After a long journey into the world of interactive theatre, I believe that I have finally found my answer. After hearing from a friend a few weeks ago about the “interactive” and “immersive” experience that the play Wicked Lit promised to provide, I naturally set out to get my fair share. Did it deliver on its two bold promises? Well, sort of.
For starters, some terms are in order. When I say “immersion,” I mean any instance when narrative physically envelops the audience, surrounding them and sealing them off from the real world. The Indiana Jones ride at Disneyland is a perfect example. Everything, including the queue, serves this purpose by surrounding the riders with an elaborate “pre-explored” Mayan temple, immersing them in a unified theme and narrative. In contrast, I’ll use the word “interactivity” to refer to any instance when a person might physical engage with or participate in the piece. This includes acting as a volunteer in a Magic Show, heckling a comedian, or even running from monsters in a haunted house.
Now, for those of you who don’t know, Wicked Lit was a fascinating experiment in theatre that was put on by Unbound Productions this past October. Rather than present the three literary adaptations (including one by Lovecraft) out of a box, the company added a dash of realism by staging the whole shebang in a mausoleum. That’s right, a mausoleum. Interested theatre-goers were expected to drive to and park in a functional crypt in Altadena, complete with permanent residents interred in its walls. Each piece took place in a different section of the building, making sure to take full advantage of the dark corridors and creepy atmosphere of a real necropolis. So, to answer our questions: First, was it immersive? Yes, definitely. Rather than watch Berger and Kennedy travel through some flats on a stage, we got to see these two characters grope their way through a real catacomb. We stood and watched as they excavated a nearly Christian burial site, and followed them into the darkest depths of the tombs where treachery lied in wait. So yes, it was immersive.
The plays were not, however, terribly interactive. It’s not that those elements didn’t exist, but rather that they were designed to serve the characters rather than the audience. When the characters ran, the audience ran with them. When the characters stopped to check the corners, the audience looked around to see if anyone was stalking them. In short, the audience followed the characters through all their adventures, but less like traveling companions and more like flies on the wall. So, we all experienced the immersion, but were always kept at a certain distance from the performances themselves. The rules of a traditional production held sway as the audience could not affect or really even participate in the action of the play.
So, why? Why did Unbound Productions commit fully to the immersion, but then skimp on the interactivity? What could this dynamic possibly have added to the world of Theatre? Actually, quite a bit. While the audience could not particulate directly in the production, they got to experience the events of the play firsthand. Functionally, we were all just watching a moving performance; but that’s not what anyone was really thinking or feeling at the time. We were empathizing with the characters because we were literally sharing the same experience in that moment. The monster wasn’t just hunting the ragtag bunch of misfits onscreen. It was hunting us! Those elements forced the audience to walk for miles in the shoes of the protagonists, which is definitely something I’ve never done before. That could be one solution to the question of interactivity in theatre.
Well played Wicked Lit. Well played.
Contributed exclusively for MONOLODGE by Adam Pica