Anyone that loves going to the theatre will no doubt have heard of the latest craze, but what exactly is immersive theatre? From The Great Gatsby to Mamma Mia! The Party, there’s plenty of immersive experiences to choose from these days. But are they for everyone? What is it actually like to go to an immersive theatre show, and how does it differ from traditional theatre?

Our guide brings the voices of theatre critics and companies to give you the low-down on immersive theatre.

What is immersive theatre?

As theatre critic Patrick Marmion explains, the term ‘immersive’ is being used for a wide spectrum of experiences. He adds that to some degree, all theatre aspires to be immersive, wanting to suck their audiences in. But when we come across ‘immersive theatre’ specifically, Marmion believes it refers to shows that want audiences to be ‘part of’ or at least ‘alongside’ the action.

This means that immersive theatre breaks down the fourth wall and any barriers between the audience and the stage. Spectators are invited to either play the role of a witness to the events in the story, or a more active role.

The White Plague immersive drama

Bertie Watkins, director of immersive theatre company – Colab Theatre, states that, to him, immersive theatre is more of a design term, not a practise term. He enjoys seeing ludology (game theory) in use to give audiences a meaningful, absorbing and rich experience, which allows them to interact with the narrative. Marmion notes that across immersive shows, the level of interaction and depths of immersion can differ however.

Suzi Arkley of Mamma Mia! The Party describes how the audience are ‘totally immersed’ as they take on the role of guests at a party.

“The audience – or as we call them, guests – are immersed in every aspect of the event. Mamma Mia! The Party is set in a fictional taverna on the Greek island of Skopelos. Taverna owner Nikos and his family enact a story in real time around the guests, who are served food as they watch. They’re invited to participate in dialogue, sing along and in some cases, perform cameos! It really couldn’t be any more interactive!”

Suzi Arkley, Mamma Mia! The Party
Kate on the fountain at Mamma Mia! The Party immersive theatre experience

Mamma Mia! The Party opened in Stockholm in 2016, but moved to the O2 in London just months ago. It’s one of the most recent immersive experiences to hit the UK, but immersive theatre has been around for a while!

When did immersive theatre begin?

While theatre stems back to Ancient Greece, Marmion claims immersive shows take inspiration from the realism of the late 19th and early 20th century. In particular, he notes the prominence of playwright Stringberg. But the more modern traces of immersive theatre as we know it today stem from Punchdrunk, pioneers of the form.

The company emerged in 2000 under the direction of Felix Barrett. Their productions introduced the concept of audiences playing an active role in their experience. Punchdrunk take over a whole warehouse with action taking place in every room. Audiences can then wander freely and choose the narrative they want to see. The popularity of their immersive shows spurred the formation of sister company Punchdrunk International in 2015.

Colab Theatre were also responsible for the movement of immersive theatre. They started showing pervasive theatre pieces around the streets of London in 2014. They then opened Colab Factory, the UK’s first space dedicated to immersive theatre.

Colab Theatre - immersive theatre shows
Credit: David Lynch

Why is it so popular?

Reflecting on Mamma Mia! The Party especially, Arkley believes it’s the food and family-friendly experience that make it so popular. She also claims that guests rave about the attention to detail, which transports them away to Greece.

Escapism appears to be a common belief as to why immersive theatre is so fun. Arguably, theatre in general provides a chance for spectators to ‘escape’ and lose themselves in another world. But immersive theatre takes it to the next level.

Speaking about the show, The Hunt for the Smoking Caterpillar’, Benjamin Tucker describes how escapism is one of the key reasons audiences choose to book tickets.

There’s a total ‘real world’ abandonment as players interact with Wonderlanders to pursue the caterpillar and golds. There’s no VR, no fancy special effects, no one-way performances, and no slides! The player’s head is totally immersed in the game, and our characters support their choices. How they play affects the outcome, they are the heroes!”

Benjamin Tucker, Creator of Buck Buck Games
The Hunt for the Smoking Caterpillar - the immersive theatre experience

Beyond wanting to disappear in another world, a qualitative study by Walmsley (2011) shows there are other reasons why immersive theatre is so popular. The research explored audience motivation for going to the theatre, and found that the leading factor was the pursuit of emotional experiences and impact. As immersive theatre is all about the audience’s sensory relationship with the show, and how they experience it, it’s no wonder so many enjoy it.

