Inside and outside

‘Immersive theatre involves placing the audience within the story-world.  Rather than having a separated stage and auditorium, everything is the ‘stage’, and the audience are placed there alongside the actors.  The audience may be acknowledged by the performers, they may not, they may be led from location to location or left to roam as they choose, but the defining element is that there is no space considered to be outside the story-world.  Immersive theatre can be interactive, participatory or playing, but doesn’t have to be.’

Source: ‘What exactly is immersive, interactive, participatory or playing theatre, anyway?’ Playing at Plays

I’m following Russell Anderson’s Playing with Plays blog with interest (and a little bit of jealousy because of the list of interesting shows he’s seeing/will see and review soon!).

The quote above is of particular interest to me because, as my own PhD work progresses (Russell is also a current PhD candidate), I’m becoming more and more focused on questions about  boundaries in relation to the audience “in” Sleep No More (what boundaries exist; how they are defined; who can define or challenge them; etc.).

Russell’s definition of immersive theatre suggests that, in this kind of work, ‘there is no space considered to be outside the story-world’. I think here that Russell is talking about tangible physical space rather than a broader, more abstract meaning … Regardless, I’m stewing on it a little bit because it feels like a productive way of thinking about it and it’s helping to both focus some questions I already had and generate some new ones … Questions like:

  • Considered to be outside the story-world by who?
  • Is the story-world only defined in terms of the physical space that it’s presented/performed in? (i.e. the ‘walls’ of the space are the ‘walls’ of the story?)
  • Another consideration in terms of the inside/outside of the story-world is time. Does the story-world only exist during it’s scheduled performances? What happens when someone visits that space outside of those times?
  • In terms of SNM what happens to objects that are part of the story-world when they are removed from the physical space? (Masks, gifts/tokens from characters, etc.) Do the boundaries of the story-world somehow expand to still encompass those objects when they are removed?

I’m not sure right now whether all of these questions (and their answers, if they have them) will end up being central to my thesis … they’re kind of foggy shapes in the darkness of my mind at the moment… but I’m grateful for anything and anyone that prompts me to ask new or newly focused questions. So, thanks for the thought-provoking blog Russell! I hope there will be lots more :)

3 thoughts on “Inside and outside”

  1. Ooooh – interesting questions! Hello, by the way: nice to meet you, and thanks for the interest!

    (I meant to write a quick reply. I failed…)

    I really struggle with definitions: it seems to be that as soon as you try to define something, something else pops up to make you question whether you got it right at all. So you have to set particular borders and live with them… and in this case you’re right, I was definitely approaching it from a spatial perspective. It’s something I’ve discovered in talking to a lot of people who aren’t familiar with immersive theatre: one of the first things you have to get past is the physicality of the experience. It is (perhaps?) a crucial factor you have to get past before you can start asking deeper questions.

    For example, I recently did an audience-vote performance of Woyzeck, and I had the audience on their feet, with the action surrounding them. My girlfriend’s mother came along to that one, and just the concept that she wasn’t going to be sat down and watching something ‘placed’ in front of her took her a while to get past. So I find trying to describe or explain immersive theatre to someone like her, you have to start from the physical, because it’s so disconnected from their trained notion of what ‘theatre’ is.

    That’s a slightly frivolous example, but I do think that the spatial relationship to the audience is very important: I find it fascinating that, if you look through the history of attempts to create interactive performances of all kinds (including film), in general the ones which have worked have involved a re-interpretation of space and a physically active audience, and in general the ones which have failed have involved a static or seated audience. In general. Even in writing, the way we talk about navigating hypertext is entirely spatial: we ‘visit’ or ‘go to’ a particular website, we ‘follow’ a link… There’s a lot you could go into here on conceptual spatialities (and some of the best interactive pieces I have been part of have involved interior/mental space and imagination), but I’m trying to keep this short for now!

    You’ve brought up some really interesting and tricky questions, which I’m not going to try to directly answer but will ramble around for a moment. Who the audience is within an immersive performance is a crucial, fascinating, and sometimes neglected question. I think the best pieces I’ve seen have made this one of their central concerns, and the worst I’ve seen have ignored or forgotten it (amongst other things). And there are many approaches to this. I’m sure you know Felix Barrett considers the audience (when masked) as forming part of the mise-en-scene, which is a fascinating concept in that regard: it literally makes them a part of the story-world, part of its structural being. Now, whether you as an audience member feel that or agree with it is another matter, but let’s run with it for a moment: it acts as an interesting companion to the old idea that the performance is not complete until the audience is there – in this case the story-world itself is not physically complete until the audience is in it (something probably not the case for a fourth-wall, proscenium play).

