Improvisation Immersion: Unlocking Your Performing Superpowers

Improvisation Immersion: Unlocking Your Performing Superpowers

The Meisner Technique: Your Sonic Screwdriver for Immersive Acting

Back in my graduate school days when I had ivory-tower wishes and PhD dreams, an advisor told me to think of theory as a toolkit. You go out in the field, you encounter something puzzling, and you then select the theory that can best chisel away at the problem. A nice utilitarian approach – and I’m definitely a utilitarian.

When it comes to immersive acting, the Meisner technique is the freaking Sonic Screwdriver in my toolkit. I would be at cosmic sea without it, and with it? Well, I’m pretty much The Doctor. Audience control is cool, Matt Smith in BBC’s Dr. Who.

Disclaimer: I am no Meisner expert. I am a beginner at best, imposter at worst. I’ve taken some 28 class periods – hardly enough to qualify as an authority who knows what they’re talking about. But whatever, it still changed everything for me, so I’ll write about it, and you can decide.

Meisner wanted what we all want: recognizable human behavior on stage. But that ain’t easy. The Meisner technique is an inside-out approach, by fixing your inner workings, specifically where you focus your attention when acting. Your outer body will follow the lead and behave naturally.

Sanford Meisner told his students, “The text is your greatest enemy.” Why? Because you know what’s going to happen. You’ve memorized it. Your scene partners’ lines come as no surprise to your ears. You tune them out. And the director says you need to move here on this line every time. You anticipate it. How on earth are you supposed to retain a shred of humanity when, after a few rehearsals, you are more like an automaton?

Clinging to spontaneity is the key. We live our lives improvisationally – that’s what it is to be human. We figure it out as we go, we speak at the edge of our thoughts, and we’re rarely self-conscious. Meisner must have a huge thing for improv theatre – it’s electric, after all. His technique is all about bottling that quintessentially human electricity and unleashing it on scripted performance.

The actor has two fundamental problems: 1) You don’t just listen with your ears. You also listen with your eyes. We are extremely fluent in reading human behavior without really being consciously aware of it. 2) Stop feeling. Start doing. Focus either on the person you’re talking to or the task you are doing, and really do it, but never focus on yourself.

The Meisner repetition exercise forces what is usually subtext into text. It trains you to name the behaviors you see in your scene partner and respond to those behaviors with your gut. Instead of being mad on this line, try convincing the person instead. Use tactics, not feelings – verbs, not adjectives – to figure out your character, because that’s how human beings live.

Now imagine an imaginary landscape where one half of this partnership has no idea what’s going on, has to listen to you closely because they’re hungry to understand better, and is so deeply invested in what’s happening that they betray the most honest human behavior you’ve ever seen. I don’t want to get too metaphysically sentimental, but dear audience, sometimes you are too bright and beautiful to look at. That’s immersive theatre. That’s a Meisner actor’s dream.

Eyes Before Engagement: The Power of Foreshadowing

Zoom magic is a bit of a mess. One of the great joys of the long-running immersive is it becomes something of a laboratory. You get to experiment in tiny little ways – on humans – who are paying you for the privilege. Over and over again.

Between you and me, if I had to point at just one element that earned The Man From Beyond the title of #1 escape room in the US (that links legit click it), it’d be our commitment to experimenting with little changes until we get at something that works.

After countless experiments, I’m here to report on a particularly useful tool that I call Eyes before Engagement. At Strange Bird Immersive, we pride ourselves on an opt-in model for interactions. It guarantees that everyone who comes through our door will get the show they want. If you want engagement – and trust me, we can tell – you’ll get it. If you want us to leave you be, most often signaled in not looking at the performer, we’ll do exactly as you wish.

But there are a couple of moments in our script where engagements depend not on your vibe, but on where you choose to sit or stand in the room. Which means the person who is sometimes not-that-keen to engage must nonetheless be engaged. How do you make that engagement smooth?

Right before I ask a particular person a question or request an action, I make eye contact with them. The kind of eye contact that you feel. Sometimes I even lean in with my body a little to make it clear I want their eyes in particular. It’s usually about two lines before the ask in the script. My eyes briefly go elsewhere, and then they come back to my target on the line of request. The initial eye contact makes sure that they’re paying attention right at that moment and subconsciously preps them to be put on the spot. Then they are suddenly put on the spot, and their response is seamless and lovely, as if they knew the moment was coming. Everyone can feel the magic.

What really confirms for me that Eyes before Engagement works is when they fail to return eye contact with me or when I plumb-forget to target them ahead of the ask. It’s harder to get someone’s eyes the first time than the second time. It suddenly becomes ambiguous just who it is I’m asking – often that eager-to-interact friend butts in to take the spotlight, UGH – or my target stumbles through their moment. It doesn’t get a laugh. It doesn’t draw people in. It’s a botched moment.

