Inventors have been pushing the idea of immersion in theater for hundreds of years. In 1770, a man named Henry Dircks projected imagery onto billows of smoke that hovered over stage and audience.
What he created was a breathtaking illusion and the birth of Phantasmagoria — a sequence of real & imaginary images like those seen in a dream. For his day, Dircks created the new theater. And like all art forms, the “new” keeps evolving.
In 1862, John Henry Pepper brought a stage trick to the world that’s known as Pepper’s Ghost and it’s still used today in plays, theme parks, tv and movies.
This effect gives show-runners the ability to cast illusions of ghostly, half-opaque characters that interact with real objects and actors on stage.
The method for the effect was very simple. A sheet of glass at 45 degrees separated the audience from the stage while a lower, secondary, unlit room was reflected onto it. When the lower room was dark, the audience only saw the stage behind the glass, but when it was lit, an object or character became visible. For its time, this was the new theater!
We’re living in an incredible expansion of immersive art. Now more than ever, creators are funding their own ideas and breaking boundaries — from intimate theatre productions and escape rooms to large-scale virtual reality.
These days, the role of the audience member means as much or more than the actors or environments themselves. Theater no longer needs to be a passive experience and today we find the best of all worlds in escape rooms — interactive experiences that take the puzzling aspects found in video games and places them into real spaces. When sophistication of escape room puzzles and interactions evolve, simple combination locks become passé as designers utilize theatrical tricks, actors, and technology to advance storytelling.
Since the blending of immersive theater and social interactivity, real life issues are being explored as well. The New York show The Mortality Machine discusses the idea of what happens after death and allows participants to answer the question themselves.
At room escapes, we throw our personas to the wind and lean into new adventures. This morning you can be a detective while tomorrow night is up for grabs. If moviegoing is escapism, what is immersive theater which both demands so much from its audience and rewards even more?
My designer friend Tommy Honton has been creating immersive games and experiences since he was a child and his LA escape experience, Stash House, is the best you’ll ever see. As a matter of fact, it was just ranked 15th in the world and it’s not surprising. Tommy is a fascinating person and below are some of his thoughts on the future of this generation’s New Theater.
Don’t you think that immersive theater today is the wild, wild west of entertainment?
With immersive and interactive entertainment, we are in an untamed wild west of sorts. Creators are just starting to get their bearings and shape this space, but there’s a lot of experimentation and exploration left to go.
Just like the early days of any new medium, we can see influences from adjacent forms — like the way theater producers influenced the early days of film or radio. It was the same for VR and 3D film: the early days were plagued by people translating what they knew about 2D film and games. Content becomes more compelling once the strengths and weaknesses of the medium settle and creators are able to design in that space instead of trying to translate other experiences into it.
Why is Immersive Theater taking off right now — and why is it so important?
Interactive and immersive experiences have the potential to bring people together in powerful ways — and in this age where social connections are primarily through digital screens, human connections are more important than ever. The chance to be present and cooperate with people, even strangers, gives us emotional highs because we’re wired to be physically connected. These experiences trigger exciting dopamine and serotonin rushes in ways that traditional media can not.
Will immersive entertainment have longevity?
Of course! People who’ve had satisfying physical, interactive experiences leave wanting more. Immersive entertainment moves, entertains, and connects unlike any other medium. Large companies like Disney, are just now dipping their toes into the sphere with projects like Galaxy’s Edge and The Void. Their Star Wars themed areas of their parks is a clue that they see this as the future. As soon as one company realizes that this isn’t just a short-lived gimmick, other companies will follow.
This may seem like I’m stroking your ego — but I believe that your 49 Boxes is one of the most beautiful immersive experiences in the world. It’s the only one I know of that can engage 50+ people at the same time while everyone works toward a singular goal. The places you’ve presented the show at: The Houdini Estate, The Magic Castle, Brookledge, Two Bit Circus, mausoleums and mansions — it’s staggering.
I firmly believe that as long as high-end theater like this continues to be made, there is a great road ahead of us.
What are some mistakes being made now?
Most creators focus on slick physical sets and flashy new technologies but cheap out when it comes to story design. When this happens the experience will always fall flat.
Unlimited resources and a clever hook will never take the place of content that draws you in a world and keeps you there.
What about the future of escape rooms?
My fear is that escape rooms in general have and will be become more stagnant and formulaic. The walls need to completely come down between all forms of entertainment so creators can truly innovate when it comes to physical interaction, game mechanics, and storytelling. There are a few companies leading the way here in California like Cross Roads, Evil Genius, Arcane, and Steal and Escape. And in Houston, there’s an incredible company called Strange Bird.
Tomorrow’s new theater
But really, I think it’s going to be about bucking the term “escape room” and changing the paradigm completely.
The New Theater will continue to evolve, but at its core, the inner child in all of us just wants to hear a story before being tucked into bed.
Humans have loved storytelling and going on adventures for millenia. The only difference between a bard reciting an epic poem and a movie or show on Broadway today is how the story is told. In the end, Immersive and interactive experiences are simply tools and the ability to make a guest a part of the story makes it infinitely richer.