you know, explosion of energy that was this finale.
And it left everyone really high.
I will admit that there's an intoxication to the intimacy
of being this close to an audience member
in a way that feels better than any other show I've done.
When you're doing a proscenium show, there's a fourth wall.
There's seats separating you, but when I'm doing the show,
I am allowed to break that fourth wall
and connect to an audience member and dance with you,
and it feeds into what's happening in the story too.
Everything has its reason.
Like, when you were talking about the beginning of the show,
Imelda is a young country girl, very quiet, very still.
But I can feel everybody
because you're only a couple feet away from me,
and it's so intimate and great.
♪ Whose dresses are all hand-me-downs ♪
♪ And scraps ♪
Macapugay: But, like, cut to 15 minutes later
when Imelda is so full of power
and she's dancing disco, and everyone is jumping.
It's, like, you give me that energy to keep going.
And depending on how hype the audience is,
is how much more energy I'll give back.
Ricamora: The audience feeds you, in a way,
a lot of energy than when you're so separated from them
and just performing for, like, a kind of a black abyss,
like, that you can't see any faces.
You still feel that energy when you're doing proscenium,
but it's not as easy to immediately feel the impact
of what you're doing as it is with our show.
We feel the impact of the mock rallies that we have in the show
and the speeches that we give, and I see the faces.
They feel like participants in the show,
and that feeds me energetically. Yeah.
In a way that other experiences don't.
Feldman: There is something exciting for an audience
about getting out of a traditional arch
and curtain seating area setup.
You automatically... You're on your toes.
I mean, literally.
You're not just leaning forward in your seat,
you're actually up and about.
It engages you already from the beginning
in a different way, and there are a lot of shows
that are staged site-specifically
in non-traditional theater spaces,
in bars and in restaurants, and you can have something
that's sort of organically makes sense
when the actors are moving through the audience
and you understand as an audience member
sort of what the setup is.
For example, one show that's been very successful doing it
on a very different scale and with a different model
is a show called "Then She Fell."
Pearson: "Then She Fell," it's a very small audience
that experiences it every night,
and in a way, it's almost like a boutique experience
where you're one of 15.
You're going to pay a pretty premium ticket price
to come see something like this,
but you're going to have a really unique 2 hours
that's just yours.
Feldman: "Then She Fell" is staged in this kind
of a mock mental asylum, or a mock hospital,
and in this case there are only 15 audience members
who are in it at a time.
So it's quite expensive,
but it is also a very special experience
because you really do have a very personal,
almost one-on-one relationship with the cast.
It's practically a one-to-one ratio of actors
to audience members.
You have little scenes with them.
You have little dialogues with them.
You improvise with them, and for some people
this is a very rewarding, unique, and exciting experience.
For other people, I think it's probably kind of terrifying.
Pearson: I remember when we first opened "Then She Fell,"
there was a wave of audience who were coming in
because they wanted the next immersive fix.
And, like, "This show sounds amazing.
We're going to come to this show,"
but they don't know Third Rail.
So, at first they would come in
and they might be one-on-one with us,
and then we lead them down the hallway,
and they're running after us.
You know, it's clearly someone who had been
to "Sleep No More," right?
They're coming to see "Then She Fell," and they say,
"Oh, I've got to follow this. I can't lose this performer.
If I do, I'm going to miss the next"...
And it's, like, "I'm not running from you,
and there's only the two of us."
You know, "you don't need to mow me down in the hallway."
And over time, you could see people start to attune
to the fact that every show might be different,
and the logic for the audience might be different,
and then people come in a little bit more listening themselves.
You know, waiting for the understanding
of how to navigate.
Feldman: "Then She Fell" takes a space
that already has its own atmosphere
and already has its own character.
It already takes you out of your rut
about what you expect from the show,
and also it can do a lot of scene work for the production.
It can do a lot of helpful scenic work.
Pearson: When you come to "Then She Fell"
and you see the nurses and the doctors
and the framework of the hospital
and even the audience is, you know,
subtly challenged to be almost, like, a research assistant.
So for us, that was really important that
within the soul of this piece,
it actually connected to something real
that had roots in this building.
Make it so that people could come to these experiences
and see something of themselves in it
and still have a structure to it that they could recognize.
We're not leading people
sequentially through a narrative.
