How involved do you want to be as an audience member when you go to the theater? Recently, I’ve heard grumbling in the theater community about the rise of live performance events that transform the typical role of an audience member to one that is in-your-face and up-close-and-personal. Artists are reimagining the theater experience and creating new genres of live performance; “immersive theater,” “promenade theater” and “gaming theater” are everywhere.
While some believe that this is the way of the future, others feel that it is a pesky fad that ultimately hurts the integrity of the art form for young audiences that aren’t already educated about traditional theater. It is clear to me (from watching countless education performances with young people at the New Vic and elsewhere) that kids don’t just want to watch- they instinctively want to be a part of their entertainment in a multi-sensory way. They want to participate, interact with the performer, touch, smell and taste. However, rather than allow their natural reactions to being an audience member (see Diane Paulus’ wonderful article on the New Vic blog), we constantly “train” children to conform to traditional theater norms (“Shh, sit back in your chair nicely and watch!”). Should we continue to reinforce our preconceived notions of what theater should be, or create work that engages children in a more 360 degree way?
|Hansel and Gretel installation. Can you guess where this is?|
|Hansel and Gretel installation, The Hall of Lost Children|
It is hard to classify these productions under the standard definition of “theater.” And that is precisely why they are so exciting. Theater as an art form has always been in a state of evolution, and immersive theater that allows us to feel completely part of the experience is a natural next experiment in live performance. Kids are the ideal audience for this kind of work because they don’t come to the theater with any preconceptions about what it should be. Why shouldn’t we continue to break boundaries and explore new kinds of live performance for young people, rather than serve up only traditional forms of theater and ask them to “learn the rules?” The line between theater and reality is already blurred for kids, and they can readily lose themselves in the world of the production, fully engaging their imaginations. Isn’t our pursuit of play the reason we love theater in the first place?
Read more about the connection between kids and immersive theater in a 2009 Guardian UK post
Read more about The Crash of the Elysium on the Guardian UK and New York Times
Watch what kids say about their immersive experience with Punchdrunk
Jonathan Shmidt is the Assistant Director of Education at The New Victory Theater. He manages the New Victory Education Partnership Program, which provides 30,000 students with access to school-time performances and in-classroom workshops. Jonathan is on the adjunct faculty for the Program in Educational Theatre at New York University. He has collaborated on Theater for Young Audiences initiatives with the Boston Lyric Opera, Theater Offensive and Immediate Medium. Jonathan is the co-founder of YEA: Young Educators in the Arts, a networking group for emerging professionals in Arts Education. He holds a Masters Degree in Educational Theatre from New York University.