During my time in New York, whenever I’d meet with artistic partners of mine, there was this unsolvable question that would crop up. We’d be out for drinks, the conversation would drift from personal updates to Walking Dead updates and then eventually roll into talking shop. These discussions usually started with one of us trying to troubleshoot some issue: a scene that was falling flat, a space that could not be found, some funds that could not be raised. We’d throw out solutions. Some were good solutions, some were garbage solutions, but we made some progress and had a good time in doing so. Then someone would ask:
“What the hell do we call what we do?”
Ugh. We’d all get real contemplative for long, long time.
Some background. We have a name issue in our industry. There are two buzzwords currently spinning around the theater scene: interactive and immersive. However, depending on who it is you are speaking to, they are either completely different things, they mean exactly the same thing, or they’ve been combined into a freaky fun “intermersive” chimera thing. There is no universal agreement, other than that getting terminology straight can be an awful headache.
So, let’s get the terminology straight!
Immersive theater is an experience that brings the audience into the same playing space as the performers, physically breaking the “fourth wall” that divides them. Immersive theater can also be interactive, but it does not have to be.
Interactive theater is an experience in which the performers break the “fourth wall” verbally or non-verbally. Interactive theater can also be immersive, and much of it is, but it does not have to be.
Great. Easy. That’s figured out.
Except, and I’m really sorry about this, it gets complicated. Take a closer look at the word “interactive.” Interactive theater is on a spectrum. Any performance in which the performers engage the audience is technically interactive. No parts of the spectrum are inherently better or worse, but they all use interactivity to a different effect.
On one end, you have passive experiences with performer-driven interactive moments. Stand-up, for example. The audience members are passive observers, interruptions by them are generally considered to be in poor form, but the performer is free to break the “fourth wall” and interact at any time. The strength of this art form is that it gives the audience the thrill of being personally engaged, but the performer maintains absolute control. The drawback is, well, the interactive element is more of a garnish than a focal point.
Then, you have passive experiences with limited audience-driven interactivity. Sleep No More is possibly the best-known example. Performers will physically and verbally engage audience members, but audience members are otherwise encouraged to be passive observers, separated by masks. They are not active participants in the story. The strength of this form is that it gives the audience a feeling of having no divide between themsleves and the story’s characters, while still keeping a tight control over the narrative. The drawback is that audiences have no input, other than to choose what characters to follow. Sleep No More would be considered a prime example of immersivity, but is limited in its interactivity.
Now, here’s where things get iffy. I’ll touch more on that later.
Next, you have audience-driven experiences with rigid structures. J&K 1965 by Live In Theater was comprised of connected improvised scenes in which audience members played key roles and had the freedom to play as they wanted. However, the overarching story was always the same. The strength of this form is that it allows audiences to play hard, but it gives a director narrative control. Audiences can engage with, befriend, or become enemies with characters in the story, and characters will respond accordingly. This gives the audience a sense of agency. Even if the story is predetermined, they feel responsible for its outcome. The drawback is that actors in these productions require highly specific training, and audiences generally need to be smaller for them to get the full experience.
Finally, you have adaptable audience-driven experiences. The Interactive PlayLab’s StoryBox is built specifically for this. The audience member is free to play however they wish, and the overall story will adapt to their choices. The strength of this form is the unrivaled freedom it gives the participant, and the feeling of truly being central to the narrative. The drawback is, again, actors need highly specific training and audience sizes can often be no bigger than one or two participants.
That’s the interactive spectrum, ranging from a stand-up comedian riffing on a heckler’s comments to a single audience member with enormous freedom in a story crafted just for them. There are outliers, of course, but that should give you an idea of just how broad the term “interactive” is.
Now, remember when I said that things get iffy? That’s because, in our work at the Interactive Deep Dive, and among my drinking buddies at the beginning of this article, we have a completely different definition of “interactive.” What we call “interactive” is really “interactive narrative.” Meaning, the audience and the performers co-create a narrative together. Under that definition, the examples of stand-up and Sleep No More, while awesome, don’t qualify. If the audiences are cut off from impacting the story, it’s not our version of “interactive.”
So stand-up and Sleep No More are interactive, but they aren’t “interactive.” While we are at it, smartphones and Playstations are interactive, but they aren’t “interactive.”
So, what the hell do we call what we do?
Ugh, yeah, I don’t have an answer. Fortunately, I’m not alone. Over the past four years working in this field I’ve met artists working all across the interactive spectrum doing some remarkable work. I have no doubt that, as this art form continues to develop and enter the mainstream consciousness, new terms will emerge as well.
But, until then, it’s Interactive. If you are unsure what it is, the best way to learn is to try it and find out.
PS: Just remember not to confuse it with immersive. Don’t worry, it happens a lot. See above article.