Many people go to the theatre to transport themselves into a different world. Yet immersive theatre opens up a whole new realm of escapism and diversion.
Flamboyant costumes, bright lights and performing actors appear as you open the theatre doors. At first glance, it may look like any traditional theatre show, but there is one surprising twist. What once was a group of passive bystanders is now completely immersed in the production. The audience get the chance to be on stage and have the power to decide the play’s fate. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is immersive theatre.
What’s so good about immersive theatre?
Many people go to the theatre to transport themselves into a different world. Yet immersive theatre opens up a whole new realm of escapism and diversion. By using call and response methods or getting observers up on stage, the audience are given a ticket to an unusual theatre experience.
For 23-year-old Leyla Demirel, immersive theatre is her lifeline. Demirel suffers from generalised anxiety disorder (GAD), a mental health condition that effects approximately five per cent of the UK’s population. The Mental Health Foundation also states that GAD is on the rise amongst young women. However, Demirel has discovered that immersive theatre can be used as a coping mechanism.
Demirel attended her first immersive theatre show when she was 20 years old. She says: “I was terrified. Suddenly you are not watching a show, you are in it.” Yet the more shows she attended, the more her confidence grew. “I didn’t realise until I look back how much I have changed and grown. My anxiety has got so much better. I never anticipated it to have this effect on me,” she says.
How does it impact mental health?
According to Mind, one in six people experience a mental health problem in England each week. Using the arts to improve mental health is a common technique. However, very few people are aware of the benefits of using immersive theatre for conditions including anxiety and depression. Since immersive theatre acts as an effective tool to share one’s inner thoughts, as you have the freedom to change the plot, it can be used for catharsis and expression.
Taking the opportunity to step out of her comfort zone and transform into fictional characters, Demirel likens immersive theatre to a form of therapy. “You live in another world you would never normally experience. Immersive theatre makes new worlds feel real and it’s amazing to live in them for a few hours,” she adds. “You can escape and lose yourself in the production. It’s just like therapy to me.”
Founder of COLAB Theatre Productions, 29-year-old Bertie Watkins has been able to watch how performing helps people like Demirel grow in confidence. He says: “It’s amazing to see them come out of their shells. We should reveal our vulnerability, and our fears and we can use immersive theatre to show that.”
A judgement-free zone
Demirel says that manipulating the plot of a show is an exciting and beneficial experience. She says: “It gives you a safe space to try new things and to be more outgoing.” Demirel also states that she has been able to meet like-minded people and thrives off performing in a non-judgemental environment. “There’s a silent agreement between you and everyone in the room that you will support each other no matter what you say,” she says.
Skills gained from immersive theatre
Dramatherapist Azizi Marshall shares how immersive theatre allows people to become comfortable with the unknown. When suffering with anxiety, Marshall explains how it can be difficult to escape from recurring intrusive thoughts. “For some people, anxiety and depression can get so overwhelming, drama can be an escape from all of the things going on inside your head,” he says.
Immersive theatre can be used as a tool to transfer skills such as problem solving and helps people to handle pressure. Marshall says: “Once you learn how to be put on the spot and pushed out of your comfort zone, it helps you to handle other overwhelming aspects of your life.”
Marshall also says how being part of the theatre community can help bring a sense of purpose. She says: “You feel like you belong to something bigger than yourself. Your presence is truly wanted.”
Impact of the pandemic
Unfortunately, many theatre productions have been put on hold. This has been a challenge for many people, including Demirel. She says: “I can no longer access that form of escapism. It causes that cycle of being trapped in your own head.”
Although some immersive theatre companies have attempted to put plays online, Demirel says “it is completely different over a screen”. With a lack of face-to-face connection, these online shows seem to lack the ability to involve audiences in the same way.
Under today’s pandemic conditions, lovers of theatre have been put on the backbench until further notice. It has been difficult for those who use theatre as a way to distract themselves. Airlie Scott, a performer from Oxfordshire, believes theatre is the greatest form of escapism and has been hard for her to live without it.
“People forget how much art, of any kind, lifts us up and teaches us. It gives us space to grow and reflect. It can be used in so many ways to help mankind,” Scott says. She is looking forward to performing to new audiences after months of being away from the stage.
Reminiscing on the times when she could perform freely. “There is something quite magical about making a show happen,” Derimel says. “The day that theatres kick-start again will be the best day of my life.”