an investigation into immersive theatre and narrative transportation effects in informal pandemic science education

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1 Background

“Space Plague” was the title of a fully-immersive theatrical experience for young people
and families delivered at The Deptford Lounge, South-East London in February 2020. The
performance was the culmination of a programme of Public Engagement (PE) events
over 5 years by Keith, Griffiths and a range of collaborative partners. Prior to
the creation of Space Plague, they had carried out 4 annual PE events in South
East London, and 13 additional one-day events around England, which were
semi-immersive in nature. Each event was a science and arts festival (“SMASHfestUK”)
which were designed and developed explicitly to engage audiences who are
underserved by existing informal science education provision and under-represented in
science study choices and careers. The festival has been successful in reaching its
target audiences and developing new methods and approaches for engagement.
More than 80% of audience figures were drawn from postcodes considered in
the lowest 2 quintiles according to the Index of Multiple Deprivations 2019 and
more than 25% of visitors were ‘new audiences’ who reported that they ‘never’
previously visited similar informal STEM events. [McKenzie and Flow, 2015; Jarvis,
2016; Simons, 2017; Simons, 2018]. The underpinning research question for the
programme was whether engagement through story and an immersive theatrical
approach, driven by the developed SCENE model, would enhance Informal Science

2 Developing the SCENE model of engagement for previous semi-immersive
“SMASHfestUK” events

Keith and Griffiths developed a co-design-lead process resulting in a novel model for
audience engagement. Using community based participatory action research (CBPAR)
methodologies the model was prototyped, tested and developed throughout 4 major

iterations, with sub-cycles within those iterations, resulting in the final model,
SCENE [STEAM, Community, Enquiry, Narrative, Entertainment] [Burns, Cooke
and Schweidler, 2011; Keith and Griffiths, 2020]. The model is described in an
upcoming paper by Griffiths and Keith, and will be discussed here in summary
only. It employed immersion and embodiment of visitors/audience as actors
with agency within a disaster-based narrative in which an impending natural
disaster threatens world security. The disaster narratives were of an asteroid (2015),
a solar storm (2016), a supervolcano (2017) and a flood (2018). Although the
festivals were drop-in events, all activities, performances and interactives related
directly to the story each year and facilitators were briefed to engage visitors in the
story whenever possible, relating the activity they were facilitating or act they
were performing, to the overall narrative. This work showed positive changes in
attitudes towards science of visitors across four annual events as described in the
evaluation reports by McKenzie and Flow [2015], Jarvis [2016], Simons [2017] and Simons [2018].The logical progression of this work into attitudinal change
effected by semi-immersive activities was the development of a fully immersive

3 Rationale for development of SCENE model for fully-immersive experience “Space

“Space Plague” was a fully-immersive theatrical experience for young people and families
(age 7+) which was developed, produced and delivered in February 2020 spanned three
venues; a public square, a community library space adjacent to the square and a
school, all in Deptford, South East London cohering them into a single theatrical

The reasoning behind integrating stories into the engagement model is based on
research which suggests that storytelling is highly effective at engaging individuals and
transforming beliefs, attitudes and behaviours. Studies by Brock and Green observed that
these effects are “strong and long-lasting”, while Philips and McQuarrie later reported that
this could fundamentally affect attitudes, confirming that “a story can engross the story
receiver in a transformational experience” [Green and Brock, 2000; Phillips and
McQuarrie, 2010].

Stories are a critical, if sometimes overlooked, element of human communication: in
reviewing the role of storytelling in science communication Dahlstrom reflected that
“Storytelling often has a bad reputation within science, […] however, when the context
moves from data collection to the communication of science to non-expert audiences,
stories, anecdotes, and narratives become not only more appropriate but potentially
more important” [Dahlstrom, 2014]. Long before this however, Roland Barthes
noted that “there is not, there has never been anywhere, any people without
narrative; all classes, all human groups, have their stories” [Barthes and Duisit,

