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Air Raids, Ghosts & Escape Rooms: Inside New York’s Immersive Theater Boom

Don’t hold your breath for an aisle seat. Theatergoers in New York this summer are crouching on the floor in a simulated air raid, sirens blaring. Or they’re standing in a stairwell, watching an actress swoon and tumble down steps. Or they might be at a coffee shop when a text message asks them to engage in a little espionage

Ever since its rise to prominence five years ago, immersive theater — that hard-to-pin-down genre that’s environmental, experiential and interactive — is everywhere. “Immersive” is now a buzzword in everything from VR to branding to amusement parks, name-checked for projects as varied as the new NFL-Cirque du Soleil attraction in Times Square and Disney’s Star Wars Land. Two grandfathers of New York’s immersive theater scene, 2011’s “Sleep No More” and 2012’s “Then She Fell,” are both still running. With the fourth-wall-breaking design of “Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812,” it has even made it to Broadway.

Now three pioneers of the form have new projects up and running that test the already-malleable rules of the form and experiment with new business models — particularly addressing the challenges of replicability and scaling up. In a medium that largely traffics in nonlinear, dance-based fragments of narrative and mood, “Seeing You,” (pictured) now playing in a former market in the Meatpacking District, tries to tell more of a story. The hourlong show follows a WWII-era family and its friends through a sometimes dreamlike odyssey of life in wartime — with a particular emphasis on the dynamics of gender, sexuality and race.

“You might get a text telling you to meet a stranger in the park.”
Michael Counts, producer

The show is created by Randy Weiner, a producer of “Sleep No More,” who’s had a hand in notable immersive productions like “The Donkey Show” and “Queen of the Night.” He co-directs with choreographer Ryan Heffington, best known as Sia’s choreographer. Unlike many immersive productions, which are tailored to specific, idiosyncratic venues, “Seeing You” takes place in one big open space that’s transformed repeatedly as the audience moves through it. The single-level footprint is smaller than, for instance, the 100,000 square feet of “Sleep No More,” and it’s designed to be replicated at venues of a similar size. “Theoretically, it’s the first step toward a show where someone could call and say, ‘I’m having a bar mitzvah; can you have your show here?’” says Weiner.

“Ghost Light,” the latest project by “Then She Fell” creators Third Rail Projects, takes another approach. Unlike most immersive shows, “Ghost Light” is performed in a traditional proscenium theater — but it shepherds audiences through vignettes set in the wings, in dressing rooms and in the green room.

The show, a haunted and allusive tour through the makings of theater magic, is in the midst of its premiere at Lincoln Center’s Claire Tow Theater. But it could, with a bit of tailoring, play anywhere — thereby opening up Third Rail’s work to bookings in more traditional venues. “The spaces that ‘Ghost Light’ requires are the spaces that every theater has,” says Zach Morris, one of the three artistic directors of Third Rail.

Perhaps the grandest ambitions come from Michael Counts, whose late-’90s work in Brooklyn with his company Gale Gates (“So Long Ago I Can’t Remember — A Divine Comedy”) helped usher in the current vogue for immersive. With his theater/escape-room hybrid “Paradiso: Chapter 1” already up and running, previews have recently begun for “Paradiso: Chapter 2,” but this one conjured in a 360-video setting. Counts has a total of five chapters planned for the paranoia-driven tale of a sinister corporation and an underground resistance. But the most unusual element might be “The Path of Beatrice,” a companion experience that infiltrates your daily life for about a week, a la David Fincher’s “The Game.” You might get a text telling you to meet a stranger in the park, or someone in your neighborhood may give you a mysterious message.

“I’m driving toward this idea of an ongoing game in a theatrical context,” Counts says. “Maybe you have a subscription, and we’d impose this immersive theater narrative over New York City that you’re on the inside of. That becomes really wild and compelling.”

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