Today I am going to blog about something different. This is not meant to be a review of the theatrical performance I witnessed, but rather a synopsis of the experience I had and the boundaries that were pushed. Last Friday I went and saw a play in London called the Drowned man, acted out in a style referred to as ‘immersive theatre’. A relatively new phenomenon, immersive theatre breaks down the fourth wall and pulls the audience in to interact, to smell, to touch, to feel the creation. It is a truly unique experience.
Set in a 4 storey warehouse, the sets are of mammoth size with props covering unprecedented attention to detail. In brief the story is a about a 60s hollywood studio, which was shut down, and is set in the days before the shutdown.
A dark corridor with countless closed doors await you. Each door has a tale behind it. Open one, and walk into an eerie dark forest. Tall trees enveloped by mist surround you. Moonlight guides you though the forest, to another door. Yet another dark foggy room, vast and empty, with a chess board like floor as far as the eye can see. In the middle, two dead bodies. The occasional stranger in a blank mask walks past you, looking as lost as you are. The door bursts open and a cast member is dancing their way towards you, followed by other members of the audience running behind them. They dance past you towards another set, enticing you to follow them. By following a character, you maybe able to piece together their story, however there are so many intertwining story lines, that you may find yourself abandoning one character to follow another. Soon you will find yourself wanting to go into every corner of every storey of the warehouse, seeing, hearing, touching everything in your path.
Before entering this elaborate labyrinth, you must conceal yourself with a blank white mask and are encouraged to lose friends to get the most out of the experience. An instant wall is put up between you and everyone else, and reaching out to feel connected seems impossible. This anonymity adds to the isolation, leaving you feeling very alone. Imagination and exploration are encouraged, as you are only given a very brief plot summary at the start. For the next 3 hours, you are on your own, and must immerse yourself completely to thread together the story. It’s ‘choose your own adventure’ for grown ups.
Going against your basic instincts to run back into the light, you must go deeper and deeper into the darkness. There are 2 sub plots. One set inside the fictitious studios, and one set outside. Very soon the lines between reality and illusion become blur – what is the so called acting and what is so called reality. You can’t be sure if the scene you are witnessing is real or an enactment. One minute you are watching, observing as through a window and then all of the sudden as if through that window, you are enveloped and become part of the narrative – breaking through that fourth wall and converging your reality with the illusion – sometimes to a very disorientating level.
The beauty of this is that not one person has the same experience – each person has their own adventure, walks through their own door.
Some of us may even have more intimate experiences. I walked into a room in the middle of a scene playing out, with a doctor/mad scientist typing away violently at a typewriter. Springing out of his chair, he begun inspecting something on a wall full of eyeballs! As I was observing him, he turned around and made direct eye contact, with me. No one else, just me. I tried looking away, but his intense gaze held me in. Before I knew it, I was being lead by hand into another examination room. Then, the door shut behind me – Bang! Suddenly my senses were numbed with darkness and pin drop silence. A thrilling yet vulnerable moment. My gaze was instantly drawn towards a spotlight on a solitary examination table. As I was sat down on it, my eyes started to gain focus again. More eyeballs, eye charts, various perplexing images. And there he was, a complete stranger, peering into my soul through my mask. His presence felt unsettling yet intriguing at the same time. He seemed duplicitous, but somehow had the right balance to keep you in his world. For now.
Running his hands through mine, he proceeded to examine me for pulse, and then my face. It was surreal. Was this a part of the play? Was I being given clues to a plot? Was I a character? What was his character supposed to be? Was I going to get assaulted? Surely not… All these thoughts raced through my mind at a maddening pace, and the doctor was now beginning to act more and more maniacal. Inching closer and closer, he was presenting me with various diabolical images, asking me to interpret them. Now, I was scared. The mask on my face was my only source of comfort. I was able to feel afraid, and hide behind the mask. Very soon that too was stripped away from me, leaving me feeling bare for what seemed like an eternity. Then, without warning, there was an ear-piercing noise of metal vibrating. I closed my eyes and winced, and as I opened them there was a shiny sharp scalpel being waived in front of me. He was closer this time, and I could feel his breath on me, and the icy cold scalpel almost touching my face. Just him and I, in a lonely, darkened room.
The illusion had now truly become the reality. I began to panic. I pushed back. I wanted to leave. I had to ask twice before my wish was granted. I ran out…
Being a product of the digital age, I must admit, at first, I was sceptical of the whole concept. Well, I did play house with friends (real and imaginary) when I was younger, but I am very much a Generation Y adult now, and am accustomed to having the story narrated to me, more often than not on a high definition colour screen whilst I munch away at popcorn. So the mere thought of having to marry up stories and characters on my own, while running up and down a 4 storey warehouse, stalking actors, was not very appealing to me. However, much to my surprise that was not the hardest part. What I had to experience to create the story was much harder, as it asked me to break my boundaries.
Running out of that room, I wasn’t sure what I had just experienced. But I know it was like nothing ever before. Despite knowing that your’e in a play, it’s very easy to lose your sense of adventure. I am not sure how many others experience that, or at which point they get too spooked and ask to leave. I went as far as I could, and was pushed as far as I could be. At first I was inquisitive, then amused, then started to experience very real emotions of fear. Logic tells you to get a grip, but you can’t help but feel completely vulnerable with a stranger in a dark room. I was truly immersed in the experience. I forgot where I was. Reality and make believe were blurred into one giant haze. It was surreal immersion.
Have you ever been scared to take a ride on a roller coaster? Well this is the emotional equivalent, except, you may feel like the seat belt broke and you’re in free fall for a while 🙂 I will be looking to go again if possible, and will surely let go of my inhibitions. My advice to anyone else going would be to leave any preconceived notions of theatre at the door!