Safety, Risk and Speculation in the Immersive Industry

Adam Alston
University of Surrey

An immersive theatre adaptation of The Wolf of Wall Street will be staged in London from September 2019. It comes with the full endorsement and support of Jordan Belfort, a stockbroker and convicted felon who wrote the infamous memoir that formed the basis of Martin Scorsese’s 2013 film of the same title.

The depiction of Belfort’s ruthless exploitation of investors, market manipulation and the extremities of his consumerism in both the memoire and the film made him into an anti-hero for the aspirational broker wannabe – and now, it seems, for anyone who wants a taste of his lifestyle. As Andrzej Lukowski put it in a promotional feature for Time Out, ‘If you’ve been itching to revel in the full-bore amorality of late capitalism while not actively risking jail, it is surely the show for you’.1

Immersive theatre’s embrace of commercial imperatives is well-documented – I touch on some of this in my article “Immersive theatre in austerity Britain: Les Enfants Terribles’ riot in the Saatchi Gallery and the liquidation of differencEngine”, which will appear in Contemporary Theatre Review 29.3 – but Belfort’s endorsement of the project and the company’s foregrounding of that endorsement in its publicity materials is worth singling out, as it captures something of immersive theatre’s trajectory over the past decade. As the popularity of immersive theatre has grown, so too has the interest of speculative investors. Major West-End and Broadway producers are now turning to immersive theatre as a viable source of profit. To a certain extent this is surprising as the capital and running costs tend to be especially high. Metropolitan audiences are also becoming increasingly discerning in their taste for intimate experiences, which have become the stock-and-trade of immersive theatre companies since Punchdrunk, Secret Cinema, dreamthinkspeak, Shunt and others established a set of audience expectations surrounding immersive experiences in the 2000s and early 2010s. These two factors can make scalability and sustainability challenging, but this hasn’t stopped the likes of Hartshorn – Hook Productions in the UK, and Emursive in the US, taking on substantial financial risk as they look to emulate the success of lucrative immersive experiences like Punchdrunk’s Sleep No More (2011-), which is now running for its ninth year in New York and still selling out on a regular basis under the guardianship of Emursive. And it is not just theatre producers who are doing the speculating. The Wolf of Wall Street: The Immersive Experience, which is the latest offering from Hartshorn – Hook’s collaboration with partner and writer Alexander Wright, will allow audiences to earn credits that can be used in the show world by selling tickets on the company’s behalf.2 Their website sets things out clearly enough: ‘The Immersive Wolf of Wall Street is offering you the chance to make some money. We’ve got something everyone wants to buy – and we want you to sell it. Every ticket buyer will be issued a unique ticket link. For every person that buys using your link, we will give you £5 worth of credit on your account’. Flogging 10 tickets gets you a bottle of champagne – 100 and you’ll be picked up in a sports car and driven straight to the bar. If you sell 4000, you get to have dinner with Belfort. Of course, audiences are not really given the chance to make money; instead, they are offered incentives to sell in a way that frames consumption within a closed economy as a superior reward to remuneration. It is as though the act of selling should prove its own reward: a way of getting in on the act by approximating the thrill of competition.

Perhaps this initiative is intended as a cynical commentary on the willingness of audiences to embrace free market capitalism – warts and all. Perhaps. But capitalism’s warts are no longer just an invisible bedrock underpinning commercial theatre production. They are flaunted as an aspirational quality to be embraced and embodied. One wonders what kind of ‘presumptive intimacy’ audiences are likely to expect and desire in a show that frames greed and exploitation as points of intense fascination, and as something that we might desire as audiences once presented with the prospect of interactivity. I’m borrowing the term ‘presumptive intimacy’ from a 2014 article by Keren Zaiontz. She describes it as a kind of ‘entitlement to the artistic production’ generated through material and multisensory encounters.3 Given Belfort’s own toxic masculinity, then – notoriously represented in Scorsese’s film in scenes depicting ‘midget throwing’ and the routine demeaning of sex workers and co-workers – where does this leave an audience encouraged to identify with ‘the full-bore amorality of late capitalism while not actively risking jail’? If we understand toxic masculinity as a kind of aggressive competitiveness that pays little regard to the welfare of self and others, particularly women, then issues around performer safety and consent need to be pulled firmly into the foreground.

