The Culture Arts

Can immersive theater draw theatergoers?

A recent local stage show was different from anything one young theatergoer had experienced before. She was no longer a passive member of the audience, but an active participant in the play.

Denée Benton (l.) and Brittain Ashford star in ‘Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812.’
Chad Batka/Matt Ross Public Relations/AP
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  • Isabelle Hinckley

Nadia Fegela was nervous when an actor in full costume burst through the audience to summon her onstage during a performance of Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s “The Visit.”

The 13-year-old from Cape Cod was visiting family in the Chelsea, Mass., area with her parents when she heard about Apollinaire in the Park, a summer series of outdoor plays held in PORT Park and performed by the Apollinaire Theatre Company. 

Yet this particular production was different from anything Nadia had experienced before. She was no longer a passive member of the audience, but an active participant in the play.

Immersive theater isn’t new for theatergoers familiar with such productions as the musical “Hair” and the play “The Mystery of Edwin Drood,” but the form continues with shows including this summer’s off-Broadway production of “Seeing You” (from “Sleep No More” producer Randy Weiner) and the recent Tony Award-winning Broadway show “Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812,” which closed last month. “There’s something exciting about suddenly having a role in a performance,” says Arnold Aronson, a theater professor at Columbia University School of the Arts. “In a traditional piece of theater, often the audience is never acknowledged by the actors ... but the ability to be a part of an event has taken on a great deal of appeal.”

Perhaps Nadia’s reaction to her participation in “The Visit” holds clues to how to get young people excited about theater. “Increasingly, younger generations aren’t going to traditional theater as much as people once did,” Mr. Aronson says. “The idea of sitting in a dark theater watching something happen off in the distance isn’t all that appealing ... especially in a day and age of digital entertainment.” But Nadia says she loved being a part of “The Visit” and that her small role made the performance more interesting and engaging.

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