The current Tooting Arts Club production of Sweeney Todd at New York City’s Barrow Street Theatre is earning well-deserved praise for its recreation of a real London pie shop. But what’s more important than the awesome set, and more important than the smart choice to invite the audience into the pie shop to eat before the show, is how the actors interact with the audience from pre-show through curtain call.
The utilitarian tables where the audience eats, for example, become part of the stage where the actors bang, stomp, crawl and dance — often with very little warning. Having the actors move behind you, above you — or into your seat — gives a whole new viscerality to this tale of a murderous barber and his cannibalistic landlady. Not only is Pirelli (played by Stacie Bono) murdered before our eyes, but his death becomes real in part because our body fears that we might be next.
Sweeney (played by Norm Lewis) sings:
Who, sir, you, sir?
No one’s in the chair, come on! Come on!
I want you, bleeders!
You sir? Anybody!
Gentlemen, now don’t be shy!This scene produces a very different experience when the audience’s neck is inches from the barber’s razor!
American theatre in general may be facing declining audiences, but immersive theatre is the future of American theatre precisely because it provides an experience that activates all five senses in a way that Netflix never can.
But how can we show audiences what immersive theatre has to offer?
If immersive theatre has a downside, it’s that the marketing is not as well developed. The genre is relatively new, so there aren’t established norms about how to document it and sell it to audiences.
Even writing this article is frustrating because I’m trying to use words to describe the live physical experience I had in Harrington’s Pie Shop, and I can’t even use photography to illustrate the incredible energy between the performers and the audience.
I couldn’t find any photography of Sweeney Todd that showed the audience, and their press representative told me they didn’t have any photographs of audience interaction or of the actors on the tables.
Now I don’t know if they just don’t have photos of interaction or if using more standard fourth-wall photography was a deliberate decision to leave that part of the experience a surprise. But either way it does this innovative immersive play a disserve to document it like it’s a standard musical.
Documenting live theatre is always hard. The printed review or the photograph is always a poor substitute for actually being there; but with immersive theatre, it is even harder to capture the sensory experience for people who weren’t there.
This photo from Freedom: In 3 Acts aptly demonstrates the site-specific nature of our collaboration with the Wadsworth Atheneum — that’s Picasso’s “The Painter” in the background — but it doesn’t say anything at all about the struggle for civil rights during Reconstruction. We knew we could do better. (Photo: Max Lipka)
My theatre company tackles this problem in the earliest stages of our design process, by developing a detailed documentation plan. Most theatres leave photography to a special, audience-less, photo call. I’ve found that documenting immersive theatre requires both having an audience and finding a way to have the photographers and videographers do their work without disturbing the paying customers.
Balancing the competing priorities has been a learning process.
Of course, we’re not looking for cliche wedding photography: the happy couple holding hands, or kissing, or putting on the rings. What we want is photographs that capture the interactions — and the love — between the guests and the happy couple. Those are the photos that the wedding attendees want.
For those of us who believe that immersive theatre can reverse the decline in American theatre audiences, it is really important that together we figure out how to document the unique experience we offer. Finally solving this marketing problem may allow us all to reach the goal all theatre companies struggle with: reaching new audiences and getting them into the seats.