4 The quest for narrative transportation

Research suggests that the more deeply a person is immersed in a story the further they
are “transported” from real life, but that the journey may nonetheless change real life
attitudes. Transportation was first explored with regard to storytelling and narratives by
Gerrig in 1993, who wrote that “The traveller goes some distance from his or her world of
origin, which makes some aspects of the world of origin inaccessible. The traveller returns
to the world of origin, somewhat changed by the journey.” [Gerrig, 1993] . He went on to
write that “the traveller assumes certain new characteristics (as called for by the narrative)
as a consequence of undertaking the journey”, further noting that “narrative
transportation” was “virtually unexplored in cognitive psychology”. He suggests that
the reason for this could be the prevailing emphasis that readers construct a
narrative world, rather than the narrative world viscerally affecting the reader
[Gerrig, 1993]. Van Laer, paraphrasing Thompson, clarifies that the relationship
between ‘story’ and ‘narrative’ is that “a narrative is derived from a process of
attribution of meaning to, and interpretation of, a story” [Laer et al., 2014; citing
Thompson, 1997]. Since 1993, although further research has explored the psychology of
transportation, the literature is sparse. This was noted by Green and Brock in 2000, who
observed that “the persuasive impact of public narratives has been virtually
ignored by empirical researchers” and suggest that the reason for this lies in its
power. This, they say “has never been doubted and has always been feared.
Consequently, censorship has been ubiquitous for centuries” [Green and Brock,

In their paper they explore the ability of both fictional and non-fictional narratives
to transport audiences/readers and report that narrative-based beliefs lead to
stronger and more persistent changes than rhetoric-based beliefs, that is to say
that the power of stories is stronger than the art of persuasive talking. Their
theory is underpinned by two paradigms: a) the universal affinity of humans for
narratives as the preferred mental structure for organizing and retrieving thoughts, b)
cognitive contributions to the formation of opinions and that attitudes formed in
this way are more persistent [Edwards, 1990; Rosselli, Skelly and Mackie, 1995;
Fabrigar and Petty, 1999]. In the paper which addressed how transportation
could influence public narratives, Green concludes that “Narrative Transportation
Theory proposes that when consumers [of a story] lose themselves in a story,
their attitudes and intentions change to reflect that story.”[Green, Kass et al.,

Immersing audiences in stories has been explored both practically and academically in
theatre and performance studies. One of its central tenets is the relationship between
performers and audience with the presence of an audience broadly considered as
“central to the definition of theatre”. However, throughout the 20th century, the
relationship between audiences and performance space has evolved [Freshwater, 2009].
Positions have included the traditional proscenium arch, where “Naturism” saw
audiences watch passively in seats and not observed by the performers, through
to Brecht’s ‘verfreundeseffekt’, or ‘alienation effect’ with which he distanced
audiences from narrative and characters, making them observe and think rather than
empathise. In this method, the fourth wall of the theatre is broken, allowing direct
audience address, signalling to the audiences that they are in a fictitious plot. More

recent iterations of this evolving relationship include participatory, site-specific
and promenade works. This is sometimes referred to as “immersive” [Brecht,
1964; Woods and Banham, 1996; Machon, 2013]. This form of promenade and
site-specific theatre notably became commercialised in the U.K. in the early 2000s
with Punchdrunk theatre company’s, acclaimed production; “Sleep No More”; a
visceral reimagining of Macbeth where the audience engage as if guests, roaming
freely through a 1950’s noir-styled ‘hotel’ and encountering the action [Biggin,

Josephine Machon states that “The very nature and activity of [immersive theatre] evolves the idea and the practice of audience or spectator beyond the conventional
attitude and action of ‘listener’ and ‘viewer’ into a decision-making collaborator in the
work.” [Machon, 2013]. Others distinguish it from traditional theatre by “the sensory
acts that it demands of audiences, such as touching and being touched, tasting,
smelling and moving — this latter often (but not always) being characterized
by freedom to move within an aesthetic space.” [White, 2013]. There is also an
acknowledgement that the phrase “Immersive theatre” is “an inviting but faulty
term to use to describe the phenomena it currently designates” and that “to a
limited extent, all such acts are, or at least can be, present in other modes of theatre
spectatorship.” [Alston, 2013]. Further critics suggest the term “immersion” is
hijacked for purely commercial goals [Lopes Ramos et al., 2020]. Machon does,
however, attempt to unify these disparate definitions of immersion by suggesting
“Although diverse in form and outcome, what is clear is that all immersive theatres
produce shared qualities of experience that involve some degree of immediacy;
that can engender the epic in the intimate and uncover the intimate in the epic.”
[Machon, 2013]. For the purposes of this paper we will refer to the “Space Plague”
production as “immersive theatre”, by which we mean a form of participatory,
interactive and promenade theatre in which the audience are themselves characters
in the story, and perform tasks to solve scientific puzzles which progress the

