Immersive Theatre and Westworld, Part One: Narrative Structure
“No orientation. No guidebook. Figuring things out is half the fun. All you do is make choices.”
– Season 1, Episode 2: ‘Chestnut’
In 2016, I watched the first season of Westworld, the television show about a Wild-West-themed attraction where robots playing cowboys and gunslingers and saloon owners create an immersive world over a sprawling stretch of desert for the park’s visitors. Within ten minutes of the first episode, I began feeling this deep sense of recognition. Not because I’m a robot (that’s besides the point), but because I realised that this is what I do. I’m a theatremaker, and a lot of the shows that I make have things in common with the experience depicted in Westworld (that is, when the park’s running properly. Not when things go off the rails. Hopefully). Not to mention that HBO created an immersive theatre experience several years ago to promote the show!
Since then, I’ve found that the park shown in Westworld is a useful way to think about some of the story and experience principles I like to use in my shows, and in this series, I want to explore some of them with you. I’ll be breaking these ideas up into four sections, looking at Narrative Structure, Audience Agency, Character, and Audience Experience (although all of these things overlap, of course). So saddle up your steed, pardner, and let’s explore them there hills.
First, this article contains minor spoilers for the first season of Westworld. I’ll be dissecting various aspects of the show along the way, but you (hopefully) won’t need to have seen it for the article to make sense.
Second, the ‘Western’ is a genre rife with issues of colonialism, sexism and cultural imperialism. I won’t be covering these issues in this article (not because they don’t also exist in immersive theatre), but if you’d like to read more on these, I recommend Why I Won’t Wear War Paint and Feathers in a Movie Again by Brian Young, How Hollywood Whitewashed the Old West by Leah Williams, and the film Sweet Country by Warwick Thornton.
And a quick word on terms. The different forms of theatre that I’ll be discussing in this article have slippery, and sometimes overlapping definitions. For clarity, here is how I’ll be using certain terms in this article:
- Immersive: The audience is placed (usually physically) in the fictional world of the show, alongside the characters/actors.¹ There’s a lot more to say about defining ‘immersion’ (you could write a whole book about it) but this will do for now.
- Site-specific: The show has been designed for a certain location (usually not a theatre), incorporating or responding to the physical space in some way. Site-specific aren’t easily transferable to another venue.
- Interactive: The audience has, individually or collectively, some ability to influence the direction of the story. This can happen in a range of ways, and at a range of depths (see The Interactivity Onion by Marie-Laure Ryan for more).
- Improvised: The story, dialogue, or other elements of the show have not been pre-determined, and are created as they are performed.
- Promenade: The audience moves from space to space to encounter scenes, usually following a set order or being led by a production member.
- Experiential: This is the term that I use to refer to shows that are actively experienced by the audience, incorporating some combination of the above elements.
These forms aren’t contingent on each other, of course. Shows can be immersive without being interactive, can be site-specific and improvised without being immersive, and so on, and so on. For more, I recommend this Glossary by No Proscenium.
Part One: Narrative Structure
A visit to Westworld begins with a train ride. Guests (human visitors) and hosts (lifelike robots playing characters) mingle in the carriage of the steam train, looking out at the sights beyond the window as the train cuts through the desert. Before long, it pulls into the station in the small town of Sweetwater, where everyone alights and can begin to explore the town.
As it happens, this is a perfect introduction to different ways of structuring an experiential show. The first way is called on rails, because it’s as if the audience are following sets of train tracks, viewing the story from the window of their carriage. They might be moved from room to room as the story of the show progresses, but they stay on ‘the train’. The outcomes of the story are pre-determined, and you’re along for the ride. In immersive theatre terms, this is broadly similar to promenade shows, or productions like You Me Bum Bum Train, or Third Rail Projects’ Then She Fell, where the audience move through, or are shown, a series of scenes, but don’t have much impact on the overall direction of the story. An on-rails structure is great for a show with low or peripheral interactivity. The more interactivity and agency you want to give your audience, the harder an on-rails structure becomes, as they will feel like their decisions aren’t meaningfully impacting the direction of the story.
