This list of structures covers the different forms immersive theatre can take, as well as some other forms that are sometimes confused for immersives. I hope this list is useful to critics as well as creators; the more accurately we can describe a production, the more the immersive genre can learn and grow. I have tried not to create my own terms, but a few of these don’t have canonical names yet. These terms are marked below as *original.
Know of a structure not listed here? Please, contact me! My knowledge is limited, and critics are chronically unhelpful in describing the basics of how a show functioned.
Let’s start with defining our genre…
A genre of performance that plunges the audience into a story-experience that requires their activity. A work of immersive theatre should satisfy the following criteria:
1) The space surrounds the audience with the world of the story. Performers and audience inhabit the same playing space.
2) The audience is active.
3) It needs to be theatre: live performers telling a story.
Ideally, an immersive theatre production provides its audiences with individualized experiences, such that they will swap stories afterwards, but this is not required.
Read this post for more on my definition of immersive theatre.
Immersive Theatre Structures
Please note that these structures are not mutually exclusive. Many shows employ multiple forms. For example, Third Rail Projects’s The Grand Paradise had designated moments of sandbox book-ending the more dominant structure of dark ride, within which one-on-ones appeared.
ARG (Alternative Reality Game)
A genre unto itself, an ARG takes place in the real world, both online and on the streets. Participants engage in different activities and investigations to uncover “the true reality” hidden beneath their everyday world. Sometimes the storyworld responds to their actions. ARGs can continue for years or be a one-off experience. If live actors are involved, then the ARG is also immersive theatre.
Examples: The Jejune Institute, The Tension Experience ARG
An immersive experience that meets criteria #1 and #2, but does not feature live actors. The story is told via audio/visuals (often actors were involved at some point), with activity required of the audience-participants. You may also choose to call these more simply “immersive art.” (*Original term)
Examples: Meow Wolf’s House of Eternal Return, Scout Expedition Co’s The Nest, Remote X, anything VR
The audience is “on rails,” like in an amusement park vehicle. The audience has no choice as to where to go or what to see, but you are present in other ways in the performance. Dark rides come dangerously close to promenade theatre, but here the performers do not ignore the audience, and the audience does more than watch. It can involve some stunning amounts of mix-mastering audience segments, dividing and uniting individuals and groups in unexpected ways. Dark ride is the structure favored by Third Rail Projects. If a haunted house tells a story enough to qualify as theatre and involves the audience enough to qualify as immersive, then its structure is a dark ride immersive.
Examples: Third Rail Projects (specifically: Then She Fell, The Grand Paradise, Sweet & Lucky, and Ghost Light)
A genre unto itself, an escape room is a timed gaming experience for a small number of participants (typically 2-12). The team must solve a series of puzzles and tasks within a designed space in order to achieve a set goal, e.g. getting the key to escape the room. A typical escape room offers a theme or scenario like “Escape the Serial Killer,” but some games go beyond scenario into storytelling. Actors are rare in escape rooms, and when present, they most often serve in a game-mastering (rather than a storytelling) role, but a few escape rooms integrate actors and story in a form that is recognizably immersive theatre.
Examples: Paradiso, Strange Bird Immersive’s The Man From Beyond
Inspired by the video game known as “walking simulators” (Gone Home, Firewatch), an explored space invites you into a complex set with the goal of uncovering a story. Unlike escape rooms, explored spaces do not have a win/loss component, but may use gating techniques and light puzzles to pace out the story or to reward the most curious. Easily combines with A/V Immersives, but could feature live actors. (*Original term)
Examples: Scout Expedition Co.’s The Nest, Meow Wolf’s House of Eternal Return
Features one actor sharing an experience with one audience member. It’s typically short but very intense and intimate. It’s laser-focused on relationship. It can be a monologue, conversation, and/or activity. You’ll often encounter one-on-ones inside larger structures like dark ride or sandbox.
Examples: Annie Lesser’s A(Partment 8), Punchdrunk’s The Yellow Wallpaper
A series of one-on-one experiences strung together to make a larger experience. The pipeline runs the audience member through different vignettes or scenarios, sometimes seemingly unrelated—but they could be related more directly. It is pipelined to maximize through-put, with an actor or actors in charge of specific zones. On the participant side, it may not be just one individual, but a small group or team that journeys through the scenes together, as in Accomplice. (*Original term)
Examples: You Me Bum Bum Train, Accomplice, Houseworld, Screenshot Productions’s Fear is What We Learned Here
The world of the production is open access. Audiences can choose what to see and do within the space, acting as their own camera or protagonist. The primary activity is in the constant choice of where to go, so there is often a strong aspect of more-passive “witnessing” in the actor-audience relationship, although some sandboxes may allow audience choices to alter the story. To control the chaos inside a sandbox show, designers often choose a means of delineating the audience from the performers, via masks, necklaces, or other visual tokens. (This term is appropriated from video games.)
