Jaws at Brockwell Lido

Immerse Yourself

13th November 2015

Bored with the same old night out at the local pub or restaurant? Looking for something a little bit different? Jennifer Lipman explores the world of ‘experience entertainment’...

Last September, some 2,500 people gathered to sing along to Disney’s Frozen under the stars at Knebworth House. A runaway success with Elsa fans, it was one of 120 outdoor screenings put on by the Luna Cinema over the summer, at locations as diverse as Hatfield House, Ascot Racecourse and Brockwell Lido. At the latter, crowds enjoyed Jaws from inflatable dinghies – and the event sold out.

Move over, multiplexes. It’s no longer enough just to watch the film; the cool kids are dressing up in appropriate costumes for themed Secret Cinema events or watching blockbusters at retro ‘drive-ins’, on rooftops (occasionally seated in hot tubs) or in disused tube stations. Luna screenings now attract crowds of up to 3,000, despite the threat of rain.  “At first everyone said I must be completely mad in a country famous for its washout summers,” recalls director George Wood. “But my feeling was people would be interested.”

He was right. In fact, offering something unusual is big business these days, with an increasing vogue for ‘experience entertainment’ at cinemas, theatres and bars. This can mean anything from drinking-with-a-difference at themed Blitz Parties or Prohibition bashes in ‘speakeasies,’ to ditching the board game for a hands-on treasure hunt (an interactive Crystal Maze is about to open ). Immersive theatrical spectaculars have won acclaim, including Punchdrunk’s show The Drowned Man, staged in a disused postal office, and a retelling of Alice in Wonderland in subterranean vaults under Waterloo. Even on a local level it’s trendy; Rhian Desborough, development manager of Hertfordshire-based physical theatre company Trestle says she’s seen an ‘explosion’ in the popularity of immersive staging. “Audiences are always after an ‘authentic’ experience,” she says.

“People are definitely more open than they were,” agrees Oliver Lansley, artistic director of Les Enfants Terribles, which staged Alice in the vaults. “We’ve had a real range of audiences, including more traditional theatregoers and I’m not sure that would have happened five years ago.” 

Alison Pollard-Mansergh, who has been running the Faulty Towers immersive theatre and dining experience for 20 years and has shown it around the globe (next stop, Kenya), says she is not surprised this type of entertainment is catching on. She suggests part of the appeal is accessibility; these ‘experiences’ tend to be pitched at a middle ground – not lowbrow, but not necessarily high art either. “We find that people who are not theatregoers feel safe coming along,” she says. “You don’t have to analyse what you’ve just seen, you go along, have a great laugh and get fed.”

Equally, given the range of ‘experiences’, chances are there’s one for every taste, a game the whole family can play, a show to entertain multiple generations. “The desire for an immersive experience isn’t just common amongst the young,” says Wood. “Open-air cinema harks back to the golden age of cinema and drive-ins – the older generation tells us it’s brilliant this has come back.”

The trend has also been fuelled by a desire to do something different, rather than go to the same identikit multiplex, bar or bowling alley. When the Blitz Party began, says Andria Stirling of organisers Bourne & Hollingsworth, the sense was that people were disillusioned by the lack of imagination on offer. “They were fed up of paying through the nose to enter yet another paint-by-numbers club,” she says. And of course, the more ‘experiences’ we try, the less likely we are to put up with a bog-standard night out.

Is it just a fad? Boris Kozma of treasure hunt experience Escape Rooms says that the zest for experiences may also be about a genuine human desire to be challenged. “By nature we’re all curious, and like to try new things out,” he says. “It’s exciting to become a tomb raider or highly-skilled thief for an hour.” Once upon a time that curiosity might have been sated by a video game; these days we want something more.

For all its popularity, ‘experience’ entertainment doesn’t come cheap.  Luna Cinema tickets stretch to £20, with an Escape Rooms pass starting at £16. And that’s before you’ve enjoyed the trimmings: the craft beers, the quirky popcorn. It seems counter-intuitive, then, that enthusiasm has grown in the wake of the recession. As Lansley points out, if people are worried about value for money you’d expect them to be less likely to take a risks with their entertainment choices.  
Yet to an extent the higher prices explain the appeal. Nowadays we are highly conscious of where our money goes, so if we’re going to fork out, we want to ‘make a night of it’ by getting dressed up or going to an unusual location.

“Planning an outfit, getting your hair and makeup done professionally, sharing pictures of the night afterwards; it’s a way to make even more out of a night out,’ says Stirling. She says people may go out less but tend to expect the price tag to reflect more in terms of service or attention to detail. Equally, one after-effect of the recession has been a boom in voucher or group discount sites like Groupon, offering, in relative terms, good deals on ‘experiences’.

Not only are we seeking value for money, we’re seeking value for time and have become reluctant to commit to an experience unless we think it’s worth it. “People are so time poor that when they agree to something they want something a bit different,” says Wood. “They want to go to work on Monday and have an interesting story, rather than just say ‘I saw a film’.”

That ‘bragging aspect’ is central. Back in the day, if we went to a good show, we could at most mention it to colleagues or friends. Nowadays, we can – and do – broadcast it to the world via Facebook and Instagram. “Nobody wants to be having a quiet night in,” he adds. “It’s that fear of missing out.” And every time we post about our experiences on social media, we’re doing the advertising for the organisers, encouraging our friends to buy tickets. “People are generally really competitive, and when they see that their friends managed to beat an escape game, they want to give it a go,” says Kozma.

It may also be that in the era of smartphones and constant communication, we require more to stimulate us. “Our mindset is now to always be doing something,” says Pollard-Mansergh. “People find it harder just to sit back and watch. So when you go to something you want to be involved in it.”

That doesn’t mean we should write off old-fashioned pastimes just yet. Traditional entertainment is still going strong, and, as Desborough points out, there’s ample room for both. “Although the ‘quirky’ and ‘different’ can be exciting, our experience is that audiences essentially want to see a great story well told.”
Nevertheless, we are lapping up these experiences. “We’ve had 100,000 people through the door this year, and next year we will go even bigger,’ Wood says. “It really is responding to demand from the public.” Les Enfants Terribles are already planning for their next big scale project – “it might even be bigger than Wonderland,’ Lansley teases – while Escape Rooms will shortly launch at a second venue with a new game. “It’s quite an exciting time to be in the business,’ says Kozma.  

Perhaps, as Pollard-Mansergh says, we’re finally getting the entertainment we’ve always craved. “I’ve always believed people want to be involved in what they are seeing,” she says. “In Shakespeare’s day we used to be able to hurl tomatoes at the actors. People don’t need to throw tomatoes – but they do need to be able to interact a bit more!” 

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