“Hi there, doll. What can I get ya?”
The bartender winked at me with her perfect finger-curled hair pinned up with pounds of metal bobbies. Her frilly dress swished and her red lips grinned as she poured me an absinthe shot in a cut-glass punch cup. Seductive curtains lined the room around velvet sofas and candle-lit cabs. It is 1933, and I feel like the fuzz are about to bust in this speakeasy’s doors any moment.
This was immersive theatre. And it hadn’t even started yet.
Waiting in the bar for the show to begin, I was completely transported into a past I had only seen in movies. From the doorman to the lounge singer, everyone was someone else inside The McKittrick Hotel—the actors, the audience, even the building (which was a sceney club in its former life) was transformed into 100 rooms and environments, each containing as much character and story as the bar in which I waited.
If you’ve never heard of immersive theatre, the label says it all. Rather than sitting theatre-style, the audience freely roams around a fully-fabricated reality. Here, the stage was sprawled throughout a 100,000 square-foot, five-story warehouse. I experienced a MacBeth-inspired story unfold not by watching characters from a distance, but by chasing them and their storylines (literally running after them, up, down and around five floors for three hours. Pick your shoes wisely, that’s all I’m saying).
Now, combine that concept with sensory magnification. We wore masks. We were isolated from our friends. We were forbidden from speaking, as were the actors. The lights were dim and the music, wired throughout the entire warehouse, diminished and intensified to heighten our awareness at the right moments.
When a screeching violin sounded or an actor suddenly screamed, fought or murdered another character, we felt it in a way you just cannot while squeezing your date’s hand in Row H, Seat 16.
As a brand experience creative, immersion is right up my alley. We may not be strapping masks on our clients, but many ideas from Punchdrunk’s Sleep No More can translate to a conference or event.
Immersive theatre encourages the audience to ruffle. To explore. To go ahead and touch the props. What a wild delight this rare permission elicits. Before an actor was in sight, I could’ve investigated the plot for days using only the newspaper clippings, hand-written letters, books and memos strewn about. Like a kid running through a museum—climbing on sculptures, tapping on ceramics and never once hearing ‘don’t touch that’ forcibly whispered from security—these new rules are exhilarating.
Every detail was an opportunity begging to add another layer to the story. When we think about brand strategy and how stories are told, we’re thinking about messaging and mediums and placement aimed at putting the story in front of the audience. But what if we retrained the audience to go find it for themselves?
Maybe we need to stop thinking signage, and start thinking set design.
I also can’t ignore the brilliance in how Punchdrunk messed with our senses. Wearing masks eliminated our identities; I was no longer me watching a performance with my friends. I was a fly on the wall, a ghost, there only to observe. Also, not speaking—or hearing words spoken—was, at the very least, uncomfortable for those of us living in 2017. It stripped away the comfort of a joke to your neighbor (and because of the masks, you can’t make a face or reaction at them either) and left us alone with our thoughts.
Like a blind man who can hear twice as well, deprived senses forced me to focus on only two things: what I saw. And what my mind thought that meant.
Whether or not non-verbal communication is the right sensory manipulation to tell a brand story, the point is this: when you exaggerate each sense on its own terms, you start to control the experience for your audience in an entirely new way. Maybe this exploration is yet another way to enable consumers to experience a brand story, rather than be told one.
Lastly, and perhaps the single most important objective for any immersive experience: an alternate reality has to feel real.
From the moment I walked in, the story began. Every detail—the cocktails, the props, the part where they tell you not to take any pictures—was intentionally designed and executed in character. Everyone committed and no one broke.
All of this is why I found myself still discussing Sleep No More hours, days, weeks after it ended. At this point, you’d think I’d be on payroll. That’s the power of story, the power of immersion. That’s an experience.