by Joel Beckerman, Founder + Composer
Imagine waking up to find yourself on a deserted island. You’re standing on a small piece of land surrounded by ocean. There’s nobody to talk to and no way to escape. But the more time you spend exploring, the more you rely on your senses and instincts for answers. With time, things start to make sense.
Over 25 years ago, brothers Robyn and Rand Miller released a game with this very scenario for Mac OS called Myst. The game’s main differentiator was that it relied on art and sound to help the player navigate through an unfamiliar world. Myst was captivating enough with the sound off, but with a pair of headphones and the volume up, there was nothing in gaming more thrilling – or creepy – than Myst‘s unique set of ambient soundscapes. Myst became the best selling game of the decade because it focused on an immersive multi-sensory experience that was so engaging, it felt real.
While an VR version of Myst has since hit the market for the Oculus Quest, fans of such an immersive experience no longer have to sit in front of a computer or television screen (or behind a VR headset) to get it. Advanced escape rooms give players the chance to navigate complex clues and puzzles in new environments. But, it’s the emerging genre of “immersive theater” that is bringing the multi-sensory experience to the next level. Immersive theater is the closest thing to a real-world version of games like Myst and bridges the gap between an audience and the experience itself like never before.
New York City has become a hot-bed for immersive theater, starting with Sleep No More, a production which began in London in 2003 and has since been a longstanding hit at The McKittrick Hotel in Chelsea. The “hotel” spans 100,000 square feet with over 100 rooms, all of which can be explored by the hotel’s “guests,” who are fitted with masks (think Eyes Wide Shut) upon arrival. Guests are squeezed into an elevator, let off at random floors, and left alone to explore the elaborate sets across 5 floors of rooms. The production is a feast for the eyes and ears – dance and music play a major role – and one guest’s experience can be completely different than the next, which is why so many people return again and again.
Whereas Sleep No More is a choose-your-own-adventure production, Then She Fell (staged by Third Rail productions) is a guided – but much more personal – experience. With only 15 guests allowed in the former hospital at a time, Then She Fell blurs the lines between author Lewis Carroll’s life and the iconic novel he penned, “Alice In Wonderland.” The line between participant and actor is also blurred, as guests find themselves playing a role in the production with numerous one-on-one interactions and a set of keys that lets them open locks placed throughout the hospital. Like Sleep No More, each room has its own unique set design which becomes a platform for modern dance, enhanced by the soundscapes that pipe through speakers in every room. It’s an intimate experience that leaves an indelible impression on of all its participants who spend the evening uncovering clues and coming to their own conclusions about the controversial literary figure.
The Dutchman is another recent addition to the immersive theater canon. Although the play was first performed in 1964, a 2013 re-staging at the Russian and Turkish Baths in Manhattan’s East Village provided a unique setting for an immersive experience. Audience members, dressed in bathing suits and robes, followed the two-person play into three rooms over the course of the evening, each room hotter than the next. The purpose of the experience was so that audience members could physically “feel” the heat and tension rising with the drama of the performance. The play experienced a limited run but was sold-out each night as word spread of the play’s unique setting.
Immersive theater is showing no signs of slowing down. Productions like Fuerza Bruta, 4Chambers, Here Lies Love, Speakeasy Dollhouse, Queen of the Night, and Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812 are all changing the way theater, art, music and dance are presented. These productions are attracting a diverse set of audience members, all attending to explore unfamiliar worlds and lose themselves in interactive, multi-sensory experiences.