Another approach is to give the audience choices in how the story can progress, not unlike a Choose Your Own Adventure book. These choices create what are called branching path stories; there are now multiple train tracks that split off from each other, and you can impact which line the story travels down. Sometimes paths that diverged will merge again (for instance The Walking Dead) or the show might have different endings for different paths. For an experiential show, this might mean that an audience member can choose to enter either the door on the left or the right, each containing a different scene.
Both of these options, on rails and branching path, involve the audience travelling through events in a predetermined order. This brings us to open world stories. In an open world, the audience member is free to explore the world in any order and will encounter different scenes in different orders depending on their choices. In Westworld, once you step off the train, you’re able to go where you want. Along the way you’ll encounter different scenes and stories in a non-linear order. The most obvious reference point for open world stories is videogames like Red Dead Redemption or Breath of the Wild, where the player character can move at will through different locations, encountering different stories or side quests. The classic open-world example in immersive theatre is Punchdrunk’s Sleep No More, wherein the audience have (almost) free rein of a multi-storey hotel, visiting rooms in any order they please to witness parts of a story, from which the whole story emerges. Open world shows allow the audience a much higher degree of agency, but require more investment in fleshing out the world of the show, and take skill to build into satisfying narratives.
Let’s take a second to dig into exactly how the notion of Open World works in Westworld, by looking at one specific moment in the looping story of the theme park. At the same moment that the steam train is pulling into Sweetwater, the host character Dolores is loading her groceries into the saddlebags of her horse. She accidentally drops a can of beans without noticing, and it rolls into the street. In terms of the theme park’s narrative mechanics, this is an invitation for an audience member to pick up the beans and return them to her. If they do, this is the start of a potential romance story between them and Dolores. If they don’t, then Dolores’ story continues without them.
These moments of invitation to begin or join a story thread are scattered throughout the world of the theme park, allowing the audience members to pick and choose the stories that most appeal to them. In season 1 episode 2, ‘Chestnut’, we see a series of these invitations in a row. The character William is visiting Westworld with his friend Logan. As they get off the train and enter Sweetwater, William bumps into the gunslinger Grizzly Adams, who tries to start a shootout until William apologises. He walks past a Union Army rally, enlisting soldiers. He walks past the saloon, where Clementine tries to seduce him inside (“See anything you like?”), but Logan turns her down. A drunk man falls off the back of a cart and lands in the mud — William helps him up, and the drunk man begins to speak (“Thank you, my friend…”) before Logan cuts him off, saying “Don’t, he’ll only try to rope you into some bullshit treasure hunt. It’s all a come-on. Him, the girl next door, the town drunk. They all got some big adventure that they want to sell you on.” In slightly less cynical terms, all of these are invitations to begin a story; they’re the start of narrative tracks. In improv theatre terms, these are offers. It’s up to the guest whether they accept this offer.
We can also think of these offers as passive or active offers (using what’s called passive and active magnetism). Active offers directly ask the audience member to become involved. Clementine’s “See anything you like?” is a very active, direct offer. Passive offers, on the other hand, show the audience member something interesting and leave space for them to approach or become involved. The audience member may not even realise that this invitation was deliberate. The tin of beans is a great example of a passive offer. It would be out of character for Dolores to approach an audience member, so the tin of beans provides an opportunity for them to approach her. Some offers sit somewhere in between — the Union Army rally is an active invitation, but not directly aimed at anyone in particular. The drunk man falling off the cart is a passive invitation to help, but when William does, he receives (well, is about to receive) an active invitation to go on ‘some big adventure’.
Where Westworld differs from many other open-world structures, though, is in how the audience members can respond to these offers, moment-to-moment and in constructing an overall story. So far I’ve focused on physically moving through spaces (either as on-rails, branching path, or open world experiences) to encounter scenes, as a way to introduce different approaches to narrative structure. However, these different structures can also be applied to audience agency within the one scene, which is what we’ll explore in part two!
¹ ‘Immersive’ has unfortunately become the catch-all term for any sort of show that doesn’t take place in a traditional theatre arrangement. (I also have an issue with this word, as to me ‘immersive’ is something that’s determined by the audience, like ‘hilarious’ or ‘thought-provoking’. Let them tell you if they were immersed.)