immersive theater
Immersive Theater

We live in a world of constant distractions, of sensory overload. Your phone buzzes, and – snap – your short-fuse concentration is broken; you’ve stopped listening and you’ve stopped watching what’s ahead of you. Grabbing people’s attention, and holding onto it, is a challenge theater directors are finally taking on. The fourth wall is being broken down brick by brick, as more and more plays are being produced which use innovative, immersive and interactive ways to shake their audience out of their stupor.

Some of the works really do involve being pushed around. One example is 66 Minutes in Damascus, by site specific theater company Hydrocracker. In 2012 the basement of Shoreditch Town Hall was taken over by Hydrocracker, who converted the space into a mockup of a Syrian prison. Men with guns opened the show, shoving the audience and placing hoods over their heads – the paying guests became British tourists in Damascus, caught by Assad’s loyalists.

Immersive Theater

Also uncomfortable, but on a different level, is Hula House. At this year’s Edinburgh Fringe the general public are invited into an intimate living room space occupied by actors playing female sex workers. Developed with the English Collective of Prostitutes (ECP), a campaign group for sex workers, it’s an interactive piece where the two women play sexually provocative games in an attempt to challenge the audience’s preconceptions about the trade.

Mock executions might not be your cup of tea, but luckily there’s a great variety of immersive theater. Some of it’s even suitable for children. We’ve rounded up five of the best companies worldwide:

1. Punchdrunk

Immersive Theater

Punchdrunk are the Godfather of immersive theater. They’re one of the oldest players in the game – founded in 2000 – and they’re also one of the most prolific. Although they mostly operate in the United Kingdom, Punchdrunk have put on sell-out shows in Boston and New York. The set up usually involves the audience entering into rooms and spaces where stories are played out in front of them (the onus is then on the spectator to piece together the narrative). This summer they’ve been busy entertaining the young with Against Captain’s Orders at London’s National Maritime Museum. In NYC, you can enter a makeshift hotel for a macabre rendition of Macbeth in Sleep No More.

2. dreamthinkspeak

Immersive Theater

Formed in 1999 and the most international of the big names, dreamthinkspeak have lifted the figurative curtain in Australia, Holland, Japan, Moscow, South Korea and the UK. The company are known for their “site-responsive” work, for example their work “One Day, Maybe” was inspired by the Gwangju Uprising and performed in an abandoned South Korean school. Expect a mixture of live performance, film and installations. Shoreditch Town Hall has become a popular place for immersive plays, and dreamthinkspeak are showing their latest work in the former council chambers until October.

3. Wilderness

Immersive Theater

The Los Angeles-based outfit Wilderness are part of the new generation of theater companies. Founded in 2011, they’re already piquing a fair amount of interest. Like many of their contemporaries, they draw heavily on the classics in drafting their work. The Day Shall Declare It, which opened in February this year, used Tennessee Williams’ writing with words by an oral historian, patched together into a fragmented and sometimes contradictory narrative.

4. RIFT_

Immersive Theater

Londoners RIFT_ have a small but promising portfolio, with their most recent play – Styx – gaining considerable traction. Styx was built from the ground up: in an old warehouse a labyrinth of rooms, a river and a bridge were constructed by hand. Participants (a more suitable descriptor than audience) were stroked, cajoled and blindfolded. RIFT_ will be running the Shakespeare in Shoreditch festival until October.

5. Third Rail Projects

Immersive Theater

Third Rail Projects are a site-specific, immersive and experiential dance-theater company. The critically acclaimed ‘Then She Fell’ is currently showing in Brooklyn. It’s an intimate experience, with just 15 audience members per show, and draws heavily on the writings of Lewis Carroll. Particularly appealing is the fact the experience includes ‘elixirs’ made by one of the city’s best mixologists.  You just have to hope the potions don’t operate like in Alice in Wonderland. It’s staged in a creepy old institutional facility so you’ll want to be the right size to get out of the door and leave after the show’s over.

What’s your favorite immersive theater experience? Please share in the comments below.

By Jo Eckersley

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Jo Eckersley

Jo is a British freelance writer who has lived in five cities over the last five years, most recently Sri Lanka. Interested in politics, travel, activism and culture, her work has appeared in The New Internationalist, Time Out Sri Lanka and The Big Issue North. You can read more at, or get in touch via Twitter @joeckersley.

Jo Eckersley

Jo is a British freelance writer who has lived in five cities over the last five years, most recently Sri Lanka. Interested in politics, travel, activism and culture, her work has appeared in The New Internationalist, Time Out Sri Lanka and The Big Issue North. You can read more at, or get in touch via Twitter @joeckersley.

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  1. You have completely missed out You Me Bum Bum Train!! A HUGE success!

    1. @Nice! Will have to check this out!

    2. I think that might have been intentional. YMBB are extremely explorative of their actors and sub directors. No pay across the board yet £50+ for a ticket. Horrific.

  2. Punchdrunk “introduced” me to immersive theatre with The Drowned Man. I went numerous times. Have been to various immersive and site-specific shows since including Sleep no more, Then She Fell, Dr. Leon – Neural Enhancement, Shelter me, Instructionally invited, Against Captain’s Orders and others.
    My favourite remains The Drowned Man followed by Sleep no more. So far no one has been able to beat Punchdrunk for me when it comes to truly immersing the audience into the show.

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