Immersive Theater is definitely Saving the World

An excited crowd lines up around the block. Some are dressed up as characters from the film. Some have even been camping out for days in anticipation of the release.

The hot new SciFi flick has many fans in a frenzy, and yet there is something interesting about it all which is quietly brushed aside. No one believes this is saving the world. No one in the line thinks it’s real. Everyone is there to celebrate a fictional story, about fictional people, doing fictional things. And it’s just this – the pure imagination – which has them excited. Why?

They don't believe Star Wars is saving the world
Star Wars Fans in 1977

Because they aren’t being preached to. They aren’t being convinced of anything. They aren’t being asked to change themselves or lead a new lifestyle. It’s a temporary commitment, a fleeting experience. Like a one night stand, it’s not going to impact their life choices. And they like that.

It’s a commitment-free zone.

And paradoxically, it’s this freedom which entices them into latching on and identifying with the story of their own free will. It’s this very non-commital freedom which encourages the rise of the ‘superfan’ to deeply integrate these stories into their lifestyle. To learn alien languages, to buy the bed sheets, to hang the spaceship ornaments from their Christmas trees, to join the online forums, even to vlog and write eccentrically in-depth film reviews. Why?

It’s human nature to Get Involved. To Participate. To find a mission and execute upon it. To stand for something, to identify with a cause. All in an effort to find that sense of purpose. Fulfillment. Making an impact. Influencing culture in their own unique way, by openly representing something that resonates with their worldview.

So, step back for a moment and consider what sort of content is normally considered ‘useful’ in today’s world. It’s usually NOT the fictional stories as described above. The content typically considered practical and useful tend to have a very concrete educational goal. Non-fiction works designed to inform and lecture on important topics. Works which actively engage the critical mind and ask for a high investment of mental energy to understand a certain social situation. This is adult content, but what about children’s content?

Consider the most famous, award-winning media for children. It’s virtually all imbued with powerful social education. Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood, The Lion King, Sesame Street. More frivolous content like “Loony Tunes” tends not to win the awards.

So the question arises…why do children get to have all the fun? Clearly, as seen in the SciFi example at the beginning, adults love stories and resonate with fictional works. And yet, adult educational content tends to be factual and lecture based without much imagination. How and why did these things become separate?

It’s all about the ability to make an impact by participating. Adults who feel they can participate in fiction gravitate toward that, and adults who feel they can participate only in non-fiction gravitate toward that.

There’s a phenomenon called ‘Suspension of Disbelief’. Disbelief, also known as skepticism, is the primal mechanism designed to discern truth from lies. When a person of any age watches ‘The Lion King’, they are not being asked to believe in an actual documented truthful story about lions living their lives. It’s clear that the Lions are representations of personalities in a fictional world. Disbelief in the ‘truth’ of the plot and the characters is temporarily suspended, which allows for a genuine emotional impact to take place. Through this ‘portal’ of fiction, people are impact and lives are changed on the emotional and internal narrative level. Those who cannot suspend their disbelief cannot emotionally participate in the experience. They don’t allow it to make an impact on them, typically because they don’t logically see how it could lead to the impact they desire to make on the world.

So within this, we can notice there is an underlying energetic framework of receiving in order to give. You can’t give what you don’t have, and you must receive in order to give. So a general rule of thumb is that people who want to make an impact by being ‘smart’ are motivated to watch ‘smart making’ media. The free will comes in when we notice that every person has their own personal definitions of ‘good’ and ‘smart’ and ‘helpful’ – hence different tastes in media consumption.

Here are some reasons why there is often a split between ‘fictional content’ vs ‘educational content’ :

  1. Adults fail to see how their worldly impact can be improved by watching fiction and so it gets deemed ‘guilty pleasures’
  2. Adults are triggered by being spoken to like they are children
  3. Adult content creators are afraid of triggering other adults
  4. Adults are more skeptical than children
  5. Adults have lower standards for fun than children do
  6. Adults have different (often darker) definitions of fun than children do
  7. Adults generally have a desire to appear a certain way and consuming non-fiction content may help them to appear ‘smarter’
  8. Based on good person/bad person conditioning, adults may unconsciously feel guilt-driven social responsibility to become educated on certain topics (leading to #4)
  9. With all of these freakin’ roadblocks, it takes an incredibly courageous imagination to design educational fiction for adults (which in the industry would be translated as ‘hard’ to do)

Phew! So many reasons (and counting) why NOT to create educational fiction! There are major cultural/emotional roadblocks in the way of this.

However, as we become more and more conscious of this cultural/emotional conditioning we are waking up more empowered than ever and finding ourselves able to pioneer new fields.

The industry’s first go at Virtual Reality was a bust, but now it seems like we’re much more ready to receive it. Thus, we are seeing a new revolution in Virtual Reality, Augmented Reality, Transmedia Storyworlds, Immersive Theater, Movies that are experienced more like video games, and video games which are experienced more like movies.

Theater is, of course, the oldest form of entertainment. Greek plays to this day influence much of our culture and literature.

