Reporting From the United States Institute of Theater Technology (USITT) Conference & Stage Expo-Part 2: Immersive Production: Audience and Performance Blending

Have you wanted to break the fourth wall but don’t know how to immerse your audience into a performance?

About 200 members of the United States Institute of Theater Technology (USITT) Conference & Stage Expo exchanged ideas in an inter-generational discussion between mid-career panelists and an audience full of millennials.


“Most of our generation thinks that being in an audience is a passive experience,” said Captain Jack Tunney of Santa Barbara, CA. “If there’s something tactile, you have more than two senses involved.”

Immersing your audience may be as involved as the set- and prop-tastic Macbeth-based play Sleep No More by Punchdrunk Theatre Company currently running in New York. Theatergoers are issued simple masks and can choose to follow the actors or go anywhere else they want in the set, which comprises six floors across three warehouses in Chelsea.

Or it could be as simple as letting them into the theater early while sound checks or fight practices are going on, said Raymond Kent, Managing Principal of Sustainable Technologies Group. Kent built a bar, lounge and comfy banquettes within Hanna Theater at Playhouse Square in Cleveland for just that purpose. Patrons are invited stay after the show, and the actors often join them.

D. Lynn Myers, Producing Artistic Director of Ensemble Theatre in Cincinnati said, “People need to be invited to stick around.” She offers private backstage tours to donors. “When the audience knows the backstory of the theater, they’re not observers anymore, they’re participants.”

Several other ideas for immersing the audience in the theater experience emerged from the discussion.

One company stopped the action mid-play and asked if there was anything the audience would like to change about the show, and then invited respondents onstage to take the place of the actors, who went to sit in the house.

Another option is to have the audience co-create portions of the show by using Twitter hashtags that can be projected onto the set. Or the theater can push content to devices to enhance the show.

Audience members are choosing more often to remain in their seats and browse their smartphones during intermission, and this is a good chance to engage with them. Theater architects noted that, as a result, there is less emphasis today on huge lobbies with fancy concession areas.

One Denver repertory company has done away with theaters altogether and instead stages plays in private mansions. The audience sits on couches and the actors perform in close quarters, but they retain the fourth wall.

Shows that have been field-tested as successful immersive experiences included Skylight by David Hare, in which an actress cooks a spaghetti dinner during her monolog and serves it to the audience seated at tables in her stage kitchen.

Another had everyone board a bus because there was an alleged technical problem with the theater. They drove to a neighboring stage, but the bus “broke down.” They did not know the actors were among them, but as the players revealed their characters on the walk back, it dawned on them that this was the show and they were part of a shared experience. (Wheelchairs were available and the show was considered accessible to people with disabilities.)

A recent student production called Transmigration at the University of Cincinnati had the audience change venues every 30 minutes as six teams of actors performed original pieces simultaneously. The audience got to see four different shows.

Sometimes a real interruption like a hurricane alert can change the whole dynamic, making for a much cozier atmosphere when the staged action resumes. In fact, incorporating weather into theater will be a featured topic in the Prague Quadrennial, a theater tech conference taking place this June in the Czech Republic.

Captain Jack Tunney, Student Master Carpenter, Dos Pueblos Theatre Company, Santa Barbara, California strives to put more texture into his shows.
Captain Jack Tunney, Student Master Carpenter, Dos Pueblos Theatre Company, Santa Barbara, California strives to put more texture into his shows.

Moderator Jeff Gress, Associate Professor at Capital University in Bexley, Ohio, offered some interesting insights on theater history, noting that in the early 1800s, when groundlings were ousted, theatergoers became more proper. Theater buildings built since then have tended to separate the audience from the actors with a large poscenium stage often fronted by a deep pit. To lessen the chasm, theater artists are expanding into the house with stage thrusts and and making live art more detailed.

So Captain Tunney, it turns out, is living the perfect century for his sensibilities!

Yvonne French To Report From U.S. Institute of Theater Technology’s 55th Annual Conference & Stage Expo on DCMetroTheaterArts.

Reporting From the United States Institute of Theater Technology (USITT) Conference & Stage Expo-Part 1: How to Set up a Rental Program for Costumes, Props, and Lighting Equipment on DCMetroTheaterArts.


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