Three Key Insights from Immersive Theater Pros
Early Monday morning, IAAPA Expo attendees gathered to learn from a talented cohort of professionals participating in the “Immersive Theater in Location-Based Entertainment: The Creative Whys and Operational Hows” EDUSession.
What is Immersive Theater?
The panelists shared their perspectives on what they believe sets immersive theater apart from traditional theatrical practices. Eric Hoff, senior creative director at Thinkwell Group, shared that he defines the craft as an exploration of the inherent tension between the show and the audience. “Tension doesn’t have to be a bad thing, it’s just, how tight is that string that’s held between the show—and that show could be full of actors, it could be full of technology, it could be screens, it could be lots of different things—and then what is that direct correlation to the audience?”
Adam Bezark, president and creative director of The Bezark Company weighed in, saying that while robotic elements have a place within immersive theater, human actors add a unique, irreplaceable energy to the experience. “When you take the robots out and put people in, what happens? What happens is you get a whole new kind of performance that is so much more energetic and powerful and exciting,” he says. “We joked the other day that humans are the most easily reprogrammable piece of show machinery that you can put in an attraction ... the electricity comes from putting humans in these environments.”
Elysia Segal, producer of public programs at Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum, emphasized the importance of sensory immersion. “I joke that all around us it smells like jet fuel … but that is really what brings it to life, you have all those five senses around you.” Segal continued to detail how sensory considerations also extend to greater accessibility for guests. “It appeals to so many different modes of learning. At a museum that I used to work at, we found that we had a lot of neurodiverse students coming in. They loved the idea of systems, and being able to memorize [transportation] timetables, and things like that.”
Immersive Experience Director at the Walt Disney Company, Ameenah Kaplan, detailed how Galactic Starcruiser facilitates memorable and intimate interactions. Performers will go out “and find a ‘youngling’, as children are called in the Star Wars canon, and have this private, one-on-one experience,” she shares.
Segal also detailed three key considerations that any institution looking to develop an immersive show should address to get the most value out of the experience: Does it meet your mission and goals? Does it meet your target audience? And, most importantly, identify if a prospective show addresses the tone and needs of your site.
Making a Business Case for Immersive Theater
Adam Bezark pushes back against the belief that hiring human actors is too expensive. “The nice thing is, yes, there’s an operating cost, but it’s no different than running a stage show … it will resonate for your property, your park, or your museum.” Kaplan added to Bezark’s sentiment, commending companies with a “maverick spirit” that were brave enough to “do something against the grain” and pave a new path forward, which she cites as crucial to business success. Segal contributed from a museum perspective, sharing that the up-front financial obligation may be viewed as too steep. Alternatively, museums may be apprehensive about hosting events in spaces that are home to valuable artifacts.
“Do you really want to have a dance piece next to a Monet? That’s scary!” she joked. However, these concerns can be easily addressed with comprehensive training, and Segal urged attendees to think out of the box about what they can afford and what could fit into their space. “You could always contract out with a local theater company or dance group, or even have a limited one. There’s opportunities to get your feet wet that aren’t going to cost you millions of dollars at the end of the day.”