Sharing the Space: Lessons From Immersive Theater and Crowdsourced Artwork

A recent article in American Theater Magazine adds to the growing number of headlines devoted to the movement known as immersive theater. The article cites, among others, Then She Fell of Third Rail Projects as a current example of immersive theater and points out Punchdrunk’s Sleep No More and Diane Paulus’ The Donkey Show at A.R.T. as two of the most famous iterations of the form.

Though immersive theater can take many forms, all productions have in common a focus on audience engagement and are generally staged anywhere other than a traditional performance space. In Brooklyn, the immersive production, Then She Fell occupies a former hospital to explore the works of Lewis Carroll and his relationship with his young muse, Alice Liddell. Audience members sip elixirs and wander the rooms with skeleton keys in hand, allowing them to rummage through locked drawers. Throughout the experience, they interact with actors portraying characters from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland through dance and choreographed movement. Directors of the piece stress that because of fragmented storytelling and the importance of one-on-one interactions between audience members and actors, no two audience experiences are the same.

Though practitioners of immersive theater often describe their work as blurring the lines between performer and audience, a look at the wider artistic community reveals that the lines between the different artistic mediums may just be blurring as well. For example, recent activity in the world of visual arts shows a widespread interest in pulling audiences deeper into the creative process. The result is a focus on the creation of unique community oriented experiences rather than on presenting a finished product.

Last month Executive Director of the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History, Nina Simon spoke at the Theater Communications Group Conference in Dallas. In her talk, she discussed the new programming she devised to revitalize the museum and bring in more visitors. Nina found that enticing visitors to simply look at the art wouldn’t cut it. So she initiated a number of events, including Hack the Museum Camp. The program challenges participants to create original exhibitions or “interpretive ‘experiments,’” that are placed around pieces from the museum’s permanent collection.

Participants at Hack the Museum Camp at the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History

Participants at Hack the Museum Camp at the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History

While Nina Simon uses her role as museum director to encourage engagement with pre-existing art, some artists are engaging audiences to create original crowdsourced collections. For example, multi-genre artist Miranda July worked with Harrell Fletcher to create a website/project entitled Learning to Love You More that invited participants to complete projects based on prompts such as “feel the news,” “act out someone else’s argument,” and “write the saddest song.” Submissions were exhibited at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and a book about the project was published in 2007.

A submission to Learning to Love You More, responding to the prompt "make an encouraging banner."

A submission to Learning to Love You More, responding to the prompt “make an encouraging banner.”

While the work of Nina Simon and Miranda July’s Learning to Love You More focuses on visual art rather than performance, the core of the work is the same as that of immersive theater. All of the examples I’ve named place the audience at the center of the work as key collaborators in the creative process.

One of the questions you may be asking at this point is “why has this become so popular? And why now?” In an article about Then She Fell, author Frank Rose lauds the production for “the way it resonates with the digital world we live in. He points out that as “entirely no-tech production, it nonetheless manages to feel utterly contemporary in a time of video games and online media.” Similarly, in her American Theater Magazine article, Diep Tran likens the immersive theater experience to playing an RPG. Of course, projects like Learning to Love You More exist, for a large portion of the time, online. And some types of immersive theater, such as a participatory audio installation or crowdsourced projects like the Youtube based film, Life in a Day, would be impossible without audiences’ ease with technology.

So is that it? Do immersive theater and crowdsourced projects exist because audiences want to engage in art that mimics our daily interactive experience on the internet? On the one hand, I think the answer is yes. As Frank Rose puts it, “Now, on YouTube and blogs and Facebook and Twitter, we are media.” Surely this has some affect on audience expectations for off-line media as well.

On the other hand, I think immersive theater and crowdsourcing says just as much about the state of the arts today as it does about the audiences they draw.  Over time, the process of creating art has become integral to the very meaning of the artwork. Movements like immersive theater and crowdsourced art projects invite audiences into the creative process with the hopes of bridging the divide between artist and audience and helping audiences experience the transformative affects of both process and final product.

Let me return to the visual arts for a famous example of what I’m talking about. In the 1940’s and 50’s, Jackson Pollock developed a unique method of painting. Abandoning the easel, he would lay his canvas on the ground and begin to drip, fling, pour and spatter paint onto the canvas. While using his entire body to paint, Polluck became totally immersed in the process. Once, a photographer requested to photograph Polluck at work. He ended up with a series of fascinating images, beautiful works of art in and of themselves. Pollock once wrote that “When I am in my painting, I’m not aware of what I’m doing,” and if that does not show in his paintings, the photographs certainly drive home that point. (I can’t help but imagine that if Jackson Pollock were alive today, his publicist would be posting videos of the artist at work on his youtube channel.) His work is just one example of how modern and contemporary art can be deeply process-centric. The value of the art lies largely in the artist’s personal, transformative experience of creation.

Jackson Polluck captured on camera while immersed in his unique creative process.

Jackson Pollock captured on camera while immersed in his unique creative process.

This October, La Jolla Playhouse will feature a series of immersive theater productions at their inaugural Without Walls Festival. One of these productions is called We Built This City. In a work that blurs the lines not only between performer and audience, but between theater and visual arts, participants—mostly children and families—enter a construction site filled with thousands of cardboard boxes. The goal is to create a city out of the boxes that will ultimately be torn down at the end of the day. Now, I am not equating the paintings of Jackson Pollock with a giant arena of boxes stacked by kids. What I am suggesting is that immersive theater may create artistic experiences that have a particular value of their own.

We Built this City

Immersive theater piece, We Built This City will premiere at the La Jolla Playhouse’s Without Walls Festival this Fall.

Not having participated in pieces like Then She Fell or We Build This City, I can’t say from experience how successfully they address the audience/artist gap or include audience members in the creative process. But it seems clear that at a time when audiences are primed by technology to engage in art in a hands-on way, artists are experimenting with ways to bridge a gap that has been growing long before the invention of social media.

Colleen Ahern