There is little in the literature to date exploring the role of narrative transportation in
immersive theatre, nor of immersive theatre being used explicitly as a vehicle for ISL for
young people. There have been a number of immersive theatrical productions for adults
focussed on creating conversations in this space: Deadinburgh — a sci-fi production for
adults by the Enlightenment Cafe recreated a zombie apocalypse in Scotland’s capital city
and explored the science and ethics of medical responses to disease outbreak, while, Yomi
Ayeni’s Clockwork Watch — an episodic transmedia steampunk themed saga, explored
the effects of colonialism and racism through the lens of an alternative reality
[Girdwood, 2013; McMillan, 2013]. There are, however, parallels between ‘narrative
transportation’ effects and immersive theatre; White writes on the latter: “The
practices of audience participation temporarily re-shape our social being […] and perhaps, on occasion, allow us to perceive ourselves anew” and Josephine
Machon reflects that “The active decision-making and sensual involvement that is
required in this work can be… radically transformative; transforming an individual
psychologically or ideologically.” [Machon, 2013; White, 2013]. The potential,
therefore, for the use of narrative transportation in immersive theatre for ISL is
tantalising, but should not be considered without regard to ethical consideration, as
described by Freshwater, who cautions that there needs to be “an acceptance
that genuine participation has risks as well as potential rewards” [Freshwater,

Space Plague drew on these influences to incorporate immersive narrative, contextual
and collaborative problem solving, which would engage audiences emotionally and could
result in some degree of narrative transportation.

5 Event delivery

Audiences entered in groups of 10–12 people. The event was free, but ticketed. The
experience duration was around 75–90 minutes. The cast of actors, facilitators, scientists,
producers and volunteers was gender balanced, diverse and reflected the local community
demographics which are around 40% BAME.

6 Space Plague Story

Visitors were “onboarded” by induction into the Emergency Response Team (Figure 1),
who were actors and facilitators dressed in branded Hazmat suits (Figure 2), who
asked each audience member to get dressed in a hazmat suit themselves and fill
in a short questionnaire. The questionnaire was interwoven into the story as a
way to collect evaluatory and demographic data, with permission and consent

Figure 1: Space Plague
‘Emergency Response Team’
participant badge.


Figure 2: ‘Emergency Response Team’
heading to briefing room.

A mock news report explained that a novel disease linked to a local meteorite
shower was spreading locally, causing “zombie-like” symptoms. In the ‘Meteorite
Analysis Laboratory’ the audience had to predict meteorite impact positions
from incomplete co-ordinate records using mathematical triangulation before
being urged to an ‘Emergency Field Hospital’ where a “medic” took the patient
history of a “zombified” patient (Figure 3). Using logic and inference the audience
narrowed the symptoms until they were confident the cause was ‘Space Plague’. An
‘Epidemiology Laboratory’ saw the audience plotting patient addresses on a map to
identify disease clusters, leading them to also plot “outlier” clusters of disease
unrelated to meteor impact sites but close to water, leaving them to deduce that
a water-borne insect vector may be spreading the disease further. Real larval
microscopy, followed by DNA barcoding puzzles, and protein transcription from
DNA sequences lead the audience to deduce a peptide sequence which was to be
subjected to (mock) x-ray crystallography in a (model) ‘particle accelerator’ to
determine its 3-dimensional shape. The successful solving of the protein provided a
false climax, as the result indicated a vaccine candidate but that it would take
10 years to manufacture. The audience were then taken to a ‘Crisis Room’ to
make public health decisions. This took the form of a live action role playing
game (LARP) with two actors trained in public health facilitation, and involved
making decisions regarding what drugs therapy could be made available, or
developed, the relative costs and also decisions around social and resource control
measures — such as whether to impose quarantine “lockdown” procedures. The
experience climaxed with the guided decision-making allowing the audience to
‘save the world’ and a film communication, the ‘Hero’s Return’, from ‘central
government’ celebrating the role the audience played in saving of the world (Figure


Figure 3: “Emergency Field hospital”
where audiences carried out
differential diagnosis of a patient.


