Storytelling Inspiration

The Madness and Wonder of Immersive Theater

By Ashley Taylor Anderson October 31, 2016

I step inside a room the size of a closet. Old velvet curtains cover the walls. There’s a set of shelves full of antique dolls standing on the left side. At a tiny vanity in the corner, Alice sits, gazing at herself in the mirror.

She sees me in the reflection and greets me with a sly smile. “Which doll is your favorite?” she asks. I’ve never been a big fan of dolls, but I point to one of the least creepy ones. Her favorite is blond, dressed in pink satin finery.

She asks me to brush her hair. I do, gently trying to untangle the knots. While I work, she asks me a series of questions:

Have you ever been in love before?

I have.

Are you with your first love now?

I’m not.

Have you ever told someone you didn’t love them, even when you did?

I haven’t. I hope not to.

Satisfied with her hair, she sets a tiara atop her head. “I’m going to marry a prince,” Alice tells me, sadly. The prince is not whom she wishes to marry.

She plucks a letter off a bookshelf, silently reading to herself. I wait for her to finish. When she’s done, she slowly tears it into shreds, giving no explanation. She takes my hand and leads me out to the hallway, leaving me there with a doctor’s assistant.

Before she goes, she smiles and discretely slips something into my hand. It’s a piece of the letter. I want to ask why she’s given it to me, but she’s already gone.

Beyond the Fourth Wall

The above wasn’t an excerpt from some weird Lewis Carroll fan fiction story. It was one of many encounters I had during Third Rail Projects’ play, Then She Fell.

Third Rail describes the piece as “an immersive theater experience combining a hospital ward, the writings of Lewis Carroll, and only 15 audience members per show.” This description is accurate—to an extent. But it only vaguely hints at what actually happens within the walls of Kingsland Ward.

What happened was that I fell through the looking glass into Alice’s world for two hours. And I re-emerged changed by my adventures in Wonderland.

Attending Then She Fell was much more like reading a book than it was going to a traditional theater performance. When you read a story, stepping into the narrative is effortless. Your brain takes words on a page and, by some strange alchemy, turns them in a vivid world only you can see.

During this process, there’s no friction between the medium and the story itself. The act of reading is the act of worldbuilding, and you experience the narrative as a character (or multiple characters) firsthand, completely immersed in the events that unfold.

Modern storytelling mediums have never been able to replicate this seamless passage between reality and imagination. TV, film, and theater all involve delivery mechanisms (screens or stages) that separate the audience from the action. You’re able to passively watch the story unfold, but the Fourth Wall separates you from it. They’re each powerful in their own right—but they’ve never been interactive. Until now.

Third Rail and other groups in the immersive theater space are stretching the boundaries of in-person storytelling, inviting audience members to step onto the stage and into the narrative. In this structured environment, it’s possible to connect with fiction in new and exciting ways. It’s a kind of return to the free play of childhood, but play that’s governed by an unseen author’s will.

Through the Looking Glass

I walk down a long flight of stairs, where a nurse is waiting for me. She hands me a tray with a small glass on it. I take it into an ornate room painted crimson. The Red Queen is waiting for me. She is beautiful and fierce and teetering on the edge of rage.

“Give it here,” she commands. I bring her the drink, which she downs in one gulp. She hands me a looking glass and has me hold it up while she fixes her hair. It already looks perfect, but she is not satisfied. The Red Queen is never satisfied with anyone or anything.

Alice enters the room. She is afraid; she is defiant. She does not want to be here, but she can’t leave. The Queen shoves her onto the chaise in the middle of the room, attempting to brush her hair. Alice writhes away. They continue this back-and-forth dance of aggression and retreat, whirling around the room and over furniture. The Queen loses her temper and storms out.

Alice allows herself to relax a bit. She walks over to the window and looks through it. On the other side, she sees a reflection that is, but isn’t, her own. They begin to dance together, mirroring one another’s movements.

The Alice in the Red Queen’s room is sharp, angry, passionate in her movements. The Alice in the other room—the White Queen’s room, although I don’t know it yet—is soft, languid, sensual. Later in the evening, I will see this dance again from the other Alice’s perspective. I will see how two parts of a whole can be divided through glass, unable to become whole again. I will understand that in dance, as in madness, that one can be many and many one.

Reimagining Contemporary Performance

Third Rail’s mission is to “re-envision ways in which audiences engage with contemporary performance.” For artistic co-directors Zach Morris, Tom Pearson, and Jennine Willett, this mission requires a respectful consideration of dance and theater traditions while expanding the horizons of their work to create unique experiences that appeal to underserved populations.

Since 2000, Third Rail Projects has launched 26 interactive productions worldwide. Each piece is carefully crafted around each new site, community, and cultural landscape in which they work. Then She Fell took place in an old mental institution in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Not only did the production make use of the rooms and furniture, it also utilized old storage boxes, pill bottles, anatomy and psychology books, medical equipment, and photos to ground the story in history.

Productions are also tailored around each group of participants. I spent most of the show split up from the other audience members. My interactions with the actors were unique to my impromptu responses. In fact, after I had a long exchange with the Mad Hatter, another attendee asked me, confused, if I was part of the cast.

On the brief occasions we converged into groups, we were quickly split up again and funneled into different paths inside the story. 15 people entered; 15 people emerged with shared but special experiences. At the end of the show, I arrived back at the waiting room with a letter from Lewis Carroll and a packet of poems from the Red Queen—unique souvenirs from my trip to Wonderland.

Immersive Theatre Souvenirs

Time for a Tea Party

I’m abruptly whisked away to tea. The party begins as a boisterous dance between the Mad Hatter and the White Rabbit. They shove a ten-foot table around the room with extreme force, grinning wildly. Then they start to throw chairs around, jumping and leaping around and on top of them. It’s loud and exhilarating and a tiny bit scary. Finally, the Red Queen and White Queen arrive, and everything becomes a bit more civilized.

We sit down at the table, waiting for the tea to arrive. But of course, this is not a normal party. The Mad Hatter quickly grows tired of her place at the table, and call for us all to switch seats. The actors perform a funny little cup trick (before the tea is poured, thankfully) every time we move.

At last, the tea arrives. We breathe in only the tiniest whisper of mint before the festivities come to an end. Lingering is not much in fashion in Wonderland.

Immersive Theater: Not a Novelty, but an Answer

To those who haven’t experienced it firsthand, immersive theater may seem like an artistic novelty. Small crowds, unusual settings, and one-on-one exchanges between actors and audience members are a far cry from the traditional experience most arts patrons are used to (and pay good money for).

But search history shows that interest in immersive theater (or immersive theatre, as our friends in Great Britain would say) has steadily grown over the past 5 years, as have the number of shows being produced.

If this new art form isn’t a novelty, then what exactly is it? Perhaps it’s an answer. An answer to the walls we ourselves now hide behind: Our phones, our social media accounts, our carefully curated digital personas. Behind the walls, we’re all still people wanting to connect, on a real level, with the world and with each other. But those connections are fewer and more tenuous than ever.

Immersive theater cultivates this kind of connection with both the environment and the actors. As an unscripted player in the production, you’re not checking Instagram or watching YouTube. You’re fully present in the moment, in the story, engaging with a bunch of other people who are equally present. Fiction becomes as real as, if not realer than, our ordinary life.

What a rare and magical thing to find in this distracted, overstimulated world of ours.

Related Reading: Interactive Storytelling Apps and Narrative Technique

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