At IMMERSE you weren’t merely observing art, you’re soaking in it

Immerse Photo by Seth Kubersky

In recent years, "immersive" has become the most abused buzzword in entertainment. I've heard it used to describe everything from virtual reality video games and theatrical performances to themed restaurants, every time with a different understanding of the word's definition. Does immersion mean 3-D visuals and surround sound? Audience participation role playing? Or simply getting lost in a good book? So, when Creative City Project founder Cole NeSmith told me months ago that he was rebranding his annual downtown event as "Immerse," I was intrigued to discover exactly which kind of immersion he meant.

After experiencing four hours of Immerse 2017 last Saturday night, I can confirm that the definition was metaphorically meteorological, as in overwhelming saturation. Like the old Palmolive ads said, at Immerse you weren't merely observing art, you're soaking in it. Every few feet along Orange Avenue from the Grand Bohemian to Wall Street Plaza, another performance or participatory activity competed for attention, and overlapping soundtracks from DJs, instrumentalists, and singers merged into a wall of sound that echoed up and down the urban canyon. I did my best to dive deeply into Immerse, but it was the aesthetic equivalent of trying to drink from a fire hydrant; the sheer volume and velocity of offerings made it challenging for me to engage with many of them on more than a superficial level. It didn't help matters that some of the event's venues (including the stage sponsored by Orlando Weekly) experienced technical issues, which wreaked havoc with my carefully plotted schedule. As a result, I missed several of the evening's highlights – like the Orlando Magic's Rhythm N' Blue Drumline's scaffolding show, which had already ended when I arrived five minutes late – and only caught others in passing.. However, that's not to imply that Immerse 2017 was all wet, or that it merely washed over me. Here are three projects that floated above the crashing surf to catch my attention:

Adventures of the Color Force

The most expansive interactive experiment I encountered at Immerse was clearly Color Force, a family-friendly adventure that involved four different locations across the event. Presented by Playground City, the activity encouraged players to "prove their colors" by defeating the hue-hating villain Desaturo, while completing exercises intended to encourage collaboration, creativity and empathy. Some of the elements were more successful than others; stationary Juice bikes paired with cardboard VR goggles created a colorful coral reef ride, but Arch-E-Tech's metal shed of "mood-enhancing" video clips wasn't worth the long wait in line. Even though the story's pro-diversity message was slightly heavy-handed, I couldn't help but admire the designers' ambition in executing Epcot-esque edutainment without a Disney-sized budget.

CFCArts Orchestra

I played trumpet from elementary school through college, and while I haven't picked up a horn in decades, I'll never forget the acoustic impact of being embedded inside a brass section blowing at full blast. At this year's Immerse, the Greenberg Traurig stage at SunTrust Plaza was brilliantly broken into several sections with audience walkways between them, allowing non-musicians to finally experience true orchestral immersion. I enjoyed hearing performances by Opera del Sol and Orlando Gay Chorus on that stage, but it was the Central Florida Community Arts Orchestra that showed the setup off to its full potential. Not only was it thrilling to hear their symphonic cover of Queen's "We Are the Champions" in 360 degrees, but watching conductor Justin Muchoney's passionate, pugilistic prompts from the players' perspective was priceless.

Fahrenheit Foxes

In the current climate, I cringe at referring to any performer as "hot," but there's no other appropriate adjective for the female fire dancers of Fahrenheit Foxes. Mary Beth McKenzie, whom I've known through the theater for a dozen years, formed her all-women troupe after learning the art of eating flames from an authentic sideshow carny. The Foxes' Immerse performance featured the debut of several new effects – including a blazing hula hoop, and combusting swords that seem suitable for disemboweling a Balrog – and if getting spritzed with flammable fluid during their fire-breathing finale doesn't qualify as immersive, I don't know what does. Saturday's performance came two days after McKenzie served as a mystery guest on NPR's "Ask Me Another" game show, which recently recorded an episode at Universal's Hard Rock Live. You can hear her talk about Fahrenheit Foxes with Ophira Eisenberg when her appearance airs in December on 90.7 WMFE.

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