It seems to me that there’s a big movement toward “interactive theatre” right now, but it would perhaps more accurately be titled “immersive theatre” – that is, the action happens around the audience and the audience may have to follow the action around in a physical space or figure out the plot from seeing disjoint snippets of it. The big famous one is Sleep No More, which has been running in New York since 2011 and builds on the company’s work going back to 2003.
I went to a production of Tamara last night (!); it’s a show with what I thought of as Sleep No More-style immersion, but which apparently predated SNM by 22 years. The mechanic is that you as an audience member can choose to follow any character from room to room (you can’t just wander from room to room, but you can follow a different character out of a scene than you followed in) and there are nine characters and a whole slew of subplots to keep track of. It was loosely based on historic characters and had some fairly subtle nuance. When I started typing this response yesterday, I wrote “I think these are getting to the point that they can’t just rely on the novelty of immersion and reaching out to explore a bit more; I’m very much looking forward to tonight’s show.” Now that I know that the show was in fact not a new work, I’m meditating on this thought a little.
In March, I went to a show called Her Things. It was billed as “an interactive estate sale,” and it was more properly interactive in the sense that the audience was not just flies on the wall for the action. It mostly involved rifling through the belongings of a mysteriously missing young woman, and there were five characters in costume that could provide some background and make sure we weren’t breaking anything. The action culminated in an auction at which audience members used their memories as currency to bid on objects which we had not previously been allowed to touch. (“For this item, I’m going to need an embarrassing memory from childhood.”) We were allowed to hang out as long as we wanted after the auction, so the audience did a lot of trading of information and most of us were satisfied with our understanding of the story by the end.
When I talked to some of the team afterward, they said it had been heavily inspired by Gone Home, though I think the similarities ended at “rifle through things to figure out a story,” which is part of a lot of story-forward adventure games, and some queer elements. (The story itself was fantastic, by the way. Circuses and secret societies and queer lesser-known saints!)
I found Her Things approximately a million times more satisfying than the Real Escape Game which was straight-up unmotivated “soup cans” puzzles that I think our community is better for having mostly left in the past. Real Escape Game is much more in the tradition of the MIT Puzzle Hunt, but they definitely sell themselves on adventure game nostalgia and use words like “story” to describe what happens. They also pride themselves on their 2% win rate, which is directly against what I think of as fun. So, not my genre.
None of those had digital elements, unfortunately. (“Her Things” neatly avoided the question by being set in the 1910s.) I’m very interested in digital/physical crossovers, and in my opinion we are at the “early, awkward steps” phase. A production of Cymbeline I went to in 2008 tried to use audience texting for dramatic effect by asking the audience to text in answers to questions like “who do you love?” and having dot-matrix printers on stage printing out the answers at dramatic moments in the plot. They got a fair amount of publicity centered around that, but I thought it was extremely unsubtle, when the tech was working at all.
One of the most intense theatrical experiences of my life was Bricolage Theatre’s Strata, which I can barely even describe. It was fully interactive by dropping audience members one at a time into a bizarre dreamscape with actors who had archetypal roles and a lot of room to improvise. Highlights: a seedy dude in a smoky poker den enthusiastically greeting me by [correctly pronounced!] last name and then showing me a card trick done with Tarot cards; a pale teen in a white nightgown in a white cast iron bed in the middle of floor covered in sand, asking me to braid her hair, then encouraging me to follow “her brother” in a dark robe who had somehow crept into the corner of the room unnoticed; a basketball coach yelling aphorisms while I try to shoot baskets; a strongly-perfumed woman crying onto my shoulder as we slow-dance in a dimly-lit gym littered with fallen streamers and red solo cups. After the first bit of the show, which we went through together, my partner had an entirely different set of experiences. I imagine there was quite a bit of elaborate stage-managing involved in keeping the audience members from running into each other much (not to mention how all of the characters knew my name). For example, I spent a brief period of time in a “detention” room, copying lines, and I suspect that this was buffer time for the room they wanted to send me to next. We were sent from room to room with slips of paper telling us where to go next, and the slips had some extra alphanumeric text across the top, so I suspect there was some information being tracked with those. I would love to see a version of this with a computer handling advanced state-tracking and helping the actors coordinate at a distance!
And Ingress is an example of digitally-augmented real world gaming that has gained a lot of traction, of course.