Punchdrunk is renowned for its epic site-specific performances. The company’s new production invites audience members to immerse themselves in a world created exclusively for them.
Stories transform buildings: the Ford’s Theatre, Beatrix Potter’s house and King’s Cross Station are just a few examples of spaces defined by the mythologies and legends that surround them. However, it is rare that a story will be attributed to a building or place without any input from that location – frequently inspiration is drawn from the space itself and contributes to the development of the narrative. The home of Beatrix Potter is an apt example of this, providing as it did the canvas and backdrop for her sketches and the world of Peter Rabbit .
This two-way play between story and building is something often utilised by theatre-makers: site-specific theatre is nothing new. However, there are few companies that take this concept as far as Punchdrunk. Founded in 2000 by Felix Barrett, Punchdrunk makes a habit of reframing entire buildings as theatres and staging large-scale pieces throughout labyrinthine disused locations. One of the group’s earlier explorations of this was at Battersea Old Town Hall, where they produced The Masque of the Red Death in 2008. This production had an enduring effect on the centre: as part of the work, Punchdrunk opened up 35 closed rooms and exposed hidden chimneys throughout the building which now form an integral part of the atmosphere and experience offered by the venue, despite the fact that the show left long ago.
The company’s latest venture sees it move into its biggest venue yet: The Drowned Man: A Hollywood Fable takes place in an abandoned postal sorting office and covers 200,000 square foot. The building has been transformed into Temple Studios, a legendary film powerhouse with a mysterious backstory. They searched for years to find a location vast enough for the new project, and it is clear that the space forms a crucial part of the show. Maxine Doyle, who joined the company in 2003 and co-directs the new production with Barrett, explains how each and every corner of the structure is meticulously designed to offer an experience for the audience. One of the key aspects of Punchdrunk’s detailed design aesthetic is that the building and the theatrical work together to form a rich atmosphere. This holistic approach has garnered the company an astounding international fanbase since the success of its London production Sleep No More (2003). The phenomenal retelling of Shakespeare’s Macbeth has been running in the McKittrick Hotel since 2011 and has been visited by the likes of Neil Patrick Harris, Dita Von Teese and Rainn Wilson.
The first production Doyle and Barrett worked on together in 2003 was an early version of Sleep No More, and Doyle speaks about the magic of that moment: “The initial version of that show was quite understated and it was a very small audience, possibly around 40, in a beautiful old Victorian school building. It just felt like it was the beginning of things.” It is telling that she mentions the setting: if the space is right it can add all manner of additional elements. Doyle recalls an audience member from the 2003 show who had dreams about being trapped in the corridor of her old school and who was struck by that memory during the performance: “It’s richly atmospheric and it can trigger things in the imagination. I think in this work we aim to create a kind of dream-state.”
This desire is achieved by the group’s intense focus on design details that create an all-encompassing world in which audience members can quickly become absorbed. The productions are orchestrated so that the curious are well-rewarded: spectators can make their own choices about what they observe and follow, and there is always the chance of coming across something unexpected. Doyle explains how important it is to their work to put the audience at the “centre of the investigation.” She continues: “We are trying to create a world where it seems as though they are stumbling upon a series of accidents; something which is performed for them for one time only. We want it to feel like this world is created for that audience. It’s a unique experience.”
This translates into something akin to the backstage pass, offering a glimpse behind the curtains of the performance, except with Punchdrunk a glimpse behind the curtain doesn’t expose the mechanics of the theatre but rather another whole world to be explored. This is where the company really excels: at maintaining the illusion. There is nothing to intrude on the reality of the performance until you exit the building. Sound and lighting are operated from one place and run at the push of a button. Doyle explains how this helps to infuse the world with its own magic and power: “Part of our challenge over the past few years has been to refine the technical aspect of the work so that it feels much more invisible.” There’s no chance of actually stumbling across any real backstage operations in a Punchdrunk show.
Despite the fact that the audience never sees it, there is a huge amount of technical preparation that goes into a Punchdrunk performance to imbue the building with story. Doyle discusses this with regard to its new venue, Temple Studios: “Before any of the artistry and vision could really kick in, we had to transform the building into a theatrical haven. So many of the pedantic things you usually take for granted, like lighting, sound and running water, have to be built and introduced into the space.” Then the company adds layer upon layer of detail for the audience to discover. Starting from a blank slate enables them to create exactly the world they want, and the focus of their attention is always how to create the “most intimate and most spectacular experience for the audience.” This is supported by their dedication to the space but really brought to life by the combination of environment and story.
The Drowned Man: A Hollywood Fable is loosely based on Woyzeck, the unfinished play by Georg Büchner. This is a pivotal text for Felix Barrett, who was inspired by its fractured narrative to create Punchdrunk, and the work is explored here from the angle of human behaviour, following the protagonists along the precipice between illusion and reality. This concept of illusion and reality is further expounded by the addition of Hollywood and the film studio to The Drowned Man . Hollywood, synonymous with the film industry, is a town built on narratives, where the major export is illusion; the author Angela Carter considered it to be the place where the United States perpetrated itself as a dream. As such it offers a rich position from which to explore these ideas and adds a further, complex layer of invention to a production that is already fully committed to creating a new reality for the audience.
Maxine Doyle speaks about the “visceral nature” of the performance. Punchdrunk’s intention is to create such compelling images and experiences that they are really impressed upon the memory and imagination of the audience: “What we always hope is that each audience member has felt like they’ve had their own experience of the work; that they have been able to craft their own narrative and have their own individual encounters.” There is a strong emphasis in The Drowned Man: A Hollywood Fable on the individual and the shared experience; Punchdrunk works hard to maximise the opportunity for both small-scale one-on-one pieces and larger spectacles, and reinforces this through the performance spaces it creates. The show runs for up to three hours, and the size of the venue and sheer volume of things to discover in the piece ensure that each audience member will encounter moments both intimate and spectacular. According to Doyle: “You might even discover a few cowboys if you’re lucky!”
The Drowned Man: A Hollywood Fable is currently running at Temple Studios, 31 London Street, London. Tickets are on sale until 31 December. Visit www.nationaltheatre.org.uk/punchdrunk to book or for more information. Sleep No More continues to run at the McKittrick Hotel, Chelsea, New York City. Visit www.sleepnomorenyc.com.