Dr Adam Alston

Senior Lecturer in Theatre and Performance Studies
+44 (0)1483 683133
03 NC 01
Mondays: 16:15-17:15; Tuesdays: 11:15 - 12:15


Areas of specialism

Immersive theatre; audience participation; theatre in the dark; theatre and decadence; theatre and politics

My qualifications

PhD, Royal Holloway, University of London
Royal Holloway, University of London
Erasmus Mundus Master in International Performance Research
University of Warwick and Universiteit van Amsterdam
BA Theatre and Performance Studies
University of Warwick

Affiliations and memberships


Research interests

Research collaborations

Indicators of esteem

  • Keynote research papers

    ‘Anarchy in the UK: Immersive theatre and the new spirit of capitalism’. The Power of Immersion: Performance, Affect, Politics. Freie Universität Berlin, Berlin. 9-13 April 2018.

    'Errant Immersion: Mistakes and Accidental Transgression in Immersive Theatre'. Audience, Experience, Desire: Interactivity and Participation in Contemporary Performance and Cultural Industries. University of Exeter, Exeter. 30 January 2016.

    'Dining in the Dark: Darkness, Commerce and Disappearance'. Keynote paper. Royal Central School of Speech and Drama, London. 12 January 2016.


    Research fellowships

    "Affective Societies" Research Centre, Institut für Theaterwissenschaft, Freie Universität Berlin - Berlin. 16-20 April, 2018.


    Editorial posts

    2014--17: Co-editor, Contemporary Theatre Review’s ‘Interventions’.     

    2011--13: Editor, Platform: Journal of Theatre and Performing Arts

My teaching


Postgraduate research supervision

Postgraduate research supervision

My publications


Theatre in the Dark: Shadow, Gloom and Blackout in Contemporary Theatre. London: Bloomsbury, 2017. Co-edited with Martin Welton. https://www.bloomsbury.com/uk/theatre-in-the-dark-9781474251181/  

Beyond Immersive Theatre: Aesthetics, Politics and Productive Participation. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016. Sole-authored monograph. https://www.palgrave.com/gb/book/9781137480439

‘Audience Participation and Neoliberal Value: Risk, Agency and Responsibility in Immersive Theatre’. Performance Research 18.2 (June 2013): 128-38. http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/13528165.2013.807177

‘Immersive theatre and the aesthetics of decadence: on the ruined worlds of Punchdrunk, SHUNT and Hammer Film Productions’. Theatre and Performance Design 3.4 (2017): pp. 199-217.


