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A Punchdrunk approach to making theatre

Punchdrunk are a company that rejects the passive obedience of traditional theatregoing. Peter Higgin explores how their work is constructed, from the selection of source material to considering the role of the audience.

A brief history of Punchdrunk

Punchdrunk was founded in 2000 by Felix Barrett. Along with a key group of collaborators, the company pioneered a form of theatre that rejected the passive obedience of traditional theatregoing. Audiences wear masks, Venetian style, covering much of the face and masking the mouth. They are free to roam through productions, which are staged in disused or abandoned buildings. The action of the play is deconstructed, often reordered and condensed with multiple scenes playing at once in different parts of a building. The space is brought to life with intricate set dressing, epic visual scenes, low atmospheric lighting and a filmic soundtrack. Audiences must make choices about where they go, the characters they follow and the rooms they find. They choose the show they see, often coming back many times to witness the production from different perspectives.

The original conceit for what have become known as masked Punchdrunk shows was born out of Barrett’s time as a drama student at Exeter University. In his third year he chose to direct Georg Büchner’s unfinished play Woyzeck (1879), an early expressionistic work by the young German author, who died before completing the text. The play follows the tragic downfall of a lowly soldier (Woyzeck) who tries and fails to support his wife and their young child. The wife has an affair with a drum sergeant, and Woyzeck’s mental state becomes increasingly unstable, perhaps not helped by the medical trials he is undertaking for extra money. The play’s original manuscript was unfinished and unordered, posing a problem to all who attempt to stage it: how do you produce a play for which the order of the scenes is unknown? Barrett’s solution was to stage the play in an old army barracks and to scatter the scenes across the site so that they played out concurrently. The audience was invited to explore the space, which was lit mostly by candlelight and low wattage domestic household fixtures. Audience members would stumble across scenes, often in mid flow, in rooms dressed sparsely. These scenes included a grandmother in a living room with a stuffed Border Collie, and a captain in a room with a chair, shaving bowl, mirror and the floor covered in human hair.

This style of work can be traced through to some of Punchdrunk’s most successful shows, including Sleep No More (London, 2003; Boston, 2009; New York, 2011–present ; Shanghai, 2016–present); The Drowned Man (London, 2013–14); The Masque of the Red Death (London, 2007–08); Faust (London, 2006–07); and The Firebird Ball (London, 2004). Integral to the development of these works was co-director and choreographer Maxine Doyle.

Arguably in part due to the company’s success at pioneering highly non-traditional forms with wide appeal, especially to new theatre- going audiences, there has been an explosion of work taking place in unusual settings, and an exponential rise in the popularity of experiential theatrical forms. Other influential contemporary theatre companies include Shunt, Dreamthinkspeak, Grid Iron and Secret Cinema.

Photograph of Punchdrunk's The Masque of the Red Death

The Masque of the Red Death

In many of Punchdrunk's performances scenes are played out concurrently with audience members encouraged to wander between them. 

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Feeling Punchdrunk

The company is named Punchdrunk quite simply because that is how it wants the audience to feel. Punchdrunk is a term commonly used to describe the state of a boxer who has endured a hard fight, and the company equates this to a feeling of being bombarded with storytelling through every sense, an overload of stimuli that has a deep emotional and physical impact on the audience. The company hopes that this experience will resonate long after the event of the performance, processed through many layers of memory and sensory associations.

Site-sympathetic theatre

There are numerous ways to describe work that takes place in non-traditional setting: site-specific, site-responsive, promenade, radical promenade, immersive.

Punchdrunk defines its style of work foremost as site-sympathetic, as works are always created in response to the architecture, layout and atmosphere of the space – whether it’s an empty warehouse, an old hotel or ten acres of ancient woodland.

