The concept

Immersive theater is a theatrical experience like no other: you get to experience the story from the inside out. No more enormous centuries-old halls, red-and-gold regal seats, and action happening far away on stage. Here, the fourth wall breaks and the surroundings – be it a mansion, a metro train, or a whole street – become a stage themselves with you in the heart of the action. It’s kind of an open-world game, you might say, but in real life. 

During immersive plays, you get to wander through each nook and cranny of the stage to encounter actors singing their hearts out, overhear conversations and interact with the props, see what’s happening behind a closed door and even have one-on-ones with actors, if you’re lucky. In some other shows, on the contrary, you may take the lead and complete tasks, solve a mystery, or investigate a murder. 

Why it’s great 

  • a totally new experience;
  • freedom of action, complete immersion in a story, and choose-your-path adventure;
  • brand new takes on classical genres, books, and theater in general.

Why it may not be so great

  • rather costly and mostly found in large cities;
  • shows are often at least R-rated;
  • the atmosphere can be overwhelming and even frightening;
  • there’s so much going on that there’s always a chance not to get the gist of the story.

A brief walk through the history

The idea of immersive theater goes back to the 19th century, when theater stars began to engage audience members by letting them react and respond to their lines. The Italian director Luca Ronconi even once turned an entire church into a setting for Orlando Furioso and let the audience have a say in how the play would continue. The first attempt was followed by the rise of various dinner theaters (bread and circuses at its best), murder mysteries, and haunted houses. And yet immersive theater as we know it today didn’t exist till the 2010s. 

In 2011, Sleep No More premiered in New York and even eleven years later, this Hitchcock-inspired take on Shakespeare’s Macbeth by the UK-based company Punchdrunk is still selling out. The show lets you do anything, except for two things: the first rule of the Sleep No More club is that you don’t take your mask off and the second rule is that you can’t talk to anyone unless you’re asked to. Ever since Sleep No More, immersive shows have been a flourishing trend around the world. 

In Russia, the birth of immersive theater is associated with Normansk, a noir show based on The Ugly Swans by the Strugatsky brothers that fused the characteristics of musicals, scavenger hunts, and even video games into one. Some other popular Russian immersive plays include Black Russian, The Revenants, Anna Karenina, and others.

What to watch in St. Petersburg

Once the heart of St. Petersburg's immersive theater scene, the authentic mansion on Palace Emb. 20 that hosted shows like The Revenants and Faceless has now unfortunately closed. But there are a few other shows you can enjoy in the city:

Possessed St. Petersburg (18+) – a contained play about St. Petersburg and the lives and fates of its greatest residents that blurs the line between reality and fiction.

At the Bar with Charles Bukowski (18+) – a one-on-one show for those who want to learn more about the writer and his works in an engaging atmosphere.