Producers explore audience engagement
By Kwon Mee-yoo
Immersive theater represents a transformative evolution in the world of performing arts, diverging significantly from traditional theater’s format. In this dynamic and interactive approach, the audience doesn’t merely occupy seats as passive observers — instead, they step into the heart of the narrative, moving and existing within the same spaces as the actors.
This style blurs the lines between the stage and the audience, creating a fluid, engaging environment where spectators can become part of the story.
The overarching aim of immersive theater is to craft a deeply engaging and personal experience for each audience member. It seeks to transcend the traditional spectator role, inviting viewers to feel like an integral part of the narrative, thus heightening the emotional and experiential impact of the performance.
In Korea, immersive theater, often experimental, gained prominence in the 2010s. “The Great Gatsby: The Immersive Show,” a hit U.K. immersive production, made its way to Seoul in late 2019, turning the Grevin Seoul Museum into a dazzling prohibition-era setting. Hailed as a potential game-changer for Korea’s immersive theater scene, its run was unfortunately cut short by the COVID-19 pandemic.
After years of pandemic-related challenges, immersive theater is resurfacing, eager to reconnect with audiences in innovative ways.
Seoul’s current scene features the Seoul Performing Arts Company’s (SPAC) “Goodbye Yi Sang” at Jayu Theater at the Seoul Arts Center through Nov. 17.
This show invites audiences to participate in a fictional funeral for the groundbreaking modernist writer Yi Sang (1910-37).
Upon arrival, each audience member receives a white paper mask, symbolizing Yi Sang’s elusive “death mask,” along with a mysterious letter inviting them to this unusual funeral. These masks provide a sense of anonymity, encouraging immersion into the story from multiple perspectives.
The avant-garde writer Yi is portrayed through a trio of actors, each embodying a different aspect — his physicality, senses and intellect. The narrative unfolds as Yi encounters various figures from his life, including his sister, lovers and fellow writers, in a quest to find his death mask – a metaphor for his true identity.
To enhance the immersive experience, actors engage with the audience in the lobby before the show, offering glimpses into Yi Sang’s brilliant mind and enhancing the immersive feel. The theater itself is transformed into an intriguing orange structure featuring a coffin-like centerpiece.
The performance begins with the audience standing in the center of the set, looking up Yi’s coffin atop a staircase. As a translucent fabric drops on stage, signaling a transition, viewers are ushered to take their seats for the rest of the performance.
Though the production incorporates interaction and some freedom, it predominantly follows a set direction with limited audience movement. Nonetheless, the show provides an intimate and reflective experience, offering an insight into Yi’s life and persona.
Immersive performances, with their high setup costs and limited audience capacity, have traditionally been challenging to monetize. This has led to many immersive shows in Korea being experimental. “Goodbye Yi Sang,” for instance, was produced by the state-funded SPAC.
“Roulette” was an immersive musical staged at Yeonnamjang, also known as Hotel Yeonnam, in Seoul’s trendy Yeonnam-dong neighborhood from Oct. 13 to Nov. 12. This hotel-turned-cultural space was creatively transformed into a casino backdrop for life-changing bets.
Adapted from Oh Min-hyuk’s 2015 webtoon, “Roulette” transports audiences to a party at Poe’s mansion. Before the show, the audience can engage in casino games, with the number of chips influencing their seating for the show — winners get priority choice, while others take what’s left.
The plot unfolds as Doyle, a tramp, suspects foul play in the game and the mansion’s owner Poe invites Doyle to the party and reveals that Doyle is his amnesiac brother, lost after they parted ways at an orphanage 15 years ago.
As Doyle triumphs in the game against Poe, Poe’s fiancee Agatha arrives with an unexpected twist. After further twists, the audience ultimately votes on the ending, choosing between Doyle, Poe or Agatha, adding a layer of interactivity to the show.
The musical features four crews named Pride, Lust, Envy and Greed, fitting the casino theme and playing dual roles as dealers and characters, bringing the audience closer to the show.
Theater critic Um Hyun-hee observed that immersive theater offers a unique experience where each audience member encounters different storylines, allowing the performance to evolve in numerous ways as it interacts with its viewers.
“Long before immersive theater’s advent, the audience was always a crucial element in live theater, vital in fulfilling the performance’s meaning. But immersive theater introduces a tangible shift in the audience’s role,” she said. “In immersive theater, the proactivity and ownership of the audience are paramount.”
