Enthraltainment: Recent Immersive Theatre in Leeds

AnnaColumbine / Contemporary / Theatre / ValerieZwart

Immersive theatre is a newish-variant theatrical experience that was brought into being by London-based theatre group ‘Punchdrunk’ around fifteen years ago. Even though immersive productions are happening with some regularity in West Yorkshire (other Leeds-based companies include ‘Slung Low’ and ‘Invisible Flock’), they’re not yet widely known. Lord Whitney’s recent ‘The Wood Beneath the World’ and ‘The Weather Machine’ by David Shearing and Company are typical of the form in that they offer fragmentary and impressionistic, powerful experiences.

What to expect from immersive theatre? A meticulously designed set and the freedom to explore it. You can be amongst the action or even a part of the performance – with a small audience member-to-actor ratio it can be quite an intimate and unique experience. This is not merely a function of subjectivity, but of the different variables involved: group dynamics, performance variations and how comfortable you are in near darkness, with strangers. Each performance is slightly different due to the live and responsive nature of immersive theatre, offering uniqueness and excitement. Immersive theatre seems to be of our time in a way that few art forms are these days – both Lord Whitney and David Shearing are doing interesting things with it.

David Shearing and Company’s The Weather Machine consists of variable and pre-programmed sound, props, light and atmospheric effects along with accompanying texts and music. The experience starts before the audience enters the production space. Audience members are issued field guides and pencils along with a description of that day’s weather, on which the performance is based. The guide’s fragmentary illustrations and texts set a tone of gentle explication, which gave me the impression that ‘The Weather’, a frequent villain of television news, would be playing very much against type.

The Weather Machine. Copyright Tom Joy, David Shearing.

The Weather Machine. Copyright Tom Joy, David Shearing.

A series of gentle-voiced narrators introduce us to the sun, wind, rain and cloud. We are taken from interplanetary sublimes to quotidian urban experiences; the scale and power of the weather are less threat and devastating spectacle than points of orientation for humility, resilience, and wonder. Just like the machine-made fog, cool air, damp and heat, Kamal Kaan’s texts wafted over the space and settled into us. The soundtrack and the timing of the effects are careful and thoughtful, contributing to an overall affect not unlike being solicitously led by the elbow. At points in the performance and in the field guide, the totality seemed like an enactment of a mindful approach to life, or at least the weather.

While the experience of focused exposure to weather was undoubtedly therapeutic, seeing others react with wonder, curiosity, or being visibly soothed by light and heat was in itself a beautiful spectacle. This part of the show might be overlooked by an immersed audience, but it belies the level of direct engagement that this poetic and evocative production elicited. The intimacy and very human communication that David Shearing achieves with the weather machine poses some timely and disquieting questions about our relationship to technology.

Lord Whitney’s Wood Beneath the World ran late last year at the Crypt under Leeds Town Hall. Here, the audience is led into the old gaol by a former guard who tells us something of its history. On a pretext, he leaves, leaving the audience locked-up and in near-darkness. Soon though, a similarly uniformed woman with large eyes lets herself in, gazing at each audience member before silently beckoning a few of us to join her. She leads us to a smaller cell off the long, leaf-strewn corridor and we lean in to hear fragmentary warnings about finding one’s own way and not becoming distracted…

Anxiety about purpose and meaning are central to this production. Information is withheld to manipulate the audience, who are witness to the distracting effect of having too much information. Our gaolers, played by Liam Thomas and Lisa Franklin, were convincingly authoritative – the effectiveness and level of their non-verbal acting was especially striking.

The Wood Beneath the World. Image Credit: Unknown.

The Wood Beneath the World. Copyright the photographer (click image for link). 

Lord Whitney’s main set is a brilliantly half-transformed forest meant to function as a labyrinth – classically a place for introspection. Pointedly without specific instruction, audience members are let loose in the wood to discover their own, unguided way and the discretely-placed objects and photos in it. This metaphor for modern life came to a close in a wordless scene of personal epiphany for the two guards.

Helpfully, a booklet handed to us at the exit provided the contextual hinterland for ‘the journey within’, while recognising that for some people, this kind of experience is ‘harmless fun and little else’. What was novel about this production was the call to use the woods’ brief disorientation to re-enchant everyday surroundings, or at least to briefly see them anew.

The lack of a linear narrative to disorientate the audience is an inherent feature of immersive theatre – as are fleeting moments of anxiety or self-doubt about ‘not getting it’ – about where to stand or what to do, trusting your perceptions, or being briefly wrong-footed. I prefer this kind of ‘realism-and-immediacy’ to a traditional story arc. These productions had me backed into a dark corner with strangers and reaching for my phone in response to the directive to ‘take a photo of something that intrigues you’. And it was okay.

Being invited to focus and challenge your perceptions can be personally enriching. This kind of entertainment is most compelling when it taps into private or prevalent anxieties – such as the idea of ‘information’, the subversion of everyday experiences –  such as the weather, or perennial questions like finding purpose and meaning in life. At a high quality production you can choose your level of enthralment: guided daydreaming is on offer, but so is intellectual, sensory and emotional engagement. Because these productions work on all of those levels, I can’t recommend them highly enough.

Valerie Zwart