Consent has become a major preoccupation among immersive theatre makers and critics on both sides of the Atlantic. For Tom Pearson, a founding co-director of US-based company Third Rail Projects, consent and responsibility toward audiences and performers are the most significant concerns affecting immersive theatre today.4 In part, he is responding here to a well-known Buzzfeed article by Amber Jamieson that exposed 17 cases of groping and sexual misconduct experienced by performers working on Sleep No More. On the basis of dialogue with several former employees, Jamieson cites the work’s eroticism, coupled with audience anonymity (all audiences wear carnivalesque masks in the show), as a key contributor to the assaults. For instance, one former steward reports that ‘Once you gave people a mask, it was carte blanche to let [audiences] do whatever they wanted’.5 An important problem with this view is it implies that the fault is with the performance rather than with an opportunistic audience member abusing the anonymity that the show affords them. At the same time, immersive and interactive theatres clearly present a set of risks to performer safety. These are not new concerns; performers in the Living Theatre’s environmental performance Paradise Now (1968) were reporting explicit and violent cases of sexual assault some 50 years previously.6 Nonetheless, a sense of ‘presumptive entitlement’ among immersive theatre audiences does seem to be putting performers at significant risk of sexual exploitation: a risk that one hopes the makers of The Wolf of Wall Street: The Immersive Experience will take into consideration.

It is not just performers who are exposed to physical risk in immersive events; so are theatre audiences. This is what prompted Punchdrunk to host an important event in July 2018 addressing audience safety in performance. But what tends to remain under the radar in discussions such as these, particularly in scholarly reflections on immersive experiences more so than in practitioner circles, are the fairly unique set of circumstances that particular kinds of immersive experience present to audience safety. One harrowing example occurred in January 2019, when five teenage girls, unable to free themselves and with no emergency exit, died in an escape room fire in Poland. Escape rooms are a significant growth area in the experience economy, with numbers rocketing from 7 to 1000 between 2013 and 2018 in London.7 Numbers have also risen in the US (in 2018 there were around 2000 such games across the country), although many are now being closed down by local authorities and fire marshals because of concerns about consumer safety in what, to date, has been a remarkably unregulated industry.8 A tragic fire at the Ghost Ship artist collective warehouse in Oakland in December 2016, which killed 36 people, has had a role to play in the US clamp down on fire safety regulation, and is very much in the consciousness of artists and critics exploring work in pop-up spaces in the US. But the companies hit hardest by the clamp down on licensing and regulation that followed are not the larger production companies running multi-million dollar projects who have the experience, wherewithal and capital to deal with uncertainty and potentially costly legal issues; it is emerging and small-scale companies. This was a recurring topic that came up at a networking meet-up in New York hosted by No Proscenium (a specialist website dedicated to immersive experiences) in June 2019. The meet-up was attended in the main by emerging companies and individual performers and designers who had been working in the industry for fewer than 5 years, although it was open to anyone. The majority of escape-room designers in attendance were looking to have their projects reinstated after being closed down by fire marshals and local authorities playing catch-up over the licensing of this breed of themed entertainment – and this while some of the largest entertainment producers in the world, including Disney’s plans for a ‘100% immersive’ Star Wars resort, are reframing the pitching of their brandscapes as the latest offering on the immersive scene.

This is not to say that the larger producing companies are somehow free from the embedding of precarity in this corner of the industry. In the UK, EBP and LimeLight Productions were planning to open the Buzz as a dedicated immersive theatre space in Borough, London. Building work had begun, and an immersive adaptation of the Thunderbirds television series was due to run from November 2018, but for undisclosed reasons the project folded and looks unlikely to reopen. In the US, Boxcar Theatre’s hit The Speakeasy, which opened in January 2014 in San Francisco’s Tenderloin neighbourhood, is also now set to close despite a $3.5 million investment in a new location that opened on the fringe of North Beach and Chinatown in 2016, largely because the show’s commercial revenue no longer balanced against substantive running costs, which included a payroll of around 120 employees.9 This is hardly a problem unique to immersive theatre, but taken together these examples do serve as a bellwether that suggests that the market for immersive experiences is not quite as stable as it once seemed.