The creation of a Punchdrunk piece of work

Varied formats

The company is constantly exploring new genres and formats. Its most well-known productions are epic works performed in large abandoned properties, but its practice stretches beyond this, regularly encompassing gaming, new technologies and work that bleeds into everyday reality, using the world as its backdrop. Silver Point, Believe Your Eyes and The Borough are examples of productions that have used technology and real-world scenarios. And the company’s enrichment work transforms smaller and live spaces in schools, community settings or cultural spaces.[1]

Audience-focussed

For Punchdrunk the audience is often the starting point for each production. The process of putting yourself in the shoes of an audience member is essential when making work, as more often than not the company is asking audiences not to view the work from a seat, but to experience it moving around, making decisions, finding their own action. This presents a whole series of dramaturgical, narrative and practical challenges to solve that are fundamentally different from the kinds of considerations that you might face in a more traditional setting where the audience is essentially fixed.

Key questions asked by the company are as follows:

  • Who are the audience members? 
  • What is their role in the piece? 
  • How do they interact with performers?
  • How do we inform the audience of what they can or can’t do within the narrative of the piece? 

The role of the audience in a mask show:

(Sleep No More, Faust, The Masque of the Red Death)

Audience members are ghosts who wander the space and are rarely acknowledged by performers. They are masked to give anonymity and to discourage them from talking, as well as to encourage a personal response and an individual approach to exploration. Generally, they are able to roam freely around the space, and to choose what they watch and which characters or elements of the narrative they follow. The production often feels dreamlike for audience members, or they can feel like they have become a camera in a film they’re constructing.

The role of the audience in an active promenade:

(Crash of the Elysium, Against Captain’s Orders)

Audience members are visible to the performers and are free to interact. They play themselves but are key to (and often the primary element in) the success of the production – for example, they may be given a mission, the completion of which concludes the show. The scenario in which the audience finds itself starts and ends in reality, with a fantastical journey in between. It feels believable, and audiences can question whether it was indeed a reality. Programme notes, adverts and other promotional material do not refer to these productions as shows or theatre.

Photograph of Punchdrunk's Against Captain’s Orders A Journey into the Uncharted

Against Captain's Orders - A Journey into the Uncharted

Against Captain’s Orders (London, 2015, National Maritime Museum) was created with family audiences in mind.

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Performance style:

Mask shows

Work is highly physical and carefully choreographed. The company is made up of mostly contemporary dancers, and narrative is communicated through choreography. Text and spoken word are used sparingly, with narrative communicated through choreography. Words, when used, are often delivered very naturally, with the aim being to create mood rather than to convey specific meaning – it is not always important for the audience to hear or follow particular words.

Active promenade

The performers are required to play their roles as realistically as possible, and performances, although finely crafted, feel natural and improvised as though in the real world. In their constant interaction with the performers, audience members often uncover key plot points or trigger developments in the narrative. This style works best when the audience is so invested that it begins to shape the narrative of the production. The form has become particularly important for the enrichment work the company carries out in schools and communities.

Performers need to be committed and focussed to deliver these shows, often negotiating physically and verbally with audiences while remaining in character and driving forward a narrative.

Selecting source materials

The company often draws on classic texts for large mask work, and tends to combine references to a number of literary works and/or films, enhancing these with evocative period settings. Some key examples are as follows:

Sleep No More 
Source texts: Macbeth (William Shakespeare), Rebecca (Daphne du Maurier, 1938).
Source sound: Bernard Herman.
Era and place: 1930s Scotland, the McKittrick Hotel and the surrounding area of Gallow Green.
Site: old night club in West Chelsea, NYC.

The Drowned Man: A Hollywood Fable
Source texts: Woyzeck (Georg Büchner, 1879), Day of the Locust (Nathanael West, 1939).
Source sound: 1950s Americana.
Era and place: 1950s Hollywood and surrounding desert. Temple Studios and surrounding town of San Bernadino.
Site: old post office, Paddington, London.

The Masque of the Red Death
Source texts: various Edgar Allan Poe short stories, including: The Masque of the Red Death (1842), Ligeia (1838), The Black Cat (1843), The Raven (1845), The Tell Tale Heart (1843) and The Fall of the House of Usher (1839).
Source sound: romantic orchestral scores from a variety of sources inspired by the songs of Victorian London and Paris.
Era and place: Gothic London and Paris.
Site: Battersea Arts Centre, London.