Alston Adam (2016) 'Tell no-one': Secret Cinema and the Paradox of Secrecy., In: Nicholson H, Harpin A (eds.), Performance and Participation: Practices, Audiences, Politics Palgrave Macmillan
This chapter considers the oddness of secrecy?s prominence in contemporary theatre marketing strategies that flaunt secrecy as a trope: for instance, in the recent campaigns of several London-based companies including the Lyric Hammersmith?s Secret Theatre Company, Secret Theatre London, and Secret Cinema. It also considers the incorporation of secrecy in the design of frameworks for audience immersion and participation in fairly recent work by Punchdrunk and Coney that encourage audiences to discover a performance?s hidden depths through physically explorative participation (Punchdrunk), or covert forms of participation that are meant to go unnoticed (Coney). Both of these areas ? the economics and aesthetics of secrecy ? inform the production and reception of work by Secret Cinema, especially, which pulls focus in this chapter. Secret Cinema makes live immersive theatre performances of films that are unknown in advance of a screening that appends each show. Audiences are encouraged to advertise the performance in advance of going by telling others to ?tell no one? about it on social media, and they are prompted to figure out the film?s identity by engaging with clues and procedures for participation that are inscribed in a marketing strategy and embedded within immersive environments. Drawing on sociological and psychological studies of secrecy, Erving Goffman?s concept of ?keying?, and recent scholarship on audience participation and immersion, the chapter explores notions of audience inclusivity and exclusivity in work by Secret Cinema and how these notions are informed by a framework for audience participation and immersion that ties in with the economic uses of secrecy. I argue that the kind of secrecy at stake is a paradoxically spectacular and commodified secrecy in a contemporary twist on the secret society, complicating the binding of secrecy to polarised notions of inclusivity and exclusivity, inclusion and exclusion.
Alston Adam (2012) Funding, Product Placement and Drunkenness in Punchdrunk's The Black Diamond., Studies in Theatre and Performance 32 (2) pp. 193-208 Intellect
This article responds to Stella Artois Black?s recent hiring of Punchdrunk members for their ?immersive? theatre marketing venture The Black Diamond (Scene 1). What happens to immersive theatre when product placement enters its world? And what happens to the product having entered the world of immersive theatre? These questions are addressed in relation to Arts Council England funding policy and Punchdrunk?s award of a significant rise in ACE funding. Balancing ACE?s framework for ?sustainable? art against the threat of ?selling out? to commercial interests, a critical approach is proposed that addresses how audiences might assume partial responsibility for recognising and responding to the control of art production at the institutional level. With tongue only half in cheek, drunkenness is explored in relation to product placement as a means to this end.
This edited collection of essays explores how theatre works in the dark, examining performances that blur the boundary between stage and auditorium by turning out the lights, and the significance of seeing and listening in darkness to some of this new century?s most exciting and innovative theatre artists. Theatre in the Dark responds to the rising tide of experimentation in dark theatre aesthetics, bringing together, for the first time, leading and emerging practitioners and researchers in a volume dedicated to theatre in the dark. As well as examining the history of how theatre lowered the lights in order to see differently, the book also explores the work of a growing number of theatre makers experimenting with the aesthetic potential of darkness, including Sound&Fury, Lundahl & Seitl, Chris Goode, David Rosenberg and Glen Neath. The book is divided into three parts: (1) Dark Aesthetics, (2) Dark Phenomena, and (3) Shadow, Night and Gloom. Opening up a field of research that considers the aesthetics and phenomenology of dark theatre performances, along with their contexts, Theatre in the Dark proposes and explores areas for discussion and debate that will appeal to researchers, practitioners and audiences alike.
Alston Adam (2012) Damocles and the Plucked: Audience Participation and Risk in Half Cut., Contemporary Theatre Review 22 (3) pp. 344-354 Taylor & Francis
