Across the country it has led to what we at No Proscenium often refer to as the “immersive renaissance.”
What does this mean? It means all the art, theatre, and games that are getting folks to step away from their mediated lives and enter into strange, new worlds.
When our friends at Meow Wolf asked us to come up with a guide to the best immersive experiences from coast to coast, we said yes… and then promptly found ourselves overwhelmed with possibilities and options.
What you’ll find in these pages, curated by Juliet Bennett Rylah and Noah Nelson, are waypoints for your own immersive adventures, divided up into five regions of the United States. We’ve let our curiosity guide us.
We haven’t been to all of these spots, nor have we seen all of these shows, but we’ll let you know when there’s one that we know and love.
This guide is a living document, and we’ll be updating it as new spots open, and as we get tips from NoPro’s growing network of writers.
-Noah Nelson, Founder & Publisher, No Proscenium
From the Rocky Mountains to the Pacific Coast, the West has some of the most spectacular scenery in the United States and hosts one of the planet’s most exciting immersive art and performance scenes. Los Angeles and Denver are rapidly becoming hubs for the renaissance, and more cities touched by the adventurous spirit of the West are finding their voices with each new season.
You almost certainly know that Meow Wolf Denver is on its way, and that Kaleidoscape at Elitch Garden is already open and giving everyone a taste of what’s to come, but there’s a lot going on in Denver beyond that.
For starters, there’s the Denver Center for the Performing Art’s Off-Center program.
The DCPA is the nation’s largest nonprofit theatre organization, and in the past few years they’ve become an essential part of the immersive theatre world. Not only do they commission new work from the likes of NYC’s Third Rail Projects and LA’s Capital W, but every year they’ve managed to whip up innovative, new work that makes even New York City theatre-goers feel the FOMO, whether that is an immersive adaption of The Wild Party or experimental work like the recently wrapped, Between Us. There’s new work coming steadily out of Off-Center at this point, so it’s worth it to see what’s on tap before planning a trip.
Once you’re in Denver, you’d be wise to check out Casa Bonita, a fabulous beast of absurd wonder that crams Disney-fied versions of various regions of Mexico into the footprint of a mall anchor store. It’s all capped off by a signature indoor waterfall that has regular cliff divers performing while you scarf down some sopapillas.
Looking for more? The Museum of Outdoor Arts played host in 2019 to Natura Obscura, which billed itself as “part art museum and part virtual reality experience,” bringing local artists together to create a “surrealist forest”.
Meanwhile, Denver Immersive Opera hosts immersive takes on classics and original works a few times a year.
Southern California is home to the world’s most famous theme parks, but those in the loop know that there’s a whole other world of haunts, escape rooms, and one of the most vibrant Immersive Theatre scenes on the planet.
At any given time of year the creators in LA are working on something special — be it an intimate, one-on-one piece, a Halloween spectacle, or something completely unexpected. It’s also worth it to stay updated on the work of Capital W, Delusion, E3W Productions, The Experiences, Just Fix It, The Speakeasy Society, and to keep an eye out for emerging companies. Shows run anywhere from a weekend to a few months, so you’ll want to check ahead to see if something has been announced or to learn about the latest surprise listings.
While you’re in SoCal, seek out some of the innovative and genre-busting Escape Rooms — The Basement, Cross Roads Escape Games, Hatch Escapes, and Stashhouse are just a few of the world-class rooms for which the region is known. Then there are flagship locations for VR pioneers Dreamscape and The Void, and the micro-amusement park Two Bit Circus brings all kinds of forms of play under their “big top.”
Artist Bruce Munro had a dream of a field of “subtle blooms of morphing color,” and that dream has been brought to life thanks to “an array of over 58,800 stemmed spheres lit by fiber-optics,” all of it solar powered.
The installation, Field of Light, is the first part of the planned Sensorio project, which aims to offer “a wide range of amusing, mystical and kinetic experiences,” starting in 2021.
Field of Light is already open, however, and is just about an hour north of the legendary Madonna Inn. That famous spot offers up 110 unique hotel rooms and is a roadside attraction in and of itself.
One of the more interesting immersive experiments in the country is Evermore — a theme park that borrows heavily from the live action role-playing tradition to create a new kind of experience.
