No question about it, the Oxford drama scene is a fertile and vibrant one. The academic year from Michaelmas 2013 to Trinity 2014 has seen a wide variety of innovative and exciting productions, from Buskins’s beautiful outdoor As You Like It, to the hilarious and moving performance of The History Boys at the Oxford Playhouse and a dark and thought-provoking Judgment at Nuremburg at the Keble O’Reilly.
However, one form of drama remains as yet underexplored: immersive theatre. Immersive theatre is perhaps the last stage in breaking the fourth wall: the audience is given almost total freedom about what to do and where to go within the performance space, and often finds itself becoming part of the action.
Perhaps the biggest pioneers of immersive theatre are Punchdrunk, a British theatre company formed in 2000. Their recent show The Drowned Man: A Hollywood Fable transformed four floors of a building near Paddington station into the home of the fictional ‘Temple Studios,’ around which the audience could roam freely, choosing which characters or storylines to follow. However, elements of this dramatic form have been incorporated into shows in less extreme ways. National Theatre Wales were responsible for 2011’s The Passion, a translation of the story of the Passion to a variety of locations all around present day Port Talbot. Whilst this might not be considered as pure a form of immersion as Punchdrunk’s oeuvre (audiences being given the times and locations of key scenes in their programmes) it nonetheless constitutes a challenge to normative modes of theatrical expression, as the audience were of unquestionable and unusual importance to the events as they unfolded in real time.
It’s possible that the lack of similar ventures in Oxford student productions may stem in part from an anxiety concerning the way such productions are shaped – immersive theatre often involves some degree of devising on the part of the actors. However, as Rough-Hewn’s witty and on point adaptation of Frankenstein has recently shown, Oxford’s dramatic types are more than capable of rising to the challenge.
As well as allowing Oxford’s talented actors and directors to remain at the cutting edge of theatrical practice, experiments in immersive theatre would allow our thespian population to use the stunning locations around the city to their fullest advantage, and allow audiences a new way of appreciating familiar architecture and scenery. Use of immersive theatre could provide all involved, from actors to set designers to audience members, with an exciting and unique theatrical opportunity.