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Much ado about “Immersive Performance”
TUESDAY, JANUARY 24, 2023
Saturday is the last day to catch “Luna: The Immersive Musical Experience”
Last year’s number of performances that call themselves “immersive” is so high that many theatregoers lost count of it. Last month, a few members of the Thailand centre of International Association of Theatre Critics (IATC) noted on a Bangkok Offstage podcast that while this phenomenon was unprecedented it could be owing to the fact that the audience wanted a new experience, after having watched recorded or streamed performances on their personal screens for more than two years.
The most highly anticipated, or hyped, of them all is “Luna: The Immersive Musical Experience” by Castscape and Emquartier, starting from its audition attracting a large group of professional performers to its 90-performance run that spans a few months. It’s indeed a similar hype to what a large-scale commercial musical theatre production had, pre-pandemic. The Culture section of “Thairath Plus” also named it as “Art and Performance” of the year.
Having experienced British collective Punchdrunk and National Theatre’s “The Drowned Man: A Hollywood Fable” 10 years ago in which a postal warehouse near Paddington station was completely and realistically transformed into a Hollywood movie studio of a bygone era, I couldn’t help having high expectation attending a work that’s labelled “immersive”.
The first reality check was when I arrived at “Luna’s” one-rai (1,600 square-meter) venue called Q Stadium and realized that it’s not a sport venue as the name suggests, but formerly a sport shoes department where I bought a pair of running shoes. At the registration table where “Luna’s” source of inspiration American writer Kelly Barnhill’s children’s novel “The Girl Who Drank the Moon” was for sale, I was given a media pass allowing me to take photos and video clips shorter than 15 seconds of the performance. The audience could choose between the village and forest paths—the maximum for each group was 60 people—as stories and actions differed: I did the latter as I was hoping to be taken to a more fantastical world.
The second reality check was about 15 metres into the “forest” as the audience saw a sound control board with blinking lights and shortly afterwards we’re seated around a performance area in front of what looked like a tree where the first scene unfolded. Later on, some with special tickets were invited to move to another area to watch another brief scene. Then, we’re asked to move to another larger space with more seats and on the way there were other scenes to watch. In the final and grandest scene, all characters and audience members were altogether. With the limited space of the venue, it’s evident that the production needed to handle the traffic of 120 audience members in addition to dozens of cast members. While it’s generally effective it’s far different from the show’s promises that the audience would walk around the space to watch the scenes and that there would be rest areas and recommendation for walking shoes; most of the time we’re seated and well rested. Also, frequently we heard the noise and voices or saw the light from a nearby scene we’re not supposed to.
The production design of “Luna” looked like that of children’s theatre production. In conventional playhouse, the lighting and the distance between the stage and audience could make it look magical. Here, it looked like a waste of wood and Styrofoam and was unable to create an imaginary world for the audience. By contrast, the performance by professional actors, singers and dancers was mesmerizing as they had strong concentration and could convey the play’s important messages to all members of the audience. We, with our masks on, cherished this special opportunity to watch the details of their facial expression, gestures and movements and listen to their keenly articulated dialogues and beautifully rendered songs, without the microphone, accompanied by prerecorded music which occasionally was too loud.
After almost three hours, the audience was given a brochure at the exit. To our surprise, it doesn’t contain the information on the “Luna” cast and crew but that on Chaiyapruk Foundation whose founder’s dedication to the care of Thai orphans inspired this production and to which part of the proceeds of “Luna” will be donated. I was wondering whether I had just watched a charity concert. In fact, there’s a non-immersive live orchestra version of “Luna” over the holidays last month, highlighting the fact that the songs were keenly written and composed although the whole immersive experience had much room for improvement.
As life slowly gets back to “new” normal while we try our best to live with new variants of the coronavirus disease, live performances return. While concertgoers are not required to wear masks, theatregoers do here. Meanwhile, news of the new Scenario musical “Phitsawat”, stage adaptation of late National Artist Thamayanti’s novel, scheduled for this June at Muangthai Rachadalai Theatre has recently caused excitement.
Will there be more performances that label themselves “immersive” here? Yes.
Will its hype be as strong as that in 2022? I don’t think so.
The last five performances of “Luna: The Immersive Musical Experience” are from Wednesday (January 25) to Saturday (January 28), 7pm with a 2pm matinee on Saturday. Tickets are Bt 2,390 (plus VAT and ticketing fee), available at www.ticketmelon.com. For more details, https://www.facebook.com/castscape or email email@example.com
Photo: Courtesy of Castscape