At the top of Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812, the cast bursts into the vodka den of the Imperial Theatre—in the mezzanine, on the staircases, up from the sunken living room style pit, onto the in-the-round stage, atop the platformed aisles weaving through the orchestra. The actors gaze into the eyes of audience members. They whoop “Urrah!" the Russian battle cry and shout “Who wants a dumpling?”
Tossing individually boxed warm Samovar pirogues to seatfillers in all corners of the theatre, they welcome the audiences as friends. It’s intimate and personal from the first moment. “In a really joyful way, the audience excitedly gets in on the action,” says The Great Comet’s director Rachel Chavkin. “We are priming them for the show’s culture which demands that they look everywhere, be engaged and game for the crazy rollercoaster of this melodrama happening 360 degrees around them. The dumplings are a spiritual shortcut for making friends.”
That playful interaction continues throughout The Great Comet. In fact, more and more, creators on and Off-Broadway forego traditional proscenium presentations for an immersive experience, where the playspace extends past the footlights. “With Comet going to Broadway, there is a new frontier where this kind of theatre is breaking into the commercial sphere in a way that it hasn’t before,” says Sammi Cannold who is an associate director on The Great Comet and directed the riveting production of Violet on a moving bus that played Boston’s A.R.T. earlier this month. “It’s not just in experimental theatre.” Theatregoers clamor for this less conventional approach. And as ticketbuyers make their voices heard at the box office, writers and directors embrace the leeway; what was once unheard of is now in-demand.
Cannold sees the explosion of immersive theatre in the last ten years, especially with Sleep No More, The Donkey Show, Here Lies Love, and Broadway’s Rocky (which moved the audience during intermission to accommodate a fighting ring in the middle of the orchestra for Act 2).
The young director defines the immersive genre as theatre that changes the relationship with the audience. In her Violet, actors maneuver around the audience on a 37-seat bus which travels around the city of Cambridge, stopping at various locations in Violet’s world. It’s a beautiful mirror for the show’s story about a woman with a disfiguring scar who travels cross-country on a bus to be healed.
For Barrow Street Theatre’s current Off-Broadway production of Sweeney Todd, Simon Kenny modeled the set after London’s Harrington’s Pie and Mash Shop, where the production originated. Audience members sit at long communal tables as the actors scoot into the booths and climb onto tables.
But immersive theatre isn’t a gimmick. “People are interested in an increasingly authentic experience,” says Chavkin. “Breaking that fourth wall gives the audience a heightened be-with-me experience.”
These creatives chalk it up to the desire to connect on a deeper level. “The moments when we look one another in the eyes and say things are becoming fewer and far between,” explains Cannold.
For actors, immersive theatre requires new skills. “It’s important to be really playful and present, to be able to read the audience, react off of them, and be a really good listener,” says Alex Finke, who plays Johanna in Sweeney Todd. “At the audition they threw a lot of material at us very quickly and the material is really difficult. I think they were seeing who’s down to play, who was up for the challenge.”
Doing this kind of theatre in a larger Broadway theatre versus a more intimate venue can also up the ante. The Great Comet had 500 seats at Ars Nova, they now have 1,200 at the renovated Imperial. But Chavkin took great effort to make the mezzanine feel included and places actors there throughout the production. “Every single seat experiences the core story,” says Chavkin. “We make sure people in the back corners of the mezzanine get dumplings. They also have very unique and cared for experience. That kind of democracy of not just supporting people who can get premium tickets was very important to me, [composer] Dave [Malloy] and our producers.”
For Violet the experience will be different if you’re sitting next to Violet versus at the back of the bus. Nevertheless, the payoff of this rich production lies in its coziness. “Although everybody is not having the same experience, they’re having an equally transcendent and informative one,” explains Cannold. Still, it proves the feeling generated my immersive theatre isn’t limited to certain scale of production—it’s the form itself.
“Every time you tell a story you form a community and mutually share in it,” says Finke. “But to be so close and see how it’s affecting the audience and react off that feels like a living and breathing thing. It’s beautiful.”