Immersive Theater

In its first episode, the series presents the universe of New York's immersive theater from the standpoint of actors, dancers, and other performers who have become the biggest names in the genre. Focusing on the mega hit “Sleep No More” and the groundbreaking “Here”, the episode explores the artists' relationship with the audience and the mystery behind the immersive productions.

AIRED: February 19, 2020 | 0:22:16




Woman: Jack?


Hawas: What's really exciting about this kind of storytelling

is that we're unencumbered by the sort of rules

that sort of dictated what a traditional story looks like.

Costello: That idea of the fourth wall

and the passivity of sitting in the audience

and the performance is happening over there

and that removal, we need to break that fourth wall.

Martens: In this universe of performing,

the audience is so close

that you feel everything they're doing.

When they're locked in and when they're totally with you,

you are on fire.

Feldman: It is very different from what we consider to be

the traditional theater experience.

For some people, this is a very rewarding,

unique, and exciting experience.

For other people, I think it's probably kind of terrifying.

Bartnik: The freedom of, like, letting go for a second,

letting somebody else tell your story for you.

Hawas: Totally unexpected, totally surprising,

sometimes shocking, sometimes heartbreaking,

sometimes thrilling -- it's real life.

Lyon: I kind of sometimes explain immersive theater

like a diamond with all these different facets,

and if you can see into one little part of that and connect

to that one little part, then we have magic.


Hawas: The reason that immersive theater

continues to attract audiences in New York City

is all of the crazy things that can happen in

just a day-to-day

going from point A to point B in New York City

can happen while you're in an immersive experience.

Ladies and gentlemen, welcome.

Feldman: There's always been some immerse theater

and in other kinds of things that are its relatives,

like interactive theater or environmental theater.

You can even look back to these sort of medieval plays

and some of the stage machineries

that they had were really remarkable for the time,

the way that they came up with ways to bring on sound --

sort of make sound effects.

That must have been very exciting

to audiences at the time,

and the question is how do you keep up with that

as the rest of the culture evolves?

So you need to find ways to keep making theater magical

and keep reminding people of that excitement.

Bartnik: Immersive idea is not new.

You know, like, if you really break it down,

like, Disney World is immersive.

The concept of losing yourself or of being able to, like,

set all this aside and just, like, whew into something

I think has always been a feeling,

has always been a draw for us as humans in general.

Feldman: It's not like this is a completely new phenomenon,

the idea of involving the audience actively

in what's happening,

but it does seem like in the past 15 years or so,

this has been growing and becoming more popular.


Costello: I do think there's something going on

with our world and society

and how we're connecting or how we're not connecting

that is making this a very valued art form at the moment.

There's something about being active in the space

that there is an interest in.

Like, I think when you're in a dark theater, in a chair,

and the show is happening over there,

your mind can still wander to stresses or dinner or whatever,

and if you're active in it, you cannot think about any of that.

Hawas: Why I think it speaks to the general zeitgeist

of what people are experiencing in their day-to-day

is you're allowed to totally exist in the world,

and the choices are entirely yours.

You're there.

You're right in the middle of it,

and you can choose how you watch it,

which angle you're watching it from,

and how long you choose to watch it.

When you're talking about immersive theater,

I think a lot of people are specifically talking about

this newer kind of immersive theater,

in which there are no seats for the audience

and there is no set stage for the players,

and the archetype of that in recent New York theater

is "Sleep No More."


Sparks: "Sleep No More" is a visceral, theatrical experience

where the audience comes into this six-story building,

over 100 rooms.

They're donned with a mask and they're told to explore,

and there's no map, there's no directions.

There's no instructions.

You're free to roam through the building.

All the while this interpretation

of "Macbeth" and Hitchcock's "Rebecca"

is being played out in front of you in the various rooms.

So you can choose a narrative that you want to follow

or move around the space in any way.

You don't necessarily have to follow a certain narrative.

You can explore the drawers. You can explore the rooms.

You can hang with a character for a couple hours,

however you want to do it.

