How London gaga for everything compelling

In 2011, 50-year-old Vicki Prais stood on piles of sand in a tunnel under Waterloo station, surrounded by soldiers whispering in her ears. It looked exactly like a 50’s Algiers souk. But it wasn’t. It wasn’t even a movie or television set.

Prais attended Secret Cinema’s immersive look at “The Battle of Algiers,” where the sounds, smells and sights of the 1966 film were recreated with actors, technology and clever set design. “You got dragged into it,” Prais says. “It was a real assault on the senses.” It is just one of the many immersive events that Prais, a big fan of Secret Cinema, has been to. And she’s not alone in her desire to be wiped out. London has more immersive events than ever. There are immersive afternoon tea, immersive dessert shops – you can even experience the insides of a popcorn machine in immersive dopamine land, if you really want to.

But what does this beloved buzzword actually mean? Immersive events tend to promise a more 360-degree experience than traditional theater, gaming, culture, and exhibitions. They are often large-scale, hyper-sensory and super-interactive: with actors moving around the audience, projections that go around you from head to toe in Van Gogh’s ‘The Starry Night’, or an escape room so convincing you could start. to wonder if it’s real life.

It’s clear that London has gone for all things immersive. Google searches in the UK for the term ‘immersive London’ increased by 83 percent between January 2017 and January 2022. Ten years ago, 20,000 people attended every show at Secret Cinema. By 2019, that had increased fivefold to more than 100,000. We even dedicate an entire issue of Time Out magazine to the damn word. But why do Londoners love it so much? Were our lives really that devoid of joy before we had the opportunity to traumatize our kidneys?
a drunken ‘Mamma Mia!’ brunch?

Photographer: Luke Dyson

Part of the answer is good, old-fashioned escapism. Emma Wood is a professor of experience and event marketing at Leeds Beckett University and an expert in participatory events. “Enthralling events are an opportunity to experience something we wouldn’t do in our day-to-day lives,” she says. “They amplify our emotions – including feelings like fear and trepidation. But because we know we’re safe, they’re fun too.”

So when VR takes you from the vaults of the Tower of London to the Thames with Guy Fawkes as part of the immersive experience of ‘The Gunpowder Plot’ (opening May 6), it’s actually pretty fun. “The boom in immersive events has been driven in part by technology, but largely by audiences hungry for new experiences that are active rather than passive,” Wood says. ‘We want to do more than just look; we want to be part of the story.’

That’s why immersive events work so well when they’re designed around character franchises: you can meet the likes of Shrek, Gatsby, Harry Potter, and Sherlock Holmes, all in “real life.” Tom Maller joined Secret Cinema in 2014 as a performer. Now he directs the immersive “Peaky Blinders: The Rise,” which kicks off in June as a live theater experience based on the TV show. “Immersive theater is rising through the ranks as people can create memories in the scenes of their favorite movies,” Maller says. “They become complicit in why an iconic character chooses a particular action.” Add a few cocktails and some spicy adult jokes and you’re basically in an adult version of Disneyland. ‘Basically, people want a nice night out,’ says Maller. “I think it helps these people as performers to let the audience have a few drinks in the world” [within the immersive story]†

Even immersive art — which tends to be more subdued than its all-singing theatrical counterpart — will try to fit you into the story. Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera’s immersive experience, with tickets to London starting in June, uses projections of the artists’ work to “create multiple small stories that flow together into a bigger story,” according to creative director Philippe Amad. Rather than displaying authentic works, the experience is a quick art history lesson that can make it look (at least through your phone camera) as if you’ve walked into the famous paintings – all while providing that essential Instagram story aesthetic.

'Mexican Geniuses: An Immersive Experience from Frida and Diego'
Photo: Mexican Geniuses: An Immersive Experience from Frida and Diego

So, does London like immersive events because we’re all just bored AF? Chris Rojek, professor of sociology at the City, University of London, thinks so. “It’s a reaction against the routine,” he says. ‘Levels of dissatisfaction are very high in people’s lives – you can go to an immersive event and it keeps you from thinking about how your life isn’t as great as you’d like it to be. The lockdowns of the past two years have exacerbated that.’ For Prais, the immersive enthusiast, escapism is a big part of the appeal. “It transports you in the most profound way,” she says. ‘Instead of being a spectator, you become a participant. It’s a bit of escapism, we all need that.’

While it may seem like London has suddenly exploded with all things immersive, Rojek says these events go hand in hand with city life: we still seek the same kind of escapism as people did when they went to the theater in Shakespeare’s time. “You can think of a football game as immersive, in the sense that you lose yourself in the crowd,” he says. ‘It is true that the technology of some immersive experiences [now] is very different, but its mother and father are simply experiences of the general public.’

There is no doubt that today technology is helping to take these events to the next level. ‘The Gunpowder Plot’ has VR rooms,’ says director Hannah Price. “Projection mapping and sonic sound design, allowing us to build layers of immersion, including scents, airflow and temperature – all to make our audience feel like they’re really there.”

But Wood isn’t quite convinced that this is the future. “I’m skeptical about the growth in AR and VR,” she says. “These tend to detract from the social side of immersive events. In the future, I expect to see a greater degree of personalization. More events that are – or feel – created especially for you and your group.’

Whatever you think of immersive, it’s not going anywhere. Because culture is looking for new ways to stay relevant to an audience that consumes everything through their TikTok ‘For You’ page – not to mention the desire to feel something after being locked up for the better part of two years – ‘immersive’ is an antidote . Our best bet on what’s next? Two words: immersive commute.

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