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Where will the desire for emotional experiences lead us? Immersive interview with Maciej Masztalski

Where will the desire for emotional experiences lead us? Immersive interview with Maciej Masztalski

Anna Kryśkow |

Modern audience is not interested in ordinariness. Ordinariness for some means boredom today. Being constantly attacked with content from all sides - Internet, traditional media, on the street, in the store - people need to be shocked. They want uncommon content that will stay in memory. They also often want something that will, at least for a moment, add variety to their daily routine.

Immersion is creeping into pop culture

Immersive theater is a form of performance that emphasizes the importance of space and design, as well as tangible, sensory experiences, focusing on the individual impressions of the audience. This form has become extremely popular over the past two decades (although, as we will see later - it is not a 21st century creation). It is something much different from traditional theater. Since most of modern life takes place in the digital world, audiences dream of being in a different, foreign world and becoming part of it, even for a moment. Today's audiences are looking for new and interesting stimuli that the immersive experience gives them. 

Ad Spectatores - a theater different than others

Is it possible that rooms focused on immersive experience will displace classic escape rooms? Will the attempt to please audiences make classic puzzle rooms, based on manual puzzles, keys and padlocks, locks, disappear? And what about theaters in their classic form - will they also face an end? Among other things, I asked Maciej Masztalski - director of the Ad Spectatores theater, a theater unique in every way. Maciej studied theater knowledge at the Warsaw School of Theater, which, combined with many years of experience in the theater, as well as communing with this world from an early age, gives a tremendous knowledge of topics related to theater art.

Maciej Masztalski

Anna: Maciek, thank you for agreeing to talk about immersion in the arts. 

Maciej Masztalski: When you first asked me if we could talk about this topic, I had to read about immersion first, learn the definition. I didn't fully understand the concept, we had never called what we do that. But definitely Ad Spectatores has the characteristics of immersive theater.

Anna: So what is it like with this immersion in Ad Spectatores' performance?

Maciej: When we started the business, we didn't think about what we had to offer our audience. That's how it should be done in a free market situation, but we didn't do that. We decided to offer something that we ourselves would like to get, which was not available. The thinking was selfish - we didn't consider how the market would react, we just bet on something we wanted. It was also a rebellion against the over-intellectualized theaters, which I dislike very much. We wanted to be understandable, to make our plays accessible to everyone. But this is the kind of thing people have done before us, we are not pioneers… We didn't mean to commercialize it. We wanted to test something from a theatrical point of view - how much this true reality can disrupt and make people react to it in a certain way. At the time I did the show 9-Reconstruction in 2011, it was pre-escape rooms times in Poland. In Wroclaw, at least. You could say that we did it first, we started using immersion earlier than escape rooms, but it was nothing new, nothing fresh. History had known such concepts for a long time. We were just inspired by some ideas.

There were a lot of these immersion performances, as I think about it now. For example, there was Dad's Birthday, and during this performance people sat at a table and ate, as if it were a birthday party, immersing themselves in the narrative we had prepared. There was also the performance The Labyrinth, which took place in the space of technical tunnels under the old brewery. It's not a place where you can get lost for long, but it's a bit possible to get stressed out if you don't know this place. The performance was based on an ancient rite of passage, and it was also connected to the ancient legend of the Minotaur. Each participant, after undergoing a short safety training, wearing a helmet and with a fluorescent stick in hand, set off alone through this tunnel. The stick illuminated the path for about 30 cm, so it was quite dark. Nothing was happening in the process - it was just a matter of getting through the tunnel. At one point in this tunnel there was a passage that was quite dangerous, so we decided to put an actor there to guide each participant. To give it an atmosphere, the actor was disguised. He stood motionless, and when a participant approached, the actor simply grabbed the participant's hands - firmly and quite quickly. The Labyrinth wasn't about scaring, that's not what we had in mind, but people's reactions surprised us. Despite the fact that people were instructed not to run around the tunnel for safety reasons, they ran away as fast as they could, and it was difficult for us to stop and calm them down. We had to stop staging the show because it was an incredible stress for us, people's behavior was so unpredictable that the Labyrinth simply became dangerous for the participants. We didn't realize how strong the reception of this show was until we let our financial director in there, who told us one interesting thing. He couldn't stand in the Labyrinth because nothing was happening. His brain was working at top speed, and his imagination kept hinting that something was about to happen. This tension was unbearable for him.