Feldman: "Sleep No More" is a fantastic

and extraordinary enormous project,

and so it's hard to compare anything else to it

because it has these --

you know, it's 100 different rooms,

each of them meticulously art designed,

and the details in these rooms are extraordinary.



Hawas: I think what makes "Sleep No More" in particular

such a magical experience as an immersive show

is that we really go through painstaking efforts

to make sure that the suspension of disbelief

is maintained throughout your experience,

which I think is a really integral part

of being able to enjoy an immersive show.

If you believe that you've actually found something

that no one else of the, you know,

hundreds of other people around, no one else has seen this note,

you're set off on a journey that's totally informed

by a one singular experience, and that's really exciting.

I barely saw what was supposed to be the show at all

because they tell you to go wherever you want.

You can wander among these hundred rooms.

I ended up so interested in the details

that I would just sit in these rooms.

There was one that was in a mental institution,

and there was a file room,

and I went through the filing cabinet.

I was reading the files for the patients

because there are hundreds of them.

They're all handwritten,

and they are amazing, the level of detail.

And that's, I think, why "Sleep No More"

has done so well.

I've been five or six times,

and I keep discovering new things.


Bartnik: I've done site-specific work,

and I had done a work in close proximity to audience,

but I hadn't really done anything in that level,

you know, something that's cinematic,

something that's that grueling physically,

something that has that presence of being inside something

where you suspend your disbelief,

and it's like being in a movie.


It's one of those things where it was like

I was needing something in my life,

and I saw this random posting for an audition in Boston.

It said very little information, and then I went.

I was like, "I can drive to Boston and do that,"

then it became this large part of my life.

Hawas: You know, "Sleep No More" can be

very challenging for performers.

It's a very rigorous thing to perform,

and it requires a level of intimacy that can't be faked.

So when you have a performer

that's two feet away from an audience member,

every tear has to be a real tear,

every sigh has to be a really, truly believable sigh.

So that like the rest of the building,

their contribution to the overall experience

is just as believable.

I was looking for movement and a quality of performance

that was so expansive and so dynamic and virtuosic,

and I definitely found it within Punchdrunk's choreography

and being able to then layer that with acting

and, you know, in particular,

Shakespeare has been a really big treat for me.

It's hard to find something that is more challenging.

When you understand, like, the level of detail

and what that is for the first time,

it's mind-blowing,

and then getting to perform inside of that is mind-blowing,

and then add the people on top of it.

It's just -- It's so, like --

It's one of those things where you can't even --

There's no words for that.

Like, that experience is amazing.

You're getting to experience the ride,

but you're also getting to perform in a way

that is so fulfilling.

When you make this type of work, it's really hard to rehearse it

because it's so much dependent on the audience

and what the audience will do and how they'll react.

So you can plan and plan and plan

and, you know, devise material and make the scene,

but you really don't understand the scene

until you're living in it

and you've done it 60 times with 100 different people,

and then you're like, "Oh, that's what it is."

And then you've learned all the things that can possibly happen,

and you have your tools.

You have your skills for that.


Bartnik: There's so many outrageous stories,

which I'm sure you've heard, of just people, like,

making choices that you're like, "Why would you do such a thing?"

[ Laughs ]

But you give people freedom, and I think, you know --

and permission.

You know, they are offered permission

at the beginning of the show.

I've had people steal props from you,

mess with your scenes, grab you.

That's, like, all the sort of negative side of it,

but then there's this side of people

who just, like, they latch onto you.

They follow you through an entire loop.

That's always so satisfying,

I think, as a character in that show.

It's like if somebody follows you from start

to finish of your entire loop, you're like,

"That person is with me on this ride,"

and I, you know, that's awesome.

Everyone who is in "Sleep No More"

feels that they have complete agency

over where they're going and what they're seeing,

but in fact, "Sleep No More" is very carefully

and beautifully and complexly controlled.

They open or close certain rooms.