This article looks to identify a political mode of audience engagement in the ?one-on-one? performance, Half Cut. In response to recent economic turbulence in the UK and abroad, I draw on Hans-Thies Lehmann?s appeal for an ?aesthetics of risk? in the theatre: an aesthetics which I suggest might begin at the level of audience reception. This marks a turn away from the more prevalent application of risk to artistic production. Couched in the sociological context of Ulrich Beck?s ?risk society?, I compare risk-taking in contemporary financial markets with the apparently trivial and seemingly ?risky? act of paying to pluck a single hair from another?s body as a participant in Half Cut. I consider how affective responses such as embarrassment and awkwardness in one-on-one theatre (which might be felt as ?risks?) function either as something masochistically consumed within the experience industry, or as positive values subversively premised on loss ? such as loss of dignity and self-assuredness ? provided that risk is not something passively submitted to, but actively committed to. The argument centres on an economically defined power dynamic operating between performer and participant, paying close attention to how the successful operation of this dynamic within the aesthetic space of Half Cut might lift an otherwise fetishised relationship into something felt through affectation. I suggest that a triadic relationship between risk, agency and responsibility ? which is perhaps broken in financial markets ? is forged through a ?dialogic intimacy? between performer and participant, opening space for a radical engagement with risk beginning at the level of an existential queasiness.
Alston Adam (2015) Performing Labour in Look Left Look Right?s Above and Beyond., Research in Drama Education: The Journal of Applied Theatre and Performance 20 (1) pp. 50-61 Taylor and Francis
This article looks at the theme of ?performing labour? in Look Left Look Right?s Above and Beyond. In this performance, individual audience members participate as a generic staff member in a fully-functioning five star hotel in London. I consider three modes of performing labour in Above and Beyond: audiences role-playing as staff; theatre workers role-playing as staff; and hotel staff performing care and attentiveness. The aesthetics of performing labour is considered as being noticeably theatrical in each of these three modes, prompting evaluation of what it means to ?reveal? labour both inside and outside of explicit theatre contexts. The article concludes, perhaps controversially, by focusing on the bourgeois qualities of this revelation: to be attended to, either as audience or guest, as one who pays for the craft of care.
Alston Adam, Daker R (2012) Contemporary Theatre "Philanthropy" and the Purchase of Participatory Privilege., Contemporary Theatre Review 22 (3) pp. 433-439 Taylor & Francis
This brief article looks at the ramifications of private and corporate philanthropy having become institutionalised in the policy of Arts Council England ? although couched in the rhetoric of mixed economic funding ? and in the fund-raising strategies of theatres themselves (perhaps as a consequence). Philanthropic giving frequently comes with strings attached, strings tied to a much wider system of power. This, in itself, may seem a tired complaint: patronage of various kinds has been a fact of artistic life for centuries. But perhaps this complaint seems a little less tired once we ask how 'philanthrocapitalism' might be trickling through into arts funding policy, particularly in the light of the heritage from which this trickling stems. And what of the recent, but dumped plans of the current coalition government to cap philanthropic giving?
Alston Adam (2016) Making mistakes in immersive theatre: Spectatorship and errant immersion., Journal of Contemporary Drama in English 4 (1) pp. 61-73 Walter de Gruyter
Immersive theatre makers often go to great lengths to configure and control each aspect and detail of an immersive theatre environment; but what happens when an audience member breaches its borders, while remaining unaware of their transgression? This article explores how the coherence of an immersive theatre aesthetic is not necessarily threatened by acts of ?errant immersion?, in which the audience strays off an immersive map designed and intended for them. The errantly immersed spectator accepts but accidentally takes too far an invitation to explore, perceiving and folding a range of aesthetic stimuli that are unintended by a designer into their immersive experience of a theatre event. Drawing on studies of immersion, failure and urban dramaturgy in recent theatre and performance discourse, and reflecting on anecdotal experiences of errant immersion in work by dreamthinkspeak and Coney, the article reflects on the creative and constitutive role played by audiences in immersive theatre aesthetics, and assesses the currency of the immersive theatre neologism through an address of its core subject: the audience.
Immersive theatre currently enjoys ubiquity, popularity and recognition in theatre journalism and scholarship. However, the politics of immersive theatre aesthetics still lacks a substantial critique. Does immersive theatre model a particular kind of politics, or a particular kind of audience? What?s involved in the production and consumption of immersive theatre aesthetics? Is a productive audience always an empowered audience? And do the terms of an audience?s empowerment stand up to political scrutiny? Beyond Immersive Theatre contextualises these questions by tracing the evolution of neoliberal politics and the experience economy over the past four decades. Through detailed critical analyses of work by Ray Lee, Lundahl & Seitl, Punchdrunk, shunt, Theatre Delicatessen and Half Cut, Adam Alston argues that there is a tacit politics to immersive theatre aesthetics ? a tacit politics that is illuminated by neoliberalism, and that is ripe to be challenged by the evolution and diversification of immersive theatre.