Labirynt, photo: Marek Księżarek

The most extreme example of this immersion theater was a performance based on the investigative techniques of the NKVD and Gestapo. It was an international project. It had a form that we never repeated again later, because it became clear to us that it was dangerous. The techniques were simple, even primitive - it was all about an excess of stimuli, which in large numbers led to the participant having enough. Everyone has their limits, and this performance was about overstepping them, and it was easy to see on faces of these people that it was not appropriate to go any further, that the performance should be stopped.

Anna: 9-Reconstruction, your most famous show, which you already mentioned, is 11 years old and continues to be played. This must mean that people still want to see the show.

Maciej: This idea was not realized for a long time, because everything spoke against it - a small audience (only 9 people during one show), a performance difficult to play. But the time came to do it. 9-Reconstruction was to be played 12 times, no more. The first performances were a disaster. I took the risk to play it again the following month and the situation repeated itself. I said enough. However, a new person at the theater came in, younger than me, with a fresh head, and rearranged the ideas of online ticket sales and Facebook advertising. I completely disbelieved the idea! Online tickets? Someone is supposed to buy tickets through the internet? Nonsense! But he did it. He put out an ad, arranged online sales. The tickets started to disappear so fast. After a while, there was nothing left of those 12 shows in October. I thought, 'Okay, let's add November, but we'll double the number of shows.' Boom, sold out. In half a day we had sold out for 3 months ahead. We played it 30-36 times a month. It was a revolution for us and it really changed a lot.

The 9th reconstruction has been played since 2011 and has been played more than 3,000 times.

Anna: You are not only a director, but also an actor. Plays like ‘Nine’ or Cadaver Synod, where the audience is in the middle of the action, must be difficult for actors, because a play in which people not connected with this theater participate is unpredictable.

Maciej: Yes, it's very interesting. My mother, a stage designer, always used to say that you can't resent how people react at your performances, because you provoke them to do so. And that’s true. In all these years of theater activity, we could find anecdotes that are not pleasant. There were, unfortunately, situations of aggressive or strange behavior.

Anna: And on ‘Nine’ - 9-Reconstruction, there were such situations?

Maciej: No, on ‘Nine’ not, because for years before the show the rules were read out. First of all, this is not a show for interaction and it should not take place. On the other hand, there were drunken groups on this show. And this has its consequences. Due to the specific nature of the ‘Nine’ there were also situations that someone could not stand it mentally. I remember one serious situation - it was clear from the beginning that the girl had had enough before everything started, so she was led out to the vestibule. But she was left alone in the tunnel of the corridors of the old brewery, with no light, in a building from which it was impossible to leave without knowing it. She was so terrified that there was no contact with her, she didn't want to talk to me when I came to the place. She was so shaken that I was so scared! But fortunately, everything ended well.

At the Cadaver Synod - the plot is a vigil for the coffin of the Pope, the audience walks through the illuminated and smoky cloisters, the smell of incense is everywhere, a catafalque is displayed in the middle, at which one holds a vigil. Here the boundaries between theater and reality are blurred. There was a situation where a man fell to his knees and began to pray. It was clear that this was important to him, it was a kind of intimate ritual. Another time, an actress dressed as a nun, being in a role, instructed the audience on how the vigil ritual would go, and a man spoke up from the audience: 'Sister, but I'm not a believer.' And the actress thought 'And I'm not a nun' (laughs). However, you have to keep on playing. Such situations happen, but they only prove that we cross that line between theater and reality.  

Cadaver Synod, photo: Marek Księżarek

Anna: Immersion is intended to show some reality. It is also intended to meet the expectations of people who are no longer satisfied with ordinariness and normality, who want to break out of their everyday life at least for a while. Do you think that theater in such a classical concept will be displaced?

Maciej: I don't think so. I come from a theater family with a long history. From my grandfather everyone worked in the theater. I don't think that immersive experience or immersive theater is going to supplant classic entertainment, because if it did, it would have already happened. This applies not only to theater, escape rooms, but also to cinema. It will not be displaced completely. Trends change, but nevertheless everything goes back to the beginning.

Theater for centuries was a simple entertainment, attended by everyone.Until around the 19th century, it became an entertainment for the elite, and in the 20th century, in fact, theater became a narrow medium. I never understood it. As a man from a theater family, living in this environment practically from birth, I still don't understand it. Sometimes I have a problem with performances. Very often I don't understand what I'm watching, the high level of abstraction simply makes me not feel it, even though I'm a graduate of a theater school. That's why I began to experiment with non-theatrical space, to create a world that the viewer could enter. But this is not something new, fresh, or something I have discovered. These theatrical ideas, to surround the viewer with action, to make the viewer a part of it, to immerse into this world, are from the 1960s and even earlier. There are practical and theoretical theater experts, such as Antonin Artaud, who in the 1940s described precisely these ideas. He wrote directly to eliminate the division between stage and audience, to tear down the fourth wall. To create a situation in which the action happens in front of the spectators, behind them and on both sides. For the viewer to be in the middle of the action, to be part of it and to be pierced by it.

