Interactive Theater Comes Into Its Own

by Awl Sponsors

This is the second installment in a three-part series on the history of interactive theater, presented by Heineken. Check out the first post here.

Interactive theater has always been with us, but the form bloomed into a dozen variations in the 20th Century. Heineken’s “The Guest of Honor” is an example of the cutting edge of the art, a conglomeration of play, funhouse, and role-playing game. But to get here, many strains of participatory entertainment had to converge over the last hundred years.

People who experience events at The McKittrick Hotel, as seen in the video above, often come away comparing it to a haunted house attraction. This form of entertainment, and its sister amusement, the fun house, began in the early 1900s, with ghosts, monsters, killers and oddities interacting with audiences who moved through the attraction at their own pace.

Meanwhile, the traditional theater scene brought innovations as well. In 1934, the play Night of January 16th allowed audience members to become the jury in a courtroom drama, deciding if the defendant was guilty or not. The Sixties’ art school hippies brought us “happenings,” short-lived spectacles that took place in some public place that were designed to freak out unsuspecting folks who might be wandering by.

In 1963 the first Renaissance Fair was held in Los Angeles, with over 8,000 attendees interacting with blacksmiths, peasants, fools and knights. The rise of role-playing games, which allowed players to create and share alternate realms of adventure and magic, allowed the storyteller to collaborate with players. A decade later this practice would evolve into family dinner theater experiences, with various spectacles dependent on crowd participation.

This trend developed over the following few years as “invisible theater,” which might look like a couple having a fight in a crowded city square, or an argument at a coffee shop. These countercultural strands wove into the mainstream in 1985’s Drood, a theater adaptation of an unfinished Charles Dickens novel, which allowed the audience to vote on a whodunnit mystery with seven possible outcomes.

Interactive theater reaches its present age of flourish at the turn of the century, a moment we’ll explore in the third and final installment of this series, presented by Heineken.