Alston Adam (2012) Reflections on Intimacy and Narcissism in Ontroerend Goed's Personal Trilogy., Performing Ethos 3 (2) pp. 107-119 Intellect
This article looks at the functioning of intimate experience in three one-on-one performances by the Belgian theatre company Ontroerend Goed, grouped together as the Personal Trilogy: The Smile Off Your Face (2003), Internal (2007) and A Game of You (2010). It will be argued that ?the experience? is rendered a site of aesthetic engagement in these performances and that this rendering encourages the participant to reflect on the terms of intimate interaction. Some potentially productive discrepancies in these performances will be discussed in addressing the production of experience, such as belief and belief under false pretences, control and being controlled, and a desire for self-fulfilment in relation to its being undermined. These discrepancies will be theorised with reference to Ovid?s myth of Narcissus and Echo and Richard Sennett?s comments on narcissism in The Fall of Public Man, where a provocative model of ?narcissistic participation? will be proposed as being relevant to this kind of work. Perhaps the deliberate undermining of intimate experience may open up space to formulate a politics of participation premised not on a balance of power between performer and participant, but, rather, an affective revealing of its elusiveness.
Alston Adam (2017) Melting into air: Dining in the dark, reification and the aesthetics of darkness., In: Alston Adam, Welton M (eds.), Theatre in the Dark: Shadow, Gloom and Blackout in Contemporary Theatre (2) 2 pp. 64-87 Bloomsbury Academic
Alston Adam (2013) Audience Participation and Neoliberal Value: Risk, Agency and Responsibility in Immersive Theatre., Performance Research 18 (2) pp. 128-138 Taylor & Francis
This article identifies a value set shared between the neoliberal ethos and modes of audience participation frequently promoted in immersive theatre: values such as risk-taking, individual freedoms and personal responsibility. The promotion of self-made opportunity, premised either on opportunistic risk-taking, or the savvy attitude that comes with experience and familiarity with immersive theatre participation, will be addressed as valorising another shared value: entrepreneurialism. A participatory mode will be introduced that I call ?entrepreneurial participation?: a kind of audience participation privileged in much immersive theatre performance identifying the enactment of neoliberal value. While entrepreneurial participation may be deliberately deployed by audiences as a participatory tactic, it will be argued that this particular participatory mode is frequently expected of audiences, or at least privileged as a means of engaging with performance. Work by the British immersive theatre company Punchdrunk will be taken as a means of illustrating this suggestion, particularly The Masque of the Red Death (2007). The article begins with a definition of immersive theatre that focuses on the figuring of participating audiences, paying particular attention to the relativity of participatory freedoms and the centrality of experience production. Hedonistic and narcissistic experiences will pull focus and will be approached as a possible reason behind immersive theatre's susceptibility to absorption within the experience industry and co-optation by innovative marketers. The article then establishes a set of shared values between the neoliberal ethos and audience participation in The Masque of the Red Death. Risk perception research, especially that arising from the Oregon Group and Stephen Lyng, will be touched on as a means of introducing some political considerations arising from the notion of entrepreneurial participation. A more optimistic, but ultimately sobering set of responses will be offered in conclusion.
Alston Adam, Welton M (2017) Introduction: The dark draws in., In: Alston Adam, Welton M (eds.), Theatre in the Dark: Shadow, Gloom and Blackout in Contemporary Theatre (Introd) Introduction pp. 1-34 Bloomsbury Academic
Alston Adam (2013) Politics in the Dark: Risk Perception, Affect and Emotion in Lundahl and Seitl's Rotating in a Room of Images., In: Shaughnessy N (eds.), Affective Performance and Cognitive Science: Body, Brain and Being pp. 217-228 Methuen
