Right now, in the larger world of theatre, there is a debate happening.
In the past decade or so, the theatre world in the US and the UK has seen an explosion of immersive and site-specific performances. These are different from traditional theatre in that there is not necessarily a set stage or playing space - these performances use “installations and expansive environments, which have mobile audiences, and which invite audience participation.”
The debate is if there is merit in this form of theatre. Is it just a trend? Is it already a tired gimmick? Is it possible to make truly innovative performances that are immersive or site-specific, or do they all fall into the same few categories? Is this the future of contemporary theatre?
Most of this debate has happened in reviews and academic journals, largely argued by critics and professors. But at YAT, we have a really clear stance on what we think about immersive and site-specific theatre and we’ve already been using it in new and innovative ways. The actual art that’s being made is on our side. There is a future in this art form, and we are already a part of it.
In 2015, we launched the first year of The Experiment, our week long sleep-away camp for teenagers. Using YAT’s methods for devising and self-empowerment theatre, teenagers created a site-specific performance in a week, a performance that was not contained to a stage, but traveled all over the campground, in the woods, by the lake, inside and outside. Our students, in a week, created a piece of contemporary theatre that holds it own against the most innovative work being done in the country. The first year was so incredibly successful that we brought it back in 2016 for two different weeks with two different themes.
And our students loved it. One student said, “We put together an entire show within 6 days! There are shows that rehearse for months and months before they debut and we threw all of our energy and art into this show so that this show could be just as good as one who rehearsed for months, and it was glorious.” Another student said, “The Experiment is unique from any other camp because not only are we working together to build an amazing piece of art, we are growing as a community and as individuals in a way that you can't in a weeknight rehearsal or a Saturday class. The total immersion makes the experience.” 100% of students who participated in The Experiment would recommend it to a friend.
They even created a video to help audience members who might be unfamiliar with site-specific work and how they should interact with the performance. [Embed this: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CvZqeeYYQNQ]
Our students are at the forefront of what’s happening in theatre. They are being exposed and becoming masters of new and innovative techniques. The fact that they devour it and ask for more shows that building a creative mind is about high expectations and constantly challenging our students.
And the future of immersive and site-specific theatre? Recently, a show called Learning Curve opened in Chicago. Goodman Theatre teamed up with Albany Park Theater Project and Third Rail Project (one of the leading immersive theatre companies in the country), to devise a show about Chicago schools that takes you inside an actual school. They say, “Learning Curve is an immersive performance that places you within the walls of a Chicago public high school and in the shoes of its students. With each step, you’ll experience the real-life triumphs and struggles of students, teachers and parents during the years that hopefully lead to a high school diploma.”
It’s completely sold out - if you want, you can add your name to an extensive waitlist to try and get tickets.
But are there actual youth involved in this production about what it’s like to be a teenager? Nope. I’m sure you can tell what we’re thinking about.
Learning Curve is just one piece of evidence that shows there is a future in site-specific and immersive theatre. People are hungry for it. There is a huge difference between sitting comfortably in a seat 20 feet away from a performer and being called upon to be proactive and engaged. We ask our students for 100% engagement, and maybe it’s time we called upon audience members for the same.
We have some exciting projects that we are developing and thinking about. As we start working on them, it’s important to know the landscape, to know exactly what’s out there and why it works. There’s no reason that Indianapolis cannot be the home to innovative contemporary theatre. And there’s no reason why the youth of Indianapolis should not be involved.
On Immersive Theatre by Gareth White, Theatre Research International