By Cassidy Keenan

If Shakespeare could have predicted how far into the future his plays would still be performed, it’s likely he would have had no way of knowing how they would be interpreted. It is less likely still that he would imagine this: audience members standing on the floor of a large arena with fairies doing circus acrobatics over their heads. Set pieces moving around between audience members. Actors stealing phones and taking selfies. And everyone finishing by dancing with the cast to Beyoncé’s “Love on Top.”

However unlikely it may have seemed, this all occurred in a modern rendition of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” The chaotic production was recently performed at the Bridge Theatre in London to wide critical acclaim. This show is one example of a rising global trend in the world of entertainment: immersive theater.

What is immersive theater?

Immersive theater is a new and increasingly popular style of performance where the traditional “fourth wall” between the actors and the audience is broken. The audience participates in the play, transforming it into a flexible and interactive experience.

A quote from the New Yorker describes some of the appeal of this relatively new trend.

“Perhaps it’s our desire to be more than spectators — to be sucked headlong into alternative worlds — that has fueled the recent boom in immersive theater,” said Michael Schulman, “…in the hope of giving audiences not a show but an ‘experience.”

Recent studies show that this trend is definitely scaling upward. The annual immersive design industry report published its findings for 2019. According to the results, the immersive entertainment industry is valued in 2018 at more than $4.5 billion. In 2018, more than 700 new or updated immersive experiences were catalogued in North America alone.

A quote from the report described “the expectation that the story does surround me. If I turn my head, I’m still in the story. That, I think, is where we are now arriving, in a world of world creation where you can enter and you’re free to look wherever you please and we will sustain you and keep you inside of a story, because it surrounds you.”

New developments

Immersive theater is not a straightforward medium in and of itself. However, its reality is even less cut and dry than people may think. It is not merely a play with a stage and a traditional audience who “helps out” with some of the lines. Some of the earliest works of immersive performance occurred back in the 1950s and 60s. There has been a lot of time in consequent decades for creators to branch out and explore the new medium.

One of the first immersive experiences was the invention of theme parks. Their popularity grew enormously especially when Disneyland opened in 1955. They began creating worlds and experiences for audiences on a level unlike anything that had ever existed before.

Another increasingly-popular avenue for immersive entertainment is the creation of virtual reality technology. As technological advances increase, producers are able to find new ways to get their audiences hooked. Video games, movies, and countless other forms of entertainment can now bring you fully into an imaginary world.

Why is immersive theater popular?

There is an element of psychology in this type of stimulus, whether it is virtual or a live performance. An article written for Electric Lit states, “More and more, audiences want to be a part of the performance rather than simply watch it, a desire…ascribe[d] to lack of human interaction in everyday life riddled with smartphones and online interaction.”

The article reviewed an immersive theater performance space called Wildrence. The author quoted Zach Morris, one of the directors there. He also makes reference to developing technology. He claims it is not only connected to making immersive theater happen practically, but contributes to its psychological popularity.

“We are simultaneously more connected than we ever have been and more disconnected. The way we communicate is through screens, which are essentially prosceniums” [like the traditional stage that separates the actors from the audience, Morris said.] “When we seek culture, perhaps we want to be able to engage in it in a way that doesn’t have a membrane between us and it.”

Click here to explore TodayTix’s ultimate guide to immersive theater in New York City.