“Immersive theatre lets you live the experience, rather than just watch it. This allows for the show stakes to be 10x more engaging because you are part of the narrative. There is also flexibility in your involvement and our work revolves around these elements.”

Bertie Watkins, Director at Colab Theatre

Arkley also suggests that more people are looking for shows they can get involved in rather than just sit back and watch. This allows for a shared experience, where traditional theatre is perhaps more solitary. On the other hand, Marmion suggests that all of the above reasons have lead to immersive theatre growing. But he also feels it’s a novelty, and audiences enjoy experiencing something new.

Will I enjoy immersive theatre?

Marmion believes that while lots of people will likely love immersive theatre, some may prefer traditional shows. He claims that the main difference between traditional and immersive is the focus on narrative and character development, and thrills and sensations, respectively. If you love a good plot and enjoy watching characters unfold, you may feel something lacking in immersive shows.

Additionally, the type of immersive show can make a difference. Marmion reflects that while theatre ought to be for everyone, in practice it might not always be.

“Sometimes in immersive shows, there are physically demanding moments. I’ve been in a show where you pretended to be a rock star and go crowdsurfing. So some might find that challenging or they simply might not enjoy being handled by an adoring mob.”

Patrick Marmion, Theatre Critic

But that doesn’t mean that there’s not another suitable immersive theatre show. Mamma Mia! The Party is more centred around a dining experience, the romantic Greek setting and the ABBA music. So this could be a great choice for those wanting less movement. Arkely states guests range from 5 to 75 years old, with everyone able to enjoy the party in different ways.

The Vaults also offer a range of immersive experience, such as this Divine Proportions (below) immersive dining show for young adults – complete with cabaret.

Immersive theatre dining at The Vaults

On the other hand, for anyone that enjoys getting out of their comfort zone or being at the heart of action, strategy or game like experiences might be for you. The Hunt for the Smoking Caterpillar and lots of Colab Theatre’s productions are great options.

Or with shows like The Great Gatsby, you can ‘immerse’ yourself as much as you want. You attend Gatsby’s jazz party as a guest, learning the Charleston or chatting to cast, or alternatively enjoying from the sidelines. So if you’re a little cautious or have never been to an immersive theatre show before, this may be a good choice.

The Great Gatsby immersive theatre experience - photo by Helen May
Credit: Helen May

Ultimately, immersive theatre often differs greatly from traditional theatre, so likely appeals to different audiences. But as each show has its own depth of immersion, there’s likely to be something for everyone.

What’s it like to create an immersive show?

Production shot of Colab's Crooks.

Designing an immersive show is a different challenge to traditional theatre. Not only do you need to consider the story and set, but you need to extend this into thinking how the characters and story interacts with the audience, and how the set can become another world.

“It takes so much more to build an immersive world as it has to robustly stand up to the audience. You are not just creating a stage, you are creating a world and it has to be one that they believe. The narrative isn’t just between the characters, it is with them and the audience.”

Bertie Watkins, Director of Colab Theatre

To Watkins, immersive theatre is rebuilding what theatre is/can be from the ground up. As a relatively new concept, there are much fewer traditions, and immersive theatre can be a groundwork to build upon.

“Crooks (see image above) was one of our most successful pieces because it did exactly what we stated above, it built a rich and fun world which was robust. It also had a strong narrative that involved you in a way that wasn’t intimidating but still juicy in content and possibilities.

It was also a lot of fun making the show. As with our latest show Silence, which blends horror and murder mystery with a purpose in its narrative. It isn’t just a jump scare, we have been able to take it away from being just a horror house and into the realms of meaning something, having weight.”

Bertie Watkins, Director at Colab Theatre

Immersive theatre shows coming soon

For designers, directors, and of course the audience, immersive theatre presents new creativity and experiences. It’s a trend unlikely to go away any time soon, so why not embrace it? Alternatively, check out our theatre page to find tickets to a range of traditional and immersive shows coming up.

Reference: Walmsley, BA (2011) Why people go to the theatre: a qualitative study of audience motivation, Journal of Customer Behaviour, 10(4), pp. 335-351