    But what is the story-world? Physical space, yes. Moments of performance encountered, sure. But what about that mental space I mentioned? I don’t know if you’ve encountered Lundahl and Seitl’s ‘Symphony of a Missing Room’? If not, and you ever get the chance, do it! In brief, you’re guided through a gallery by a voice playing through headphones, and after a while you are blindfolded. You then continue to be led around by a combination of this voice, guiding hands, sound effects, and light being shone on the blindfold. The effect is that you are walking around a real space, but you are exploring another one: a gallery which goes forwards and backwards in time, up elevators and hunched over in tunnels, looking over cliffs and walking through fields… to all intents and purposes the story-world isn’t physically real – it’s all interior, and so unique to each participant. But in accepting and exploring the story-world, the participant is able to make it real for herself, if she chooses.

    Time is another really deep factor to consider, and seeing how much I’ve written already it might be best not to go into it too much! Tassos Stevens (of Coney) has an interesting way of looking at it, though: he says that the performance event exists from the first moment it is encountered (say, as an advertisement), and only ends when it is thought about for the last time – so that could be decades later. Does that mean the story-world exists in all that time? I suppose that depends… the last Coney show I saw, definitely not. I felt like there were key points where we were ‘in’ the world and ‘out’ of it: the story-world and the wider event were two separate entities (interestingly the event was much longer, and involved a great deal more, than simply going into and out of the story-world – for example the political debates that went on over nibbles and wine afterwards.) But with something like ‘Symphony’? There’s a case to make that as much as the performance is similar for everyone, my particular story-world exists within me, and so it will exist until I never think about it again (or perhaps beyond?)

    Ah, lots of thoughts, lots of ideas, lots of questions, very few answers… I’ll find it interesting to see what questions you make me ask about my thinking. Because I’m coming from a practice-based angle, to a degree I do focus a bit more on physical explanations and definitions. Maybe worth expanding that mind-set…

    Anyway, thanks for saying hello and I look forward to talking more!

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    1. Hi! This is a strange way to meet someone and start a conversation, isn’t it? I like it :)

      I think you’re right that setting borders around anything is more about making a decision that that’s where they’ll be than capturing any kind of ultimate or correct truth. But it’s useful I think – something akin to deciding you’re only going to paint with red paint and then discovering some kind of clarity or creativity as a result of that restriction perhaps.

      I hadn’t heard of ‘Symphony of a Missing Room’ and it sounds fabulous so thank you very much for putting me on to that.

      Re Time and Space and Whatnot – these questions (and your responses) are bringing to mind an article by Paul Booth that I read recently: ‘Crowdfunding: A Spimatic application of digital fandom’ (http://nms.sagepub.com/content/17/2/149.abstract). In that article Booth is advocating a ‘Spimatic’ approach to thinking and talking about fans. I hadn’t come across this idea of the ‘Spime’ before and I’ve not yet read the original source of it (Bruce Sterling 2005, Shaping Things) so I’m still working through what it actually is … but, as I understand it for now, a Spimatic approach encourages you to think about the lifecycle of something (e.g. a book) and therefore to consider the processes that it is made up of rather than just an ‘end’ product.

      So, maybe this idea is actually useful when we’re looking at something like immersive theatre as well… It seems to kind of reflect what Tassos Stevens from Coney is saying about the story-world existing across time and space. Perhaps the story-world exists not so much in time and/or space but in ‘Spime’?

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      1. Interesting concept. I’ve not encountered ‘Spime’ before, so I’m going to have to have a look at that! Oddly sounds linked to some ideas I’ve been having about rehearsal and development processes (sparked by Schechner writing about TPG’s attempts at open rehearsal processes, then considering how interactive works probably require development alongside participants, which has a significant impact on how you develop a rehearsal methodology).

        If you’re interested, there’s a kind of taster of ‘Symphony of a Missing Room’ on the BBC website: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p01zhn9r – hopefully they’ll let you view that in Australia! Of course it’s a completely different experience watching it, but it gives a slightly better idea of what it is (ALTHOUGH – if you happen to discover you will definitely get a chance to encounter it live… maybe better to do that first)

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