Now you can find large scale LARPs around the planet, and Knott’s Berry Farm in Southern California has a whole “immersive theatre vibe” going for it with Ghost Town Alive, but Evermore is looking to be an interactive fantasy world come to life. There’s some serious imagination behind it: VR company The Void was spun out of Evermore, whose founder is focusing on his dream of a fully-immersive theme park. This one is being watched closely by fans of theme parks and games alike.
You’ll find Evermore less than an hour south of Salt Lake City.
When it comes to the arts, the Bay Area is best known for being the epicenter of Burning Man’s culture and home to a vibrant underground performance art scene that turns Silicon Valley money into eye-popping parties and even stranger détournements.
Yet, you usually have to know a guy who knows a gal who knows the person who really knows if you want to be tapped into those happenings. If you want something above the radar that mixes the Bay’s tech with an elaborate sense of playfulness and — most critically — a serious challenge, then Palace Games fits the bill. Escape room fans make pilgrimages to experience the legendary games. Palace Games is at the top of multiple “Best in Country” lists, and you won’t find their work replicated anywhere else.
What started out as an underground pop-up restaurant/theatre hybrid has become a Seattle institution. For years, Cafe Nordo has been a steady beacon for out-of-the-box theatrical experiences with a culinary twist. New shows pop up all the time in Nordo’s main stage, “The Culinarium”, and the company uses their venue as a playground for artists to experiment with form.
“Dinner theatre” has been historically looked down upon by “serious” theatre artists, but that harkens back to the old type of dinner theatre: where either the food or the play is an afterthought. Or, the worst case: where both are an afterthought and no one hopes you notice. Cafe Nordo is part of a new tradition where both the food and the play are brought into conversation.
Whether it’s St. Louis’s City Museum — the grandfather of the interactive museum — or the growing immersive theatre scene in Chicago, there’s rewards for the curious all over the Midwest.
The Windy City has such a strong tradition of traditional theatre that it’s actually taken some time for the immersive renaissance to take root. That changed last year, in part, thanks to the success of Southern Gothic.
Set in 1960s Georgia, 30 audience members find themselves at the 40th birthday party of one Suzanne Wellington, where they are free to wander the party, sip on cocktail samples, and choose which gossip to overhear. Southern Gothic’s Windy City Playhouse isn’t the only company making immersive moves, with Birch House, Nothing Without a Company, Strawdog Theater Company, Wirehouse Co., and Upended Productions all producing work in the last year.
While in town, you might want to get your selfie on at the wndr museum, whose crown jewel is a mirror infinity room by Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama. There are a total of 11 rooms blending science and tech, including a "zero-gravity" ball pit and a room with a reactive floor alongside a variety of supporting art installations.
Shadow of the Run give the infamous “Torso” murders — a case that even the “untouchable” Elliot Ness couldn’t crack — the immersive treatment. The team of film, theatre, and puzzle-makers have been developing the show for years, and are now teasing it out as a series playing out in the town of Bedford, a suburb of Cleveland. The first episode, “Wanderlust”, kicked off last summer for a limited run, and the second, “Railroaded”, spools out this January. If you’re nearby and dig the darker stuff, this unfolding mystery is building buzz.
According to legend, Alex Jordan Jr. built the House on the Rock to show up Frank Lloyd Wright after the elder, more famous architect allegedly insulted his father's plans for a Madison building. (This is a disputed story as timelines fail to match up: Jordan, Jr. would have been a child when the incident was said to have taken place, while Wright would have been in Japan.)
Still, Jordan's house remains both a strange and magnificent attraction, with curiosities including an elaborate carousel with over 250 animals, a narrow "Infinity Room" offering a vertigo-inducing view of the forest below, a replica of an old cobblestone street replete with storefronts, massive sculptures of sea creatures, coin-operated automatons, and sprawling collections of "antiques" (much of it less than authentic).
In this way, it is perhaps one of America's greatest tourist traps, and it's no wonder why author Neil Gaiman chose it to serve as "a place of power" in his novel “American Gods”—in America, deity Mr. Shadow explains, roadside attractions are sacred.
City Museum is an old shoe factory, painstakingly converted into a wondrous world waiting to be explored.
