Immersive Theater in Pittsburgh

In immersive theater productions, you are not an audience member. You become an integral part of the story.

Photo by Handerson Gomes. Pictured: jomo ray (Custodian)

When you attend a theater production, you’re probably used to entering a theater, sitting down, and passively observing a story unfold on a stage. Occasionally, there may be interactive elements where a character on stage actually speaks to or engages with the audience, breaking the “fourth wall” that traditionally separates the audience and the performers. Participatory theater might encourage the audience to get involved on a minor level, from their seats. 

And then, on a whole different level, is immersive theater. 

I first encountered Bricolage after attending a performance of their show STRATA in 2012. It was my first experience with immersive theater and I had no idea what to expect. That fact - that I had no expectations and no idea of what was coming - made my first immersive theatrical experience one I will never forget.

You see, in immersive theater productions, you are not an audience member. You become an integral part of the story. The choices you make and your level of interaction determines your path. Remember those “choose your own adventure” books from your childhood? This is a real life version. You play a role in these performances - whether that is the role of a witness to what is unfolding, or the role of an actual character in the storyline. It truly is what you make of it.

Pittsburgh is so lucky to have Bricolage. Their mission is to immerse artists and audiences in adventurous theatrical experiences that foster connections and alter perceptions. They take risks to create unique environments that challenge themselves and their audiences to think about things differently. They are a key voice in the national conversation about the future of adventurous theater. They also partner with many Pittsburgh-based organizations (such as Scarehouse) to create their amazing productions.

Recently I attended their new large-scale immersive performance, DODO. DODO is produced in collaboration with the Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh and staged within the Carnegie Museums of Art and Natural History. The theme of the show is how the human race relates to the natural environment and other living creatures sharing this earth with us. DODO is as much a social commentary as it is a spiritual and sensory experience.

The physical museum space that DODO inhabited allows participants access to areas never open to the public. I found myself on a wooden catwalk in the attic of the museum, as well as in a preserved bird archive. Even the time spent journeying through the dark museum alone or in small groups was meaningful and somewhat ethereal.

At different times throughout the evening, I found myself interacting with performers and participants in different ways. I swung in a hammock with a delightfully chatty woman who played her ukelele for me. I stroked a preserved bird from 1911 while I spoke with an archivist who detailed the reproductive struggles of the nearly extinct Kakapo parrot. Later on, I shared some quiet time with another participant answering deep personal questions about our fears, hopes, and dreams. At other times, I was a silent participant in a group setting. I know I encountered actors, actual scientists, and museum security guards, but there were a few times where I’m not sure if the people I met and engaged with part of the show or not. It just adds to the mystery.

Photo by Handerson Gomes. Pictured: Michael McBurney (Explorer)

Immersive theater can be uncomfortable. This is what makes it so exhilarating. It pushes you out of your comfort zone, and frees you from societal conventions. There is something about immersive theater experiences that allow you to shed your notions of self and embrace the anonymity of the experience. Soon after beginning my DODO journey, I realized that no one here knew me. I could be whoever I wanted during these 90 minutes. This level of disconnection from my perception of myself allowed me to more fully “get into the action” and become a performer myself.

Bricolage’s immersive performances are so complex that it leaves me unable to adequately explain my time spent in them. Both DODO and STRATA were dream-like experience that are simultaneously surreal while also being painfully real. I only know three things for sure: This is something you have to experience for yourself to understand, I will never forget my experiences thus far, and I can’t wait for the next immersive Bricolage production.