Theater reinvents itself to bring audiences back

Lili Sarajian







The lighting lab’s resident test mannequin hangs in the back while Megan Reilly demonstrates the wide range of colored lighting she uses in productions. 

Photography by Kalli Anderson

You enter a barren landscape, dry patches of grass spotting the flat dirt plains in every direction. As you take a few steps forward, trees sprout up to your left and a river materializes ahead. You whirl around, looking behind you to find five masked and cloaked figures standing in a line, silent. Suddenly, the action begins. 

Each figure takes its place to perform a scene from Shakespeare’s “The Tempest.” But what you’re seeing is not a normal theater performance. It’s happening entirely in virtual reality. 

This is the future of theater. 

While isolation during the pandemic has yielded a new appreciation for in-person experiences — like watching a show at the theater — the entertainment landscape has shifted irreversibly to digital platforms, and the performance arts industry is due to catch up. Directors have begun to embrace the use of digital media in theater performances to increase audience engagement and immersion, a direction that parallels avant-garde theater throughout the 20th century. This new wave of theater is capable of revolutionizing not only the theater industry, but the entertainment industry as we know it.

Professor Megan Reilly uses her body to demonstrate her favorite lighting styles in the UW–Madison lighting lab. Photography by Kalli Anderson

Standing center stage with spotlights at her back, Reilly’s interview turns into an impromptu performance. Photography by Kalli Anderson

Avant-garde playwrights of Europe in the 1920s and 1930s, including Antonin Artaud, Vsevolod Meyerhold and Maurice Maeterlinck, strayed from the trend of grandiose productions to create more intimate and evocative performances.

“What they were trying to do was put raw emotions and dreams on stage,” says Rob Wagner, the scenic studio supervisor at the UW–Madison Department of Theatre and Drama. The movement was a rebellion against the affected, normative theater of the day that valued realism over audience experience. The leaders of the avant-garde movements threw out all of the preconceived standards of theater — down to the theater architecture and the stage itself — and started from scratch with just an empty black box.

Black box theaters are flexible spaces that allow theater companies to produce a wide variety of shows with little to no scenery or props. They gained popularity in the 1960s when educational institutions across the country built black boxes on their campuses. The flexibility of these spaces was ideal for teaching and producing small-scale student shows. 

These black boxes are just what they sound like: empty square or rectangular rooms often painted black or draped with black curtains. Portable risers allow the stage and seating arrangements to be configured in any way the designer chooses. 

Using black box theaters, as well as found spaces like abandoned storefronts and factories, allowed actors and producers to focus on content and performance rather than impressive scenery or mechanics. Traditional proscenium stages only allow the audience to view the action from one direction at a distance, but black box theaters force the audience to sit much closer to the actors.

“In bigger spaces, a lot of times once the lights go down and the lights hit you on stage, the audience goes away. You know they’re there, you can hear them and you’re very tuned in to how they’re listening, but in a black box situation, when you’re in a small intimate space like that, the audience never goes away,” says Clare Haden, an acting lecturer in the UW–Madison Department of Theatre and Drama.

She says larger stages force actors to focus on articulating, projecting their voices, and making their facial expressions and movements larger. In a black box, the intimate space gives actors the freedom to be more subtle and authentic in their expression which naturally generates greater connection between the actors and audience.

“There’s an electric connection when you realize that person playing that person on stage just saw you and you saw them and you saw them seeing you,” says Wagner. “You can lose that in a proscenium piece really easily because the actors are playing the fourth wall.”

Theres an electric connection when you realize that person playing that person on stage just saw you and you saw them.

— Rob Wagner


Because the audience is so close to the action, lighting designers can play with shadows. They don’t have to flood the stage with light to make sure the audience can see everything in the same way they would in an opera house or for a musical. Instead, black boxes can be lit with just a spotlight or even a single candle held up to an actor’s face. 