Figure 4: Public Health “Crisis Room”,
with participants watching themselves
revealed in the ‘Hero’s Return’ film
upon completion of the experience.

7 Methodology

The evaluation utilized front-end and summative methods that were able to both capture
quantitative comparative data whilst allowing for qualitative reflection. The evaluation
used an in-depth researcher-administered entry and exit questionnaire (using both closed
and open-ended questions) for adults and an adapted form of the same questionnaire for
children (encompassing visuals). This questionnaire was framed as part of the story. It
took the form of a briefing and de-briefing document for the ‘Space Plague Emergency
Response Team’ volunteers — the audience. The evaluation data confirmed the
effectiveness of this approach, with 238 of the 274 participants (80 adult, 158 children)
completing the forms (87%).

The evaluation was successful in collecting outcome, output and impact data from
audience/participants: with regard to the overall response, when asked whether they had
enjoyed the experience, with a choice of responses (Brilliant, Good, OK, Not Good, Awful)
— 98% of the respondents were positive, with 73.5% of those respondents rating it

In this paper, we are focusing on 4 questions from the questionnaire, which
correspond to insights into 3 categories: “immersion and story”, “learning” and
“embodiment”. Of the four questions one was open-ended, one was a composite of closed
and open-ended and two were closed five-way choice; (“really agree, agree, no
change or about the same, I don’t think so, no”). The four questions respectively

  1. “Do you think the story and immersive aspect of Space Plague helped you, and
    your family, understand science/engineering processes and research? Please
    explain your answer.”
  2. “Tell us one new thing that you learned today”
  3. “I learned new things about science today/Taught my children new things
    about science”.
  4. “I felt like a real scientist today/[The experience] Made us feel like real
    scientists today”

While 238 participants completed the forms, full completion of all questions varied, as
noted in the sections below.

Response to the open-ended part of Question 1 and Question 2 were evaluated
through thematic analysis, using an inductive approach to identify emergent themes.

Stage 1 codification of responses elicited 12 and 10 working categories, which were
reviewed and distilled into three themes in both cases. Thematic Analysis was chosen as
an established method for “systematically identifying, organising and offering insight into
patterns of meaning (themes) across a data set.” [Braun and Clarke, 2012]. The data set
from the two qualitative question responses within this study was relatively
small — Q1: 52 answers of one to three sentences; Q2: 187 answers of one to
three sentences, responding to tightly framed aspects of the overall research

A rigorous six phase approach was applied following practice defined by Braun and
Clarke [2012] as:

1. Familiarising yourself with the data, 2. Generating Initial codes, 3. Searching
for themes, 4. Reviewing potential themes, 5. Defining and naming themes, 6.
Producing the ‘report’ (this article). The coding strategy employed a hybrid ‘In Vivo’
(actual words) and ‘descriptive’ (basic topic in phrase) approach, with hierarchical
reassembly of the disassembled codes — clustering initially identified codes to
produce transitional higher-order codes, leading to refined and finalised ‘themes’
[Braun and Clarke, 2012]. Each of the two questions resulted in 3 themes, detailed

  1. Immersion and Story

    Adult visitors (only) to the event were asked at the end of the experience:

    “Do you think the story and immersive aspect of Space Plague helped you, and
    your family, understand science/engineering processes and research? Please
    explain your answer.”

    Of 80 adults who completed questionnaires, 21 did not supply an answer to
    this question, but the 59 respondents all answered in the affirmative. Seven
    respondents simply answered “Yes” but the remaining 52 expanded their

    The analysis resulted in the definition of 3 themes:

    • Immersion
    • Process
    • Problem solving
    • Immersion:

      100% of respondents agreed that the immersive aspect of the experience
      had been important and comments suggested that the visceral nature
      of immersion made the experience more effective, writing; “It was
      very good being able to be involved in all that was going on and
      seeing science visually rather than in a textbook.” Others suggested that
      immersion was critical; “I think the immersive aspect was the most
      important. The kids were constantly engaged and it helped get the

      message across,” inferring that it engaged young people for a duration
      which other activities might not have. Another respondent suggested
      that immersion helped to anchor and embed their children’s learning
      writing; “Immersing […] increased their engagement and ultimately their
      knowledge and understanding” and one emphasized how immersion
      in the story made sense of otherwise complex science and engineering
      saying, “The contextualising of the science/engineering concepts helped
      greatly to understand the elements of the science and engineering and
      how they are applied”.

