When you try and explain to someone the closeness and complexity of the relationship between pleasure and pain they tend to give you a slightly coy look, imagining you are referencing something rather personal or private involving props, costumes and darkened underground spaces…
But the pleasure and pain we’re referencing here is becoming much more mainstream than anything like that, although the props, costumes and underground spaces are still relevant. We are talking about immersive theatre.
Whilst immersive theatre has been around for a while, with Shunt the leaders of the London scene from 1998 and Punchdrunk pushing the boundaries of scale and detail ever since, over the last few years experiences are becoming more individual, darker and further exploring the connections between pleasure and pain.
In an era of ‘sensory overload’ we are pushing ourselves further in our experiences in order to truly ‘feel’. We can no longer just see a narrative; we need to exist within it, exploring its detail and our own limitations and boundaries. For many this fear, verging on pain, offers a direct line to the heart of the story and indeed ourselves, delivering the ultimate rush of pleasure.
Blackout, a production by Josh Randall and Kristjan Thorgeirsson seems to be capturing this knife edge between pleasure and pain. Blending immersive theatre and horror, participants must attend alone, sign away their rights, and after a series of anxiety inducing emails of escalating intensity are subjected to a night of degradation, and violence ranging from suffocation to witnessing simulated sexual abuse…participants then being ejected, semi- clothed and either gratefully promising themselves ‘never again’, or in the loop of addiction and returning for more. It sounds like torture, and with the inclusion of waterboarding, in some cases is. But there is a thrill and a pleasure in the pain, a release and high in making it though the experience without having to resort to the safe word. And it is this that seems to keep devotees coming back for more, as captured in the documentary ‘The Blackout Experiments’ shown at this year’s Sundance festival.
...participants are not given the gift of an alternate identity. You’re not stepping into the shoes of a tourist… you are the sum of your vulnerabilities
The presence of the individual is key in the experience, playing on very personal weaknesses, as one devotee explained, ‘participants are not given the gift of an alternate identity. You’re not stepping into the shoes of a tourist… you are the sum of your vulnerabilities’.
Although by comparison a much tamer experience Punchdrunk’s production of The Drowned Man in London in 2013 allows the creation of very individual narrative, with few people having the same experience; whether they are pushed out of a lift and separated from their friends, whisked though a secret door after being grabbed by an actor, pulled into a trailer park caravan and spend the night drinking whisky, or like me focusing on the details to get through the moments of fear, exploring the delightful detail of a set where even the contents of every draw can be explored, every letter be read, and even Narnia-like passages found as you push through the fur coats at the back of a wardrobe.
So what is interesting in all this for us? Most of us aren’t about to launch an immersive theatre experience.
But there are psychological hooks and meaning that we can borrow regardless of our category. Many brands are concerned about going anywhere near pain and fear – but when you look at broader culture you realise we are all playing on their edge, daring ourselves to push harder or faster or be that little more daring for the thrill, high and ultimate pleasure.
Considering the audience as an individual and letting them explore themselves, their vulnerabilities and the high of delight in strength and achievement is also an interesting area to tap in to. But there’s also something to be said in allowing your customers to become lost in the world you create, allowing them to see the full detail of your consideration whether a final product or your inspiration, seeing the full story through their own eyes without anyone else filtering it for them.
But in overview we must consider the shift from product to pain; consumption of an object isn’t enough, it’s about the experience and the construction of our identity through the things we layer, witness and overcome.