Differences in Entertainment Experiences between Immersive Cinema and Theatre

© Copyright 2018 Raymond Ablack, Ryerson University.

The viewing positions of audiences in traditional cinema and theatre have been facilitated similarly. In the past, both mediums physically situated the viewer’s body as seated, untouched and representing a fourth wall, unacknowledged by the performance, where the information; plot, setting, characters, were performed to the viewer. Traditional cinema and theatre were also characterized by trading the audience’s critical distance for the creator and filmmaker’s artistic discretion. Traditional audiences relinquished their agency with the story when they purchased their ticket and entered the entertainment experience. Contemporary remixes of theatre and cinema mediums have shifted the viewing position of their audiences by creating immersive and interactive spaces where the audience is subject within the entertainment experience as opposed to the former; subject to the entertainment experience. Presently, cinemas employ technologies like 4DX to affect and engage the viewer through sensory stimuli, to make the watching experience more immersive. Oren Bonen’s thesis, “Expanded Spectatorship: Cinema in the Post Proscenium Era”, examines how these implementations alter the viewing position of the audience. Contemporary theatre productions like Sleep No More, a re-imagination of Shakespeare’s, “Macbeth”, aims to shift the audience viewing position by engaging the audience interactively. Audience members can traverse the set, characters, set design, and plot at their own pace and curiosity, over the course of the performance. Professor Thomas Cartelli, examines the testimonials of Sleep No More’s audience in his essay, “Punchdrunk’s Sleep No More: Masks, Unmaskings, One-on-Ones” and how the production creates unique, immersive, interactive entertainment experiences per audience member, per performance. Additionally, Spyros Papaioannou explores the concept of immersion and voyeurism in his research, “Immersion, smooth spaces and critical voyeurism in the work of Punchdrunk.” Investigating the ways in which contemporary cinema and theatre mediums aim to shift the viewing position of their audiences to immersive and interactive positions, exposes the differences in the entertainment experiences audiences receive from each medium.

Both traditional versions of cinema and theatre have been characterized with their audiences physically seated, receiving all information about plot, setting and characters equally. The audience represents the fourth wall, separate from the performance and as such, are subject to the performance. However, immersive theatre and film fulfill their aim by incorporating and implicating the audience’ body in the entertainment experience.

Contemporary cinema entertainment experiences implicate the bodies of their viewers with the implementation of technologies as recently as 2014, with 4DX cinemas. The South Korean company responsible for 4DX cinema, CJ 4DPLEX defines 4DX cinema as, “Advancing the movie theatre experience from watching to almost living it…the ultimate in state of the art technology, delivering a fully immersive cinematic experience.” In these cinemas, audiences’ bodies are stimulated by moving seats, surround sound, simulated rain, wind, fragrances (burning rubber and gasoline), 3D screens and glasses; all of which are methods to further implicate the viewer in the experience of the film, physically. Oren Bonen’s thesis, “Expanded Spectatorship: Cinema in the Post Proscenium Era”, examines whether the 4DX cinema experience in fact alters the audience viewing position in a manner that further immerses its audience. Bonen reports the testimonial experience of Adam Epstein, a reporter from Quartz Media, who saw the Batman v Superman film in 4DX cinema.

“…By rain, I mean an uncomfortable spritz of water onto your head and face. It felt as though the person sitting behind me had just released a monstrous sneeze…the only scene I felt immersed in was that of a throng of wet filmgoers cackling in unison.”

Johnson, Dick Thomas. Cinema Sunshine Heiwajima. 20 May 2014. Copyright Flickr.


If the aim of 4DX cinema is to engage the viewer physically, in tandem with the story, then in the case of Epstein and the surrounding audience members, during Batman v Superman, the sensory technologies (simulated rain) were not effective in the way they were intended; that is, to implicate and incorporate audience’ bodies, physically into the story. These technologies engaged the movie goers in an experience that, “resembled an amusement park ride, not a movie experience.” 4DX undoubtedly shifts the viewing position of the audience from the traditional ‘subject to’ position, to a ‘subject within’, but only insofar as the viewer is subject within reality; in this case, a dark, isolated cinema, suddenly divorced from the film’s story. Where 4DX cinema employs technologies that shift the traditional physical position and relationship of the audience, this remix risks its audience relationship with the story.

