Looking at immersive theater in NYC

Audience-cum-participants gather around an actor to help solve the mystery of "Speakeasy Dollhouse." Credit: Provided
Viewers-cum-participants gather around to help solve the mystery of “Speakeasy Dollhouse.”
Credit: Provided

Live theater is a thrill because of the chance that anything can happen — from catching an actor’s eye for a moment to watching a cast cover up a dropped line. For some audiences, though, sitting back and applauding isn’t enough — and theater producers are listening.

Venues across the city are opting out of the red velvet seats and inviting audiences to get up, dance around and put more on the line than half-hearted applause. Of course, immersive theater has been around since long before Chelsea’s McKittrick Hotel was filled with elaborately staged sets for “Sleep No More,” where audiences chase actors through an adaptation of “Macbeth” in ominous white masks.

But the explosive popularity of shows like “Sleep No More,” as well as older ones such as the dance show “Fuerza Bruta” — which has been playing in Union Square since 2007 and recently extended its off-Broadway run — are making way for more theater groups interested in experimenting with their audiences. At The Public Theater, “Here Lies Love” has extended its run twice, with audiences rising to the challenge of participating wholeheartedly by dancing and singing along.

Cynthia Von Buhler has watched the rise of immersive theater firsthand as her show, “Speakeasy Dollhouse” went from a one-off event to selling out nearly every week since opening in October 2011 (the show has extended its run through December and expanded to twice a week).

Von Buhler says she was inspired by “Sleep No More” and decided to use audiences to help her explore the mystery of her grandfather’s murder in 1935 by having audiences collect evidence and sleuth along with her.

“People want to play along, they want to be a star,” Von Buhler says. “It’s like reality TV, and they want to play a part in it. Ninety-nine percent of people get into it and play along.” It’s easy to see why. “Speakeasy” audiences are encouraged to dress for the part in 1930s garb and sip moonshine alongside burlesque dances as they listen to live jazz from The Howard Fishman Quartet.

“Speakeasy” makes no jokes about the immersion, sending emails to the 150 audience members with real evidence, like autopsy reports and news clippings. Though she is keeping mum about the subject matter, Von Buhler is developing other immersive theater projects with the help of Michael Barra of Stageworks Media.

As the fall theater season approaches and haunted houses begin to prepare their shows, audiences can expect even more immersive elements. They won’t just be passively participants in the dark, waiting until curtain call — they’ll be getting a lot more opportunity to play along.


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