Immersing Oneself in the Drama

A night out at the opera to see an adaptation of an obscure 17th-century English play may sound like an expensive nap. But what if audience members were handed Venetian masks and invited to wander around the theater as the action unfolded? That's exactly what the London-based theater company Punchdrunk and the English National Opera have done with The Duchess of Malfi, which opened July 13 in an empty office complex outside the city. With dancers, opera singers, and musicians roving throughout the three-story building, the audience is turned loose to explore an elaborate set that includes Victorian sitting rooms, rustic teahouses—which offer actual cocktails—a ghostly forest, and macabre offices. Along the way, viewers stumble upon random scenes, which they must piece together before everyone gathers in a warehouse for the grand finale.

The show, which immediately sold out, is just London's latest example of immersive theater, a popular new genre that blends high drama with haunted-house theatrics in a strange mashup of acting, performance art, and choose-your-own-adventure storytelling. "It's a combination of spectacle and intimacy," says Felix Barrett, Punchdrunk's artistic director, who believes the hunger for deeper, more personalized theater experiences reflects a backlash against the shallow immediacy of today's Internet culture. "Some people have gotten lazy. And [The Duchess of Malfi] is something that, really, you have to work for. It's a theatrical puzzle the audience needs to solve themselves." For David Jubb, the artistic director at London's Battersea Arts Centre, who has worked closely with Punchdrunk on past productions, having participants construct their own narrative is part of the "democratization" of the art form. "Too often, theater is something where you sit, and could happen if you were there or not," he says. "It's an experience that needs to catch up with the times."

As with any democracy, participation is key, which is why Jubb is staging a One-on-One Festival this month showcasing a variety of short works performed for one viewer at a time. In most of them, all that's required is a good-natured willingness to play along. For example, in Rotating in a Room of Images, by the group Lundahl & Seitl, audience members wear headphones while a whispering voice and delicate hands guide them alone through dark rooms, past haunting scenes resembling Dutch Renaissance paintings. Others are more demanding: in The Pleasure of Being, members of the audience are invited to strip down and recline in a bathtub as the artist Adrian Howells bathes them.

Immersive moments are also making their way into more standard fare. Some of the best are the least expected. At a staging of La Bohème at the Cock Tavern Theatre in North London earlier this year, ticketholders filed down to the pub at intermission only to be surprised by a song-and-dance routine performed by actors pretending to be patrons sipping their beers. Many of London's most prominent institutions are getting in on the game. Punchdrunk is not only collaborating with ENO on The Duchess of Malfi, it has also worked with the National Theatre, which is itself putting on several outdoor participatory performances this summer.

Encouraging audience participation has its risks. "If you are blurring the boundaries between artist and audience, that will lead to moments when your audience is doing things you did not expect," says Jubb. Blood has even been spilled. During a performance of Money—a piece by the theater company Shunt that takes place on a dystopian, machinelike stage set—an overzealous audience member head-butted one of the actors midscene. Rule No. 1 in immersive theatergoing: get your mask at the door, but bring your own helmet.