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Immersive plays: the most successful of Russian theatre premiers


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Immersiveness — a new trend in our lives already saturated with intense feelings. In the last two years, immersive plays have been the most successful of Moscow’s theatre premieres

Today, it is not enough to simply observe events as if they are part of a play, performance, or film, in which one does not need to play any part. Like rap battles, which since the summer have become familiar to millions in Russia, immersive art is a phenomenon that already has a long story behind it, and even an iconography. But in truth, immersive theatre and contemporary art became popular just a couple of years ago.

Clearly, society expressed a need for interactive events, and by moving from empathy to collaboration, we move away from anonymity, humanity’s main quirk. If earlier, the entertainment industry allowed audiences to occasionally make quips from the auditorium, now we are invited onstage: a temptation that’s hard to resist. Shakespeare’s “All the world’s a stage, / And all the men and women merely players” is no longer a catchphrase or a metaphor, but a call to action. In the last two years, immersive plays have been the most successful of Moscow’s premieres: Remote Moscow, the quest-type play which was transported to our home turf by Swiss group Rimini Protokoll, and the first immersive musical, Black Russian, based on the unfinished Pushkin novel Dubrovsky, brought to us by the Ecstatic company. Is immersiveness a new kind of discourse in art, or just a fleeting trend, the latest amusement?

During the course of history, the author, whether a playwright or artist, worked on creating an illusory reality that was absolutely airtight, and without any ideas of engaging in a dialogue with the public. Classical theatre consists of a black box with three walls, in which fragments of life are played out. At the end of the 19th century, Wagner, and, following in his footsteps, the founder of the first accessible Russian arts theatre, the Stanislavsky and Nemirovich-Danchenko, constructed a fourth wall: the lights in the auditorium could be dimmed, and we, the audience, can pretend that we don’t exist. The revolutionary idea of “total works of art”, which the German composer successfully put into practice in his operas, turned out to be too conservative for the drama theatre. Keeping the events on stage in a separate sphere, closed in on itself, Wagner achieved the much-coveted self-sufficiency in art, and, sadly, drove all life off stage.

To return the spirit of the times to the stage, without which any drama is simply a collection of abstractions, was what was in store for the directors of the 20th century. This happened in Russia, too. The first person to bring drama out of the airless ideological ghetto was the theatrical director Vsevolod Meyerhold, followed by the filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein. Theatre came to the circus, the factory, and to the people.

The key principle of immersiveness is participation, which is why many productions in this new genre are acutely relevant to society and, moreover, based on real events. What is called non-fiction in literature, and verbatim theatre when it comes to drama (meaning that monologues by real people are integrated into the text), is a core element of immersive plays.

Remote Moscow is a clear example of this method. The original play, by authors from Rimini Protokoll, was presented in Avignon. A member of the audience was invited on a walk around the city, which began at the gates of a cemetery and ended, of course, in the theatre. A kind of excursion, but not to the tourist sights of the former papal residence, but to the areas of the city alive with everyday problems and fears that everyone can understand. The audience can hear an esoteric sort of text through their headphones: look to the right, look to the left, people’s destinies are concealed in the cracks behind that unsightly façade. As poet Marina Tsvetaeva wrote:

“Walking, you’re just like me, / Your eyes are on the ground. / I used to lower mine, you see. / Stop passerby, at this mound!”

The founder of immersive theatre, London’s Punchdrunk theatre company, has a less philosophical approach: here, the public is submerged in the gloomy atmosphere of the films of Alfred Hitchcock and Stanley Kubrick, those masters of suspense. Or take their New York production of Sleep No More, which transports Shakespeare’s Macbeth to a set based in the abandoned McKittrick Hotel, the aesthetics of which are reminiscent of Stephen King novels: an endless maze of dimly lit rooms, and in every one you may find, despite being completely awake, your worst possible nightmares. In general, it is the done thing in immersive theatre to scare audiences — if not with the real problems of modern life (illness, terrorism, social exclusion), then with invented dangers. Theatrical directors eagerly exploit the mythology of filmmaking, from silent expressionist opuses such as Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens to Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, or post-modern masterpieces like the Coen brothers’ Fargo and Barton Fink. The films are almost always set in derelict industrial facilities, or, worse still, psychiatric hospitals or prisons.

Occasionally, immersive theatre aims to educate. Russian Folk Tales, in Moscow’s Gogol Center, the result of an ethnographic expedition to the most remote, desolate corners of Russia, introduces the audience to real folk language, which has nothing in common with the out-and-out Anglicisms of the Newspeak that people use in the city. A new production by theatre critic Marina Davydova (currently in rehearsal), about the ideological utopia of the second half of the 20th century, is an unusual excursion into the wilds of theatre studies explaining the mechanisms of contemporary art, which are usually hidden away from the ordinary spectator. If you are interested in understanding what recitation is, or why French theatre is not currently in fashion, then you need not attend a dull lecture; instead, buy a ticket to the Stanislavsky Electrotheatre, where you can hear actors give ironic explanations of learned theories, and not without selfcriticism, either.

In any case, an important task for immersive theatre is to take dramatic art to a supranational, level. To find a way to engage with the audience, without assuming they have any particular knowledge or training. Often, directors’ experiments, which aspire to give a new reading of the classics, and to bring the issues of days gone into the present day, end up in a tight corner, in which ideas expressed through images become an untranslatable play on words. Immersive theatre copes with difficulties in translation by including the spectator in the context. 

If you imagine what it is like to be in the shoes of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, the heroine of the eponymous novel, or Katerina Izmailova, the protagonist of Dmitry Shostakovich’s opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, and try to speak, but using your own words, then the heroine’s moral conflict, which may seem impossible to understand from a modern point of view, will once again become deeply meaningful to us all. Purists can criticise the immersive genre as much as they like. They call it “suicide chess” (in which you lose all your pieces or are stalemated), the last victory of populism, or simply crass. But they forget that language is more ancient than time itself, and acts as its repository. Tolstoy, Pushkin, Shakespeare, and Racine have not yet been thrown off the Ship of Modernity, as the Russian Futurists proposed in their 1913 manifesto, and virtual reality, role-playing, and rap battles are the best of a bad bunch. And in any case, Sleep No More. Felix Barrett, Maxine Doyle they are transitory in nature.


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