(No) Blurred Lines: Consent & Immersive Theatre

Immersive theatre invites the audience in. Here’s how to be a good guest.

Feature by Katie Hawthorne | 03 Aug 2018
  • Counting Sheep

When it’s good, it’s really good. Immersive theatre can transport you, sweep you up, and give you the power to choose your own path through the production. The possibilities might feel endless, but – and we can’t believe we still need to say this – it’s never an opportunity for you to forget the basic rules of consent. Obviously, right? If you went to see a stand-up show, you wouldn’t grab the comic’s bum, right? RIGHT?

In February this year, Buzzfeed reported seventeen confirmed incidents of sexual assault on the stewarding staff and performers at Sleep No More in New York. These crimes were committed by their own audiences. Punchdrunk’s prize-winning adaptation of Macbeth – all blood, guts and lust – has existed in one form or another since 2003, and has built a global cult following by offering audiences free rein to explore the world of the play. No door or drawer is out of bounds and there is a theatrical treasure to be gleaned by being bold, but some have taken this license far too far. Billy Bell, a Sleep No More performer, said to Buzzfeed: “[The audience are] in this atmosphere that we’ve created where there are no limits, there are no rules, we’re in a magical land right now – but in reality, you’re still a person.” After the article, Punchdrunk added a softly-worded instruction to their pre-show information: participants should “keep a respectful distance” from the actors and staff.

Buzzfeed’s revelations prompted a wider industry discussion about the safety of both audiences and performers in immersive spaces, but it is still common to see immersive theatre described in heated, sexy terms. An Independent article in May called for better boundaries but still described immersive work as “the most hedonistic of art forms”. That’s a bit like describing novels as the sexiest kind of books: it doesn’t make any sense. Yes, immersive theatrical experiences can be intimate and bodily, sometimes – but they can also be about space travel, fairy tales or shark attacks.

At the 2016 Edinburgh Festival Fringe, the Lemon Bucket Orkestra’s Counting Sheep helped its audiences to imagine life on the front lines of the 2014 Ukrainian student uprising, via pierogi, piles of bricks and a joyful wedding ceremony. I ate, danced, laughed and, finally, cried as I held a hand offered to me and helped to carry a coffin. Done well, immersive productions won’t force your emotions or wilfully intrude on your personal space; they’ll invite you to join in. That actor's hand, offering rather than demanding, was crucial in setting boundaries on both sides. At any time during the show, audience members could take a seat outside of the action, to look on instead.

At this year’s Fringe, some of the shows tagged as ‘immersive’ provide similarly stratified options. The ever-popular theatre adaptation of Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting offers two kinds of experience – ‘traditional’ seats are tucked safely at the back, but the rest are in the thick of things. And by things, we mean the worst toilet in Scotland™. Elsewhere, a séance is billed as “not for the fainthearted” in Talking to the Dead, and it urges in advance that “audience participation is essential”. Other shows are immersive by way of atmosphere and environment rather than by action on your part: Flight (see more on p33) straps its audience into a plane cabin, and BaseCamp zips you into a tent to witness a fierce rivalry between mountain climbers. 

No matter the theatrical situation, remember that basic human decency still applies. Don’t touch unless you’re invited, but take a risk when it’s offered and a whole new world could open up.

Trainspotting Live, Venue 150 @ EICC (The Tunnel), 2-27 Aug (not 8, 15, 22), various times, £10-24
Talking to the Dead – A Séance, Sweet Novotel, 3, 4, 24-26 Aug, 10.05pm, £12
Flight, Summerhall (Terrace), 1-26 Aug, various times, £5-6
BaseCamp, C South, 1-27 Aug (not 14), various times, £7.50-11.50