Shopping as theatre - Honest Ed's, Toronto. Photograph: Ella Paremain
I’m standing in near darkness. The only source of light is a small lamp held by a frail old man in a night cap. I’m inside the house from Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard, but the family are long gone and only Firs their manservant remains, locked in forever. He whispers to me in Russian, reassures me and ushers me into his spartan room. Suddenly the gloom floods with fluorescent light. The shuffling silence fills with lift music. Through walls of glass, women pushing trolleys like Russian Stepford wives are peering back at me. Looking across at the brilliantly coloured boxes in the freezer cabinets on the other side of the aisle, I realise where I am. Firs and I are standing inside of one of these cabinets. We too are products and we’re for sale.
Later, I find myself on the other side of the glass. The second floor of the old Co-Op Building in Brighton has been transformed back into what it once actually was, a department store. No longer the shopping, now I’m the shopper. Eager assistants flock to sell me kitchens and stuffed toys, beds and even an indoor garden complete with a bird song machine. They speak to me in words I don’t understand, but which need no translation. I can shop in any language. I try on a fabulous dress and smile at my reflection as they coo and flatter. On my way out, I’m handed a card for an auction website, and when I realise that all the goods in the shop are actually for sale, I consider putting in a bid on the fabulous dress. In the end, I decide not to. The dress isn’t really fabulous, it’s just a tatty old theatrical costume. But I struggle over my sensible decision. The urge to own some part of the performance is strong.
dreamspeakthink’s Before I Sleep is a piece of immersive theatre. There's no line here between the stage and the auditorium. The performance happens all around you and you are an integral part of it. Such theatrical experiences are becoming an increasingly common feature of the British theatre landscape. While Michael Billington might lament the genre’s lack of engagement with political issues, many others – Lyn Gardner for instance – read a progressive politics inscribed within its form. By liberating the audience from the theatre auditorium, immersive theatre frees them of their passive spectatorial role. As an audience, we are free to interact with the performance. We have agency. We feel that we can shape both our experience of the performance and to some degree the performance itself. Immersive theatre empowers and liberates the spectator.
The arguments for immersive theatre as liberating and empowering make a lot of sense to me intellectually, but I don’t quite buy them in real terms. This is because I often find these performances don’t make me feel either liberated or empowered. They make me feel highly controlled. I’m not a deliberately disruptive participant, but sometimes I have gone “off script”. Seeing some movement on the other side of a large snow covered room during Before I Sleep, I struck out across the drifts to investigate, only to be sharply reprimanded by the theatre police. I dutifully returned back to the path. A very linear path, it should be noted and exactly the same path that everyone before and after me will have followed. In this situation, I don’t feel that I have agency. I feel restricted and oppressed.
Where choice is offered and genuinely does alter the structure of the performance, the choices are usually very limited. Some performances make this abundantly clear to you. Whilst trying to save East London from climate doom during 3rd Ring Out, I was offered a set of three alternatives for each decision I had to make. The limitation of choices was clearly indicated by the coloured buttons in front of me. I found this transparency refreshing. It was clearly A, B or C and nothing else. I wasn’t free, I was free to choose between three pre-determined options. Chris Goode has compared the kind of choices that we are offered within such theatrical experiences to the choices we are offered in the supermarket. I think you have to ask as he does, whether the choice between sixteen different brands of fabric conditioner is really a choice? What if your choice is for no supermarkets at all?
And so I find myself thinking about shopping again, and I’ve recently discovered that I’m not the only one. Elinor Fuchs argues that immersive theatre is the latest step in theatre’s commodification. We’ve moved from ice-cream at the interval and shops in theatre foyers to a theatre that replicates the activity of shopping itself. After all, as David Harvey points out, the problem with acquiring things is that there’s only so many things you can acquire – unless they are superseded by new better things every year or the thing always breaks one day out of guarantee. The great snowball of capital needs to keep on rolling and so it’s no surprise to see the commodification of experience as the next logical step, because the great thing about experience is that it’s ephemeral. You have it and then it’s gone. The demand is potentially endless. And what immersive or ‘shopping theatre’ (as Fuchs terms it) is stocked full of is experience.
Immersive theatre is the theatrical equivalent of the department store. Experiences are laid out in front of us, like products in a display. We are free to browse and to chose from amongst the products on offer. We move from place to place selecting the different experiences we wish to sample. In Masque of the Red Death or TAMARA, it is up to us to choose which characters to follow and which places we feel brave enough to explore. We can try on the different roles that are available to us. In You Me Bum Bum Train, we are offered a succession of different personalities to test drive. We literally consume things, usually in the form of food and drink, everything from champagne in Shunt’s Money to Ritz crackers at Tony n’ Tina’s Wedding. And often we acquire tangible objects – a business card, some seeds, a CD – to take away with us.
