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Musings — Immersion v. aesthetic distance: the case of WET.

Updated: Jun 17, 2018

Praneet Akilla and Genevieve Fleming. Image by Matt Reznek.

Wet — an immersive play at The Russian Hall

Alex Lazaridis Ferguson

Immersive theatre — theatre where the audience is right inside the performance apparatus — has become an enduring genre in world theatre over the past couple of decades. It has a number of lineages including “happenings” in the art world of the 1960s, environmental theatre of the same era, and the kind of installation art that encourages a patron to become physically absorbed in a constructed setting. Sometimes these settings are made in art galleries, sometimes they are site specific. Many theatre and dance artists create immersive performances. These days there are textbooks like Immersive Theatre available for study.

Immersive performance is something I spend a lot of time thinking and reading about, attending, and creating through Fight With a Stick, the company I run with Steven Hill.

Immersive theatre sometimes falls into the general category of postdramatic theatre, theatre that isn’t created from a dramatic script. Often postdramatic theatre doesn’t feature actors playing characters, and isn’t built around a dramatic narrative. More often than not there is no easily discernible narrative at all.

Wet, staged by Itsazoo at The Russian Hall in May, does not fall into postdramatic territory. It’s an immersive play that is very much a staging of a dramatic script, albeit in an unconventional setting. This got me thinking about the differences and similarities between plays that are performed on stages — at a distance from the audience — and immersive plays. What are the advantages and disadvantages of turning a conventional play that was written for the stage into a ‘surround’ experience?

Wet was performed in the basement of the Hall. The logic for this is in the script. The story takes place in the basement suite of a house in Chilliwack, except for the first few scenes which take place in an army tent in Afghanistan.

At the beginning I travel with the audience from the main floor lobby to the basement and into a beautifully created army tent that surrounds me on every side. There’s even a canvass lean-to tent-top above my head. I take one of the chairs placed along the walls and chat with a friend. I notice the smell of canvas. The dialogue begins. It comes at a rapid pace and there aren’t a lot of pauses. Because of this the room itself, the thing that surrounds me and makes the experience potentially multi-sensory and immersive, doesn’t get much of a chance to assert itself. It does what most theatre sets do: it remains a backdrop, there to support to the psychological and physical action of the characters.

There are some advantages and disadvantages to the situation. I’m about as close to the action as I can get, so there is potential for feeling the performers very intimately. This does happen. I feel their fleshy presence, the fullness of their voices, the particularities of their expressions, gestures, and movements. But the intensity of the acting tends to obscure the potential effect of the set that surrounds me. And when the shouting starts I want to plug my ears and withdraw into myself. I no longer have the kind of aesthetic distance that might allow me to remain open, as in a conventional stage performance. So maybe, in this case, the immersive closeness is working against the script.

The play is also written with scene breaks that are handled with conventional blackouts — which seems a bit out of place in this context. I start to wonder why this play isn’t on stage where it seems to belong. As I said earlier, the set, lights, and sound are simply serving the dramatic action as they do in a staged play. So why put it in the basement of The Russian Hall?

After a few scenes, we are led down a dark hallway, and into another room. This one is convincingly dressed up as a low-rent basement suite. Again I take a chair along one of the walls. In this room a traumatized, disabled soldier from the Afghanistan war will play out a psycho-drama with her husband. Perhaps if this had been a real basement in a real house in Chilliwack I might have felt more of the low level dread of the situation. But the Russian Hall has recently been upgraded, and the set, even though beautifully composed to look dilapidated, comes across as a really nicely constructed theatre set.

The blackouts between scenes make me acutely aware that I’m watching fiction, as does the fact that characters can exit through a door at one end (supposedly leading into a bathroom), and suddenly appear through a door at the other end (leading to ‘outside’). Again the dialogue is rapid-fire and the actors perform at a high emotional pitch throughout. So the experience comes at me hard. There isn’t a lot of opportunity to feel the environment.

Immersive theatre has become a kind of value unto itself. It tends to mean ‘more alive,’ ‘more immediate,’ more ‘multi-sensory,’ or just ‘better.’ In the early days, in both the visual art and theatre worlds, it offered an alternative to standing or sitting at a distance from the art work or performance and becoming an interpreter of its meaning. Because these arts, in their more traditional forms, are representational — a painting depicting a person or landscape, an actor portraying a character — the spectator is meant to look beyond the surface for meaning. On the other hand, art ‘happenings,’ and environmental and immersive theatres trade in sensory affect: ‘meaning’ is to be found in the immediacy of sensation. Immersive plays like Wet try to have it both ways. They are still interpretive exercises that ask things like, “What are the socio-political implications of this narrative,” but the immersive situation is supposed to intensify the feeling component of my interpretation. It can be done. But, in my opinion, in order for it to be done successfully the conventional dialogue component of an immersive play has to be reduced in order to let the environment (set, lights, sound, etc.) perform, to let environment become a meaning-maker itself, and not just background for the dramatic action.

Wet and some other attempts at turning stage plays into immersive theatre that I’ve seen recently remind me of the value of a brilliant plays performed in conventional theatres, plays with scintillating dialogue and riveting acting. Admittedly this isn’t a common occurrence, but when such a rarity comes along, the power of aesthetic distance, the kind of distance that allows me to fully relax and let the event reach into me, can feel more immersive than immersive theatre.

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