We're fragmenting it all over the space,
leaving room in between the pieces for the audience
to write their own selves into it.
I think that's the key for what audiences are seeking
and what we're providing in terms of the ability
to see themselves.
Feldman: One of the things that's nice about theater is that
although in some ways you have less control
as an audience member because you can stop the TV
and get up and make a sandwich or whatever...
But the nature of theater is that you also
as an audience member have more control.
You also, of course as an audience member,
have a more active role in actually shaping
and creating the performance.
The amount that you laugh
and when you laugh or when you're quiet
or when you have that group audience tension that comes in,
that actually changes
the production that's unfolding before you.
The audience molds what's happening.
The actors respond to that energy,
and every night, it will be a little different,
so you have that power as an audience member,
especially collectively in theater.
Pearson: People who talk about it often talk
about these very personal subjective narratives
that they see, and that's great.
And a lot of times, they're saying things
that happen in this order and that order,
and you know, it's not possible that it happened in that way,
but it's totally right.
That experience is exactly as it should be, and it's their's.
And I think that that's what people are looking for,
to be allowed to explore within a narrative
and kind of piece it together for themselves
and make a lot of space for them.
Every person is experiencing it differently,
and you have to attune to that.
Feldman: You definitely have more control as an audience member.
If we want to talk about the changes in the world,
I think maybe that does, to some extent,
reflect the democratization process
that has happened with the growth of social media,
the growth of the individual expression movement,
the singer-songwriter moment, the authenticity moment.
All of these are part of the same world,
and that's a world where the individual feels entitled
to express him or herself and to make those choices
and not just to follow the rules that have always been followed,
but actually to...
has a right to make choices and to be heard,
and that every person is individually interested
So I think that immersive theater, in a way,
is taking those tendencies
and extending them to a further degree,
giving people even more control
over exactly where they are and what they're seeing.
It exaggerates, in a way, the audience's power.
I think that people can't help but feel invested
and feel involved,
you know, to have the players around you
to feel like you're part of the story.
It's something that's not usually done, you know,
or hasn't been done in theater.
You know, growing up it's the fourth wall.
There is a separation that's happening on stage,
and I'm watching it like I'm watching it
on a screen or something.
And so to have this type of experience
where the audiences is like, "I'm at a rally,"
or "I'm at a political rally," or "I'm at a funeral,"
or "I'm watching this happen and it's so close to me."
You have to lean forward.
Even if you're not in a seat,
you feel this need to lean forward.
There's no falling asleep.
You can't separate yourself from that experience,
and I think it can be incredibly cathartic,
incredibly emotional, and incredibly satisfying.
Ricamora: I think it brings the audience in
and affects them in a way that a proscenium theater can't
because in regular theater,
the audience is very much separate from the action
that's happening, and we're breathing and touching
and living in the same space as the audience for this.
So I think it really, you know, gets under your skin.
Meyer: The gift of this that really does not make it repetitive
for me, that makes it truly unique
every single night or afternoon, is the audience.
I can say completely with 100% confidence
that the audience is the most consistent thing
that gets me through. Looking into people's eyes
and seeing their engagement, their amazement, their wonder.
And sometimes, even their disengagement motivates me to do
what I do at the best level that I can achieve every day.
Wick: It's exciting.
It's thrilling that people are so on board
and are desiring to be closer into the action.
I also achieve a new experience as an actor,
welcoming them in a way that I haven't before.
Macapugay: They're hungry for it because they don't seem
to be getting a lot of truth in media.
That if -- you can make the judgement
call for yourself when you see a show.
Abraham: When you're all there together
and you can see everybody around you,
you really feel like you've been through something
more than just the theater experience, I think.
You feel closer to the people.
Just the enhancement of that tactile proximity
to other people that makes it truly
a kind of unique experience and gives it more value.
Wick: It's really thrilling to me to see people
who wouldn't otherwise normally see an immersive theater piece
or this kind of close contact experience
come to our show and be delighted.
I see audience member's eyes light up
when I'm directly singing to them,
when I'm directly handing them a love letter,
when people are handing out egg shakers,
when they're welcoming them, when they're inviting them
to raise their glass and toast with us
and come and join in this story...
That they're as much a part of it as we are.
It's absolutely thrilling to see people discover
that for the first time.