Further, the 4DX cinema entertainment experience poses exclusions to the audience that is able to engage with the medium. Restrictions extend to those with epilepsy, motion sickness, high blood pressure, heart disorders, pregnancy and certain allergies. I don’t personally suffer from any of the listed exclusions, but my own experience with 4DX cinema is one where I experienced nausea and disgust. I attended a 4DX presentation of Star Wars: The Last Jedi. I was subject within an environment, enduring special visual and audio effects as well as sensory stimuli like fragrances, moving seats and simulated rain. The moving seats caused me to feel nauseous during the flying spaceship scenes and beyond. The simulated rain disgusted me. The rain effect, jostled my passive absorption with the on-screen story, into a fury and worry about the sanitation and quality of the water in my face. It also withdrew me from the entertainment experience while I searched frantically in the dark for the switch to disable this feature. It can be argued that the nauseating spaceship scenes shifted my viewing position in concert with the entertainment experience, because my physical response was congruent with the events on screen. My entertainment experience with 4DX cinema was engaging, albeit uncomfortable. If I had agency over the sensory stimuli in the entertainment experience, I’d tailor the cinema effects to avoid nausea and motion sickness. At the same time, it could be argued that those unpleasant biochemical responses are what the filmmaker intended for the viewer. If the option to tailor the 4DX cinema experience existed, would that interfere with the integrity of the picture? No doubt, being subject to the discretion of the effects that the filmmaker chose for me, interfered with my optimal entertainment experience.

Conversely, within cinema entertainment experiences, augmented cinema is another method in immersion. Augmented cinema is a development whereby the screen is, “situated in a location relevant to the film itself – eg. Harry Potter at Kirkstall Abbey.” This kind of interactivity affects the body in space in a manner where the audience is physically present in the setting of the story. The body is not physically stimulated with artificial effects, like 4DX simulated rain, but is affected in that it exists, immersed in the setting of the story.

Similarly to 4DX, traditional theatre has remixed its relationship with the audience’ viewing position within its entertainment experience. Sleep No More is an interactive theatre production remounting of Shakespeare’s classic, Macbeth. Sleep No More was developed by the immersive theatre production company, Punchdrunk. The show takes place on a three-story stage in New York City, wherein the audience is free to roam the theatre, interact with the set, props, characters and other audience members throughout the entirety of the show.

“Punchdrunk’s work encourages proximity and direct contact as a means to immersive performances…performers invite contact on a somatic, cognitive, spatial or psychological level, and in doing so, they challenge the spectators as much as the spectators challenge the performance itself.”

Meier, Alison. Souvenirs of Sleep No More. New , 8 Apr. 2011. Copyright Flickr.

The viewer’s body in space within the Sleep No More theatre, is represented as a character within the production. This adjustment of audience viewing position from seated and passive, to engaged physically and interactive, bends the concept of the traditional fourth wall. All audience members of Sleep No More wear eerie, white masks that liken them to ghosts leering upon the story. “The mask performs the work of the darkened auditorium and the theatre seat, separating, individualizing, and interiorizing us as a group of spectators”. Thomas Cartelli suggests that the masks operate as a license for viewers to see themselves as active participants in Sleep No More. The anonymity that the masks afford, enable the audience the vicarious experience of playing unscripted actors in the production. Where traditionally, theatre audiences were seated and performed to, from a stage, immersive theatre like Sleep No More, situates the audience’ body in the role of deceased characters within the Macbeth story. This ghostly, collective character, observes the performance from within the environment and in some cases, participants even interact with the actors and contribute to the story in unique ways. Professor Thomas Cartelli examined the experiences of an audience member, Rosalind, who enjoyed a one on one interaction with an actor in Sleep No More.

“The actor pulled me into a small closet, sat me down, took my mask off, handed me an extremely heavy sword from a coffin, shared some Shakespeare text about a queen and a king…kissed my forehead, put my mask back on, and pushed me out of the closet. I got what I wanted. I left the performance reflecting on my competitive spirit and on my desire to connect with actors in this intimate, performative way.”

The ultimate in immersive theatre is the interaction between actor and audience member. Cartelli suggests that in Sleep No More, the removal of the viewer’s mask, temporarily allows the audience member to feel equal with the actor. The temporary loss of the mask – although it identified Rosalind as one of the audience members, also allowed her to act with anonymity matching the actor’s effacement in his character.

My own experience with Sleep No More was one of fascination at my responsibility and agency over my own viewing experience. To that point, I had never been responsible for redeeming my own entertainment experience. I had to search for sufficient information about the plot and characters in order to feel pleased with the story and my experience. Previously, I received all entertainment passively in the theatre and cinema mediums. During my first visit to Sleep No More I was afraid. The set design, plot and freedom amongst audience peers was staggering. However, my first visit to the show resulted in disappointment. I was attracted to so many aspects of the production that there was no way I could have investigated and enjoyed all the aspects in the allotted time; actors’ performances, character arcs, overall plot, set design and one on one experiences. I completed my first visit unsure of the overall plot and message, but sweaty and buzzing with excitement about reentering the performance again, as soon as possible. My excitement had to do with the ability to exercise my agency to select which elements of the show I wanted to explore. On my second visit, I was not afraid or intimidated. I was able to navigate the theatre, audience, actors, set, characters’ stories and uncover the elements that I wanted to see. Koumarianos and Silver explain,

“…spectators become a part of the choreographic landscape by means of what they do, by inviting or being invited to physical and emotional contact…unlimited agency results in higher stakes for participation and performance. Implication in the action begs accountability to ourselves, fellow spectators and to the performers.”