They create lights and sounds, and they guide the audience

in subtle ways toward where they need them to be

at certain points of the evening,

and most of the audience does not feel

that it has been brought there.

Most of the audience feels

that it has somehow just gotten there on its own,

and that's kind of the magic of that show,

of how well they have assembled these cues.

What I hear a lot is just how real it is

and how they feel so a part of it,

and I think that also speaks to people deeply, as well.

They're not alienated from what they're watching.

It's about them, and it is.

Like, even though the story has nothing really to do with them,

but their physical presence has everything to do

with what happens in the show.

"Sleep No More" is very much the exception that proves the rule

because it is a huge production,

but most of these shows are actually a lot smaller,

in smaller spaces,

where they can control the audience flow a lot more easily.

I think a lot of these up-and-coming companies

and off-off-Broadway companies, they may not be

the big spectacle that "Sleep No More" always is,

but they're certainly experimenting

with these kinds of strategies, as well.

There's so many layers of being involved in a piece like that

that then made me interested in doing my own work in that way.

At least for me, I feel like it's incredibly difficult

to start something like that because

there's so many requirements in terms of space,

which costs money, which takes time.

You know, like, the logistics of it are ridiculous,

so with "Here,"

the space just sort of, like, landed in my lap, you know?

It's like, "Okay, I'll make a show."


So I would describe "Here" --

it's hopefully a long-term episodic work.

It's immersive. It's immersive theater.

It's a devised immersive theater.

We're developing the narrative as we go along.

We're at the point where episode one has been crafted,

but who knows what the rest of it will be?

She was my friend first!

Don't worry, let's just have a good time!



Costello: She knew it would be a family drama,

like this idea of intersecting families and relationships.

So she came in with that,

and then we worked on who these characters were.

And we did a lot of fun freewrites

and kind of almost games around it,

kind of trying to figure out

what the construct of this family drama was.


Started with a scenario because the space is so specific

and was so specific prior to us being there, it was sort of --

It's one of things of like okay, what exists in this space?

They reference a time period

that I wasn't so interested in existing in.

So then I thought, "Well, how do I explain that?"

So then I came up with the idea that

oh, it's just that these people have been here that long

and the place never changed,

and then that sort of transitioned into okay,

well, why do people come back places?

People come back places for events.

What sort of events bring people to places?

I latched onto the funeral because I like dark material.

That sort of was, like, the thing

that I came to the dancers with.

This is my premise, we're going to play and see what comes out.

I asked you... Stop this!

...a question. Stop prying!

What's in the envelope?

Daniel! Come on.

Just tell me what's in the envelope.

Not your business!


Lyon: So I was in "Sleep No More."

"Sleep No More" is a vast space, six floors.

You're trying to always get the audience to follow you,

and I think we're doing the same thing here.

You never herding or pushing.

You're always drawing them in with you,

and then once we sort of get them more on a trajectory,

then you sort of join a little relationship with them,

and then when you sort of nudge them

and give them a little elbow thing like,

"Oh, yeah. I'm with you. Let's get."

So that's what I'm trying to do.

I'm trying to establish a relationship

with somebody that hooks them,

that I'm not pulling you along with me anymore.

You are a willing participant.

At that point you're open,

and then we can really be heart-to-heart.

Martens: It's definitely more of a track system based solely on

where they choose to stand in the room,

if they participate, if they hold back,

and because of these series of minuscule choices,

it starts to weave out who is going where.

I knew that I didn't want for this particular location

for them to roam free because for instance,

the office room and the kitchen living space,

which are next to each other, if that door is open,

it's such a different vibe of what exists as opposed to

if you've got space with this scene, space with this scene.

So I knew that it needed to be crafted,

and then it just became a thing of like,

"Okay, so these people go here and these people go here,

but if this person goes this way,

then they won't have seen that.

So then, Zach, you need to say this about that

so they'll know who Dan -- "

I mean, just like [Laughs] that level is hard,

but I think it worked out.



You come in as a stranger.

You really relate to one character.

You see a blend of the other characters.

