In an increasingly consumer-centric world, arts practitioners are constantly rising to the challenge of providing an enhanced customer experience. In the theatre industry, one response to a desire for more engaging art is the rise in immersive theatre. This style of theatre proposes that the consumer is no longer a mere spectator of the performance, but an integral part of its functioning. In immersive theatre spectators become spect-actors, a term originated by Augusto Boal in which audience members are empowered to break away from the passivity of spectatorship (Taylor 80).
The key factor in achieving this empowerment lies in the staging of the immersive piece, largely because staging is often what makes a production immersive (Homan 9). The dominant paradigm of modern theatre distances the audience from the action, rendering them voyeurs to the story (Neher 108). This convention establishes a psychological distance that restricts audiences from fully experiencing the story (Markusen and Brown 880). In immersive theatre the physical, and therefore psychological, distance is removed; many productions require audience members to move throughout the set to experience the show. By placing an audience inside the action, production designers can mold the audience experience in new and innovative ways.
There is no one show that encapsulates the role of immersive staging in heightening the customer experience quite like Punchdrunk’s Sleep No More, the veritable crown jewel of immersive theatre. This London-based theatre company’s adaptation of Macbeth is currently performed across the seven floors of the McKittrick Hotel in New York City, which patrons are encouraged to explore at their leisure. While this “hotel” has its own lore within the world of the play, it is in reality an old warehouse that has been converted to serve as a massive multilayered set (Koumarianos and Silver 168).
The staging of this show across the various floors of the hotel is so impactful because it creates a sort of “liminal space” that draws the audience members into the narrative of the story (Koumarianos and Silver 169). Audience members feel detached from the passage of time outside of the world of the performance and are encouraged to operate solely in the “here-and now” of the narrative. This sensation of liminality is crafted by the material makeup of the space which creates a “time drag” effect (Giesler). Physical elements of the set such as layout and lighting choices seemingly elongate the passage of time, encouraging patrons to slow down and take in more of the story. Sleep No More attendee Julia Ritter’s recollection of her experience entering a performance perfectly encapsulates this time drag effect:
My eyes struggle to find light and my body slows down further as I reach out for guidance and find walls covered in soft fabric. Just as the corridor feels interminable, the sounds of a spirited jazz combo break through the baleful music and a new reality emerges. (Ritter 60)
Each element of the staging, the dim lighting, the velvet walls, and even the soundscape encouraged Ritter to physically slow down, all while establishing the in-world reality. With this staging technique hours can pass by unnoticed as patrons wander the abandoned hotel seeking out plot threads to build a larger narrative.
The end result of this immersion? A significant emotional investment in the show. Fans of the Sleep No More take on an identity in relation to the show, referring to themselves as “insomniacs” and returning for repeat performances despite high ticket costs (Flaherty 136). Should future theatre practitioners incorporate elements of these staging techniques into their own productions, they too can craft a consumer experience that keeps arts patrons coming back for more.
Koumarianos, Myrto, and Cassandra Silver. “Dashing at a Nightmare: Haunting Macbeth in ‘Sleep No More.’” TDR (1988-), vol. 57, no. 1, 2013, pp. 167–75.
Flaherty, Jennifer. “Dreamers and Insomniacs: Audiences in ‘Sleep No More’ and ‘The Night Circus.’” Comparative Drama, vol. 48, no. 1/2, 2014, pp. 135–54.
Giesler, Markus. "Space/Time." MKTG 6800: Customer Experience Design, Schulich School of Business, 4 Oct. 2023, Toronto.
Ritter, Julia M. “Fandom and Punchdrunk’s Sleep No More: Audience Ethnography of Immersive Dance.” TDR (1988-), vol. 61, no. 4, 2017, pp. 59–77.
Markusen, Ann, and Alan Brown. “From Audience to Participants: New Thinking for the Performing Arts.” Análise Social, vol. 49, no. 213, 2014, pp. 866–83.
Homan, Sidney. “Introduction: ‘What Have You Learned Today?’” Comparative Drama, vol. 48, no. 1/2, 2014, pp. 1–11.
Taylor, Diana, and Abigail Levine. “Spect-Actors.” Performance, Duke University Press, 2016, pp. 73–88. JSTOR, https://doi.org/10.2307/j.ctv11smgbg.7.
Neher, Erick. “The New Immersive Theater.” The Hudson Review, vol. 69, no. 1, 2016, pp. 108–14.