Three immersive shows someone should make

Those of us who spend our time soaked in dreams, indulging our fantasies and playing them out through immersive theatre, naturally have vivid imaginations. We seek always to find new and different sandpits to play in.

But if money were no object, what other areas of culture, history or life in general, would I like to wallow in through the medium of immersive theatre? Here I offer three examples I think would make wonderful shows.

54 – Dreams of Disco and Debauchery


The 70s were a time of glitter and glory, and nowhere was that more true than at the legendary nightclub Studio 54. The club was the erratically beating heart of the New York club scene from 1977 to 1979. Fuelled by cocaine and excess (only the latter of which would be replicable in an immersive theatre setting, obviously) it was the place to be and to be seen to be.

Any production could draw heavily from Third Rail’s similar 70s production Grand Paradise, though with a more urban than tropical vibe.

While the drugs and actual sex would not be possible, legal or moral to recreate, there are plenty of moments and characters from those days that would make for an incredible experience, from Bianca Jagger riding a horse across the dancefloor to the gift of a trashcan full of cash the club owners gave Andy Warhol for his birthday.

Audiences could be encouraged to find their own inner disco queen, dressing up to attend as many do for The Great Gatsby.

Overall, this would be a wonderful world to recreate and to get lost in.

Grim Fandango


Simply one of the best computer games ever made, Grim Fandango turned me from occasional participant to gamer.

Set in the Land of the Dead the story centres on “travel agent” Manny Calavera as he fights for his wronged client Meche Colomar and uncovers corruption in the agency he works for.

There are so many ways this wonderful, complex, lush world could work as an immersive experience. For example, as a live gaming experience where the participants follow the gameplay of the original or by bringing the different stages of Manny’s journey to glorious technicolour life and allowing us to dally in our favourite scenes.

Unlike many computer games, the characters at the heart of Grim Fandango are well written, complex and deep. From the demon Glotto – who loves boozing and working his magic on souped-up engines and is loyal to a fault, to the beat poet and femme fatale Olivia Ofrenda whose complex relationships drive the story on and the men wild.  These characters would be a joy for any actor to inhabit. The way the gameplay is written also gives a lot of clues to the ways a production could set them up to give the audiences a wide variety of experiences.

I never wanted to live in GTA’s San Andreas and have no desire to inhabit the world of Portal. But I’m dying for a chance to visit the Land of the Dead.

Election: In it to win it


Do you have what it takes to get elected? To convince an audience of your peers they should vote for you to represent them at the end of the night.

This show would give participants a variety of roles including candidates of various stripes and seriousness (someone will get to play Lord Buckethead), election agents, Press Officers, journalists and more. Other’s will have a more floating and observing role, making sure that democracy happens in public.

This show would go in depth into what it is like behind the scenes in politics. While the participants will get the chance to take part in the big set piece events like hustings and TV interviews the participants would also have to learn to stick to election law and funding limits and the gameplay would present scenarios that show up the tension between the various roles and the rules.

This might work well initially as an educational experience for young adults on the brink of voting age, to give them a sense of how the democratic process works up close. But done well, it would also have real value both in educational and – vitally – entertainment purposes for adults too.

Was Immersive Cinema Frank N Furter’s Most Fiendish Creation?

When you think of immersive cinema, you think of the lush creations of Secret Cinema – the hedonistic world of Moulin Rouge, the sexually charged innocence of Kellerman’s summer camp, the excitement of hiding from stormtroopers on Tatooine. You don’t tend to think of a bunch of gays, goths and geeks in NYC’s Greenwich Village in the 1970s.

But long before we were lining up to dance with Johnny Castle or helping Luke and Ben Kenobi escape, audiences were answering back, cheering, singing, acting and dancing along to their favourite sweet transvestite every Saturday at midnight.

Don’t you just hate it when some bitch turns up to the party in your outfit!

The Rocky Horror Picture Show was based on the successful theatrical musical that rocked the Royal Court in London in 1975. The film was made with a tiny budget and the shoot was largely unhappy – being filmed in an old country house, Oakley Court in the freezing winter.

