Monday, August 1, 2011

Kids - the Ideal Audience for Immersive Theater

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?
From my experience, it seems that the audiences whole-heartedly embracing immersive performance  are kids and teens, and several smart theater companies are catching on by creating work for young people that challenges all expectations of traditional theater. In 2009, The New Victory was transformed into a cottage, a full-scale forest and a witch’s lair for a top-to-bottom promenade production of Hansel and Gretel, created by Catherine Wheels Theatre Company. This performance threw audiences into the center of the action, allowing us to literally follow Hansel and Gretel on their search through the forest and their escape from the witch. It was thrilling to literally get lost in the world of the play.

Hansel and Gretel installation, The Hall of Lost Children
Recently, Windmill Theatre of Adelaide presented Escape From Pelligro Island, by Finegan Kruckemeyer (The Tragical Life of Cheeseboy). This choose-your-own-adventure style theater performance (inspired by one of my favorite interactive books from childhood) provided remote controls to each kid in attendance. The audience actually voted on the decisions of the characters, influencing the direction of the performance in real time. Just this summer at the Manchester Festival in the UK, the acclaimed Punchdrunk (currently dazzling New York adult audiences with Sleep No More) created their first work for kids. Known for their completely immersive theater productions that blur the line between reality and performance, Punchdrunk teamed up with the Doctor Who franchise to create The Crash of the Elysium, an on-your-feet performance for 6-12 year olds that places kids in the role of investigators in a heart-racing, time-travelling adventure to save the world. I would have loved to have seen it, but adults were not even allowed to attend. Designed for kids’ eyes only, the show immersed the children in an experience where they felt the weight of the world on their own shoulders.

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.


  1. Great blog post! Agree 100%. I feel the responsibility lies in the company itself - the theater company should rise to the challenge of creating a piece that is specifically crafted with the idea that it is/will be interactive. You can't double back...then it looks hokey and that's how it can get the bad rep.

  2. I could not agree more. I think developing this sort of work for children is going to put more pressure on everyone, down the road, to make our work increasingly interactive... which, I believe, will ultimately be its salvation.

    My own statement on what I call "digital theater" is here:

  3. Your description of Punchdrunk's new show makes me wonder about the line between creative drama and immersive theatre. Is it just production value, or is are we on our way to considering a creative drama experience a performance experience?

  4. I think that production value plays a huge role in allowing immersive theater to transcend creative drama by creating the world and transporting the audience. In creative drama, we know on some level that we are still in the classroom the entire time. With immersive theater, the line between the drama and the reality can be blurred a bit more. I think it is also about finding the right balance between performance and interaction. There still needs to be a clear dramatic structure created by the artists. I think immersive theater is a bit more fixed and not as fluid as creative drama, and even though it is designed to feel completely spontaneous and user-driven, underneath it has a strong dramaturgical foundation and direction.