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Designing The Immersive Theatre Experience

Breaking Down That Fourth Wall

One of the fastest growing segments of the entertainment business is Immersive Theater, which is an art form that uses space and sensory elements to create an intimate communal experience


In recent times this art form has been pioneered by Punchdrunk, a British Theater company founded by Felix Barrett in 2000. When the production came to New York City, SBLM Architects served as Architect for the production’s home in West Chelsea. This production, Sleep No More, became a resounding hit, a much coveted ticket to be part of the new levels of engagement and experience. Located in the McKitrick Hotel, a former Chelsea Bar, the environment was transformed into some 90 different rooms spread out over five floors, and the experience is overwhelming. “For lack of a better term, it is also cool; the Hitchcockian design makes it feel like a swank, retro place to hang out, whether you actually care about the show or not.” a quote from Time Out New York theatre editor Adam Feldman 


Like traditional performance, immersive theater covers a variety of genres: drama, tragedy, farce, comedy, satire, and burlesque. Unlike traditional theater, however, immersive theater seeks to integrate audiences into the performance. Gone is the traditional proscenium and stage, the curtain, and even the audience’s seats. The actors break the fourth wall blurring the line between audience and performer. Instead of having actors perform onstage and audience members watch from their seats, immersive theater puts them in the same location. This shared space, which often doubles as an interactive art installation, may be a nightclub, warehouse, home, or even a hospital.  The most important element of the genre is destabilizing the actor-audience relationship.  Theatrical troupes create the desired ambience for a given production by considering spatial aesthetics, room temperature, lighting, color, and aroma. This invites participants to touch, taste, and smell in addition to seeing and hearing. Punchdrunk introduced this concept of free-roaming audience members who explore large-scale dramatic events within highly-detailed theatrical spaces

For the Architect this innovative experiences raises great challenges. The theatrical spaces must be designed with sensitivity to the director’s vision but also to protect the occupants. The Architect, working with the Director and Set Designers, must ensure that the audience and cast members are at all times safe, and that in the event of an emergency the premises can be evacuated quickly.  


With no proscenium or curtain, the Architect has no solid reference in the codes for the spaces he must design for. While the spaces may be classified as an exhibition space or amusement structure, neither designation provides clear parameters. As the Building Code and Fire Code do not contemplate such an integration of performers and audience members, the Architect must extrapolate for the intent of the codes and then create solutions. Additionally, the solutions must be presented and approved by the authorities with jurisdiction for their concurrence.    


SBLM brings valuable experience with this theatrical variant including two more immersive theater environments for upcoming productions in New York City.  The immersive space is also being designed for such popular exhibits as the The Van Gogh Exhibition – Immersion Experience and

Klimt –The Immersive Experience.  Both of there were so successful in NYC that that they were recreated throughout the country including several cities in Florida and Texas, where our  immersive design capabilities are offered at SBLM’s Miami and Dallas branch offices.


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