Artist Bob Cassilly opened City Museum with his then-wife Gail in 1997, and it is an incredible beast, totaling 600,000 square feet of concrete, sprawling mosaics, and sculpture. Within, find networks of tunnels and caves made from salvaged materials, massive slides up to ten stories high, 19th-century shoelace machines that will make custom laces, daily circus performances, and collections of antiques that including a model train, vintage arcade consoles, and dozens of old doorknobs. If that's not enough, the museum also boasts what is purportedly the world's largest pair of underpants. There's even more on the roof, including an operational ferris wheel.
Outside is MonstroCity, which consists of more tunnels—these ones made of giant Slinkies—two ball pits, sculptures, and a bar built in a cabin that once belonged to Daniel Boone's son. If this sounds overwhelming, it in no way does justice to the actual attraction, which beckons some 700,000 people of all ages each year. If you're an adult who'd prefer your playtime with other adults, the museum usually stays open until midnight on Fridays and Saturdays.
Imagination knows no bounds, as the immersive attractions of the southern United States show. Whether it’s a Victorian seance in Houston or a pirates’ cove in Baton Rouge, there’s wildly creative work being made that stands alongside any immersive experience you might find elsewhere in the country.
Escape rooms promise adventure, but few make good on it like The 13th Gate Escape.
The creators of one the top-ranked Haunted Houses turned their dark imaginations towards escape games a few years ago. The result includes what is considered by many to be the best escape game in the United States: Cutthroat Cavern. The gang at Room Escape Artist says it “was about as close to living in The Goonies” as they could get.
This is escape games on a grand scale, with a story-driven room that doesn’t skimp on the details. Frankly, this game is spoken of with such awe and reverence that we’re jealous of every one of you who gets to play it before we do.
The fourth largest city in the U.S., Houston has an immersive scene with some uniquely creative voices.
Strange Bird Immersive’s The Man From Beyond: Houdini Séance Escape Room is regarded by those in the know as the quintessential hybrid of immersive theatre and escape rooms. Creators Cameron and Haley Cooper have made something special with this one, and Haley blogs about their process at Immersology. The room recently reopened after a long hiatus due to bureaucratic hurdles.
There’s a lot to love about New Orleans, and the immersive art offerings are a big part of that.
For starters, there’s the Music Box Village, a sculpture garden featuring interactive “musical houses” in the Bywater. The Village is a creation of New Orleans Airlift, a non-profit that creates all kinds of music and theatre work both in New Orleans and beyond. The good news: the Village runs special events all season long, and last year presented a Halloween immersive called “Promised Estates” that mixed some sci-fi into the scares. The bad news: summer is the off-season, so make your plans accordingly.
Whenever you’re in NOLA, you will also want to check out Escape My Room, the escape game site from DeLaporte Ventures. The lobby alone is worth writing home about, set at a bar that few escape room companies even try to match. If you ever rode on the Haunted Mansion and wished you could walk around, the interiors of Escape My Room help scratch that itch.
Mix-Tape at The Womb is Factory Obscura’s first permanent installation. The Oklahoma City-based artist collective has opened up the first part of their planned 6000-square-foot location at the arts complex that was shepherded by Wayne Coyne of the Flaming Lips. The full Mix-Tape opens at the end of September, but in the meantime there are a couple of installations already open as the buildout continues. This is also just part of Factory Obscura’s long term plans for OKC.
The immersive theatre renaissance got its start on the East Coast, so it’s no surprise that theatre dominates our picks here. You can head to the center of it all in New York City, or see how artists are giving the form their own twist from Boston to D.C.
Submersive Productions have been creating standalone and serialized shows for years now, and for the past two years The Peale Center for Baltimore History and Architecture has been their home base. The company creates works with titles like The Institute of Visionary History and the Archives of the Deep Now and H.T. Darling's Incredible Musaeum Presents: The Treasures of New Galapagos, Astonishing Acquisitions from the Perisphere, rocking the alternate reality vibe.
As The Peale Center gets renovated, Submersive will be popping up around town with their mix of mythology and alternate history.
With the MIT Mystery Hunt being an annual tradition, it’s no surprise that Boston’s immersive scene has a gaming bent.
Incantrix Productions mixes it all together, borrowing elements of immersive theatre, live action role-playing, and escape rooms in order to create their work. Incantrix events pop up quarterly, so don’t expect to just drop into town and find something happening.
