A History of Immersive Theatre on Broadway | Playbill

Special Features A History of Immersive Theatre on Broadway

With Here Lies Love and Cabaret at the Kit Kat Club, this season on the Main Stem is pushing the boundaries of the proscenium.

Gayle Rankin and Eddie Redmayne Mason Poole

If you talk to any theatre artist, they will tell you that the audience is the final integral part of any theatrical production. After all, without the audience witnessing, there would be no theatre. But this season in New York, some shows are making the audience even more important than they usually are. In the too-short-lived Here Lies Love, audience members line-danced alongside Imelda Marcos and audibly cheered as she rose to power. In April, the Broadway revival of Cabaret will begin performances; it promises to transport attendees to 1930s Weimar Germany, with dinner, an interactive pre-show, and a completely redesigned interior for the August Wilson Theatre.

Then Off-Broadway, the Cats revival will ostensibly immerse audiences in ball culture. The original production may have had felines coming down the aisles and touching the audience, but this revival promises to have 360-degrees of clowder charm.

What all these productions have in common is they are immersive theatre done on a large scale, a relative rarity for New York.

But first off: What is immersive theatre?

The 1974 revival of Candide Friedman-Abeles/New York Public Library

Immersive theatre can be defined as any theatrical experience which directly engages the audience, fully enclosing them into the world of the show. And there are different types of productions within the genre. When immersive theatre is performed in a non-theatrical space, it’s called site-specific theatre—such as when Tony winner Ruthie Ann Miles played a judge in a show that took place in a real courtroom. In shows where actors interact directly with audience members, sometimes even touching them, that’s considered audience participatory theatre—such as in the long-running hit Sleep No More,where audience members follow the characters of Macbeth around six floors of a building in Chelsea.

And some shows can have audience-grabbing elements without being fully immersive—such as in Rocky on Broadway when the boxing ring moved out into the audience, in Back to the Future when the DeLorean flies into the house, or the 2014 Cabaret revival where the first half of the orchestra section at Studio 54 was removed and replaced with cafe tables. But in those shows, aside from those sole elements, the fourth wall remained intact.

The almost 13-year-old Sleep No More (which plays its final performance April 28) arguably kick-started an immersive craze in New York City, where it seems like every year there’s a new show running in a non-theatrical environment (bars being a particularly popular location, since they’re many new Yorkers’ defacto third space).

But immersive theatre’s roots go back even further. The first types of theatre ever, religious rituals and story circles, anyone could participate and help contribute to the tale. And today in many non-Western and Native traditions, those egalitarian practices of storytelling remain. Immersive theatre also borrows storytelling practices from Noh Theatre, Commedia Dell’Arte, and Theatre of the Oppressed—traditions where the audience was directly acknowledged, or the show was created (or modified on the spot) with audience input.

Stateside, immersive theatre began as the purview of Off-Broadway experimental theatre companies such as the Wooster Group. And even today, the genre is most commonly found Off- and Off-Off-Broadway, where it’s easier to perform in non-theatrical spaces or to transform a blackbox theatre into an all-encompassing environment.

Broadway has had its fair share of immersive theatre, though they are rare. Arguably, the first immersive show on Broadway was Dude in 1972, by Hair creators Gerome Ragni and Galt MacDermot. For that show, a modern retelling of Biblical Adam and Eve, the Broadway Theatre was gutted completely. Set designer Eugene Lee created an in-the-round performance space—a circus-like arena in the center with audiences on all sides. The performers were in the center of the ring, atop a ground of plastic dirt, and they also performed amongst the audience thanks to a series of runways and catwalks that extended out from the ring.

The orchestra also surrounded the audiences, and music director Thomas Pierson conducted from a seat 100 feet above the crowd’s head. During the show’s tumultuous rehearsal process, Ragni reportedly, according to the New York Times, wanted to make the show even more immersive, suggesting releasing real butterflies, pigs, and chickens into the audience.

The show was definitely an experiment. And it was short-lived; Dude only ran for 16 preview performances and 16 regular performances.

Funnily enough, in the years since, the Broadway Theatre has been gutted two times to make way for immersive theatre productions: in 1974 for Lee’s multi-layered set for the revival of Leonard Bernstine’s Candide. Then again in 2023, for David Byrne’s Imelda Marcos disco-musical Here Lies Love, where the orchestra seats were ripped up to create a club environment where audience members could stand and dance with the actors, and videos were projected all around the theatre.

