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This rise of immersive theatre puts design in the spotlight

Posted August 3, 2013 by Alice Cabanas
Categories: News

This rise of immersive theatre puts design in the spotlight

World Stage Design 2013 exhibitor David Shearing asks whether immersive theatre offers designers new opportunities, or restricts creativity through a limited focus on the illusion of reality?

Over the past decade the rise in – the now well documented and publically critiqued – ‘immersive theatre’ has shifted the spotlight toward experiential design-led performance, in which the audience is the centre of the action. This proliferation of immersive performance work demonstrates a public appetite for hedonistic theatrical thrills, where the audience is offered an ‘authentic’ experience in a realistic staged environment. For example, in a recent incarnation of You Me Bum Bum Train audiences had the opportunity to rob a packed bank at gun point, and to host their own chat show (complete with celebrity guest). In Punchdrunk and the ENO’s The Duchess of Malfi, audiences are similarly engaged in an extreme theatrical event as they chase actors along a labyrinth of corridors, designed in a nod to 20th century realism – albeit heightened.

Punchdrunk’s newest offering, The Drowned Man: A Hollywood Fable, is set in a former Royal Mail sorting office tucked next to Paddington Station. The audience is left free to roam the multiple floors of intricately designed, imperceptibly lit stage sets. In one hazy moment of this sensory spectacle, I find myself situated inside ‘Shakes’, a replica American diner. A mute waitress slowly busies herself as I’m positioned like a figure propped up at the bar in Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks. For most of this production it’s just me and the design. Room after room, floor after floor. Felix Barrett, Beatrice Minns and Livi Vaughan (and team) have designed complex spaces which I wander for hours. I explore empty rooms, rummage in draws, read notes, letters and books. I check to see if the phone in the booth at Shakes actually works. It does.

Similar explorative experiences can be found in the, albeit slightly more macabre and structured, works of Shunt, and in the disorientating overnight production of Hotel Medea, directed by Peris Jade Marvela. For a significant part of these experiences I find myself distracted from the work as I picture armies of designers painstakingly weathering and breaking down objects, haggling in second-hand shops, the effort of sourcing and transporting specific objects from around the country, and the pain of having to make duplicate items due to thieving hands. All of these thoughts and experiences amount to an ever increasing sense of empty spectacle, as I feel the spaces of these immersive performances fold over and over in my mind.

In immersive work the status of design has shifted. It is no longer content to be subordinate to the text or the actor; the spatial orchestration of design elements is leading audiences into new complex experiential modes of engagement. Yet, it feels as if this new wave of immersive practices (with its own deep historical threads) is in its infancy. Despite the fleeting sense of spectacle, after all this detail, attention and care, I’m left with a deep sense of hollowness. How much vintage nostalgia can we take? Theatre design is being thrust back into bland modes of representation. It seems to me as if immersive performance is symptomatic of an ‘instasociety’, where retro filters are placed over our lives as we search for an egotistic presentation of an authentic experience.

Where does this leave theatre design? How might we imagine a meaningful design paradigm for the future?

A look back at historical developments in scenography can give us clue as to possible new forms.

Scenography, defined, quite literally, as ‘drawing into (or with) space’, takes a holistic view of the overall spatial and experiential composition of light, sound, object, costume and spectator. One of theatre’s most notable scenographers Adolph Appia; who, at the turn of the last century, expressed a similar frustration at the emptiness of the overly elaborate and detailed set designs of the painted stage of the time. Appia called for an end to the illusion of reality such designs were seeking to create. He argued that design should be a harmonious relationship between feeling and form; famously stating, when describing his ideas for Richard Wagner’s Siegfried, “we shall no longer try to give the illusion of a forest, but the illusion of a man in the atmosphere of a forest”.

Immersive theatre designers take note.

Are we not, in this contemporary landscape of ‘authentic experience’ neglecting mood, rhythm and dynamic plastic scenography in the search for an authentic representation? Have we not returned to elaborate static forms that leave no room for perceptual ambiguity? The likes of Edward Gordon Craig and Czech scenographer Josef Svoboda knew the potential power of stage design to conceptually express new forms of experience through dynamic compositions of light, object and body – and much potential resides here. Immersive theatre has the opportunity to create plastic and conceptual spaces that are otherworldly, that can challenge egoistic consumptive modes of spectatorship. Yet, in popular contemporary forms of immersive design, this is rarely the case.

Questions linger in the air like the smell of a musky tunnel; is our obsession with realistic representation and hedonistic experience blinding us to the subtle, qualitative experience of design? Can immersive theatre offer new possibilities for spatial experience, which leave room for design to speak for itself – to become theatre?

Or are we left destined to roam the empty, realist corridors of the 20th century.



David Shearing is Research Associate in Scenography at the University of Leeds. His own theatre practice and research is centred upon understanding audience immersion and the experience of scenography. David has been selected as a finalist for the World Stage Design Exhibition 2013, Cardiff.