Last year, I went to New Atlantis, billed, if I recall correctly, as a piece of immersive theatre with a campaigning remit for acting on climate change. Reviews were mixed: this is the Londonist‘s view, and this from the Arts Desk. Those will give you the shape of the piece. I’d not read either when I went, and imagined it’d be perfect for me; I know a bit about science, I like immersive events. Possibly I’m being a bit harsh, but… Yeah, I didn’t find much to actually love either.
Nice location, great “cast” of scientists with actual science knowledge, but not a lot of opportunity to influence the story. I think I was expecting interactive, and what I got was, well, immersive. That probably shouldn’t have come as a surprise, in retrospect, given the billing, but with just a three changes I think they could have made it so much better, at least for some of its audience. One small, two larger.
1) Define the boundaries outside the experience.
There’s a moment when attendees to immersive events cross a threshold between the real world and the experience world. Rarely – in my view – does immersive theatre get this headshift bang on right. It’s particularly jarring – perhaps only for me – when some of the instructions as to what our role is in experience world, are delivered in it. This is because our instructors are also agents (small ‘a’) or actors (as in ‘those who take action’). To me, it is not entirely clear which of their instructions are intended to be subverted by us, and which are not. Where – exactly – are the bounds of our interaction? When we know there is a shadowy political organisation at work, then it is logical in the world to question the motives and capability for mendacity of everyone we meet and if they are also the ones telling us what we can and can’t do – that can be unhelpful.
Essentially – I prefer the boundaries of my agency to be set outside, rather than inside, experience world. In some of the immersive theatre events I’ve been to, I felt I arrived at the venue, but drifted into the world, if that makes sense.
2) Add one or two more opportunities for genuine interaction.
New Atlantis had what really seemed to be a lever to affect the world; the Agents Exchange where attendees voted on ideas for combating climate change. I was drawn straight there. And then disappointed when it didn’t, actually, affect anything. I think a trick was missed here. Later on, the candidates had their speeches, and the floor was open to questions. If those questions had been organised by the Agents Exchange, the candidates could have had some more time to prepare for them. 5 slots, 5 questions would be a nice, limited, form of additional attendee interaction. Understanding that you might want to add a troll-filter to remove purely disruptive questions…
3) Show me the consequences.
Some immersive shows have mechanisms to give people a feeling that they affected the narrative of the event, but… Without the consequences of the vote being made explicit, I think that narrative is a little incomplete. New Atlantis had structured a world with four outcomes; the three open choices presented during the show, and one “secret” revolutionary option which was revealed during the denouement. A video clip for each outcome, telling people the imagined future based on our collective decision would have just been a beautiful conclusion. (I think.) “You voted for revolution, and this is what happened” is the kind of thing I’m talking about. Maybe “By 2050 we’d left it too late, and we all wished we’d started small change earlier.” might be too unsubtle as a punchline, but it might underscore what I guess were their project objectives a little.