When it was panned by critics and failed at the box office, studio Twentieth Century Fox saw little reason to worry about it any further. They were about to shelve it, and there it could have remained, were it not for an entrepreneurial young executive who convinced the owner of the Waverly Theatre in New York to play it as a midnight screening in 1976. To say it took off is an understatement.

Emma Burnell and friends enjoy a night at the Rocky Horror Picture Show

Audiences grew in size and boisterousness. The improvisations grew into a scripted call-and-response and a “shadow cast” started to act out the parts in front of the screen. Audiences started to dress as “Transylvanians” and bring props such as toast, toilet paper and party hats. One midnight showing in New York was soon replicated across America and then the world. It has never stopped being on limited release and is the longest-running cinema release in history.

By 1980, the phenomenon was such that it featured as part of the movie Fame. As they visit the Waverly, the usually repressed character of Doris takes off her top and dances on stage in her underwear. It was a rite of passage for the character and, watching Fame on video in the mid-1980s, it was seeing that scene  that started a lifelong love affair for me.

Taken by me the first time we (illicitly) watched the Rocky Horror Picture Show, Christmas 1987

I have now seen the Rocky Horror Picture Show at the cinema dozens of times. After seeing that scene I knew I had to see the movie. And while seeing it at home for the first time was exciting, it was never enough.

I soon became a semi-regular at the showings at the Prince Charles Cinema after it started it’s unbroken weekly run of the show in 1991, bringing my props and my friends along too. The call-and-response was easily learned from the 1983 album Say It: The Rocky Horror Picture Show Audience Participation Album. I knew it by heart, but also knew that improvisation on the part of the audience was also much valued. There’s nothing quite so dispiriting as someone just parroting the 1983 jokes back at the screen by rote rather than celebrating the freedom of the experience.

In 2015, Rocky Horror celebrated its 40th anniversary with a special showing at the Royal Albert Hall. The crowd are a little older now – though plenty of teens are still finding it (and themselves through it) – for the first time. But they are no less riotous, no less loud, no less fabulous than they ever were. Free for one night to dress up in the sexiest, schlockiest gear they own and Do The TimeWarp Again.

Emma Burnell with Patricia Quinn who played Magenta in Rocky Horror at the 40th-anniversary celebrations


It may not be immersive cinema as it has become. But ultimately going to the Rocky Horror Picture Show (and it’s theatre equivalent)  has all the hallmarks of an immersive experience. An empowered audience, a joyous two-way experience and a sense of being part of things that is what draws the crowds to the immersive experience time and time again.

It is that wicked combination of freedom and frisson that Rocky Horror gives an audience that is at the heart of the immersive experience. The sense that if we “dream it” hard enough, we too can “be it”. Rocky Horror isn’t usually spoken of as ‘immersive cinema’ and the artform largely grew up separately from the cult phenomenon. But it is hard to miss the fact that all the elements are there and have been for more than forty years.


How I became soaked in dreams


In 2014, On my first night in New York City, I was taken to see Sleep No More. I fell in love. Not just with the production, but with the entire concept of immersive theatre. Later, on that same trip, I went to Then She Fell, a smaller, much more intimate experience and knew that this was what I wanted to spend my life engaging with.

Sleep No More
Sleep No More NYC

Since then I have established myself as a theatre reviewer for View From The Cheap Seat and have recently had my first immersive theatre feature in the Independent discussing issues around consent.

This will be a place where creative pieces – produced in response to artistic experiences – will sit alongside videos, photo montages, reviews, features, news articles and listings offering a complete experience to lovers and creators of immersive theatre.

Then She Fell
Then She Fell NYC

I have chosen the name Soaked in Dreams to try to convey the sense of wonder getting lost in immersive theatre gives me. I get to play with favourite characters like Alice in Wonderland, Macbeth and Jay Gatsby; I have taken charge of the war effort and stood witness to a drug-related murder. In exploring other’s conception of the dreamscape and its impact on my imagination, immersive theatre is as close as I have come to the semi-controlled sandbox of my dreams.


Emma Burnell with the cast of For King and Country, London
Emma Burnell with the cast of For King and Country, London

Immersive theatre at its best is about living out our dreams and, through that, exploring our own boundaries, decision making and conscience. This blog will have no limitation to the style of content it hosts, as long as it is inspired by – and in the spirit of – immersive theatre.