The Missing Link to Real Immersion

“Immersive entertainment” is the industry’s most recent Holy Grail, so why have most attempts come up short of the real deal?

The Missing Link to Real Immersion
by Chris Blockus
September 6, 2015

The September 2015 issue of Wired magazine focuses on “the new cultural literacy,” which they define loosely as the things that you weren’t taught in school but need to know to thrive in the present.  Innovations in entertainment are featured prominently, and Wired argues that all forms are becoming more immersive. They point to world-building executives like Geoff Johns (DC Entertainment’s CCO), VR movie producers like Chris Milk and Aaron Koblin, and musicians like Thundercat who help make albums sonically thematic.  Wired’s editors must have read the last iot blog post! Wired is always a great read, but this particular feature has one big problem: nothing featured is actually immersive at all.

All of the “immersive” entertainment highlighted in the Wired feature allows audiences to dig deeper into the source material, but the editors seem to have forgotten that immersion actually requires involvement.  Marvel’s shared cinematic universe is impressive, but doesn’t involve you in any way. Similarly, Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly is compelling, but falls short of involving the audience. These examples point to a fundamental limitation in much of entertainment media: it is pre-recorded. Gripe as much as you want about The Mandarin twist in Iron Man 3, that bell was rung far before you set foot in the theater, and you can’t do anything about it. Ever.

Involvement means you have a say in the story as it unfolds, and even in an age of ubiquitous digital technology, that has proven to be a pretty tall order for entertainers. The video game designer Peter Molyneux is so famous for walking back his proclamations about how immersive his creations will be that he inspired an equally famous twitter impersonator (@PeterMolydeux) to devote an entire feed to creating absurd pronouncements about imaginary games. The problem is that for entertainment to be immersive, it also has to be somewhat open-ended, and computers still aren’t advanced enough to respond authentically in an open-ended world.

Human beings have always been up to the task, though.  The “Drake vs. Lil’ Wayne” tour was based around the concept that the rappers were locked in a battle and the audience could help determine the winner.  The key element that made this concert so exciting was that the audience could finally do something with their conviction that one rapper was superior, and the performers were brave enough to be flexible in the face of uncertainty.  This is what it means to be truly immersive: to share a co-created experience.    

Because they’re live, theatrical productions have more potential than any other entertainment media to unleash the power of immersive co-creation, but telling an open-ended story together raises some unique challenges. How do you quickly establish setting? What limitations are placed upon the cast? How do you drive plot without a set script? It turns out, though, that these problems were solved a long time ago. They have even been honed into the well-understood principles of improvisational performance.

In his talk at TedxVictoria, Dave Morris lays out 7 skills utilized in the process of improvisation.  In programs like “Make a Scene” and “Kids’ improv 101,” iot has boiled down this framework even further into just three basic principles: attention, acceptance, and selflessness. These simple concepts underpin any type of shared improvisational experience, and should be fairly easy to spot when watching familiar short-form improv comedy scenes. That’s just the beginning, though!  

Those same concepts apply equally to dramatic performance, cross genre lines, and scale exceptionally well. Even a large-scale production with an inexperienced cast can be strikingly coherent and cohesive when seasoned veterans take on the supporting roles and provide mentorship for novices. By modeling successful execution of these improvisation strategies and creating opportunities for novices to employ them, seasoned performers act as guides for the inexperienced without slowing down the production. You don’t need to be Confucius to see that “the grass must bend, when the wind blows across it!”

The principles and techniques that compose the process of improvisation are the key to truly immersive theatre, and all iot productions lean heavily on them. The great news is that improv is like Othello: it takes a minute to learn and a lifetime to master, so you’ll have plenty of iot performances and programs to keep you busy while you wait for Wired to issue a correction to their article.