Practically at night, immersive theater in the Bay Area has a major new player on Netflix.
With the June launch of “Stranger Things: The Experience” and this week’s opening of “The Queen’s Ball: A Bridgerton Experience,” the streaming giant has built two walk-through worlds in San Francisco, each inspired by a hit TV series.
These two plays, which together employ more than 150 local people (including many actors), are part of a global enterprise. In 2019, Netflix hired its first Head of Experiences at Greg Lombardo, who now leads an internal team of 10. This year, the company expects its many personal experiences — including pop-up stores featuring “Stranger Things”, a multiplayer virtual reality experience based on “Army of the Dead” and a heist experience born from “Money Heist” — to Reach 3 million visitors in cities around the world.
Reasonable people may disagree on whether Netflix’s San Francisco “experiences” qualify as theater, but the two forms share a preponderance of qualities: costumes, sets, props, lighting, and performers playing roles. Audience and performers have to meet in the same space at an agreed time, and the audience is meant to go on a journey and feel something over a period of time.
Lombardo said in an interview with The Chronicle that his parents are the only people he has to explain what “an experience” is. “People understand more and more what experiences are,” he said.
That’s largely thanks to years of work by professional theater performers — everyone from the fame of Punchdrunk and Emursive of “Sleep No More” to the Bay Area’s very own Joshua Grannell, aka Peaches Christ, who takes off. a haunted attraction in the old mint every year for Halloween, and Steve M. Boyle, whose Epic Immersive has been crafting boutique and corporate immersive experiences since 2015.
“I feel like I’ve always been a part of things that later become popular with companies for the past 30 years,” Grannell told The Chronicle, citing his drag work as Peaches Christ as another example.
Conventional explanations for the increasing popularity of immersive theater include isolation from the digital world and, more recently, the pandemic.
“People want to be touched. They want to be grabbed,” Grannell said.
He means that literally. His Halloween audience in the Old Mint has the option to purchase red necklaces to wear, signaling to the performers that they agree to be touched. “When we started, I thought we were going to have a handful of people who want to be grabbed or locked up in a closet or force-fed,” he said. In fact, “many more people don’t buy them.”
“Twenty, 30 years ago, especially in the theater world, it was: ‘You don’t touch the actors. The actors don’t touch you,” and that is completely turned on its head,” he added.
For Boyle, who has designed immersive worlds for Apple, Google, Facebook and others, the level of engagement that immersive theater demands from the audience, combined with the rich worlds built around it, means astonishing transformations are possible. His technical engineer audience, which is not a typical theater audience, craves those transformations. “People get really, really vulnerable in ways that unless you go to therapy every week, most people can’t,” he said.
If Netflix’s fans want to get more out of their shows than just binge-watching and talking about it online — and if they’re willing to spend nightly prices to make that happen — other explanations may apply.
TV’s current major demographics, often defined as mine (18- to 49-year-olds), grew up with Disneyland (opened in 1955), Universal Studios (1964), Disney World (1971), and McDonald’s PlayPlaces (1971) as regular fixtures in our childhood imagination. We were used early on to the idea that a child’s highest ambition was an artistic corporate creation that you could walk around in.
But if many Disney creations are aimed at children, they also tap into older markets. “Star Wars: Galactic Starcruiser,” a two-night immersive experience for all ages at Disney World, suggests the kind of money to be made, with “starter packages” ranging from $4,809 to $5,999 per cabin.
Yet another explanation could be the rise of niche TV and the decline of TV monoculture.
With the exception of some blockbusters like “Game of Thrones,” TV audiences have to work harder to find fellow fans. Earlier this year, Variety reported that the number of TV programs (except during the pandemic in 2020) has increased every year since 2008. In a 2021 report, Nielsen . states referred to the ‘fragmentation’ of TV viewers, both in form (how they watch) and in content. You can no longer make a reference to the personal or virtual office water cooler about your favorite show and assume most will get it, as you could in the heyday of “Friends,” “Seinfeld,” or “The Simpsons.” (There’s a compelling) “Friends” experience by the way, and it’s also set to come to San Francisco in 2022, though specific dates haven’t been announced yet.)
Although I thought “Stranger Things: The Experience” was pretty awful, like I wrote in my review, it did make up for a little bit, though: the all-too-rare feeling of looking around and knowing that everyone in the room shared something, that you could name a character name or a plot point without explaining it.
“We’ve known as an industry for a while that we’re about to explode,” Boyle said. “That explosion would never happen without bringing in big players.”
On the plus side, corporate dollars from Disney, Netflix, and others like Fever (who produces the “Friends” experience and also partners with Netflix for its immersive experiences) can normalize this work and make it easier to explain. “The danger here is that we will see immersive art and immersive theater as mere marketing activations for (intellectual property) and other media. That’s where the intent of the piece comes into play,” he said.
Ideally, he said, “It can all coexist.”
Boyle has his own theory about the emergence of immersive theater, a kind of corollary of the role isolation plays in the digital world.
With social media, he said, we’ve come to see ourselves as “main characters” in a different way. Immersive theater is a place where you can be the protagonist. You are important to the story, and it is important that you are there and physically present and alive.”