A little while back, between lockdowns, K and I went out to see a twice rescheduled immersive theatre production Because The Night to celebrate our anniversary. It had been a very long while since we’d been to a theatre show. This one had been pretty much advertised in every 25-45 year old in Inner Melbourne’s Facebook and Instagram feeds in the months when it first opened - between early-2020 lockdowns. A number of friends and colleagues went to see in its early days but with our tickets rescheduled to late in the run, I was especially curious to see if it was better than early attendees had said.
A decade ago I was quite excited about what immersive theatre practices might offer museum exhibitions design - I wrote a couple of blogposts after I saw Punchdrunk’s Sleep No More in 2011 and 2012 and later Third Rail’s Then She Fell in 2013.
When Teatro de Los Sentidos came to Melbourne Festival in 2016 for a short run of their work The Echo of the Shadow it inspired some new thinking that went into ACMI’s Wonderland exhibition. It helped that Echo of the Shadow was staged in the same exhibition gallery space at ACMI and transformed it, complete with a lake (!!). It made staff reconsider what they thought was possible - admittedly with $200+ tickets, limited to under 1000 people, and undoubtedly subsidised to several times that ticket price being part of the festival - a lot suddenly becomes do-able. Melbourne, too, was once full of escape rooms and location based games in the time before COVID.
But back to Malthouse’s Because The Night. With its three word title, it’s Shakespeare adaptation, it’s Insta-focused advertising, a masked audience, and even critical plot moment with strobing light effects, the influence of Sleep No More was undeniable. When several of my friends went and reported back shortly after it opened they were disappointed - those who had actually experienced Sleep No More seemed more disappointed. But these sort of ambitious performances need to be supported.
Perhaps when K and I saw it the performers had grown more into their roles as it wasn’t as hammy as some had warned, and I was quite surprised by the way the spaces opened up mid way through - just as I was getting tired of moving through the ‘same old rooms’. The challenge with these sorts of performances is that it seems to be most effective when they are ‘guided’ or as we might say in videogames - ‘on rails’ - like Then She Fell (15 simultaneous audience members on 15 interwoven choreographed journeys through a spatial narrative) or The Echo of the Shadow (one audience member at a time on sequential journey of encounters with different performers and spaces). The alternative - in the case of Sleep No More - is to create such an enormous number of different spaces that the audience members find enough depth and detail in the sets that encounters with the ‘performed narrative’ are not essential to maintain a curiosity. It helps when you’ve been successful enough to buy the entire warehouse. Malthouse’s Because The Night felt comparatively spatially constrained, performers and audience moving through a smaller number of rooms - of Elsinore Castle - repeatedly over a 90 minute run time.
I have been watching R play a recent PlayStation game called Returnal. In videogame-speak it is a ‘rogue-like’, a game in which you play the same game loop over and over - like movies Groundhog Day or Edge of Tomorrow. In this type of game, your character’s skills and the player’s memory staying persistent for each repeating run so you as player and you as your on screen character get better at navigating the game world, and with more ‘abilities’ with each re-run. The player quickly makes a mental map of the space on their first run, then subsequent runs polish it off. Familiarity, in Returnal makes you a better player, and unlocks more of the secrets you missed on the earlier runs.
The challenge in an immersive theatre piece with a small set is that the audience member quickly becomes overly familiar with the set. They get around this in Sleep No More by the vastness of the warehouse it inhabits, and by the sheer volume and depth of props - and through tweaks that happen to the layout as time moves on throughout a performance. In Because The Night there seemed only to be one hidden space - a museum-like room of little ceramics. Interactive props were limited. And there were none of the one off intimate encounters between performer and select audience members that tended to be the envy of friends who had experimented Sleep No More without being drawn into an intimate one on one moment. Or for those who had a ‘different egg experience’ in The Echo of the Shadow.
Is this comparative flatness a just a result of a smaller budget? And less time?
On the Malthouse Theatre blog, David Harris who consulted on Because The Night, writes,
“The artist creates an impactful world for the audience, but the story and script is of the audience’s making. As artists making immersive theatre, the biggest challenge can be letting go of control. If you want to plan for everything, then just throw it on a traditional stage—most likely it’ll work better. But down here, audiences are our divers, and we can’t force them to swim in certain ways, float in awkward directions, turn their heads to watch certain fish. We are the coral growers, the fish breeders. We can cultivate currents in the water. Do our audiences swim through kelp forests? Or explore watery shipwrecks? To create good immersive theatre, we must break away from traditional storytelling practices, from the tyranny of watertight logic, and neat endings. To be immersed is to be submerged, and in that submersion, you must give up control, and let the audience show you the story.”