“Light creates a space,” says Megan Reilly, assistant professor and lighting designer at UW–Madison. “So if you want to create an intimate space, take down the lighting. Create a smaller circle, create a smaller lit area, to the point of, if you just light a candle, that’s the most intimate space you can get.”

Black boxes also typically have their overhead girders arranged in a grid across the whole ceiling, allowing for greater flexibility of light placement than a traditional stage where most of the light must be concentrated at the front. This strategic placement and quality of light — which also allows for more shadows and darkness on stage — enhances the drama of the performance.

Modern experimentation with digital media, virtual reality and alternate reality is an evolution of those early avant-garde movements that sought to make theater more immersive.

And this new evolution is just in time. 

“Traditional theater is in trouble,” Reilly says, speaking to the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic. In comparison to the wealth of digital media vying for attention — social media, television, film, video games — theater simply can’t offer the same level of convenience and immediacy.

“We’re losing people from live theater because they can get a better, more immersive experience with their 52-inch flat-screen TV, Dolby surround sound, sitting on their couch in their jammies,” Wagner says. 

So, directors have begun to embrace the use of digital media on stage to increase audience engagement and immersion during the performance. It’s all about trying to offer a unique performance that audiences can’t recreate in their living rooms. 

According to Reilly, the term “immersive theater” has already become somewhat meaningless because every director has their own perception of what it means. For Reilly, immersive theater is “where the actors and the audience share the same space,” she says. “The fourth wall is broken and the audience is on its feet, exploring the same space as the actors.”

The pandemic forced the theater industry to tap into these experimental methods of making theater more immersive because theater was exclusively confined to digital platforms during isolation. Many companies recorded their performances and livestreamed them on platforms like Zoom or Facebook, but more ambitious theaters partnered with game designers to develop VR spaces in which actors and audience members could interact.

“The Under Presents,” a live, interactive virtual reality game, produced and performed Shakespeare’s “The Tempest” entirely in VR. Audience members joined the game as anonymous avatars that could interact with one another while waiting for scheduled virtual performance times to attend within the game. During the downtime between shows, actors hung around the virtual common area and interacted with audience members. 

Even live, in-person theater is making room for digital experimentation. The UW–Madison theater department produced a research project called The ALICE Project (Augmented Live Interactively Controlled Environment) in 2015 that explored the use of various digital technologies to enhance the audience experience and the actors’ interaction with their stage environment. 

The team consulted with a game designer to sync the actor’s movement with a digital projection behind her using sensors from an Xbox video gaming system. The actor moved forward on a treadmill, triggering the Kinect sensor, which would cause the digital projection to move according to her speed. When she raised her arms to jump down the rabbit hole, the Kinect sensors picked up on the motion, triggering the flying harness to lift her off the ground.

“It inverted the usual actor-digital interaction and put the live actor in control of the environment in a way that hadn’t been done before,” Wagner says. Instead of matching the actor’s blocking and action to a prerecorded projection, she was essentially in control of the entire production, from the projection to the stage lights to the flying harness.

With highly experimental forms of theater on the rise, it’s easy to question what is lost from the live, in-person experience of theater. For theater professionals like Dan Lisowski, chair of the Department of Theatre and Drama at UW–Madison, the goal is to “replicate the feelings of the live entertainment experience in a different medium so that people still experience the art form in a way that is meaningful to them and touches them and kind of changes them going forward.”

This was the same goal of the experimental theater movements in the 20th century: enhancing the audience experience to evoke an emotional response and leave a lasting impact. Theater has always aimed to create immersive spaces where the action is performed right in front of you, but the challenge faced by the industry today is finding a home in the ever-changing digital landscape of the entertainment industry — offering something more immersive and evocative than audiences can find anywhere else. 

Reilly explains how this lighting style makes dancers appear as if they are levitating in the middle of the stage with shadows shrouding their feet.

DUSK page photo credit: Photography by Kalli Anderson