Green Door Labs — lead by designer Kellian Adams Pletcher — also keeps a seasonal schedule with the annual Club Drosselmeyer presenting a game-filled, swing dance-centered version of the Nutcracker story every holiday season.
The former is the show that kicked off the immersive theatre renaissance: British theatre makers, Punchdrunk, converted a multi-story building in Chelsea into an elaborate sandbox where a dance-theatre hybrid of Shakespeare’s “Macbeth” and Hitchock’s Rebecca plays out on an evening-long loop. Patrons don white masks and haunt the grounds of the building, chasing after performers as they light from scene to scene amongst an elaborate set that, like the play itself, has the logic of a dream. It’s a spectacle like no other.
On the other end of the spectrum is the amazingly intimate, Then She Fell. While also built on a dance theatre framework, this piece remixes familiar Alice in Wonderland characters with their real-life counterparts and keeps the performer-to-actor ratio so tight that many scenes consist of just you alone alongside one of New York’s most-talented actors. Watch out: you just might fall in love with the art form.
These shows are always up and running, but NYC has many more that pop in and out of existence. If only there was some way to track all that.
While New York City and Los Angeles get a lot of buzz for their immersive theatre scenes, Pittsburgh’s Bricolage Production Company is quietly out here making some of the most inventive, daring, and moving work in the field.
Their OjO: The Next Generation of Travel turned heads at the 2015 Without Walls festival in San Diego, and they’ve been steadily making groundbreaking work for years. Enter The Imaginarium is their ongoing collaboration with ScareHouse, the famed haunted attraction that mixes immersive theatre with escape room play. Now featuring three rooms in a cohesive storyline, the Imaginarium gets high marks from escape room enthusiasts and NoPro’s staff.
It seems like a no-brainer, but mixing immersive theatre and cabaret turns out to be hard. Maybe it’s because cabaret already plays so much with the fourth wall from a staging standpoint that going the extra mile doesn’t seem necessary.
Yet, this is exactly what TBD Immersive aims to do with every show. The company has created an ongoing mythology centered around a slightly more dystopian Washington D.C., and has spread that evolving storyline out amongst shows disguised as house parties and — of course — cabaret. Circus acts, puzzles, and explorable spaces have all featured in their work.
The story of the Republic and the Resistance isn’t the only work they get up to, though. They’ve experimented with dining experiences (Legendary) and answered the call out of town with the Shining Ball in Colorado.
Our tour of the Southeast focuses on three of America’s cultural capitals: Atlanta, Miami, and Nashville. Each features work that puts their own spin on the immersive renaissance.
Some theatre companies love spectacle, but can they claim to have flown in an actual helicopter for the climax of Miss Saigon? Not, like, with wires from a roof, but actually flown one in? Serenbe Playhouse can.
The nonprofit theatre’s founder and artistic director Brian Clowdus has spun out a theatrical production company that has begun exporting his brand of large scale, site-specific experiences to the rest of the country. At the Playhouse, all of the work takes place outdoors, and that affords for large scale effects — the aforementioned helicopter — and more immersive experiences.
Not every Serenbe show goes full-immersive, but every season has at least one piece that goes for it.
Atlanta has also proven to be a market hungry for new experiences, with Candytopia and Otherworld Encounter getting runs, and companies like Found Stages and the Strand experimenting with immersive theatre. While in town, keep your eyes peeled for installation pieces like the Tiny Doors ATL project.
Founded in 1998, Juggerknot Theatre Company didn’t start out as an immersive theatre company — and immersive is still just part of their mandate to create “alternative, experimental, and nontraditional theatre works.” However, the company has two long series — Miami Motel Stories and Wynwood Stories — that use immersive and site-specific techniques to tell tales straight out of local history.
Of course, we’d be remiss if we didn’t mention the annual Miami Beach Art Basel, which attracts tens of thousands of art fans to Miami Beach annually. Galleries and beachside installations abound.
After a run in Nashville and a tour to Atlanta in the past year, Otherworld Encounter — an interactive art exhibit set in a world where “a futuristic tech company has developed a brain scanning machine to collect people’s thoughts” — has shifted to pop-up mode while they look for a permanent space in the city.
Juliet Bennett Rylah and Noah Nelson are part of the team at No Proscenium, a publication and podcast that covers all things immersive.