Immersive theater—an approach to performance loosely defined by its participatory nature and unusual settings—had its first mega-hit with the 2011 New York production of Sleep No More. Five years on, the production has inspired creatives across the US to bring immersive theater to their hometowns, introducing it to a much wider audience.

Sleep No More, produced in a five-floor warehouse featuring ornate set pieces and a cast of dozens, at first drew few imitators. In 2016, however, immersive productions are drawing crowds in Seattle, Los Angeles, Nashville and beyond.

Darren Lynn Bousman, who directed three films in the Saw horror franchise, this month is launching The Tension Experience: Ascension in Los Angeles. Guests at Ascension are invited to go on a “site specific journey of trust, betrayal and submission” as they explore the O. O. A. Institute, a shadowy organization where “something sinister lurks behind each welcoming smile.”

“It’s hard to compete,” Bousman told the Hollywood Reporter. “Every day it gets harder and harder cause you have so many movies being released On Demand, Netflix, DirectTV. You have so much content being produced.”

We Remain Prepared co-produced by ARTBARN. Photography by Alex Garland
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Photography by Alex Garland
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Photography by Alex Garland

In contrast, immersive theater offers something different. Unlike regional productions of Broadway hits, immersive productions often adapt to local environments in a way that feels authentic and special. In Seattle, the Satori Group staged We Remain Prepared in a century-old steam plant. In Nashville, a production called The World’s a Stage included a conventional production of the Shakespeare comedy Love’s Labor Lost, with the option for patrons to explore backstage during the performance and observe another layer of the drama in which actors played “themselves.”

“To my knowledge, it was the first immersive piece for Nashville on this scale,” said director Jim Manning, a set designer and theater instructor. “The line between reality and fiction got blurred for all of us—even me … I really appreciate the questions this twist on theater raises, and how it makes audiences ponder some of the conventions of theater.”

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The World's a Stage. Jessica Theiss and David Wilkerson. Photography by Jim Manning.

Occasionally, “immersive” can feel like a marketing term for a glorified form of dinner theater, as with Hollywood Premiere Party: The Show, opening in October 2016 in Los Angeles. This production takes the form of a premiere event for the rom-com parody Love & Waffles, and includes “hors d’oeuvres, dinner, dessert, non-alcoholic beverages, live music and full access to the gala.”

But in other cases, the genre is not only pushing artistic boundaries, but also engaging patrons who don’t relate to traditional theater. Welcome to Here, staged in Pittsburgh by the Bricolage Production Company, is designed to accommodate the needs of children with autistic spectrum disorders. Instead of a single point of focus, the production offers a “dream-like forest playground of sensory engagement.”

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Photography by Handerson Gomes
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Photography by Handerson Gomes
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Welcome to Here by Bricolage Production Company. Photography by Handerson Gomes

At its best, immersive theater is a fresh alternative to established theater conventions, and a premium experience that’s impossible to replicate at home. Demand for unique experiences goes far beyond traditional live-theater hubs, and these productions are showing that with a little creativity, they can work at scales far less overpowering than Sleep No More.

For more on immersion and fantasy, read our Unreality trend report.

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