And what exactly is Immersive Theater? Very simply put, it’s the play without the stage. It’s a Theatrical Experience in which the audience is given permission or requested to somehow participate in the storyline. The most relatable example of immersive Theater might be that of a typical haunted house. The presence of the audience is the focus of the actors. Without the audience, the actors wouldn’t be jumping out to scare anyone. The audience generally moves through the scene at their own self-guided pace. Because they are literally a ‘part’ of the experience, it feels much more ‘real’ than if they were to watch a video of a haunted house.

However, most haunted houses don’t have much of a ‘plot’ – so their impact is limited to cheap scares without much of a personal impact (other than emotional trauma). When an immersive theater is designed around a well-considered plot it becomes an incredibly powerful and unforgettable experience. Oftentimes, in fact, these experiences are worthy of repeating because the self-guided pace creates for unique journeys through the same plots multiple times.

Immersive Theater provides a deep impact because being a ‘part’ of the environment makes it easier to suspend disbelief. When you’re in it, you’re IN it. And thus, a new possibility of educational experiences based on fictional realities are opened up. New audiences are made accessible, who may never have been previously interested in or impacted by fictional plots.

Advanced learning experts frequently recommended moving your body while learning something new. If we keep still, we are not as fully engaged and it takes more mental ‘willpower’ to understand a concept. Similarly, if we are ‘moving’ through a story while learning information, we are many times more likely to remember it because stories create landmark points in our awareness. For example, there is a fictional story sometimes taught to middle schoolers which displays an illustration for each president, thereby teaching the students the names and the chronology of every USA president from beginning to end in a single day.

Memorization is one thing, but Immersive Theater experiences really have an opportunity to shine when developing social skills such as leadership and emotional intelligence. These universally valuable’soft’ skills are very lacking in today’s standard educational systems. What’s interesting about these types of ‘skills’ in particular is that authentic emotional intelligence is achieved most effectively through an ‘unlearning’ process, more than a ‘learning’ process.

It’s our ancestral trauma, emotional conditioning passed down through family lineages, which makes it difficult to intuitively feel and navigate what seems to be tricky emotional territories. These traumas are literally chronic muscle tensions in the body, connected with habitual thinking patterns, which prevent the proper flow of electrical impulses – thereby distorting our emotional signals and creating false interpretations of circumstances. In other words, creating false narratives – fictional stories.

It’s this very addiction – the unconscious traumatized magnetism to fictional stories – which makes works of fiction attractive. Through experiencing fiction, we get to witness reflections of our own stories. We get to come to terms with opportunities to complete patterns which have been playing on repeat for decades – and lifetimes before us. We may not realize what is actually happening when a fictional story gives us an ah-ha moment – we are unlearning.

Unlearning fictional narratives about ourselves is what the world most needs right now. This is the root cause of negative self-image/low self-worth, depression, mind-chatter, mental illness, and even physical illnesses such as many auto-immune issues. Underlying fictional narratives are also certainly at the root of outward expressions of violence as well.

Clearly, the word is littered with all of the above issues and it will take innovative new approaches to address them. It’s proven impractical to expect everyone with these issues to seek the right treatment. People for the most part simply aren’t drawn to investing in themselves or allowing their tender parts to be seen by others in intimate situations. By presenting experiences offering similarly transformational results in the form of an entertainment experience, we’re able to make this work both more attractive to a wider audience – and potentially more effective at the same time.

It’s like the haunted house has been gutted and remodeled – is no longer haunted – and helps you instead of hurts you! Every time we can recover an individual’s core power, we are one step closer to saving the world.

The Quantum Theater is experimenting with live cutting edge Immersive Theater awakening experiences for this very purpose, currently taking place in Bali, Indonesia. We also offer online 1 on 1 Immersive Theater experiences called DaoPlay.

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by Joshua Falcon-Grey

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JoshuAlive
Immersive Experience Designer
Joshua Falcon-Grey is a multidimensional artist, experience designer, author, public speaker/comedian, and transformational leadership facilitator. Originally from California, he can often be found throughout Thailand, in Bali, or in Europe.

2 thoughts on “Immersive Theater is definitely Saving the World

  1. Great article! This is very articulate and insightful writing about a fascinating idea.

    For my Capstone project for my VR course, I created an experience called Afterlight in which you – the central character – navigate a kind of hazy purgatory-like maze world. The maze is a maze of your own memories, and you slowly discover who you are, and that you have died, caught in a holding place between life and death. The central emotional anchor is a desire to connect with your daughter one last time, which turns into a quest to reassemble your memories so you can transcend the veil and experience one last embrace. The final scene involves you literally transforming into a bird, as you find acceptance and a new perspective on life, love, loss, and your role in the universe.

    I created this project because it gave me a chance to speak to the viewer/participant via a soundtrack of their own thoughts, in a way helping to create a feel immersion in the thematic content.

    I’ll be excited to see where you take this! I find interactive storytelling a very challenging medium, but full of creative possibilities. Keep us posted!

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