    • Process

      Responses to the same question suggested that the immersive experience
      had facilitated a cognitive understanding of the scientific processes which
      are undertaken during the outbreak of an infectious disease and that this
      had helped them understand how such events might unfold in real life.
      Comments included; “The stages we were taken through helped the girls
      to understand the scientific process to research,” and “I think it helps us
      to understand how the science work when a disease starts”. Interestingly,
      several picked up on the interdisciplinary nature of scientific responses
      to crisis situations, with one respondent saying “It helped me understand
      the process scientists put in place when a catastrophe breaks out. It helps
      lots with understanding the whole process from start when crisis occurs
      to the end when you can find solution”. And another saying “Great
      to have a context linking all the different areas of science/engineering
      together to show us how important they are and exciting story to keep
      us interested”. Several respondents replied with answers suggesting that
      they were empowered as actors or agents in the story, for example “It has
      taught us about outbreaks, how to stop it spreading, how to treat it and
      also eliminate it”, but some also responded empathically to the work of
      scientists and clinicians, saying

      “[it] helps us understand how the disease can easily spread and how hard
      the medics work to solve the problem”.

    • Problem solving

      The final category into which many questionnaire responses fell was that
      of “problem solving”. For respondents who focused on problem-solving
      answers ranged from “because it created an atmosphere and urgency
      to propel our desire to problem solve”, suggesting that the plot and
      environment was creating a sense of transportation which encouraged
      the drive to progress through the narrative, to those whose responses
      suggested that the whole experience as a progression was compelling;
      “it showed the sequence of things that, needed to be solved and help
      bring science to life in a really exciting way” and “we were able to see
      the different ways of discovering how diseases are spread and analysing
      samples, diagnosing patients”.

  2. Learning (open ended)

    The second question we have focused on for this paper concerned the effect of the
    experience on learning and learners, and what insights might be gained by assessing

    the effect of immersion on learning. The question asked, of both adults and children,
    was “Tell us one new thing you learned today?” to which 187 participants

    The analysis resulted in the definition of 3 themes:

    • Knowledge: (Biological Sciences, Medicine, Engineering, Technology,
      Mathematics, Cosmology, Cartography)
    • Process: (Scientific Methods, Philosophy of Science, Clinical Medicine,
      Team working)
    • Problem solving: (Public Health, Epidemiology, Drug Discovery)
    • Knowledge

      Comments capturing knowledge assimilation covered
      numerous elements of scientific knowledge shared with audiences across
      the storyline. Examples of responses included drawings of bacteria, “we
      learned about proteins and antibodies”, “how DNA is built” and “that
      there is such a thing as a synchrotron. Some responses suggested high
      level understanding, for example “[how] specific base pair groups map
      to specific amino acids” and “how a synchrotron works” and some had
      been impacted by the public health role-playing section of the experience,
      for example “I learnt a lot about quarantine”.

    • Process

      Comments captured under this question “Tell us one new thing you
      learned today” regarding the scientific process included many comments
      suggesting that previously opaque or not well understood processes
      had been elucidated and clarified. Comments included: “How diseases
      grow and how much goes into research”, “How you would deal with
      an outbreak as a professional”, “How medicine is developed”. Other
      comments reflected on the role of the individuals involved in responding
      to a crisis, for example “[I learned] what an engineer means and how to
      be a scientist”, “the important role of all scientists” and, “have learnt new
      things a scientists does”. Some comments clearly showed the embedding
      of knowledge directly relating to an infectious disease outbreak such as
      COVID-19. For example, “how much effort goes into curing a disease
      and how long it could take to save hundreds of people”, “if you get the
      [fictional] virus go straight to the hospital”. And an understanding of
      the enormity of a pandemic situation: “how much effort goes into curing

    • Problem solving

      Comments captured in response to this question which related to
      problem-solving included meta-level answers, such as “How to keep
      people safe in a difficult situation like this” and “How to contain an
      outbreak of disease”, but there were also generalised responses that were
      not specific to the story including, with reference to the collaborative

      problem solving required to progress through the experience, “How
      important teamwork is” and the recognition that such collaborations are
      vital to pandemic responses: “every element of research is dependent on
      each other — everyone has to work together”.