But where are the tills you might ask? The money exchanged for these experiences is a set fee, usually paid in advance. Often box offices are conspicuously absent from such events. This makes these theatrical experiences seem like benevolent gifts, rather than products I have parted with hard cash for. And there are no refunds, if you don’t get your money’s worth of experience. As a spectator, it is my responsibility to acquire the experiences that the performance offers me. The more I’m prepared to invest in acquiring them, the more experience I tend to get in return. A friend noted that my ticket for the BAC’s recent One-On-One Festival had obviously been better value than hers. The time that I’d invested getting to know the current British theatre scene meant that my ticket yielded me a higher return, as I was able to discern which experiences were likely to be better products than others. If you opened every cupboard in Before I Sleep, you were eventually rewarded by finding the one cupboard that led to a secret room.
Immersive theatre allows us to purchase the things that are difficult to buy in real life. Fuchs recounts her visit to Tony n’ Tina’s Wedding, which opened in New York in 1988. As the title of the show suggests, the audience are all guests at Tony and Tina’s tacky Italian-American wedding and witnesses to the hilarious family shenanigans that take place during it. The website states proudly that ‘you're more than a member of the audience, you're a friend of the family!’ And here lies the crux of the matter. A wedding is not an experience that you can buy. It’s something to which you have to be invited. Except, of course, in this case.
Obviously the events that we purchase in immersive theatre are not real events. They’re theatrical simulations and as such have a tenuous relationship with their real world equivalents. I’ve been mugged twice in my life. Once by a crack addict just off the Bristol Road in Birmingham and once by Punchdrunk at the BAC. The first experience was sudden, frightening and resulted in a rather unpleasant night spent with the police and in casualty. The second experience was sudden, thrilling and the most pleasurable thing that had happened to me all week. These theatrical simulations don’t feel like reproductions of real events at all. They feel much more like reproductions of familiar dramatic scenarios. The reason I could confidently launch myself into the role of an American football coach or a politician during You Me Bum Bum Train was not because I had any experience of these roles in real life, but rather because I’d seen similar situations played out many many times in theatre, film and on television. I knew the script. So what we have here with these immersive theatre experiences is not a simple case of mimesis, but of mimesis-once-removed.
As theatre makers we tend to like to think about our work as lying beyond the market, as opposed to in line with it. Immersive theatre however, with its store of experiences, is a very marketable proposition. If we look to our North American cousins and the immersive theatre that flourished there in 1980s, then the commercial potential of this kind of theatre becomes clear. The American model suggests that if you’re willing to franchise there’s a mint to made. Tony n’ Tina’s Wedding may have started as a small show created by a couple of drama graduates for their family and friends, but over the last twenty two years it’s become a huge commercial hint. The show has been franchised to venues all over the world and can currently be seen in Detroit, Las Vegas, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Napa and West Palm Beach if you’re over that way. The Canadian company Necessary Angel’s TAMARA went from being a popular hit in Toronto in 1981 to a nine year commercial run in LA, and has since been performed internationally from Rio to Warsaw. In 2008, there were rumours that an ultra glitzy version of TAMARA was about to resurface in Las Vegas. The promotional website may never have built, but the webspace is still booked.
TAMARA’s commercial producer, Barrie Wexler, predicted in the 1990s that the kind of experiential recreation immersive theatre has to offer was going to be the next big thing. “The same way that the still gave way to the moving picture, the moving picture will give way to the experiential picture,” he declared. At that point in time, his plan was to build an experiential theme park in LA – a kind of immersive theatre Disneyland. Searching the web, it’s easy to see that this dream of Wexler’s has yet to be realised. I did, however, intriguingly find a site connected to Wexler for Adventure Studios. It seems that Wexler’s original theme park idea has now morphed into a company offering ‘Immersive Teambuilding Experiences’. In these the ‘guests’ are ‘immersed in the stories with specific tasks, problem-solving, and mysteries to explore. There is no stage, and team building participants follow the actors as the living story unfolds.’ The concept may be corporate but the format sounds awfully familiar. In light of all this, it’s not surprising that I’m beginning to seriously doubt immersive theatre’s claims to audience empowerment and liberation. As theatre makers we find it easy to see a liberal left wing politics in what we make, but perhaps we need to take a more three dimensional view of things. Often our work is open to a set of political readings that we would find less palatable.
Even after considering all this, I’m ashamed to admit that I’ve developed a bit of an addiction to the whole immersive thing. My old shoe shopping problem has been completely superseded. Where I once kept an eye out for secret designer sample sales, I now keep my ears open for advance news of the next big immersive theatre thing. And let’s face it, these days you have to. Tickets to both You Me Bum Bum Train and The Duchess of Malfi were harder to get hold of than a Hermes Birkin used to be.