Immersive Theatre and Audience Agency: A Look at The Great Gatsby and Life of Galileo


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.

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The Great Gatsby

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.

Life of Galileo at the Young Vic. Photo by Leon Puplett Projections by 59 Productions (2)
The stage of Life of Galileo

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.

Works Cited:
Rancière, Jacques. The Emancipated Spectator. Artforum 45: 2007.

 

 

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Looking Ahead to Destination Theatre

My love of performance started from a young age. After several unsuccessful attempts at team sports, I found my place instead in music lessons and drama classes. While my mother’s stage fright kept her from performing in public, she has always been an avid theatre attendee, and our home was always filled with song. My father read to me from a very young age, inspiring in me a lifelong love of storytelling. In high school, my role as a performer became an increasingly important part of my identity. I threw myself into symphonic band and glee club, and was involved with both of our school musicals. For four years, I volunteered as a media technician at a local community venue. In English class, I developed a love for Shakespeare: one memorable project split our class into groups, which enacted and adapted scenes from A Midsummer Night’s Dream into modern settings.

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Western Mustang Band marching in the London Pride Parade, June 2016

When I came to Western, I got involved with the marching band and The Acapella Project, and met some of my closest friends. I also began to patronize a great deal of local theatre, as it was much more readily available than where I was from. In my second year, I got involved, first as the sound designer for the Arts and Humanities production of The Refugee Hotel. Working on that production reminded me of the strange and wonderful community that forms during the creation of a show, and inspired me to continue to engage in theatre, both on and off campus. Theatre has allowed me to meet so many creative, passionate individuals, people who continue to inspire me and who I feel incredibly fortunate to know.

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Cast and crew of The Refugee Hotel, March 2016

I first heard about Destination Theatre early in 2016, after reading Caitlin Austin’s blog post detailing her experience. I remember thinking the course was an incredible opportunity, but at that point, I hadn’t considered it as a real and viable option for me. As a science student, the theatre studies program seemed both intriguing and inaccessible, and I harboured serious doubts about my own ability to think critically and analyze works of performance. It wasn’t until later that year, while completing the fall theatre production course, that I attended an information session and begun to seriously consider the possibility. I applied in October, and was thrilled to receive my acceptance a few weeks later.

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Chorus rehearsal for our upcoming production of Twelfth Night

When I look forward to the trip, there are many things to be excited about. I have never been to Europe before, and eagerly anticipate the opportunity to visit a world-renowned theatre city. I am also especially excited to visit Stratford-upon-Avon and see the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust. However, I do have a few uncertainties. As I am a very detail-oriented person, I like to plan things far in advance and will probably feel more comfortable when more information is available regarding scheduling. Also, since my current roommate is British, I know their cuisine is quite different than ours, and I worry about the availability of vegetarian food. Despite these minor concerns, I am overall very excited for this experience, and for the unique memories it will provide.

Rachel Kuipery is a third year human ecology student  at Brescia University College.