  3. Learning (closed question)

    Children and adult visitors were asked to rate their response to the question, “I
    learned new things about science today/Taught my children new things about
    science”, by ticking one of five options (Really agree, Agree, No change, Don’t think
    so, No) and 228 participant responses were recorded (Table 1, Chart 1). The results
    show that an overwhelming majority agreed or really agreed that they had learned
    new things about science, or that their children had, where respondents were

Table 1: Responses to learning
question (closed).



Chart 1: Responses to learning question

7.1 Embodiment and presence (closed)

The final question to be discussed in this paper was “I felt like a real scientist today/(The
experience) Made us feel like real scientists today”, which, as previously had 5 answer
options: (Really agree, Agree, No change, Don’t think so, No). 232 participants (both
adults and children) responded (Table 2, Chart 2). The responses clearly showed
that the experience had made the audience feel “like real scientists” with the
combined results from all visitors asked at the end of their experience showing that
almost 85% of people felt like they were real scientists after the event had taken

Table 2:
Responses to embodiment and
presence question (closed).



Chart 2: Responses to embodiment and
presence question (closed).

One subset of audience members, comprising 117 individuals was subjected to the
same question both before and after the experience and the difference in the results here
was striking. This audience segment was asked to rate how strongly they disagreed or
agreed with the statement “I feel like a real scientist” before the event (Table
3, Chart 3), and then again at the completion of the experience (Table 4, Chart

Table 3:
Responses to embodiment and
presence question before activity.



Chart 3: Responses to embodiment and
presence question before activity.

Table 4:
Responses to embodiment and
presence question after activity.



Chart 4: Responses to embodiment and
presence question after activity.

These striking changes in attitudes suggest that the immersive experience and
embodiment as scientists within a narrative has changed how the respondents felt about
themselves with regard to being or feeling like a scientist. The number of respondents who
“really agreed” that they felt like scientists rose by 238%, whereas the percentage of those
who did not feel like scientists reduced significantly.

8 Discussion

The timing of the Space Plague event (February 2020) coincided with the very first cases of
COVID-19 in the U.K. (but before any deaths had been recorded there) and before the
COVID-19 outbreak had been officially declared a pandemic by the World Health
Organisation (WHO). Although worldwide news media had been covering reports of the
outbreak, the total number of infections were, at this time, only in the single
thousands and worldwide deaths still in the low hundreds, with the majority of cases
confined at this stage to China and the WHO designated ‘Western Pacific’ countries.
Nonetheless, it was clear that this was a growing global risk which threatened to
achieve pandemic status, which it did, just a few weeks later. The producers and
organisers of Space Plague did take advice and discussed extensively the ethical
implications of proceeding with a storyline that was being mimicked so closely in real

As the rationale for the immersive approach to informal learning and the results laid
out in the previous section fell thematically into four clear elements, these will be
discussed in turn in this section.

  1. Effectiveness of Immersion and Story in Learning.

    Evaluation of the Space Plague experience shows that audience members
    responded well to being immersed within a story in which they had to
    physically interact and take on the responsibility of problem-solving in order
    to progress the experience through to the final goal, (finding a treatment and
    “saving the world” [from a ‘deadly’ pandemic]). To our knowledge this is the
    first fully immersive theatrical performance for young people and families
    with the explicit aim of providing an educational experience about pandemics.
    The results strongly suggest that immersion and embodiment has a positive
    effect on the audience with regard to whether they feel like “a real scientist”.
    Before the Space Plague experience, less than half of respondents answered
    that they felt like a real scientist, but after the experience more than 85%
    reported that they felt like a real scientist. According to the hypothesis on the
    role of Science Capital by Archer et al, one of the main differences in those who
    choose to study STEM subjects at school and beyond and those who do not,

    is a feeling that science is, or is not, “for people like me”, however this work
    suggests that the transformative experience of immersive theatre may have the
    power to change these attitudes [Archer et al., 2013]. Whether the effect of this
    attitudinal change is temporally sustained will be the subject of a later paper.