This chapter reflects on the close relationships between affect and risk in the aesthetics and politics of immersive theatre. The participatory demands of immersive theatre are such that audiences are more than just receivers of theatre, but producers as well. As producing receivers, participants are required to contribute to the creative trajectory of a theatre event without necessarily knowing how to participate or even what it is that they are meant to be participating in. Immersive theatre requires audiences to invest in uncertainty and this investment is what characterises participation as risky. But risk emerges in another sense as well, for this engagement with uncertainty tends towards the production of affects such as exhilaration, anxiety, embarrassment, or, on rare occasions, fear. Drawing on cognitive psychology and neuroscience, the chapter approaches the relationship between risk and affect in two ways: firstly, by looking at how risk might be experienced as an affective presence; secondly, by asking how committing to a theatre event which might produce a variety of affects is itself a risk for participating audiences. Given risk's relationship to uncertain futures, the implication of feeling risk as an affective presence collapses that future into a material present, material because of affect's functioning through and impact on the embodied mind. The implication of committing to the risky production of affect is a political one, for it brings into play the distribution of power dynamics within performance: who affects and who is affected? This chapter, then, will approach the relationship between risk and affect in immersive theatre as one imbued with political resonance, raising the stakes of what it means to engage with immersive theatre as a participating audience.
Alston Adam (2016) The Promise of Experience: Immersive Theatre in the Experience Economy., In: Frieze J (eds.), Framing Immersive Theatre and Performance Palgrave Macmillan
This chapter reflects on the centralisation of immersive experiences in contemporary cultural production, broadly conceived, comparatively analysing a range of examples including Lucien Bourjeily?s 66 Minutes in Damascus (2012), Punchdrunk?s The Crash of the Elysium (2011-12) and &and darkness descended (2011), Hilary Westlake?s Dining with Alice (1999), Florida?s Walt Disney World Resort, and US, UK and Japanese horror house culture. It situates immersive theatre within a (now) pervasive ?experience economy? identified by B. Joseph Pine II and James H. Gilmore, and addresses a ?gap? between lived experiences and idealised and especially marketable experiences within this economy. Alston suggests that the entry of ethically-engaged immersive theatre into the experience economy, especially, raises a number of concerning issues once participation and immersion are aligned with one of the experience economy?s most important goals: ?authenticity?. The chapter proposes a critique of authenticity in immersive theatre that focuses on the performance of confinement in a Syrian detention centre in Bourjeily?s 66 Minutes in Damascus, and the director?s claim that the performance offers the chance ?to experience first-hand? what it must be like to be detained. In conclusion, Alston explores how the assignation of authenticity to the promise of Experience merges an ethics of encounter with a consumable product for an audience?s delectation, suggesting that the ethical space left for audiences ultimately amounts to sabotage.
Alston Adam (2017) Immersive theatre and the aesthetics of decadence: On the ruined worlds of Punchdrunk, SHUNT and Hammer Film Productions., Theatre and Performance Design 3 (4) pp. 199-217 Taylor & Francis
This article considers how an aesthetics of decadence underpins approaches to design and audience engagement in work by Punchdrunk, SHUNT and Hammer Film Productions. Punchdrunk?s The Masque of the Red Death (2007-08) invited wandering audiences to inhabit the ruinous landscapes of Edgar Allan Poe?s short stories, recognised posthumously as ?decadent? fiction. SHUNT?s The Boy Who Climbed Out of His Face (2014) guided promenading audiences through a series of discarded shipping containers, each containing a lonesome occupant appearing in a state of disturbing physical decay ? a dystopian reflection, perhaps, on the decadence of capitalism. And Hammer Film Productions? The Soulless Ones (2017) staged a macabre homage to Hammer Horror films, complete with necromancy, blood-sucking vampires and orgiastic rituals. In this article, I explore how each performance, in their own ways, gestures toward a decadent imagination identified and unpacked in light of criticism that informed its evolution in the nineteenth century, alongside more recent analysis that has re-set the parameters of its study. This article also presents a challenge to scholarship that narrows focus to the enervating qualities of immersive theatre by considering ruination and decay as important themes informing the design of each performance, and the engagement of audiences both with and within ruined environments both actual and artificial. I argue that the decadent imagination is of much relevance to the study of aesthetics and politics in work that either sensationalises or questions its atomising tendencies, and that such work has much to offer to how decadence is understood not just as a mutable concept, but as a radical practice.
Alston Adam (2019) Holstein's hair: The Politics of Decadence in The Famous Lauren Barri Holstein's Splat!, In: Eckersall Peter, Grehan Helena (eds.), The Routledge Companion to Theatre and Politics Routledge