You leave wanting more,

wanting to know about those other people.

Having one little facet, that's the draw because there is more.

You can see "Rent" 50 times so you can sing along with it,

but it's always going to be the same.

You come in here, there's all these different tracks.

People don't see any scenes repeated.

There's not overlapping scenes.

So it's very much like audience members

are getting different facets of the same story.

Martens: I remember our very first audience came down,

and we brought them through the experience

and we launched them out the other side.

And then we had a break, and in the middle of that break,

our behind-the-scenes peeps came around,

and they were in shock and awe and recounting this tale

of how many times again and again

people are launched out the front door

and had been split apart

and going their own separate journeys the whole time.

And they all come back together, and they are, like, winded

and sweating and in total shock out on the street,

and they spend the next 20 minutes bonding

by asking each other,

"What did you see? What happened to you?

I saw this. This is what --

And I was with this person and this -- "

And so they actually collectively became --

It became a bonding experience after the show

as they are searching to try and piece things back together.

One of my favorite things to do after seeing any show

is to discuss it with the people I've seen it with,

but I think that in these immersive shows,

there's an even greater tendency to discuss it

with people you may not even know,

people who are just part of this group

because you're curious about what their experience was.

You know, what did they see that I didn't see?

It's social in that way, even if it breaks up

the initial blob of audience that is the case in most shows.

It rewrites them, in a way, after the show

in these smaller groups for discussion.

So it does -- It has that nice community feel to it.

That's one of the nice things about this kind of theater.

Costello: I think there's something,

and I don't know if it's we need it more

because of what's happening in the world today

in terms of technology

and, like, everyone being kind of more spread out that we --

Like, the immediacy of that connection,

we're needing these intimate spaces.

I believe that any art,

people are going to because they need something,

that intimacy, and I keep coming back to connection.

I think there's something about that,

and us too, as performers, like, we're needing

that intimate connection, that more of a connection

than the blank, black abyss of audience.

I mean, I think there's something about the interaction

and the closeness with something.

Like, there's something really intimate about that,

and I don't know if there's, like,

a level of personal intimacy

that we're all missing in our lives,

that that is appealing.

Sparks: It's live. It's tangible.

We're not separated from it.

The action is happening around you,

and I think that plays into a lot

of our everyday experiences with our phones and with games

and with the technology that we deal with, and it's new.

It's different.

It's a different genre now, and it's made its mark,

and it's made its niche for what it is.

Certainly going to a theater production

where you sit in a chair

and you watch a production in front of you

is enthralling and engaging,

and this is just another way to experience storytelling.

Lyon: I think a lot of people when you hear immersive theater,

they think, "Oh, I'm going to go,

and they're going to put me onstage

and they're going to ask me questions,"

and they get all scared and like,

"Don't put me on the spot" kind of thing,

and that's not really where the genre is going.

I think the genre is really getting someplace

where the audience feels super comfortable, feels relatable,

and then forgets everything else,

forgets that you're in a basement apartment,

forgets that you don't know this person,

and then you're willing to sort of open your chest a bit

and feel this emotion that they're coming out to you.

The TV and film world has grown incredibly

over the past X amount of years

where they're able to travel anywhere in the world

and create anything that they want,

and so people are often spending time at home more and more

because they get to sit on their couch

and experience all of those things.

And this trend, especially in the technology world

where everyone is going further and further

and deeper into this, like, nothingness in their hand,

this is the one spot

where, like, you can't manufacture anything.

The only thing that TV and film can't do is it can't reach

straight across the table and touch you in the face.


Hawas: So that's what really this is all about.

It's humans connecting to other humans and being able

to tell those stories in a million different ways.

It's really helped to cultivate an understanding

of creating an experience for people

that is created from start and executed till it's done

with the intention

of how is an audience going to experience this?

Here, every single solitary part has to be cognizant

of what is it like to experience this?

We want something that's going to delight and excite people,

and I think it's that attention to detail and that consideration

that makes this such a special experience.






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