Diving In – A Look at Immersive Theater in the Philippines

While our concept of theater might be the traditional plays and musicals, the reality is that the performing arts are constantly evolving. Technology is one aspect, with productions continually pushing the envelope when it comes to the technical aspects of the staging. However, much of that development also has to do with performances and direction. Immersive theater is a currently expanding frontier in the local theater scene, and it’s something for both longtime fans and new enthusiasts to take note of. Here’s a look at what exactly immersive theater means, and where you can try it out in the Metro.

Defying Definition

When it comes to taking a couple of hours out of your day and losing yourself in a piece of media, there’s nothing quite like the theater. There’s a level of intimacy and inclusion that you can’t quite get from a movie. It might just be the experience of sitting in a dark room and watching another person put on a performance a few meters away, but going to the theater really is something special.

Immersive theater takes that experience one step further by removing the boundaries between the audience and the performance piece.  It turns the traditional definitions of theater upside down, allowing the viewer to become an active participant in the story. According to Contemporary Performance, immersive theater emphasizes space and design, utilizing both to guide the story and the audience members.

Rather than allowing audiences to remain passive observers, theater companies like Punchdrunk in the UK let the audience create their own theater experiences for themselves. Many immersive theater companies will make use of a whole building or set of rooms as their set, rather than the typical flat stage in traditional theater. Once inside the staging area you’re free to roam around and explore the environment and build your own story as you go. Think of “choose your own adventure” books, but in real life.

The Local Stage

If theater is a niche hobby in the Philippines, then immersive theater is more so. Most shows take the traditional format, and even then the blockbusters tend to be shows that have been imported from abroad. For example, the touring cast for the 2018 run of The Lion King pulled in record ticket sales, a feat virtually unheard of in the local scene and most probably due to the big name and production value of the show.

Still, theater is alive and well in the country, and many productions are going beyond the traditional stage and audience format. A recent staging of Every Brilliant Thing allowed audiences to come onstage and improvise with actress Teresa Herrera, involving them in the play itself. PETA’s Charot! also invited audience participation through interactive app Mentimeter, which allowed the direction of some parts of the script to change according to the results.

Stepping Into a Role

Involving audiences and changing stage set-ups have long been part of the evolution of theater, but for a truly immersive experience Philippine theatergoers may have to dig a little deeper. Luckily, there are some companies out there that are ready to take up the mantle.

Breakout Philippines, known for its escape rooms in branches all over the Metro, has taken steps into immersive theater. With live action thriller SIX, participants were guided by cast members through various rooms to unravel mysteries and explore their own narratives. The experience was definitely heightened by having only six audience members allowed to participate per show, and although the show closed in January 2019, Breakout has promised more immersive theater experiences this year.

You can also choose to check out Bahay Trese in Sta. Lucia East Grand Mall, which takes the more traditional storytelling route of a haunted house. It’s one of the longer-running immersive theater shows in the country, and is headed by Lightbulb Moments Entertainment. Guests even have an option for face paint and makeup, to really get into the zone.

While these two are currently the most prominent immersive theater shows in the country, more support for the art form will enable more companies to step into the fray. In a rapidly changing entertainment landscape where personalization is key, the power of an immersive show is sure to bring audiences back for more.

Want to see what else is on in the Metro? Check out the Lifestyle category on Daydreaming in Paradise!