I'm beginning to see a pattern here, and I doubt that I'm the only one. The fact is that this city is experiencing an influx of interactive, site-specific theatrical pieces. Shows like Punchdrunk's Sleep No More, Accomplice: The Village, and Woodshed Collective's The Tenant are the three currently playing that follow this new trend. But what does the popularity of these shows tell us? Why have they come about and why do they continue to sell out?
This is not the first time that such theatre has been both popular and successful, which means that this has become a question of timing. Accomplice: New York originally opened in 2005, whose popularity led the team to create a new production, Accomplice: The Village, in 2007. When Sleep No More opened last spring it was supposed to be a limited run, meanwhile its ever-extending production dates are the product of its demand. This is reflected in the newest of the bunch, The Tenant, a show whose entrance line consistently outnumbers the tickets available.
Part of the answer may be due to the novelty. The first person who told me about Sleep No More said that it was like nothing else they had ever seen. I agree with that wholeheartedly. Every person in every show has a completely different experience, which is something that few performance pieces can claim.
But there is another layer to this experience, and that is the aspect of the secretive and unknown. All three shows that I have mentioned will reveal only so much about themselves before you have your audience experience. This means that you are never fully sure about what to expect. This is the polar opposite of the normal Broadway or even OffOff-Broadway show.
As many theorists have noted, we are particularly passive as audience members when we sit down in a theatre and let the show happen in front of us. Yet these shows force us out of our seats, and give us an element of agency. Suddenly we find ourselves in the position of having to, sometimes literally, chase our theatrical experience down. We are thereby charged with the task of having an equal part in creating the show for ourselves. This is what makes these shows exciting, and what keeps audience members like me coming back again and again.
The realization of this agency means that each audience member is constantly creating their own rules of spectatorship. People who go to the theatre regularly are aware of what is expected of them during a show: remain seated quietly until the end and then applaud. But if there is no stage, no seat, and no one way to experience the narrative, how is an audience member to know what the rules are? Therefore the audience member of these shows is engaged in a different manner as they attempt to navigate this new relationship between themselves and the actors.
It is this aspect of the performance that I believe speaks to the modern theatre viewer. Much has been said of our addiction to technology, our constant need for technological stimulus, and our interesting uses of social media. Every person with a social media account now has direct access to information of all kinds, and the ability to interact with all types of celebrities, at least in theory. On Twitter I can follow the president and respond to Ellen DeGeneres's latest picture with a few taps on my smart phone.
As these boundaries change and become more permeable, what can the theatre do to respond to these new relationships? Precisely what they are doing now: certain theatre groups can make the spectators part of the show. Of course, when I respond to Ellen DeGeneres, I am well aware that I am one of millions of followers who might have tweeted back, but there is something in the act of reaching out that is empowering. Likewise, the audience members in these shows are still not as intricately connected to the plot as are the actors, but this is still leaps and bounds ahead of how much they are involved in quotidian theatrical productions.
These shows have succeeded alongside successes like The Book of Mormon, which although not necessarily traditional in terms of content, are more conservative in terms of form. Therefore I do not see these types of theatre as diametrically opposed, but rather dialectically engaged. There is room for many different types of theatre in our diverse city, and I have been thoroughly enjoying the latest wave of site-specific, interactive shows right alongside their seated, staged theatrical cousins. I can tell you that if you can manage to put your phone down for a few hours while still standing up, you might find a different kind of connection with the theatre.