  2. Learning and Knowledge.

    The results again suggest that immersion has positive results on learning,
    and that the learning is not only concerned with specific facts, for example,
    “I discovered what a phage was”, but also aided the conceptualisation
    of processes and procedures, with many people reporting that they better
    understood the methods and processes involved in elucidation of scientific
    facts than they had done previously. The audience progression through
    the experience took them through a number of steps in each room.
    Firstly, an immediate problem was presented in a meaningful “real world”
    context. Secondly, they were encouraged to elucidate the mechanism for
    problem-solving though inference and deduction, before finally enacting that
    mechanism to resolve the problem, which would result in new information,
    leading into the next problem. The results suggest that this was an effective
    method of allowing the audience to experience the complexity of the scientific
    process in a way that was engaging, comprehensible and immediate.

  3. Embodiment, Presence and Narrative transportation.

    The intention for Space Plague, was to create a piece of immersive theatre
    through which audiences could not only learn about pandemic science, but
    also have a change affected in their own attitudes towards and beliefs about
    science. The intention was not only to raise science capital by encouraging
    young people and families to see themselves as real “scientists” or “engineers”
    but to give them agency within this role to carry out active, problem-solving
    mechanisms and thought processes. The purpose was to achieve some form
    of narrative transportation with the story such that the attitudes of audiences
    towards pandemic science and science in general may be changed. The results
    concerning attitudinal change as a consequence of narrative transportation are
    very encouraging, with intriguing resonances in the responses to the question,
    “tell us one thing you learned today”. Two examples of responses were “that I
    AM a scientist” and ‘that I am a hero” begin to suggest that the agency afforded
    in audience members by narrative transportation can be empowering and may
    affect attitudinal change in real life. In addition, a 236% increase in the number
    of respondents saying they “really agree” that they “felt like a scientist” after
    the event in comparison with the “before” results was striking.

    If this is indeed a true form of narrative transportation the effects can be
    explained by the work of Green and Van Laer who describe how a participant
    can be transported into the story and can become part of the story. Van Laer
    identified in the literature that story receivers become transported through
    two main components: empathy and mental imagery. Empathy images of
    the story plot so that they feel as though they are experiencing the events
    themselves” [Green and Brock, 2002; Slater and Rouner, 2002; Laer et al., 2014].

    The narrative transportation indicators identified in the research, and in
    preliminary follow-up data (see next section) suggest enhancement of
    engagement, information retention, empathy, science (STEM) identity, and
    attitude change beyond the traditional ‘information exchange’ approach, and

    align with the work of Luong, et al., who, in studying immersion in stories
    in science films, have shown that “the positive impacts of science-related
    entertainment narratives are not restricted to people with high interest in
    science” and suggest that “Popular entertainment narratives with embedded
    science content offer a promising way to reach low-interest audiences who
    would benefit the most from more informal science learning” [Luong,
    Moyer-Gusé and McKnight, 2020].

9 Follow-up

In-depth follow-up research will be carried out within the next few months, but
preliminary data suggests that the “Space Plague” experience was helpful to parents who
then found themselves in a real pandemic. Several have indicated a direct and lasting
effect on participants in responding to the COVID-19 crisis: one parent commented: “I
think that it provided a helpful context within which to explain the pandemic to
children (aged 7 and 4). Space plague could be used as a reference point given it
had been a recent experience, which they enjoyed thoroughly. It assisted, for
example, in explaining that it was a disease for which there was currently no
cure and that certain aspects of life would need to be different until there was a
treatment/vaccine (which they had helped to develop in the Space Plague experience)”.
Another parent (of children aged 9 and 11), reported that it provided knowledge of
disease types, especially of viruses, understanding of the scientific processes
happening in response to the COVID pandemic, and insight into the public health
requirements of the response and thus she had found it “enormously helpful” as it
prepared her children both cognitively and emotionally for the reality of the

