During the current post-festive lull in theatre, have been catching up on reading. Louis Greenberg’s Exposure—a horror / science fiction story based around a sinister Immersive theatre project- prompted some memories; not all of them pleasant. Immersive theatre is a particularly tough genre and rarely satisfying for an audience. Too often it is tedious and frustrating and, on the rare occasions the concept works, can be harrowing and disturbing. Comforting and entertaining do not seem to be options.

Immersive theatre works on the principle of ‘submerging’ the audience in the performance, so they become integral participants rather than observers. Generally, such productions are staged not in traditional (or warm and comfortable) theatres but in a specific location. The scripts allow for improvisation and the ‘fourth wall’ is not observed so the cast interact with the audience. As a set is not always required, it tends to be favoured by fringe companies.

It could be argued there are degrees of Immersive theatre. My first experience was arguably Gregory Burke’s Black Watch. There were few Immersive features; the script was in full and superb and the cast did not interact with the audience. There was, however, the disconcerting effect of staging the play in an industrial unit rather than a theatre.

Shaun Prendergast’s The True History of the Tragic Life and Triumphant Death of Julia Pastrana, the Ugliest Woman in the World also featured a full script but was staged in a formal theatre. It was, however, played in complete darkness. Immersive theatre tends to dramatise the disconcerting effects by issuing cautionary health warnings. Prior to commencement, the audience was briefed on how to locate and follow guidelines to the exit should the experience prove too intense. This was so effective, when a technical hitch brightened rather than extinguished the lights, a comment on how remarkably quick one’s eyes adjusted to the dark produced gales of nervous laughter.

Immersive theatre is hard to review as the subjective experience varies from person to person making it difficult to articulate the impact. Once the lights were out, the effect was strangely claustrophobic. The sensation so like being trapped in a box it was hard to avoid reaching out to make sure the walls were not closing in. As the audience is in the same area as the cast, it was impossible to avoid flinching when loud footsteps came rushing through the darkness right towards you. It was a highly successful Immersive experience—tricking the audience into believing they were part of the play (or that the events were real rather than imagined).

Because a set is not always a requirement of Immersive theatre, it can be perceived as a cheap option. Unfortunately, lack of resources often scuppers production. During a show where the audience was being stalked by vampires, we were briefed the creatures could not cross a barrier of salt. Fair enough; but when, as a defence, we were handed the tiny blue packets of salt used to flavour crisps, it was impossible to keep a straight face.

The ’cheap and cheerful’ approach works best where producers are prepared to keep their ambitions modest. Turning a pub into a haunted house for a Halloween scare just about worked but, being outside of a theatre, there was little opportunity for subtle mood changes—lights were either on or off so producers had to settle for making the audience jump rather than a mood of gathering unease.

Producers do not always prepare adequately for the show. During one production, the audience was cast as job applicants; accordingly, I behaved as at a job interview and asked about leave entitlement and promotion opportunities which generated a puzzled response. One show required the audience to take on the role of secret agents tasked with determining which of the patrons in a pub was most likely to turn terrorist. One expected, after re-grouping and forming a judgement, we would be given feedback and told if the right choice was made. That did not happen; and the show just fizzled out.

The timing required to complete the play is frequently misjudged. During the job interview, the cast were rushing around panicking so it was easy to guess the climax would involve a crisis. Unfortunately, the cast ran out of ways to divert the audience until the crisis occurred so, by the time the conclusion was reached, we had become very bored.

There are so many risky variables with Immersive theatre, producers can be over-cautious and take a condescending approach. A mystery staged in a hotel was spoilt as a cast member was planted in each team and got over-cautious pointing out clues before anyone else had a chance.

Even the better Immersive shows have dull periods. An invasion staged in the open air offered the chance to dash between trucks but the final scene, set in an infirmary tent, took so long to set up it was not possible to continue to suspend disbelief.

When Immersive theatre works, the impact is massive. Anu Productions’ Angel Meadow in which the audience was dragged from the present day to a Victorian slum dominated by vicious gangsters was stunning. The show was meticulously devised and each part potentially devastating. At one point, it felt like I was in a derelict bathroom conversing with a spirit—possibly of an aborted foetus. Most impressively, Angel Meadow did not run out of steam but managed to bring the storyline to a satisfactory conclusion.

Punchdrunk’s It Felt Like a Kiss was produced as part of the Manchester International Festival so did not lack for resources. Fortunately, it also had ambition and imagination, merging the mood of a Don DeLillo conspiracy thriller with a Stephen King shocker, to be both cerebral and sensational.

The play did not insult the audience by over-explanation. Wandering around an abandoned building spotting Kennedy’s favourite novel—From Russia with Love—led into a display on the Bay of Pigs fiasco. A personal high point was explaining to a national newspaper critic the names on laundry tags in one room were those of characters in James Ellroy’s novels. A centrepiece was a movie drawing links between the construction of the World Trade Centre and the relationship between bin Laden and the CIA.

Having given the audience mental stimulation, the play settled down for a good-old-fashioned scare sending us running pel mel to the exit convinced we were being chased by a murderer with a chainsaw. This was the perfect demonstration of the powerful effect of Immersive theatre; the audience becoming so caught up in the concept they instinctively react as if they are a character in the play rather than an impartial observer.

The objective of any playwright is to move and involve their audience. Immersive theatre has potential to achieve this objective to maximum effect, pulling the audience out of their safe role as observer and transforming them into active participants. Immersive theatre is not something with which one can dabble; it demands full commitment. The rewards for the audience are debatable. Taking part in successful Immersive theatre is not always pleasant; there is an adrenaline rush and even a sense of panic. Perhaps we should be grateful that, in many cases, the process is not always successful so the chances are audiences will be left bored rather than enervated but shaken.