It is important to raise these points given the ways in which ‘immersive’ – increasingly deployed as a floating signifier no longer attached to words like ‘theatre’ and ‘experience’ – is being celebrated as a significant cornerstone of the creative and cultural industries. Indeed, this is what prompts me to refer to the ‘immersive industry’ in the title of this Intervention, rather than to ‘immersive theatre’ per se, given the rapid and wide proliferation of interest in immersion. In a recent report by Ricky Brigante, an experience designer and former editor of Inside the Magic, ‘immersive entertainment’ is now an industry in its own right valued, the report claims, ‘at more than $4.5 billion – not even factoring in the $45.2 billion theme park industry’. The report represents survey data drawn from around 100 companies across a range of art and entertainment forms based predominantly, although not exclusively, in the US, as well as journalistic reports published on a range of online news sites where it is more difficult to ascertain the origins or veracity of the data. Nonetheless, it makes for interesting reading: $1 billion invested in immersive virtual reality entertainment projects in 2017; growth from $300 million to $1 billion in 2018 in the Haunted Attraction Industry, based on ticket sales alone; a $514 million escape room industry; the ‘aggressive expansion’ of an immersive experience company, Meow Wolf, into a multi-million dollar venture; a multi-million dollar annual turnover for Punchdrunk’s Sleep No More (2011-).10 And so on… Goldman Sachs has forecasted that the market for immersive experiences could be worth as much as $95 billion by 2025, whilst Citi have forecasted a $569 billion industry within the same timeframe.11 Speculation abounds.

A similar success story is occurring in the UK context, where growth of the immersive industry – and particularly anticipated growth – is being driven by substantial investment of public funds for the development of science- and business-led products and initiatives (rather than the arts per se). In 2016-17, investment of public funds in this area was nine times higher than in 2009-10, with yet more substantial increases on the way.12 For instance, one aspect of the UK government’s Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund – which is largely focused on boosting innovation and productivity in science and business – has been to support new research and development partnerships across the university sector and creative industries by offering £39 million of investment – rising to £80 million through HE and private sector match funding – through a new Creative Industries Clusters Programme, important parts of which are focused on immersive storytelling and immersive and interactive XR technologies. Another aspect of the Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund has ring-fenced £33 million for exploring the ‘Audience of the Future’, £18 million of which has been awarded to projects developing the next generation of immersive experiences. For Andrew Chitty, UKRI’s Challenge Director for Audience of the Future, the ambition behind this funding is for the UK to become ‘a world-leading destination for immersive content production bringing the new jobs and investment that is central to the Industrial Strategy and the Creative Industries Sector Deal’.13 In other words, the UK government has offered a significant vote of confidence in the future of immersion. Read alongside Brigante’s industry report, there is consequently much to suggest that business is booming in the ‘immersive’ industries, and that this boom is set to accelerate on both sides of the Atlantic – albeit by different means.

However, as I hope this Intervention and its accompanying article goes some way toward illustrating, the rapid expansion of interest in immersive experiences and significant growth in both supply and demand also brings with it a number of risks as the industry struggles to keep up with the pace of change. These risks are linked, firstly, to impressive financial figures that belie deep-seated economic precarity for companies, particularly theatre companies, who are just starting out, or who are in the early stages of their careers. While significant public funding supporting research and development is to be celebrated, this also makes it all the more important that attention is paid not just to the innovation of immersive technologies, or to the refinement of experience design for major businesses and cultural organisations, but to the material contexts that support this corner of the sector for workers across all career stages – including those who are looking to experiment with artistic practices regardless of impact on national productivity, who actively resist letting material conditions lead and define the creation of a work, and who are otherwise at risk of being left behind by the engines of commerce and industrial strategy.

Secondly, these risks are linked to the safety and welfare of those enfolded in a shape-shifting network of production and consumption, which requires urgent attention across all levels of engagement and interest in an industry that has now surpassed the terrain of novelty. The decision of one London venue to sign a pay agreement with Equity to ensure fair remuneration and better contracts for those working on immersive shows is certainly a step in the right direction, as are the incorporation of panic alarms for performers in Gatsby following publication of the now infamous Buzzfeed article exposing cases of sexual misconduct in immersive performances. However, on the basis of issues set out above surrounding regulation, licensing and harassment across the sector, there is still a way to go if the relationships between an emerging set of audience-consumer expectations and the willingness of companies to exploit those expectations are to be addressed.