Decadence is a polymorphous concept most often denoting decline and ruination, or pleasure, artifice, and excess. It is commonly associated with profligacy, and dredged up in times of crisis. Decadence has garnered considerable attention across the arts and humanities, particularly the late-nineteenth-century ?decadent movement? in Europe associated with the likes of J. K. Huysmans and Aubrey Beardsley; however, both the movement and the concept have gained little traction in theatre and performance studies. In the first part of this chapter, I speculate as to why. In the last part, I consider the relevance of decadence to the politics of radical theatre today, narrowing attention to a particularly illuminating focus: the appearance of hair in Lauren Barri Holstein?s Splat! (SPILL Festival, Barbican Centre April 2013). I will be investigating Holstein?s hair through the lens of decadence as it was imagined in the nineteenth century; however, I will also be dwelling on her radicalisation of decadent aesthetics and politics as a committed feminist. My intention is not to identify the nuances of this radicalism, so much as to provoke debate about decadence as a theme of potential relevance to contemporary theatre and politics.
Alston Adam (2019) Immersive theatre in austerity Britain: Les Enfants Terribles' riot in the Saatchi Gallery and the liquidation of differencEngine., Contemporary Theatre Review 29 (3) pp. 238-255 Taylor & Francis (Routledge)
This article looks at the relationship of immersive theatre to the material conditions that support its production in austerity Britain. It explores a dark underside to a rapidly expanded market for immersive theatre in London that can leave theatre makers open to profound vulnerabilities. This is particularly the case among companies who have only recently embarked on professional careers in a ?second-wave? of experimentation in immersive practices post-2010, which has been characterised by an emergent distrust of the public sector and an active embrace of private finance and commercial enterprise. It takes two examples as cases in point. The first looks at politically-engaged work by a company with a much older heritage, but which has only recently started to engage with immersive theatre: Les Enfants Terribles? Inside Pussy Riot (2017), which was presented in London?s Saatchi Gallery and was indirectly funded by Russian tycoons. This performance found security in private philanthropy, but elicits cognitive dissonance once the work?s progressive political commitments are read alongside highly compromised revenue streams emerging from a market governed by conflicting interests. The second, differencEngine?s commercial work The Hollow Hotel (2018), found no such security, leading the company to enter voluntary liquidation after racking up debts that ran into the hundreds of thousands. Focusing on these performances? institutional, financial, and legal contexts, this article explores how a new generation of immersive theatre makers are especially prone to competing interests and incentives in the private sector, whatever their political or commercial orientation, inviting reflection on the responsibilities of key stakeholders in challenging a misleading rhetoric of economic resilience that has accompanied stringent cuts in the public sector.
The Currency of Distrust examines the intersection of politics and performance through a focus on performances of the U.S. presidency. This research asks whether performance and theatricality should be seen as important functional elements, rather than mere embellishments or corrupting distractions, in representative democracy. Initially, the thesis furnishes a historically anchored argument for a conceptual move beyond the antitheatrical prejudice: positing the French Revolution and the perspective of the U.S. Founding Fathers as key moments, this research argues that distrust should be seen as a feature of, not a bug within, a representative system whose foundations are performative and theatrical. Using populism theory to examine the deployment of anti-establishment tropes in presidential performances, the thesis then asks how such performances might shift perceptions of legitimacy by positing performing politicians as authentic and incorruptible outsiders.

This project is interdisciplinary both in its theoretical framework and its methods. It draws on theatre and performance theories of performativity, acting, and theatricality as well as on models of populism and political representation developed in political theory. Following the conceptual argument for the position of performance at the heart of representative democracy, the empirical implications of this argument are explored through a corpus of in-depth interviews with U.S. speechwriters spanning presidential administrations and campaigns from Ronald Reagan to Barack Obama. Drawing on the perspectives of those involved in crafting presidential performances, the empirical chapters investigate the significance of performance and theatricality to the institution of the U.S. presidency and the imperative to navigate and mobilise the distrust of political audiences. While positing that distrust inheres within a political system whose core is performance-based, the project thus moves towards an inquiry of what is at stake as this distrust increasingly becomes an explicit focal point around which the theatre of politics revolves.

Additional publications