Be a mountain lion. Eyes before Engagement. Give it a try, and see how much readier they are to respond.

Meisner and the Immersive Audience: A Match Made in Heaven

A disconcerting but very real possibility. Well, we’ll see what happens next. In The Man From Beyond, our acting style is like jazz. We have a set structure and certain beats to hit, but the cast interprets the tune a little differently every time to fit our audiences’ behavior and our own impulses in the moment. After a performance this weekend with a talkative group, Brad Winkler gushed, “I was scat-singing that whole scene.” Which, like jazz, feels magical. Sometimes it feels REALLY magical.

Here are a few ways we’re using the concept of responding to reality – that thing that just happened – to enhance immersion.

Recently, Strange Bird Immersive had the pleasure of hosting Jessica Goldman of the Houston Press to read her review of the show. Early in the experience, I looked over my shoulder at her – a classic clocking of the audience. Her friend grinned and warned me, “Don’t trust her.” Daphne responded, “My dear, I don’t trust anyone. I’m a medium. I’ve learned that over time.” Whenever I get interesting material from the audience, I try to call back to it, even beyond the immediate response. This simple comment grew into a larger and totally original theme that night, highlighting Daphne’s vulnerability with her audience. It was neat – and it’ll never happen again. That’s special.

Not many immersives have the luxury of being able to stop the show, but the structure of ours allows some wiggle room. An audience member once started coughing something fierce during Rules Hall. With a space so intimate, no one could ignore it – and why should we? I stopped the scene, asked if I could help, and she said, “Yes, I’d like to use my inhaler. Could I go get it, please?” Of course, my dear. Two minutes later, we resume, and everyone proceeds to enjoy a cough-free experience. Now, that’s customer service. Eat your heart out, proscenium theatre.

Our other character in the show once had the players run out on him into the neighboring room in a wild attempt to solve his puzzle – when the correct solution is a simple answer to his simple question. I’m not certain what they were hoping to find out there, but the actor had to get them back in the other room. He objected, “This doesn’t feel right. I don’t think I should be here. I should be back in the other room with all my things.” He used the metaphysical logic we created for the show to lure them back to where they needed to be. Brilliant.

I am all for writing backstory for your characters, with the guidepost being choosing details that raise the stakes of your text – it’s not imagination for imagination’s sake. But in immersive theatre, it’s even more important to know your character. That backstory may just become the story sometimes.

Unlocking the Power of Text in Immersive Theatre

Immersive theatre uniquely positioned as responsive storytelling should use words freely. Especially when something attention-grabbing happens, words help diffuse the tension between the reality of the moment and the imaginary world of the story. Auteur theatre can only dream of such powers.

At Strange Bird, we never stop iterating our puzzles. But what about questions to the players or calls to engagement – moments that aren’t explicitly puzzles? You should iterate those too. People staring blankly at you when you ask a question? Probably this isn’t the response you had in mind. Just like an under-clued puzzle that’s causing frustration, this interaction is broken. So fix it.

At the opening of The Strange Secret of Mr. Adrian Rook, guests meet Vivian Mae, proprietress of Definitely Not a Speakeasy. We knew we wanted a secret-themed engagement with the audience, so in our initial draft, Vivian Mae opened by asking one guest to share a secret as tribute for entry. But I got feedback that opening the show with an engagement so intimate was challenging. When I looked at it, I saw this was the most challenging engagement of the whole show.

So we moved the question to the end of Vivian Mae’s scene when she has built more trust and has shared examples of other little secrets. We also changed the text to suggest easy secrets to help coax folks: “Your turn. Does anyone here have a secret you’d like to share? It can be a small one. No need to turn your hair into a feather or anything. A simple secret will do.” The engagement again went okay, but two public shows in, 20% of groups were offering a secret, while the other 80% stared awkwardly at her. That’s way too many groups. Interactions shouldn’t be like pulling teeth.

I have some theories. The format of the show wasn’t kind to this engagement. There’s a group of 7 other people – some of whom you may not know – watching. Due to the virtual format, every engagement in The Strange Secret felt like stepping into a spotlight more than we’d like. Speaking over Zoom feels like that in general, which is really problematic. It’s possible such a question would work better in a one-on-one interaction between character and player so that the player doesn’t feel the pressure to entertain their friends and can stay fully anonymous too.

I also think in-person, this may have worked better. Everyone hanging out on their feet has a more casual feel than the performative Zoom boxes. I’d also categorize this level of question as hard – it requires on-the-spot storytelling. You have to dig deep into your personal history. People probably have more dark secrets than fun secrets, and those are much harder to share. I really should have tested this question better. I don’t really have one to share myself. That alone should have told me something.

