Immersive experiences: the good, the bad, and the disappointing 

Firstly let me declare something, I absolutely love immersive experiences. I just do. I love the way they can transport you to an entirely new world, truly providing a sense of escapism — allowing you, for a short time, to completely forget the trials and tribulations of the real world.

Over the years I have been blessed to see/participate (for these are participatory events) in immersive experiences created by companies such as Punchdrunk, The London Vaults, You Me Bum Bum Train, Secret Cinema, The Department and Teamlab. All visionary companies leading the way in this growing field, each producing work that is distinctly different.

However, over the last few years, I have increasingly seen the term ‘Immersive Experience’ used to describe a growing gamut of events, with varying levels of actual immersiveness. This has led me to ponder what is it that defines the difference between the good, the bad and the downright disappointing? As the founder of Luzidlab, a company that I hope will follow in the footsteps of the visionary entities, here are a few thoughts on the subject.

teamLab Borderless Exhibition

First, the good

Punchdrunk Theatre are the masters of the art form, they have been producing ground-breaking work since 2000. They are incredible at creating entire landscapes, worlds within worlds, each a work of art in itself with the kind of set and lighting design that leaves you in wonder at such creativity. The worlds are second only to the brilliant performances staged within them, from Faust to the Mask of the Red Death, to the Drowning Man and even the part show/part art exhibition Tunnel 28. Each left me exhilarated and in awe of the spectacle achieved.

What Punchdrunk do so well is they take the traditional notion of a theatrical experience and push it to its very limits. When you go to a Punch Drunk show, you will see a show, one that will have a narrative arc. A show that will move you, you will be entertained. However, beyond that – you will also be surprised at the skill and creativity used to bring the show to life in a way that is truly impossible to explain in this short blog. Other than to say, you will never, ever forget it. If you can get a ticket to a Punchdrunk show, any punchdrunk show, grab it.

You Me Bum Bum Train 

Where Punchdrunk excel at producing otherworldly spectacles and filling them with engaging stories, the team behind the wonderfully and crazily titled You Me Bum Bum Train, (hence further referred to as YMBBT) are masters at recreating the real world and then flipping the audience’s experience of it on its head. It’s very difficult to explain how a YMBBT show works, but what I can tell you is this: they have mastered a new theatrical format, in which the traditional ticket paying audience is broken down into individuals and then each one of them is placed at the heart of many shows. Each literally becomes the star of their very own show, supported by the cast. An audience member at a YMBTT show will throughout an evening live many lives, inhabit many characters and direct hundreds of performers. Yet each will have had a unique adventure. It is truly an out of body experience. Like Punchdrunk, their shows are distinctly unparalleled. The attention to detail and pure audacity of the company in how they approach staging a show is remarkable.

Again, if you can get a ticket to a YMBBT show, which is very very difficult to do, pay whatever you can for it. It will be worth it, you will have your world completely turned upside down.

You Me Bum Bum Train
You Me Bum Bum Train

The bad

I have seen various attempts at self-proclaimed ‘Immersive shows’ which really were just variations on the same theme, i.e. attempts at removing the barrier between the performers and the audiences by placing the actors in or around the public. Then trying, at various points, to get the audience members involved in the narrative of the story. The problem is this approach doesn’t work. The audience, as a whole, is always acutely aware that they are just that, the audience. They aren’t performers and they tend not to want to be part of the show, which always breaks the spell for the audience member called upon and any other spectator who happens to bear witness to it. This usually leads to really uncomfortable moments for both the picked upon and the rest of the audience as a whole.

These aren’t immersive experiences, they are just theatrical shows with an unnecessary level of audience participation. Staging a show in the round, or amongst the audience, isn’t the same as providing an immersive experience.

The same must be said for any pop-up restaurant, shop or product launch. These too are not immersive experiences, they are just events, which may be beautifully designed and well-executed. But if the event doesn’t move the participant, doesn’t elicit a true emotional reaction, then it’s not an experience, immersive or otherwise.

But if the event doesn’t move the participant, doesn’t elicit a true emotional reaction, then it’s not an experience, immersive or otherwise.

The disappointing

On the rise is a different kind of immersive experience, one that for me feels more like a museum exhibition piece. The set-up is usually a large, dark space in which the audience members are allowed to sit or wander freely, as animated images are projected onto walls or screens.

Please don’t get me wrong, these shows are stunning, the visuals are usually breathtakingly beautiful, and they are normally supported by wonderfully arranged soundtracks. Occasionally, with the better versions of this type of show, there is even a level of interactivity built-in where people can interact with the projections making them move or react. To my mind, they are essentially a new form of shadow theatre.

Now, I have to be clear here, there are many of these new, visual experiences out there. However, even these are not created equally. Work by the Japanese collective TeamLab is truly worth seeing, the richness of the visuals and the scale of their pieces lift them into a league of their own and they have rightly earned the praise they get as interactive art forms. I think they are stunning. But are they really immersive? Not really. Engaging, entertaining and enchanting definitely, but immersive — I don’t think so. Hence the disappointment, for all the beauty and spectacle of these shows, these aren’t immersive experiences. So they fail to live up to the moniker.

Truly immersive experiences should be just that, a lived moment you know you will likely never repeat, one in which your sense of time and space are completely replaced by those created by the experience itself. Something that leaves you without the ability to truly describe the experience to anyone else; save to say ‘You HAVE to go!’. As I said at the top of this piece, I love these experiences and can’t wait to see the next one that blows me away. Until then I will still go to see as many as I possibly can, and I will let you know if there are any you HAVE to see!