Immersive Theater Thrives on Closeness. Where Does It Go From Here?

March 29, 2021

It’s 9:30 pm on a Thursday night in November; my eyes close as I hear the familiar, haunting notes of the closing music for Then She Fell. Music I’ve heard thousands of times before. Eerie, swelling strings that have signaled the beginning of a dinner break with fellow castmates, or the end of a long night. In this particular moment, on this particular evening, my mind begins to unwittingly sift through memories like yellowed papers in an old filing cabinet, the ink smeared just barely, the pages crumbled in a perfectly satisfying and familiar way. I have been here countless times before and yet this time is remarkably different.

I open my eyes as, one by one, the digital faces of former colleagues turn off their cameras, with only a name appearing in place. I am launched back into real time, sitting in my bedroom, alone. It is the now all-too-familiar Zoom call, coming to an end. There is no audience, no theater and no post-show thrill. No costumes to throw in a pile. No feathers or painted roses or black ink to clean. No shattered tea cups to sweep up. No Hatters. No Queens. No Alice, peering into the eyes of another human, waxing poetic about the mysteries of falling in love. No rabbit hole to fall down.

Like so many theater and dance productions around the world, in August 2020 Third Rail Projects’ award-winning immersive theater show Then She Fell closed its doors for the foreseeable future after a run of seven and a half years. Seventy cast and crew members, along with our fearless artistic directors, came together that Thursday last November to laugh, to recollect, to grieve. We never had the bittersweet luxury of toasting to a final show, so this will have to do for now. One last tip of the hat, you might say.

As a former performer in both Then She Fell and Sleep No More, two of New York City’s longest-running immersive theater shows, I cannot help but feel a deep grief for this type of work as we continue to navigate the pandemic. The sudden job loss as theaters shuttered, the collective fear we’ve experienced as a nation, the expectations of continuing to create in socially distanced realms, the despair that has slowly sunk in as yet another month passes, all came flooding into my body at once on this particular evening—a relentless tidal wave, crashing over me. What do we do now?

With a pandemic continuing to sweep the world, the very nature of immersive theater seems to be on the brink of extinction—at least as how we now define it. “Immersive,” labeled by the Los Angeles Times as “the arts buzzword of 2016,” has since been used to describe seemingly everything from virtual-reality art installations to zesty beer flavors. While individual creators may have their own nuanced definitions of what makes their experience “immersive,” in general, it is a shedding of your current reality to step fully into a new one, if only momentarily. In immersive theater, the fourth wall faintly exists as a thin veil between the performer, audience and set. You are close enough to see sweat, to smell perfume, to taste elixirs, to hear a whisper, to touch a stranger’s hand. Close proximity is, in fact, what draws people to this supernatural neorealism. It is an otherworldly, intoxicating, sensory experience. The depth, humanity and imaginative play that it generates cannot be denied.

It is hard to imagine such a show existing now, or in the near future, when being so close to another human being presents severe risks. Reopening immersive theater shows presents unique challenges that would drastically alter the very nature of the experience. Choreography would need to shift dramatically to facilitate safe audience interactions without contact from other audience members, performers or crew. Those coveted, intimately sacred moments that may happen between just one performer and one audience member would require reimagining. Some artistic directors are opting to close their productions altogether rather than risk losing the integrity of their original work, which will likely not be able to exist as is for years to come.

I applaud the artists who are continuing to find ways to evolve and create in these times, such as those crafting online experiences for audiences who are craving human interaction and escape. Ongoing immersive Zoom performances aim to re-create that elusive feeling one gets from attending a live show. Guests can peek into the lives of others, interact with characters should they choose and explore new surreal worlds, all safely from the comfort of their living rooms.

While admirable for their adaptability and resilience, these performances leave me wondering if we run the risk of rushing to stay relevant, funded and employed without understanding the intricacies of digital design and the pervasiveness of screen-time exhaustion. We are a culture that celebrates instant gratification, busyness and success. What if we instead use this time to pause, reflect and redirect?

The immersive-theater community in New York City as a whole perhaps needs a good overhaul. Shows that were not initially built for nearly decade-long runs left performers and crews vulnerable to burnout and often didn’t have the flexibility needed to evolve into more equitable workplaces. New immersive productions were created swiftly, based on existing, formulaic systems, but lacked longevity and eventually suffered at the hands of the relentless New York City real estate market. Rather than speculating if it can exist as we once knew it, I see this as an invaluable opportunity to reevaluate how we can make this work more sustainable, ethical and inclusive across the board. We can innovate.

Third Rail Projects has continued to attend to their artists in crisis, meeting vast, unpredictable challenges with grace and care for the company members’ mental, physical and financial well-being. As a company, we were made to feel safe and heard. This should be commonplace.

Many performers, myself included, are turning to new career pathways and revisiting academia as a way to explore callings and curiosities otherwise swept to the side in favor of rehearsals and rigorous performance schedules. Dancers who have spent years in performance spaces devoid of sunlight are now tending to gardens, working for construction companies, felling trees, studying psychology and spearheading long-overdue industry upheavals. This broader role of Human is now at play, which I imagine will only, in turn, inform and enhance our contributions as artists.

The success of immersive theater is, without a doubt, derived from our deepest, instinctual drives to satisfy the social, inquisitive and feeling animals we are. In a blue-lit world of 1s and 0s, it is no wonder that humans have gravitated towards performances that create space for visceral make-believe, leaving performers and audiences to question: Was that all just a dream? This was true before COVID-19, and it will still be true, I believe, on the other side.

Fortunately, as is often the case, our vulnerabilities are our most significant strengths. And we would do well to remember that as we navigate the ever-present shifts occurring in our tangible yet slightly topsy-turvy worlds. If we can partner on top of furniture, monologue while sliding across piles of paper, and sing in dimly lit closets, we can certainly adapt to the challenges our new, socially distant environment presents. And if the music suddenly stops, we can pause in the silence.