I would reinforce this idea from personal experience, that the more the spectator commits and lends of themselves to the experience, the more rewarding the entertainment experience for all participants involved.

I emerged from my second visit to Sleep No More satisfied in a way I could never experience in traditional cinema and theatre mediums, because they package their message in a linear fashion, subjecting the audience to the performance and information. Traditional iterations of theatre and cinema situate the viewer without agency over the information they are presented. Marshall McLuhan’s ideology is apt, “the medium is the message”. That is, traditional cinema and theatre is a medium whereby the message delivered to the audience belongs to the filmmakers and creators; the audience cannot participate actively, only passively receive. This is where immersive cinema falls short of redeeming the exponential entertainment experience available in immersive theatre. In immersive theatre, the more agency the viewer takes with the environment, the denser their entertainment experience will be. However, I walked away from my experience with the 4DX cinema presentation of Star Wars: The Last Jedi, wishing I could tailor the cinema effects to my own preferences. This lament indicates that my entertainment experience was conditional. I would have enjoyed the cinema entertainment experience more, if only I could have agency over which effects I was subjected to. Conversely, in immersive theatre, if there were a room, character, audience member, or element that I did not want to be exposed to, I had complete control over avoiding engaging with any aspect of the production. Papaioannou summarizes, “…the agency of the audience can be understood as ‘floating’, between subjugation and a subversive sense of subjectivity that becomes possible through crossing the boundaries of theatrical normality.”

The differences in entertainment experiences across immersive cinema and theatre lies in the curiosity, agency and physical body in space that the audience endures within each medium. Viewers redeem value and pleasure within the two immersive remixes of theatre and cinema differently, despite the common goal of immersive cinema and theatre to create interactivity between their audience and story. Curiosity serves the viewer of 4DX cinema only as far as the audience is curious about a specific filmmaker’s manipulation and interpretation of a story, already congruent with the audience’ interests. I chose to see JJ Abrams’ Star Wars film, because I was interested in his interpretation of that story. My agency with the story ceased with the purchase of the ticket, and was traded for Abrams’ judgement about what information I should be exposed to. The difference in entertainment experience for immersive theatre audiences is that, while similarly to film, the audience chooses to engage with shows that interest them, their involvement extends to the performance. The audience is responsible for manipulating the story to find value and entertainment. The viewer of 4DX cinema, while their body physically exists in a space as subject within an interactive environment, amongst sensory effects, the ownership over the story actually belongs to the filmmaker. JJ Abrams agency, again determines what sensory effects the interactive environment affects the viewer with. Conversely, immersive theatre, particularly, Sleep No More, creates immersive and interactive space for the physical body of the audience while allowing for the audience to engage their agency at their own discretion to affect their entertainment experience. The two immersive entertainment experiences employ agency differently and bode varying results. 4DX cinema experiences do not risk that the audience emerge without receiving all pertinent information regarding plot and character, because the filmmaker owns the agency and reveals the information. But, 4DX risks the consistent engagement of its viewer depending on their disposition within the sensory effects. Meanwhile, immersive theatre risks that the audience possessing unlimited agency, learns nothing about plot, setting, character or story, and in doing so, allows for a unique viewing experience per audience member, per show.


Images in this online exhibit are either in the public domain or being used under fair dealing for the purpose of research and are provided solely for the purposes of research, private study, or education.


Works Cited

Atkinson, Sarah, and Helen W Kennedy. “Introduction – Inside the Scenes: The Rise of Experiential Cinema.” Participations Journal of Audience and Reception Studies, vol. 13, no. 1, May 2016.

Deshpande, Shekar, and Meta Mazaj. World Cinema A Critical Introduction. Routledge, 2018.

Barnes, Brooks. “To Lure Young, Movie Theatres Shake, Smell and Spritz.” Nyti.ms, 29 Nov. 2014, www.marsd.org/cms/lib7/NJ01000603/Centricity/Domain/761/Movie%20Theater%20NYTimes.pdf

Bonen, Oren. “Expanded Spectatorship: Cinema in the Post Proscenium Era.” San Francisco State University, May 2017.

Cartelli, Thomas. “Punchdrunk’s Sleep No More: Masks, Unmaskings, One-on-Ones.”Muhlenberg College, Borrowers, 2018.

Papaioannou, Spyros. “Immersion, ‘Smooth’ Spaces and Critical Voyeurism in the Work of Punchdrunk.” Studies in Theatre and Performance, vol. 34, no. 2, 2014, pp. 160–174., journals-scholarsportal-info.ezproxy.lib.ryerson.ca/pdf/14682761/v34i0002/160_isacvitwop.xml.

Meier, Alison. Souvenirs of Sleep No More. New , 8 Apr. 2011.

Johnson, Dick Thomas. Cinema Sunshine Heiwajima. 20 May 2014.