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When Immersive Theatre Goes Too Far

Dangers of participatory theatre are present even in the correction to Artaud’s Theatre of Cruelty


FEB 28, 2023 | ISSUE 11

Illustration By Alicia Jungwirth

A trip to New York landed me in the lobby of Punchdrunk’s Sleep No More, a three-hour immersive performance. As I wandered the six-story warehouse by myself, I found a lone actor who took my hand and pulled me into an empty room. He quickly barricaded the door, pulled down the window shutters, and took off my mask, leaving me to question whether this was a part of the performance. He caressed my face and kissed me on the forehead before allowing me to escape. Sleep No More’s mantra, “fortune favours the bold,” mirrors this actor’s dramaturgically integrated performance, which hinges on audiences stepping far beyond their comfort zones and into the arms of strangers. Teetering between reality and performance, my violating encounter might have left some feeling traumatised; however, the allure of the intimate performance instead left me feeling exhilarated. 

Participatory theatre has transformed our understanding of what being an audience can entail.  Rather than sitting on velvet seats in a dark venue, spectators can now experience an interactive journey alongside actors. “Performance” begins to inch closer to reality, both in terms of the experience and...