It is the dialectic between audience expectation and the commodification of an immersive experience that will ultimately prove a litmus test for The Wolf of Wall Street: The Immersive Experience, and for the trajectory of ‘immersive’ more broadly as it floats across art forms, agendas, strategies, experiences, board meetings and perhaps even courts of law. If there is a word that best encapsulates the immersive phenomenon in the present moment, it is speculation. Creative and cultural organisations, entrepreneurs, investors, funding bodies, governments, engineers, imagineers and countless others are speculating about what the future of immersion could be, what it might feel like, and what it might do for individuals, businesses and even countries at the level of national productivity. While there is a positive side to speculation based on exploring the forefront of creativity and understanding, this word also has another, more familiar meaning: investment in the hope of gain. In evaluating the ways in which different organisations and individuals are approaching and engaging with ‘immersive’, however it ends up serving as a floating signifier, it is prudent to ask: who gains, and who is left behind to shoulder the risk? This strikes me as perhaps the most crucial barometer in assessing both the resilience and moral compass of the immersive industry as it evolves in the years ahead.

Dr. Adam Alston is Senior Lecturer in Theatre and Performance Studies at the University of Surrey. He is the author of Beyond Immersive Theatre: Aesthetics, Politics and Productive Participation (Palgrave Macmillan 2016), co-editor of Theatre in the Dark: Shadow, Gloom and Blackout in Contemporary Theatre (Bloomsbury 2017), and author of numerous articles exploring the production and reception of immersive experiences.

Acknowledgements
This Intervention builds on formal and informal conversations with a number of theatre makers, producers and journalists, several of whom are cited in its accompanying article. Of those not cited there, I would like to thank Kathryn Yu, Ricky Brigante (Pseudonym Productions) and Tom Pearson for their time and insights.

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Notes:

  1. Andrzej Lukowski, ‘An immersive theatre version of “The Wolf of Wall Street” is coming to London’, Time Out, 7 May 2019, https://www.timeout.com/london/news/an-immersive-theatre-version-of-the-wolf-of-wall-street-is-coming-to-london-050719, accessed 12 June 2019.
  2. The Wolf of Wall Street: The Immersive Experience is co-produced by Hartshorn – Hook and Showtime Theatre Productions. Their collaboration has prompted the launch of a new company called Immersive Everywhere.
  3. Keren Zaointz, ‘Narcissistic Spectatorship in Immersive and One-on-One Performance’, Theatre Journal, 66 (2014), p. 410.
  4. Tom Pearson, Personal phone interview, 31 May 2019.
  5. Amber Jamieson, ‘Performers And Staffers At “Sleep No More” Say Audience Members Have Sexually Assaulted Them’, Buzzfeed, 6 February 2018, https://www.buzzfeednews.com/article/amberjamieson/sleep-no-more, accessed 31 May 2019.
  6. John Tytell, The Living Theatre: Art, Exile and Outrage (London: Methuen, 1997), p. 259.
  7. BBC (anon), ‘Escape room fire kills five teenagers in Poland’, BBC.com, 5 January 2019, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-46765692, accessed 31 May 2019.
  8. Ricky Brigante, Interactive, Intimate, Experiential: The Impact of Immersive Design, ed. Noah Nelson, with additional contributions by Kathryn Yu & Rachel Stoll (San Francisco: Immersive Design Summit, 2019), p. 14.
  9. Boxcar Theatre, ‘BOXCAR THEATRE’S HIT SHOW THE SPEAKEASY TO CLOSE ON AUGUST 4’, emailed press release, 29 May 2019.
  10. Brigante, pp. 14-15.
  11. Juan Mateos-Garcia, Konstantinos Stathoulopoulos and Nick Thomas, The immersive economy in the UK: The growth of virtual, augmented and mixed reality technologies (Innovate UK), p. 10.
  12. Mateos-Garcia, Stathoulopoulos and Thomas, The immersive economy, p. 43.
  13. Andrew Chitty qtd. in Innovate UK, UK Research and Innovation, Margot James, and Chris Skidmore, ‘UK takes centre stage in immersive entertainment revolution’, Gov. UK, 10 January 2019, https://www.gov.uk/government/news/uk-takes-centre-stage-in-immersive-entertainment-revolution, accessed 12 June 2019.

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