Doctor Who and the rise of immersive theater
asically it’s like a live tv episode of Doctor Who but with the main role played by the audience, ”says director Tom Maller, summing up this summer’s biggest theater performance in one sentence. He stands in a hexagonal-shaped room in an old Mayfair antique market, surrounded by computer banks, with wires running across the floor in the form of paving. People with headphones come and go, wear masks, and look busy. There’s a little over a week to go until the first glimpse and the team has a job to do. Most theater shows require a single stage with a few sets. Doctor Who: Time Fracture occupies 2700 square meters and includes 17 different worlds.
Time fracture is a brand new live-action incarnation of the long-running BBC show and has been in the works for two years. Immersed in a series of impeccably detailed spaces reminiscent of locations from decades of episodes, audiences must work together in Covid-friendly bubbles to save the world from a devastating time divide, with the occasional help The Doctor (voiced by Jodie Whittaker and David Bradley on the video link, and with audio appearances by Tom Baker, Peter Davison, Colin Baker and Sylvester McCoy).
The trajectory of the story depends on the choices of the audience, which means that individual experiences will be different, although there will always be Daleks. And while you don’t need to have seen any episodes to figure out what’s going on, it will definitely make things more fun: Designer Rebecca Brower had full access to the BBC props archive and the production is littered with large numbers. real (and obscure) objects from the TV series, from Matt Smith’s Monitor Tardis from the fifth series, to a Sisterhood of Karn staff from the classic Tom Baker story, Morbius’ brain, and one Torchwood silver tea service. “If you’re not a Whovian, you’ll have a great time,” says Maller, a veteran director at Secret Cinema, who specializes in immersive recreations of famous films and encourages audiences to dress accordingly – and a big fan of Doctor Who. “But if you are, it will blow your mind.”
As the theater begins to wake up from the deep sleep of the lockdown, there are early signs that it is emerging in a slightly altered state. Yeah, you can still go to the National and sit in the dark and see Michael Sheen in an upcoming production of Under the milk wood, and hurray for that. But across the capital, new shows are popping up that dispense almost entirely of the traditional stuff – actors, scripts, fourth walls, the typical one-way relationship between action and audience – and instead put the audience at the heart of the game. action.
In a new theater space on Tottenham Court Road later this summer, you can turn all that monopoly lockdown practice into good use in a live (and thankfully only 75-minute) version of the game. of society, Life-size monopoly, featuring immersive recreations of famous London locations, in which you and your friends must solve puzzles and challenges in order to purchase property as you move around the set.
AT Money, taking place at County Hall from the end of this month, the public is the game. At each performance, 15 volunteers sit together at a table and decide among themselves how best to spend the pile of money (yes, for real) sitting in front of them on a table. They only have 60 minutes. Other members of the audience can buy their place in the discussion, and the decision must be made unanimously. “The show is like a magic trick – on the one hand, it’s very simple, but the revelation is that it always goes somewhere completely unexpected,” says director Seth Honnor, who designed the show afterwards. watching an episode of The dragon pit. “The combination of money, unanimity and a countdown creates an extraordinary drama that always has its own outcome, and which can also be eerily beautiful.”
Theater that involves the audience in some way, otherwise known as the immersive, is typically associated in this country with companies such as Punchdrunk and dreamthinkspeak which in the 90s combined classic stories and texts designed in beautifully designed performance spaces that immersed style, in the world of history. Audiences roamed freely, discovering plot points almost by accident (and sometimes missing them altogether). Yet shows such as Doctor Who take the concept to a whole new level. “On a Punchdrunk show, the audience is basically voyeurs,” Maller says. “Time fracture audiences have a voice and a consequence: what they do influences what happens. “
So, what motivates this thirst for theater which owes more to role-playing games, board games, escape experiences, even The crystal labyrinth, than at the convention of sitting in a cramped auditorium watching Chekhov? The growing cultural influence of video games and parallel virtual worlds that gamers are invited to “step into” is one of them. Time fracture. Conversely, the rediscovery of the old-fashioned art of play and imagination is another. Maller, who also directed Gatsby the magnificent, the UK’s longest-running immersive show, which immerses audiences in Long Island’s beautifully recreated jazz era of the 1920s, finds modern audiences ‘increasingly enjoying the opportunity to s’ to dress, to escape. We used to do this all the time when we were kids, but modern life sucks us in. But real life is difficult. Interactive theater lets you become someone else again. Plus, we have so much passively consumed content thrown at us these days: Netflix, social media. I noticed that the audience desperately needed to be active. “
Not only that – they love to be active with their friends. “Generation Z loves the social aspect of culture,” said David Hutchinson, producer of Monopoly Lifesized. “They like to experience art in a group – and then talk about it in the bar.” And the nature of that experience matters. Honnor believes audiences get more out of a play if they are allowed to be a part of it. “I always include the audience in my work because it gives them a deeper experience,” he says. “Good art will keep asking questions, but if you can ask your audience a question and then engage them to try and answer it, that’s really powerful.”
Time fracture, Money and Life-size monopoly have all been in development since before the lockdown (Money has performed across the world, although County Hall is his first real race in London). But this is not unrelated to the fact that the big theatrical trend to emerge during the pandemic was not the live broadcast of archival shows, but new genre-breaking plays that incorporated participatory games into the drama. narrative, enabled to a large extent by Zoom. In Sherlock Holmes’ very funny tribute from Les Enfants Terribles, The case of the suspended parliament, the public were encouraged to collaborate to solve a murder case of Byzantine complexity (if a team actually handled it, let me know). In Investigation, by online pioneering Jury Games, the public had to work together to establish the truth behind a decades-old drowning.
“Covid aside, there’s been a lot of talk about the division and polarization that we are these days, in our social media bubbles,” says West End producer Eleanor Lloyd Money. “But a spectacle such as Money blow it all apart. What is extraordinary is the extent to which, given the luck, we want to work together. Each performance of Money inevitably turns into a conversation about what’s important, how best to make a difference, and how we, as humans, can reach consensus. Right now, that seems very valuable to me.
Even so, purists may wonder what interactive shows that seem to prioritize “experience” above all else really have to do with traditional theater. Yet Lloyd argues that the theater has become increasingly detached from its audience over the past century or so, and that a more playful and inclusive format is in keeping with its original spirit, dating back as far as the Greeks of Antiquity. “Modern theater likes to put the audience in the dark while watching a stage. It wasn’t what it was in Shakespeare’s day, ”she says. “When I produced Emilie in the West End [Morgan Lloyd Malcolm’s 2016 play about the 17th-century feminist poet Emilia Bassano] we deliberately left the house lights on, in part because the production came from Shakespeare’s Globe, but also because we wanted the audience to be aware of the collective experience. This desire to be a part of something has always been there, and it manifests itself quite specifically in these experiential broadcasts. After the year that we have had, it is more important than ever to come together.
Doctor Who: Time Fracture is at 1-8 Davies Mews, London W1, from May 26, immersivedoctorwho.com
Money is at County Hall, London SE1 from May 26, themoney.live/
Life-size monopoly is at 213-215 Tottenham Court Road, London W1 from August 14 monopolylifesized.com