Theater On The Move: Who Needs A Fourth Wall, Anyway?

A sea of viewers sits quietly enthralled, while a company of actors, established in their world of illusion, make believe they’re not there at all.  

An imaginary barrier that exists between actors and audiences in theatrical performance, the fourth wall carves out space for realism in a fictional world.  But not only is the fourth wall being broken, but theater is on the move, traveling between spaces and city blocks, taking audiences along for the ride.  This is immersive theater, and then some.  

“[W]hen a production breaks the fourth wall — immersing audience members fully and completely in the world of the play — there are no limits,” explains Hallie Sekoff in her article for Huffington Post.

Here are five ground-breaking productions that have made the life of the stage something of a movable feast for theater-goers.

you me bum bum train (2004-present)

If you’re lucky enough to grab a ticket to the London-born “You Me Bum Bum Train”, you’ll find yourself propelled through a labyrinth of independently staged rooms, and possibly tapped to improvise alongside the actors.  

“At one point you might be an American football coach, coaching your team to victory, next you’re a musician about to jump in the arms of adoring fans,” the Huffington Post describes.

It’s hard to say too much about this ongoing production, however, since ticket holders are asked to keep close-lipped about the whole affair. But Mark Lawson’s review of the experience, “Addressed as ‘passengers,’ we are weighed…and advised that if the experience ever becomes too much, we should place our hands in a T-shape and say ‘time out’ three times,” is too, too tantalizing a non-description.

katrina (2009)

Staged in London by experimental theater company Jericho House, “Katrina” took up residence in a disused warehouse, recreating New Orleans before and after the catastrophic hurricane.

Escorted through the entire building, audience members experienced each floor dressed as a different part of the New Orleans cultural identity, from storage for paper mache masks awaiting their big day at Mardi Gras, to the Funky Butt bar, a New Orleans jazz institution destroyed in the wake of Katrina.  

The play “transforms the relationship with the audience," playwright Jonathan Holmes told The Guardian. "The sense of witnessing an event is more visceral and more immediate."

And therein lies the beauty of a fourth wall blown apart.

you once said yes (2011)

Moving through a building is one thing; sprawling through Camden, London, is quite another. “You Once Said Yes,” staged by the Look Left Look Right Company, managed quite a feat when it led audience members from a storage capsule to the likes of St. Giles’ Cathedral and Greyfriar’s Kirk, arming them with backpacks filled with items to be used during the play.

“One of the great things about this show, besides its slippery, snake-like structure, is that it is constantly surprising – even when you think you've got the measure of it,” explained theater reviewer Lyn Gardner in The Guardian.

So much for relaxing in your seat!

the tenant (2011)

The creepy, voyeuristic tale of “The Tenant,” made famous by Roland Topor’s 1964 novel and later by Roman Polanski’s 1976 adaptation, came to life with equal creepiness in the Woodshed Collective’s staging over five stories of the West-Park Presbyterian Church in New York, transformed into a Paris apartment building and its surroundings.

“The Tenant … allows lurkers and roamers to stare the performers in the face and vice versa,” explains one New York Times review. “[W]hat’s the fun in following a straight narrative when a dramaturgical scavenger hunt awaits? Something interesting — or at least loud — always seems to be happening.”

“With so much sinister action and so many stairs, the show is not for the faint of heart or weak of quadriceps,” explains another review. “Audiences can follow one set of characters throughout an evening, or hopscotch from floor to floor.”

eta 1.0 (2016)

Also staged by Woodshed Collective, “ETA 1.0” was a trip. Literally.

Described by the theater company as, “A workshop festival of theatrical adventures across NYC,” the production featured a cast of over 20 actors staging scenes in various locations, from pay-phones to fountains.

“It’s designed to allow New Yorkers to experience the city anew by reimagining diverse pieces of architecture as settings for a series of unexpected happenings,” Woodshed Collective explained. “From the Bethesda fountain to the L train, from the Bowery to your bathroom, ETA allows you to travel out of the mundane and into the inspired.”

Best of all, “You tell us your preferences, and we select a trip for you.”   That’s as custom-made a movable theater experience as there is.

Given the degree to which the fourth wall has been blown apart so far, it’s pretty exciting to think about what might be just around the corner. An in-flight theater company jetting audiences to locations cross country? An underwater adventure staged in a submarine?  Who knows.  Without a fourth wall, there are no limits.