Immersive Theater Experiences

Originally published on NewYork.com
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At these interactive shows, audiences don’t just passively watch—they’re part of the action.

Whether it’s diving into the madness of MacBeth, paying a visit to Wonderland or helping solve a decades-old murder, at a growing number of immersive theater productions around the city, audience members are invited to become part of the drama.

Rather than simply watching shows like Sleep No More or Then She Fell, you get to experience them viscerally–engaging with the characters and sets and often playing a role in the story yourself. Audience-engagement classics like the Blue Man Group have been incorporating the crowd for years, but this next generation of interactive shows pushes the participatory envelope even further. Here are a few of our current favorites.

Speakeasy Dollhouse

Based on the unsolved 1935 murder of Prohibition-era speakeasy owner Frank Spano, Speakeasy Dollhouse invites guests to help solve the crime and become part of the drama. The show, created by Spano’s granddaughter Cynthia von Buhler, is housed in the downtown building that once served as mobster Meyer Lansky’s hangout (the address is kept a secret). Guests are assigned a name and a role and encouraged to collect as many clues as possible while exploring the unlocked doors and revolving bookshelves that adorn the 1920’s-inspired set.

Frank Spano, who immigrated from Italy in the Roaring Twenties, ran two speakeasies in the Bronx and was shot and killed in downtown Manhattan shortly after Prohibition ended. The mystery of his murder remains unsolved to this day. Von Buhler, who also authored a book about the crime, says her grandmother took the secret of her husband’s death to her grave, but guests are encouraged to put their whodunnit skills to the test and uncover the truth themselves. And when they’re not busy sorting out clues, they can enjoy the 1920’s-style moonshine, live jazz and burlesque dancers.

Sleep No More

After putting on mysterious white masks, guests at Sleep No More embark on a dreamy, maze-like journey through the McKittrick Hotel (530 W 27th St.), where every floor features spooky settings inspired by Shakespeare’s MacBeth. In the immersive production by British theater company Punchdrunk, cast members perform dance routines and act out scenes amidst ghostly surroundings.

Attendees can follow the actors from room to room or move at their own pace, exploring the dark corners where surprises quietly lie in wait. Before returning to the real world, guests might find themselves watching a spectral song and dance performance in the lobby, participating in a sacrificial rave, or holding hands with Lady MacBeth herself.

Then She Fell

“We’re all mad here,” says the Mad Hatter to Alice when she pays him a visit in Wonderland. The same could be said of the residents of Then She Fell, the interactive theater experience offered by Third Rail Productions (195 Maujer Street, Brooklyn). Inspired by the relationship between real-life Alice Liddell and Alice in Wonderland author Lewis Carroll, the show is staged in the eerie atmosphere of a mental institution, where shelves are filled with old-fashioned pill bottles and potions and desk drawers overflow with handwritten love letters.

Participants are invited to fall down the rabbit hole into the mind of Carroll: while being led through the hospital ward, brush Alice’s hair while chatting with her about first loves, try on hats with the Mad Hatter, or share food and drink with the White Queen, all while watching beautifully choreographed dance performances.


The Mystery of Edwin Drood

An interactive murder-mystery musical comedy, The Mystery of Edwin Drood keeps audiences guessing while they solve a century-old literary whodunit. With multiple possible endings and plot turns, each performance is slightly different, lending a palpable energy to the Roundabout Theatre Company’s well-staged revival at Studio 54 (254 W 54th Street), where cast members always seems to enjoy themselves as much as the audience.

Drood originally debuted in 1985, and its winking, tongue-in-cheek humor feels fresh and relevant today, with a narrator who delivers a stream of campy one-liners and a clever plot that moves along to a lively music-hall score. As the story unfolds, the audience steps in, voting with raised hands and applause to make several crucial decisions that lead to a climactic finish.


Totally Tubular Time Machine (Photo: Bobby Bank/Wireimage)

Celebrity gossip addicts who can’t get enough of Perez Hilton and TMZ get to walk the red carpet themselves at Totally Tubular Time Machine (20 West 39th Street), an experience that spans time, space and pop-culture trends. Attendees are invited through the velvet ropes and into the limelight, where they interact with some of the brightest stars of the past few decades.

They might spot Michael Jackson, Madonna or even Lady Gaga dancing to hit songs from the 80s, 90s and today. Participants can ask the stars themselves about the truth behind the most scandalous Hollywood secrets and stories— or if they really want to be a part of the festivities, they can start a juicy rumor of their own.

Fuerza Bruta

Be prepared to dive in at Fuerza Bruta—or at least get splashed a little. This production at the Daryl Roth Theater (101 E 15th St.) plunges attendees into a sensual experience that occurs around and above their heads. Standing in a dark room that feels a bit like being underwater, guests watch cast members perform gravity-defying stunts that involve explosions, gun shots and plenty of water spraying, all to the beat of tribal-style music. The audience looks up as the cast “swims” above them on a translucent tarp that descends gradually during the performance until they can physically touch it.

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