Immersive theatre has long been a way for theatre artists to reconceptualize the relationship between actors and audience. “I always like theatre where the actors and the audience are all mixed up,” the late Eugene Lee told Playbill in 2018, when talking about Candide. “The whole set was made up of little spaces: a proscenium stage at one end, a thrust stage at the other, a little platform in the middle of the space, and everything connected by ramps and bridges. It was so much fun having this adventure story be an actual adventure around the theatre. Those actors who had to sing that score and run all around the theatre really got a workout.”

Unfortunately, on Broadway, to play around with the proscenium is a challenging, and expensive, endeavor.

Josh Groban and the cast Chad Batka

Why is immersive theatre rare on Broadway?

Immersive has always been more challenging for Broadway. Some shows that were immersive on the West End cut the more interactive elements when the production transferred stateside—such as Starlight Express in 1987, which removed the element of the performers skating all around the audience in the auditorium.

That is because many Broadway theatres are close to 100 years old. That means the performance space is usually in a large, ornate, gilded hall with a proscenium stage and seats bolted to the floor; it’s difficult for the seating configuration to be changed or for the surrounding house decor to be revamped to match the show (not to mention local New York historical landmark laws make it challenging for any modifications to the physical aspects of the building). And aside from two aisles, there’s limited opportunities for actors and audience to interact. There are a couple of exceptions, such as Circle in the Square, which allows for additional staging configurations (including in the round). Generally though, creating an immersive experience on Broadway, in the words of Here Lies Love producer Clint Ramos, is “strong-arming a space into what you want it to be.”

A beloved example of that strong-arming is the 2016 show, Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812. The Dave Malloy musical made headlines when it redesigned not just the stage and orchestra section of the Imperial Theatre, but also the lobby and audience entryway.

Because the show (based on War and Peace) was conceptualized to be performed in an Imperial-style Russian supper club, the creative team created a multilevel set on the stage with cafe tables where audience members could sit (and snack on show-provided pirogies). There were also performance platforms in the orchestra.

When the audience entered the theatre, they moved through a Cold War-style Russian bunker before entering the velvet-clad play space. Says set designer Mimi Lien at the time to the Interval, “One of the first lines in the piece is, ‘There’s a war going on outside,’ right? You’ve passed through this bunker lobby space. It’s cold, and it’s fluorescently lit and feels like a Soviet bunker. Then you come inside, and I really wanted that moment of stepping inside to be impactful. This feeling of a warm, lush, opulent cocoon-like space was really important to us, and so we have hung onto that every step of the way.”

It’s an ambitious, audacious vision to create that multi-sensory experience for the audience on Broadway, to blur that fourth wall and make the audience aware of the role we are playing in the show. But it is also very expensive. According to Broadway Journal, the revamp of the August Wilson Theatre is costing the Cabaret producers $9.4 million (the entire show is capitalized at $26 million). Among the fixes is to create an in-the-round performance space and an interior that is reminiscent of Weimar-era Germany (in the West End, that included cafe tables with rotary telephones and post-Expressionist-style murals).

It may all seem a tad excessive, but it’s actually a return to the vision that John Kander and Fred Ebb originally had for the show. “Whether or not to put the whole show in the Kit Kat club was something that was discussed when we wrote it,” Kander told The Guardian in 2021.

But aside from being artistically audacious, these large-scale immersive shows that have come before it can also help make a case for theatre as an art form in 2024. In an era where so much of human interaction is now mediated by a screen, theatre artists are bringing audiences back by promising not just a show but an experience. A minute-long TikTok video will dissolve from your mind after you’ve watched it. But a show where actors taught you how to line-dance or when you feel like you’ve been physically transported to another time and place, that’s something to remember for decades to come. And it’s something that can only happen in person, at a theatre.

As Cabaret director Rebecca Frecknall puts it: “There is something about a proscenium arch that is tricky because you can feel that you are looking through a view-finder. What’s interesting about working in this space in the round is that it is so immediate. The audience is very present with the actors and you are able to pull out more contemporary threads. There are so many colors in the work and people will interpret it in different ways. You’re not looking into a picture of a room from another time.”

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