Anna: You take a very interesting approach to this immersion - you experiment with space, also use modern technology to further immerse the participant in the world you create. Is there more demand for such performances than the more classic ones - with a clearly defined space for the audience and actors?

Maciej: Certainly, 9-Reconstruction has been sold under all conditions, has always been in high demand and sold out quickly. But we also have shows that use a more classical space, but the content itself is different, specific. We distinguish ourselves from other theaters, we play on our own terms, and despite the lack of such funds that the large state theaters operate with, we have been attracting people to us for more than 20 years.

Photo: https://teatr-adspectatores.pl/spektakle/w-repertuarze/9-rekonstrukcja/

Anna: What do you think made ‘Nine’ such a success?

Maciej: I don't know, because if I knew, I would love to repeat it (laughs). And I tried! But unfortunately, no show has been as popular as 9-Reconstruction. Many things probably influenced this - the extreme participants’ immersion into the middle of the action, the genre (thriller/horror) - people like to be scared and pay for it. Maybe also sincerity. My father always said that a hit is always easy to recognize, but to do - it is an art.  

Anna: Thank you, Maciek, for your time, for sharing your knowledge and, most of all, for incredible stories!

Something more than an escape room - an immersive experience

Companies that offer an immersive experience in the convention of an escape room are numerous around the world. In the heart of Amsterdam, Netherlands, there is a company called Sherlocked, with 2 rooms at the moment. One is a classic escape room, but the other, The Vault, is advertised as a true immersive experience. From the very beginning, the line between reality and the created world is blurred.  

This is not your average escape room, but an immersive theater experience. The Vault requires you to think on your feet, bluff your way past guards and think outside the box.
The Vault description www.sherlocked.nl

In another part of Europe - in Hamburg, there is a company called Opolum, which created ChainSAW - Saw Escape Room.

Escape Room + immersive shows + drama = Escape Room Theater.

In our Saw Escape Room Hamburg, a unique experience awaits that goes far beyond the impressions in a classic escape room. With a theatrical dramaturgy, special effects, 3D sound, acting and the most modern puzzles in an area 10x the size of the average escape room in Hamburg.
Translated description from www.opolum.com

Next one company I've heard many great opinions about is Rogue from London, creator of escape rooms, combined with immersive theaters - Heist, The Crystal Maze, Time Run comes and the latest - The Perfect Crime.

The Perfect Crime combines immersive theater and escape games in an action packed experience. Assemble your crew to commit the theft of the century!
The Perfect Crime description www.theperfectcrime.co.uk

Unfortunately, I have not yet been to the above places (all before me), but a substitute for the immersive experience I had was a Polish escape room located in Wroclaw - Abandoned Hotel. It has received many awards, including the Hotel was ranked 9th on the TERPECA 2021 list, figure among the best rooms in the world. You can read more about the Abandoned Hotel in an interview with the creators I wrote - Thrilling immersive experience from the World's top. Interview with creators of the Abandoned Hotel.

What does the future bring for escape rooms?

Despite the success of immersive theater and immersive experiences, according to people whose knowledge in this matter is much greater than mine, they will not displace classic entertainment. Observing the market closely, one can see that there are relatively few places offering immersion, and the vast majority of new escape rooms which are classic representatives of their genre. Focusing on decor, using modern technology or even an actor in the room is not enough to call an escape room an immersive experience.

I don't have hundreds of rooms on my list, so I can't put myself in the role of an expert, but I personally like both those classic rooms with padlocks, locks and manual puzzles, as well as immersive ones. I would be very sad if the second and third generation escape rooms disappeared and were fully replaced by an immersive experience.

Anna Kryśkow

Anna Kryśkow

Editor-in-chief, Writer

Journalist and indologist by profession. Writer, marketer, tarantulas keeper and urbex explorer by heart. In the meantime I’m playing escape rooms and board games, and I wonder how I find time to sleep (still dunno). I was born to write - my favorite forms of expression are extensive articles preceded by a long research, and horror stories (for some it’s the same).

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