10 Conclusion

This partial study of the results and evaluation of the effect of an immersive theatrical
experience in informal pandemic learning has shown that physical immersion within a
story/play can lead to transformations by the audience experience of living through the
story. Our results suggest that the learning is strong around concepts and processes, as
well as specific facts. It further suggests that immersion and embodiment in the story as
scientists or engineers can potentially change attitudes, as well as enhance learning and
understanding. This reinforces Luong’s reflection that “Potentially, informational versus
persuasive outcomes may be more strongly influenced by different processing variables:
transportation, narrative engagement, and identification may be able to fully
account for attitudinal impacts because such information is more likely to be

processed along with the narrative content” [Luong, Moyer-Gusé and McKnight,

Follow-up research will clarify the effect of this experience on permanence of learning
and explore whether the striking attitudinal changes reported are a short-lived or
long-lasting effect. In conclusion we suggest that immersive theatre is a highly effective
mechanism for informal science learning. There are, therefore, ethical complexities to
consider, if this is the case. Gallagher concludes that “Storytelling as method is here to stay.
This is as it should be. But more careful consideration of the work that stories do in our
research accounts, the judgement they provoke, the openings they foreclose, and the
fixities they guarantee remains a central challenge.” [Gallagher, 2011]. In this
particular case, although the timing was coincidental, Space Plague worked well as a
fictionalised analogy to the COVID-19 pandemic. The results suggest that this has
been a successful mechanism through which almost 300 individuals were able to
understand the science behind, and come to terms with the real-life response to,
COVID-19. The stories behind other productions would need the equivalent careful
co-creation with diverse stakeholders to be meaningful, relevant and inclusive. On a
practical level, the drawback of a fully immersive experience is the requirement of
considerable resourcing (both human and physical) for a limited number of audience
members. The next iteration of the Space Plague story will, therefore, be a digitally
accessible experience, with some elements in VR, to explore whether similarly
transportative effects can be achieved by bigger audiences by using a digital platform for

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Dr. Lindsay Keith BSc PhD, PGCertHE Lindsay is a multi BAFTA nominated film-maker,
festival producer, writer and creative research fellow at the University of Greenwich. After
completing her PhD in Infectious Disease at Imperial College London, she worked in
broadcast TV, producing and directing specialist factual and observational documentaries,
and mainstream factual-entertainment programmes for BBC1&2, Ch4, five, Sky, Discovery,
and History channels. In 2011 she founded creative production company, The Refinery
and in 2014 co-founded SMASHfestUK, an award-winning immersive science and arts
festival for marginalized young people and families. Since 2015 she has also
worked as a research fellow at the University of Greenwich where her research
specialism is embodiment and behavior change through immersive narratives.
In 2019 and 2020 she co-created, scripted and produced a mixed-media fully
immersive work “Space Plague” exploring embodiment and presence in immersive
theatre and the role of narrative transportation in changing real-life attitudes.
E-mail: [email protected].

Mr. Wyn Griffiths BA, MSc, FRSA, Senior Lecturer, Middlesex University, Department
of Design Engineering and Mathematics, School of Science and Technology. Wyn is
Principal Investigator for the STFC Nucleus Award funded ‘Space Plague’ project,
researching immersive theatre and narrative transportation effects in informal STEM
education, and teaches in Product Design and Product Design Engineering. His work
spans many sectors and a disparate range of public engagement arenas, including event,
installation, experience and exhibition design, build and management. His recent work
includes conceiving, founding and running SMASHfestUK, with The Refinery; creating
large scale mechanical installations such as the Globe of Dislocation, exhibited in the Royal
Observatory Courtyard in 2014/15 as part of their Longitude Punk’d Exhibition and the
Stained Glass “Car of the Future” — a physical thought experiment with designer
Dominic Wilcox for BMW, Mini and Dezeen and designing and running ‘Robot
Overlords’, an immersive robotics experience, exploring the perception and reality of
robotics technology and social penetration for London Design Festival 2015.
E-mail: [email protected].

How to cite

Keith, L. and Griffiths, W. (2020). ‘“Space Plague”: an investigation into immersive theatre
and narrative transportation effects in informal pandemic science education’.
JCOM 19 (07), N01.

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