Um also suggested that immersive theater has the potential to attract new, especially younger, audiences to the performing arts.
“This style aligns well with what Generation MZ, or Millennials and Gen Z, are looking for – they want to be directly involved and experience different things. The way immersive theater lets its audience actively participate could make theater more exciting for them,” she added.
New York, the hub of the performing arts, is home to several famous immersive theater productions. These shows, including the acclaimed “Sleep No More” by Punchdrunk, were temporarily halted during the pandemic but have since resumed, reshaping audience experiences in performing arts. Yet, sustaining an immersive theater production remains a considerable challenge even in New York.
“Sleep No More,” a blend of Shakespeare’s “Macbeth” and Hitchcockian noir, debuted in London in 2003 and arrived at New York’s McKittrick Hotel in 2011, contributing to significantly expanding the landscape of immersive theater.
However, all good things must come to an end.
After a remarkable 13-year run in New York, attracting over 2 million visitors, the show recently announced its closure. Initially set to end on Jan. 28, 2024, coinciding with its 5,000th performance in New York, it extended until Feb. 25 due to high last-minute demand.
As the finale nears, both first-timers and dedicated fans are flocking to the Chelsea warehouse transformed into a hotel-like performing space.
In “Sleep No More,” guests don white masks and choose to either follow specific characters or explore the space independently. The show offers a unique experience for each visitor, with no possibility of seeing the entire performance in one visit. Even repeat attendees find each visit different, as they encounter varying sequences, characters and sometimes intimate moments with the performers in different order.
“Sleep No More” exemplifies large-scale, non-linear narrative immersive theater, where audience members have distinct experiences based on their choices and interactions within the performance space.
Some may choose to follow blood-soaked Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, while others might opt to wander around the village of Gallow Green, tasting candies and observing the witches as they deliver prophecies in the “rave.” There’s also a secretive floor accessible only to a chosen few.
Being a predominantly non-verbal and dance-based performance, “Sleep No More” allows each audience member to interpret the performers’ movements in their own unique way as well.
Felix Barrett and Maxine Doyle of Punchdrunk expressed pride in the artistic community and diverse audiences cultivated by “Sleep No More” in New York in a joint statement.
“It is the end of an era, but thrilling to know that the Sleep No More adventure is not finished … So as we close the doors to the McKittrick and leave part of our hearts on West 27th Street, we look forward to revealing new ones in the future,” they said in the statement, hinting at their new immersive adventure.
Before the closing of “Sleep No More,” New York saw the end of another immersive show “Here Lies Love,” which concluded its brief Broadway run on Nov. 26 after 149 performances since its July 20 opening.
This disco-driven dance musical, centered on Imelda Marcos, former first lady of the Philippines, transports the audience to a club-like setting, echoing Imelda’s love for clubbing. It traces her journey from her early days as a poor girl in Leyte to becoming the first lady through her marriage to former Phillipines President Ferdinand Marcos.
Co-written by David Byrne and DJ Fatboy Slim and directed by Alex Timbers, the show enjoyed a successful limited engagement and open-ended run on Off Broadway in 2013 and 2014, respectively, and finally knocked the mainstream Broadway after 10 years.
It extensively transformed the Broadway Theatre by replacing orchestra seats with a dance floor, platforms and disco balls, aiming to be as immersive as Broadway allows. Audiences had options such as floor standing, floorside seating, club lounge and traditional mezzanine, each providing a different experience and perspective.
Especially on the dance floor, audience members became part of the narrative, from attending the Marcos’ election campaign to participating in the revolution that ended the Marcos regime.
However, the musical faced criticism for its superficial treatment of the Marcos regime’s corruption and for romanticizing the dictatorship, particularly relevant as Ferdinand and Imelda’s son, Bongbong Marcos, is the current president of the Philippines.
Despite short-living, “Here Lies Love” offered a glimpse into the potential of immersive theater in a large-scale, commercial setting.
The producers of “Here Lies Love” admitted that despite the show’s artistic success, it fell short of commercial expectations.
“Yes, new ways can work. Artistic excellence can be achieved. But the reality is, that succeeding on Broadway means not only producing excellent work with artistic merit — it also means creating the audience for it. And how much time it takes to find and grow new audiences is out of sync with the tight timeframes for audience-building and awareness,” the producers said in a statement.