In Focus: Interactive Theater - Part 1, The Director

Series by Katharine Horowitz

Audience immersion and interactivity have always been the mainstays of haunted houses and historical reenactment sites, but the genre seems to be experiencing a recent eruption of popularity in the United States with such productions as Punchdrunk’s Sleep No More, or Third Rail Project’s Then She Fell, both in New York City. The last few years have also seen an increase in some impressive interactive theatre productions in the Twin Cities, but is there a lasting future for it here? And what challenges do companies encounter when building the kind of designs and stories needed to create a successful interactive experience?

This is the first in a series of articles examining the work involved to produce interactive theatre, and how we might foster its continued growth in the Twin Cities. We will hear from directors, designers, and audiences in future articles.

This Is A World to Live In   - Photo by Richard Fleischman for Sandbox Theatre 2013

This Is A World to Live In - Photo by Richard Fleischman for Sandbox Theatre 2013


Our inaugural exploration into creating interactive theatre in the Twin Cities begins with interviews of a few of local directors and producers of recent interactive and/or immersive productions. We chatted Matthew Glover and Ryan Hill of Sandbox Theatre’s This Is A World To Live In (TIAWTLI), Ryan Underbakke of CTC’s 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea, and Joanna Harmon of Live Action Set’s Crime and Punishment about their perceptions of the genre and its future in Twin Cities theatre.

“Interactive” and “immersive” are often used interchangeably when describing theatre that uses active audience participation to shape the arc of the story. What, if any, is the difference is between interactive and immersive theatre?

Ryan Hill (RH): To me, “immersive” implies a story is unfolding (not necessarily linearly) around you. “Interactive” means the story requires your participation. I think they're separate concepts. TIAWTLI was immersive, but not necessarily interactive. You [could] plant yourself on a couch and watch everything unfold with your arms crossed and still get most of the narrative. But you'd be missing a ton of nuance you'd get from participating. 

Ryan Underbakke (RU): I really don't think there is [a difference]. Both the terms "immersive" and "interactive" are extremely vague and open to interpretation. A dinner theater show could be "immersive" to someone, or someone could describe an improv show as “interactive". I think these terms are used so much now because companies are trying to create shows that are in some way different than our usual theater going experience.  

Joanna Harmon (JH): “Immersive” theater surrounds the audience within the action and accepts the audience into the world in which the story is unfolding. Audience members often walk around within the world on their own. “Interactive” theater involves the audience member in the action of the performance, and sometimes an audience member may even play a role within the action.

Immersive and interactive theatre seem to be enjoying an explosion of popularity around the country. How would you measure their current popularity and reception in the Twin Cities, and what do you think their future is?

RH: There's a need for being part of an event. Society is valuing participation over observation. It's not good enough for theatre just to appeal to your sense of literature; it’s got to physically move you.

RU: It's been interesting watching how entertainment has adapted in the digital age: music switched to a digital experience over the analog of the past, movies became a place of spectacle and epic-ness while television became the place to go to for hard-hitting, long novelist drama. Video games adapted into a place for interactive stories, able to evolve past the "B-Movie" plots of the past. And, weirdly, theater didn't do anything. Theater said "No, we're good." So I think its an exciting time if to be making immersive work. It’s still kind of the Old West with no rules because its all very new. 

Matthew Glover (MG): I think theatre is changing, becoming more flexible. Television, movies, literature have changed to fit into bite-sized portions. They’ve had to. If it can’t fit on a phone, it dies. Immersive events are just one volley toward a different theatrical experience. And not a new volley, either. Its current popularity might be fleeting, just as any other trend can be, but with any other trend there are those artists who continue to do a certain type of work not because it is/was trendy, but because it inspires them. We’re nearing the first big dip in the most recent immersive arc: when smaller, more flexible companies have had a try at immersive events, and larger ones finally convince a board to let them have a go.

By and large, it seems like much of the Twin Cities immersive theatre experiences are produced by smaller theatre companies. Do you foresee a rise in popularity of immersive and/or interactive theatre with larger institutions, or are the parameters that dictate audience involvement too difficult for larger institutions?

RU: I think that's always the case right? Any new approach starts off amongst experimental artists and starts off as very radical, until it hits a mainstream audience and is considered "a new way to look at work" before it just becomes the norm and then ultimately rote. It sounds bleak but I find the whole thing a way to keep things exciting. There was a time when masks on stage was cutting edge. There was a time when using fabric on stage blew peoples minds.   

JH: Practically speaking, it is impossible for the director to see every moment of an immersive production. The scope of one requires the directors to relinquish more creative control than they would have over a traditional production. Directors of immersive productions have to give an extreme amount of trust to their actors and designers, and this quality often exists amongst groups who adhere to the principles that ensembles are built upon.

Companies of all sizes create within constraints. Companies of institutional size often work within constraints that inhibit them from experimenting on as vast a spectrum as that on which smaller companies play. Now that immersive theater is proving popular, I hope institutions feel the courage to produce immersive performances themselves.

MG: I’m sure larger houses will try their hands at it, yes. Their risk is a lot higher, however, and that prevents it from being immediate and anything close to the cutting edge of an art form.

Perhaps the biggest difference between large and small (aside from budget) is whether a theatre company views an immersive show as a piece of art, or as a product. Are you making the show because you want to stretch your own artistic boundaries or are you trying to sell what’s hot? Small companies can afford to ask those questions and take those risks a lot more easily than large ones.

Stay tuned for Part 2 of this series, examining the details that went into planning and producing 20,000 Leagues, This Is A World To Live In, and Crime and Punishment!