As Covid descended in March 2020, Australia’s tourism and hospitality industries were forced to close their doors. With international borders closed and stay-at-home orders in place, many small venues struggled to survive.
One entertainment success story, across the course of the pandemic, has been the rise of immersive theatre experiences in Sydney. In the past 12 months, one company has opened seven new venues in Sydney, transforming 1200 sq m of unused space for pop-up events and entertainment experiences. Aden Levin and James Farrell, co-founders of Viral Ventures, say they set out to regenerate venues and bring back the nation’s joy via immersive theatre.
“We worked closely with partners to research spaces that have been dormant due to the unfortunate consequences of Covid-19 and decided to utilise them by introducing concepts that were new to local customers,” Levin told The Property Tribune.
'Your own actions determine a different end result from everybody else’s.'
Their efforts to produce immersive theatre happily coincided, on January 1, 2021, with F. Scott Fitzgerald's classic novel The Great Gatsby entering the public domain. A year later, an immersive Gatsby theatrical experience inspired by the novel is playing at The Wonderland Bar in Kings Cross.
In the Gatsby experience, staff dress in period costume, uniquely-created cocktails such as The Green Light (Gatsby's symbol of hope) are served and the bar is wrapped in decadent 1920s décor. Customers can choose to attend a cocktail-making workshop, explore escape rooms or join an immersive theatrical production.
VR/360: Inside The Great Gatsby immersive experience Pt 1 youtu.be
The Great Gatsby Immersive Theatrical Experience positions each member of the audience as the main character, Nick Carraway while leading them through the key moments of the novel. Each room of The Wonderland Bar represents a striking scene from the story. Wonderland’s main bar serves as the main party room in the Gatsby mansion, and between major scenes, the audience can dance to jazz tunes from the Roaring 20s.
Modern immersive theatre was pioneered by the UK-based theatre company, Punchdrunk, in 2000. With Punchdrunk’s 2011 New York production of Sleep No More, the concept and theatre form achieved a global audience.
Kate Gwynne, whose UNSW PhD research explores the evolution of storytelling with a focus on the impact of immersive media technologies, says the power of the medium is the personal agency it gives to audience members.
“We’ve seen a trend towards increasing interest in participatory theatre. There is demand in being able to express personal agency,” said Gwynne, a creative writer and editor. “You play a role to a degree and interact with the other actors. They give you tasks to complete. When you enter these spaces with the actors and experience being able to influence things in their world, you get a personalised experience.”
Gwynne believes it is this unique element of immersive theatre that differentiates it from a traditional theatre experience. “Your own actions determine a different end result from everybody else’s.”
In Sydney, Levin and Farrell have collaborated with the local artists, entertainers, designers and hospitality staff to create a series of immersive events such as Bumper Cars on Ice, The Ball Pit Party and Beyond Cinema. However, they are best known for their meme-inspired restaurant, Karen’s Diner, where great burgers, brutal black comedy and terrible service come together and you are encouraged to complain.
“During the height of the pandemic we were eager to continue giving people something to look forward to and treat as a night out,” said Levin. In the first 18 months of the pandemic, Viral Ventures, a finalist in the 2021 Sydney Young Entrepreneur Awards, grew their revenue by 150 per cent generating more than $5 million. “There is a fantastic domestic opportunity within Australia and some amazing neglected spaces that we can transform into something special,” Farrell said.
“It’s mending of theatre and hospitality,” said Gwynne. “They’ve built on a model with decades of experimentation around the world and figured out how to tailor it for the Australian audience.”