Over our time in London, the Destination Theatre group has had the chance to see a wide variety of shows of many different styles. Two of these shows, The Great Gatsby and Life of Galileo, stood out from the rest for their heightened potential for immersion, although the format of each immersive experience was quite different.
The Great Gatsby production by Guild of Misrule took place at an old building in central London, which had been converted into Gatsby’s lavish 1920s mansion. The audience took on the role of party guests, and were encouraged to dress in period-appropriate clothing. Throughout the evening, we were escorted through various rooms of the space and pieced together the story through character monologues, short scenes, and one-on-one interactions.
The Young Vic production of Life of Galileo took a different approach. The stage was in the shape of a donut, with audience seated on cushions in the middle and on a balcony surrounding the perimeter. Instead of being brought into the story directly, as in Gatsby, performers in Galileo frequently broke character to draw attention to the nature of spectatorship. “This scene has been cancelled… ask [director] Joe Wright about it…”, proclaims one actor.
While their methods of immersion were quite different, both shows sought to provide the audience an experience different to that of conventional theatre; ideally, one in which the audience member is not merely a passive spectator seated in front of a performance, but is wholly immersed in the act. In theory, this allows the audience member to more fully engage in the performance, since they take an active role in curating their own experience (Rancière, 2007).
However, it is important to separate the mobility of an audience from its agency within the narrative. While Gatsby’s audience may be able to move freely throughout the performance space, their freedom is still limited. Despite their mobility, audience members may share common space with the actors but they cannot become equal participants in the dramatic action.
While shows like The Great Gatsby and Life of Galileo may draw attention to their immersive properties, the agency of the audience remains mostly an illusion. In both shows, the imaginary world, its setting, properties, rules, and backstory, remain the product of the creators. The audience enter the performance space as invited, paying guests, and their participation and knowledge will always be restricted to some degree. Instead of representing life, a truer model would be that of a video game, in which the character is free to move and make their own choices, but those choices are limited within the parameters of the game. In this way, immersive theatre and conventional theatre have much in common: the rules of the game may slightly modified, and the spectator may change from observer to player, but the game and its rules will always belong to someone else.
Rancière, Jacques. The Emancipated Spectator. Artforum 45: 2007.