How Immersive Theater Changed Entertainment Forever



This is the first in a three-part series about the history of interactive theater, presented by Heineken. We’ll be rolling out the second and third installments next week right here on The Awl. Make sure to check in next Monday and Friday for more content to satisfy your historical curiosity.

Last month Heineken pulled off an epic experience for some unsuspecting New Yorkers when they invited them to an interactive theater production, “The Guest of Honor,” that invited them to become stars of the show. Check this video out to see how it went down.

Cool, huh? As it happens, this groundbreaking form of entertainment has a rich history. In this series brought to you by Heineken, we’re exploring a burgeoning art form that encourages audiences to be actors, not spectators. In this installment we’re learning about the early roots of interactive theater.

The delineation between audience and performer has been blurry since the dawn of entertainment, with early man’s shamans reaching heightened states of consciousness alongside an audience of actors. Evidence of this activity has been discovered all over the world, in every tribe and tongue, which says something about the universality of participatory theater.

Typically a shaman would go into a trance or some other divine mode of being, providing them with a unique link to an alternate world. The audience asks for rain, for a harvest, a healing or a birth. The shaman interacts with the spirit world, and in turn the shaman interacts with the audience. The entire village was more than just spectators in these proceedings–they were also actors. It was a way for a tribe to come together to experience something as one.

Here we have the origins of call-and-response, a musical form wherein a leader calls out a command or asks a question and an audience replies with an affirmation or a contradiction. This ancient form of entertainment draws the spectator in and asks him or her to play a role in the performance. We see call and response throughout history in the drum circles and tribal religions across the globe. Throughout the modern era we see call-and-response in military formations, line dances, and the spirituals of the American South. Each of these forms put a new spin on interactive theater, which brings us up to the 20th Century.

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In our next installment, we discover how murder mystery dinner theaters, haunted houses, video games and choose your own adventure books paved the way for the kind of interactive theater that we’re seeing in the 21st Century.