Submersion, immersion. These are not quick or cheap.
Back in the early 2010s a lot of us were excited about what immersive theatre might bring to exhibition design. At one point, early in the Cooper Hewitt project, several of us even thought about trying to collaborate with Punchdrunk instead of an exhibition designer. In 2015 I was excited to see that the National Maritime Museum in London did collaborate with them for an hour long children’s public program Against Captain’s Orders. Game designer Emily Short writes about her experience of it,
“Each room of this setting was so beautifully prepared. There were display cases and machines and shelves full of nautical objects; there were rolled maps, and globes hanging from the ceiling that flickered with inner light. There were bulletin boards covered with tacked photographs each labeled mysteriously in tiny script. Doors you got to see only for a few seconds in passing had comical names indicating what was stored inside. And then on top of all that, they’d done light design, sound effects, smoke, smells, even a stirring soundtrack for the most dramatic moments … Even the ceilings were often hung with hundreds of objects … I basically wanted to stop the show and get off: to forget the docent-guided search for McGuffins and the nominal plot; to let all the other people go on without me, and instead just hang out for half an hour in any of these rooms, poking through the drawers and reading all the signs and unfurling the furled maps and feeling the weight of the nautical instruments.”
The early 2010s moment of ‘immersive theatre and museum exhibition design’ thinking was happening just before ‘immersive entertainment museum-like experiences’ (Museum of Ice Cream etc) - and also before the mid-2010s wave of VR hit. These days, more than a decade later, I’m more skeptical of what this particular sort of spatial narrative storytelling offers museums. As I wrote back in 2013 after seeing Then She Fell,
“This points to a complex multi-linear narrative as opposed to the almost non-linearity of Sleep No More. No one can accidentally ‘miss everything’ as I’ve heard a few complain of the Sleep No More experience, and this makes it instantly rewarding for ‘all’. In museum terms, it means it is more like that private collection tour with a senior curator – which all museums have trouble ‘scaling up’.”
My memories of the rich multisensorial experiences that were Sleep No More, Then She Fell, and The Echo of the Shadow remain strong - particular scents, textures, sounds, one on one encounters. It is probably this multisensory element that museum designers have most to poach - sound, smell, touch are still far too rarely part of an exhibition. These are what create the stronger senses of immersion.
In the most recent Bandcamp Friday, Musicophillia gifted me a copy of Baltimore producer Infinite Knives’ 2018 album In The Mouth of Sadness. I would never have discovered this on my own! Its been on high rotation along with its follow-up, Dear, Sudan. Weaving between hip hop, electronics, ‘almost’ classical, and abstract ambient pieces, both albums flit between genres and micro-styles with magpie-ish delight. I have also been really enjoying Equiknoxx’s latest mixtape, Basic Tools, from Kingston - again, a magpie-like genre-breaking futuristic dancehall. Storm Saulter’s video for the slow, minimalist groove of the track Urban Snare Cypher is a lot of fun.
Kevin Martin’s new ambient album Melting Point is like a warm bath of sound - a far cry from his raucous and urgent work as The Bug. I think I could listen to the track Glisten on repeat for hours - its sub bass hum is so comforting right now. The Bug, too, has a new album out this week. The music video for the first single Pressure with Flowdan is brutal - again it is the sub bass where the action happens. The video almost forms a black & white trilogy with Skeng (2008), and Bad (2017). After that you’ll need to come down with the two independent compilations from Sydney. Oxtail Recordings’ Undercurrents opens with a splendid new track from Gentleforce, and is full of excellent tracks from local producers familiar and not - Lawrence English, raven, DEEP LEARNING. Midway through there’s a new blissful tonal experiment from Alexandra Spence, too. Spence also appears on Theory Therapy’s equally solid compilation of relaxed tunes Out of Season - compiled in Sydney but sourced globally. Its all very reminiscent of 1993-1995 ambient parties - a naive and simpler time.
That’s enough for now! This one was a bit shorter - and consequently is in your inbox sooner than expected. I must be procrastinating some other urgent task.