Examples: Punchdrunk’s Sleep No More, The Speakeasy SF
Immersive theatre likes to mess around with time. Here are some of the ways the audience can progress through the story…
Linear: the story progresses from A to Z, once a performance. To maximize profits, linear experiences that don’t allow freedom of movement (sandbox) can be pipelined, with multiple groups inside the story at the same time but never meeting. (Example: Paradiso)
Cyclical: the story progresses from A to Z back to A through Z again, cycling through the story 2 or 3 times. You will often hear about “reset”—the point when the story begins again—in a cyclical immersive. This style is common in sandbox shows, where audiences are not given any guidance through the story, and so have to fight harder to piece together what’s happening. It also has the advantage of offering you the chance to make a different choice (like to follow a different character) when the same departure-point reappears. Look for changes subtle and not so subtle between cycles, as playful creators may sneak-in extra meaning for those watching closely. (Example: Punchdrunk’s Sleep No More, which technically cycles 2.5 time, neither starting the show at the true beginning, nor closing at the true end).
Nonlinear: in immersive theatre, nonlinear shows go beyond presenting the story out of chronological order. Often audiences will experience the story in totally different orders from each other, thus allowing for simultaneous use of space instead of pipelining. If you return to a nonlinear dark ride immersive, you are likely to get a different ordering of scenes. (Examples: Third Rail Projects)
Episodic: like television, episodic immersives tell stand-alone-stories that culminate in a larger arc, encouraging audiences to catch every episode. Companies often mount one episode at a time, so the entire show requires multiple evenings, sometimes with months in-between. (Examples: The Speakeasy Society’s The Kansas Collection, The Speakeasy Society’s The Johnny Cycle)
Other Theatre Structures (sometimes confused with immersives)
Theatre that takes place in a non-theatrical venue, like a restaurant or hotel rooftop pool. Site-specific shows integrate with the unique features of the space, such that moving it to a different location would at least require new staging. Designers can stick to the venue’s architecture as-is or launch on an impressive build-out within it. This is the genre most often confused with immersive theatre, as immersive theatre rarely takes place in a traditional venue. But site-specific does not imply any audience activity or that the performers share the same playing space as the audience; this term describes the space, not the form.
Examples: Sweeney Todd in Harrington’s Pie Shop
Audiences witness different scenes in different locations in a linear order via a guide. The performers will maintain a fourth wall—ignoring the audience and maintaining a separate playing space. This style is easily confused for immersive theatre, as without the guide, it becomes sandbox, and without the fourth wall, it becomes dark ride—both immersive. Promenade is by definition also site-specific, since you can’t walk the audience about in seated theatre.
Examples: We Players’ Macbeth at Fort Point, The Exquisite Corpse Company’s The Enchanted Realm of René Magritte
THEATRE IN THE ROUND
Audiences are seated along the perimeter of a playing space where all of the performance occurs. Actors have to perform to 360-degrees. The set in the middle will not have any walls.
Examples: Fun Home (Broadway incarnation)
THEATRE IN THE SURROUND*
The world of the show surrounds the audience, and performers appear in and around the audience. Audiences will need to swivel in their seats in all directions to catch what’s going on. Theatre in the surround features a more elaborate build-out than theatre in the round, so that audiences feel more like “they’re there,” even though they remain passive observers. (*Original term)
Example: Pierre, Natasha, and the Great Comet of 1812
A performance that to varying degrees breaks the fourth wall and involves the audience. Audience members may be asked questions from their seats, pulled up on stage, or constantly participating in the story as in immersive theatre. Interactive theatre isn’t all immersive theatre, but all immersive theatre is interactive. (Read this piece on why I don’t like replacing “immersive” with “interactive” to describe the genre.)
Example: Shear Madness, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, some kids theatre, murder-mystery-dinner theatre, immersive theatre
Your butt is in a seat, and you’re watching a show. Performers are in a space separate and apart from you, and you are not bodily present in the world. Also known as “traditional theatre.”
Examples: almost every play you’ve ever seen