Photograph of Punchdrunk's The Drowned Man: A Hollywood Fable

The Drowned Man- A Hollywood Fable

Source material for Punchdrunk's The Drowned Man: A Hollywood Fable includes Büchner's Woyzeck and West's Day of the Locust.

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A holistic approach to stagecraft

All elements of stagecraft are of equal importance to Punchdrunk – from the wide filmic settings to the intricate detail. The acting, design, sound, light, costume and space are all crucial components in the work. Again, the narrative and accompanying role of the audience are always at the heart of decisions made by director, designers and actors.

Sound

Soundtracks underscore the experience throughout, often creating the feeling of being in a film. They add tension and atmosphere. They also give performers key markers, which can help them place themselves in the performance arc. Sound consists of a mixture of published tracks and newly composed atmospheric sounds. The style of sound is led by the aesthetic and story world, and can vary greatly – the company is as likely to use a heavy drum and bass piece as an orchestral classical masterpiece.

Light

The company is well known for its low-lit productions – indeed original works were lit by candlelight, which would still be the case across many productions were it not for obvious health and safety considerations. Light is still used sparingly, however, encouraging the audience to slow down, tread carefully and explore the space fully. The company’s lighting style is influenced by the work of actor, director and scenic designer Edward Gordon Craig (1872–1966), who was one of the first practitioners to recognise the potential for light to be used choreographically to create mood, rather than simply creating representational states.

Lighting and sound are intrinsically linked, and sequences are synchronised to add to the desired ambience or to complement a performance sequence.

Set and props

Attention to detail and ‘touch real’ (where actors use real materials – as opposed to representational props and stage craft techniques) are two founding principles of the company’s approach to this area of stagecraft, and meticulous work goes into planning the layout, overall aesthetic and the detail applied to each production. Spaces are often designed with a filmic or real-life level of detail, with every element considered in relation to character and the overall narrative. Audiences are often free to touch and explore props, such as documents and letters stuffed into drawers. All objects that feature in the show therefore need to look and feel authentic. Smell is a huge consideration in the design, with many aromas utilised to evoke a real sense of place and context.

Costume

As audience members are in such close proximity to the performers, costumes come under close scrutiny. Therefore, as with the set and props, clothes need to feel authentic and evoke the period appropriately. Characters may have many changes of costume throughout a production, often needing to change in front of the audience.

This article aims to give an introductory insight into the processes and approaches of the company to date. It is by no means exhaustive, and all of the elements briefly discussed here can be explored further and in much greater detail.

The company’s techniques and processes are constantly shifting and evolving. At the heart of Punchdrunk’s work is a desire to innovate and reinvent, using and finding new forms of storytelling. Importantly, its work is about creating surprising and unexpected works and defying expectation. When considering the company’s practice it is useful to consider what new elements – theatrical, technological, sensory – might be on the horizon.


Footnote

[1] The company has explored many different partnerships and contexts outside of traditional theatrical buildings, and in the process pushing the audience towards active and dynamic experiences. This suite of works includes Tunnel 228 (London, 2009); The Duchess of Malfi (London, with ENO, 2011); It Felt Like a Kiss (Manchester, 2009, MIF, Adam Curtis, Damon Albarn); Crash of the Elysium (Salford, 2011; Ipswich, 2012); The Borough (Aldeburgh, 2013).

In 2008 Punchdrunk established the now highly respected Enrichment Programme, which adopted the same high-quality design and theatrical principles in settings such as schools and communities, addressing key educational and social challenges. This programme has been commissioned to make new work for school and family audiences such as The House Where Winter Lives (London, 2012, Discover Story Centre) and Against Captain’s Orders (London, 2015, National Maritime Museum). 


Banner image: © Robin Roemer Photography

  • Peter Higgin
  • Director of Enrichment & Punchdrunk Village