Vivian Mae also opens the show. By the time groups reach Madame Daphne, the fifth character, they are more comfortable engaging. Starting with a hard-mode engagement turns people off before things even get going. Given that we couldn’t move her place in the show order, we needed a softball interaction.

So in the few days between performances, we rewrote a chunk of Vivian Mae. The crux of it was two questions: “Name, have you ever kept a secret from someone?” and “Name, have you ever shared a secret with someone?” While we eschew cold-calling in The Man From Beyond, we discovered that Zoom needs something different. Cold-calling allows for smoother interaction in the hyper-self-conscious format, so we changed up our house rules. We still wouldn’t cold-call on a more complex engagement, but for something approachable, we would do it.

Together with Amanda, we created a flowchart for how the conversation in this section would go. We wrote and rehearsed this change in between performances. And then we asked her to debut the change with a critic from The New York Times. It worked. This version became canon. And for extra bonus points, it’s a better engagement from a thematic point-of-view too, as our hero character must choose whether to keep his secret or not.

Note that we rewrote the interaction twice. Sometimes you have to keep tweaking until you hit the sweet spot. Puzzle still too hard? Sorry, yes, you do need to add yet more clue trail. It’s not as obvious as it feels, I promise. None of this would have been possible if Amanda hadn’t spoken up. At our end-of-year party, she earned the Bravest Performance award because it takes courage to speak up to the writers and say, “Your script isn’t working.”

Too often, I witness powerless game masters or performers who feel stuck. They can’t fix it themselves – they’re not allowed, and reporting it to their boss, the writer/designer, often won’t change anything either. Or worse, they worry about their job security if they do report it. I am proud not just of Amanda but that Strange Bird has created an atmosphere where egos are not at stake. To create experiences that work, you need to acknowledge what is failing and fix it. And if you’re here for the ego trip, in the long run, fixing things will set you up for greater praise anyway. Just saying.

Interactive scripts need more workshopping than traditional scripts. Like with puzzles, you need lots of players engaging to get a body of knowledge on whether something works or not. Test, watch, iterate, repeat.

At the Reality Escape Convention, I heard the question pop up, “So when do you stop testing?” I said, “Never.” People are creative. The more people engage, the more you learn, the more you can refine your interactions so that every guest has the best experience. If you’re in the business of interaction, whether that’s immersive theatre or immersive gaming, or maybe both, iteration is your ticket to a golden experience. Every part of your experience can be played with.

Ask your performers to report back to you and be ready to make quick changes. You need to have a company culture of iteration. And it usually doesn’t require a major rewrite. Quite often, a tiny tweak will do wonders. So let’s tweak it out.

Conclusion: The Gift of Being Seen

Immersive theatre doesn’t make ignoring things a cornerstone of the art. Even in a dreamscape immersive that isn’t aiming to deliver realism – and where people seem to be of a dancing species – the audience does not have to make as many imaginative leaps. We’re there. So are the performers. Whatever you see, hear, touch, taste, or smell IS happening in the world of the show too.

Not only will immersive performers pick up every fallen prop, but they have an open invitation from the genre to acknowledge anything that’s happening, whether that’s an audience member’s response or an unplanned noise. Go ahead, get that audience member a tissue. Thing is, human beings respond to things. One of my acting coaches, Philip Lehl, has a favorite phrase when correcting actors: “That is not a thing a human would do.” To which I say, let’s pursue that more thoroughly. How can we make this art form more recognizably human?

To not respond to everything that’s happening as players on stages do diminishes the characters’ humanity and ultimately fails to build a reciprocal relationship with the audience. The vast majority of plays require performers to ignore responses from their audience. Shakespeare and his marvelous asides being the exception here. And love isn’t much fun when it’s not requited. Immersive theatre requites.

This genre offers actors the chance to be more human than stage plays ever dreamed possible. It’s up to creators to decide what we want to do with that power. I have a psychological fear of not being seen, and I love immersive theatre because it loves me back. Lately, when a close-up actor in a traditional play studiously ignores me, I’ve felt compelled to trip him on his way out. At least THAT would be REAL. I should probably stop seeing theatre.

But it is quite clear that immersives burst the bubble, and some new powers come from that. And well, I’m excited by that. The audience has paid good money to enter a new world and to play along. Why would someone want to break it? Emotions are scary, powerful things. You don’t have the dark anonymity of a traditional theatre to protect you. You don’t want to betray your weakness under the lights of the show or in the eyes of your friends. Despite its reputation for intimacy, immersive theatre is a profoundly public experience. To be active is to be an actor. Even in a 1-on-1, you are being watched.

The goal is not shaming or revenge – it’s honesty. You don’t want to answer your smart-ass with anger. In fact, upping your vulnerability may work best. “I thought we were friends. Please help me.” It’ll depend on the situation. But I do sometimes tell

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