Punchdrunk are a British theatre company founded in 2000 by Felix Barrett, a University of Exeter graduate, who are often cited as pioneers of site-specific, immersive theatre productions (Alston, 2013:127). The only real constraint on audiences is the requirement to wear masks in order to distinguish them from performers, otherwise they are free to explore labyrinthine sets, often constructed within disused urban spaces, with the freedom to choose where to go, what to do and what to watch.
I was fortunate enough to have seen their latest production, The Drowned Man, during its limited run in London which occupied a huge Paddington warehouse, sprawling across five floors, set within the fictional ‘Temple Studios’, with visual motifs borrowed from the likes of David Lynch scattered around the performance space, from the chequered floors to the dreamy music. It is maybe not surprising then that the production received an almost cult-like following with blogs dedicated to finding all of the hidden rooms, clues and secret performances as well as collaborative Spotify playlists, where any music heard during the three-hour show could be added.
Punchdrunk’s artistic director compared the experience of the Drowned Man with that of the hugely popular, open world video game Skyrim, in that the sprawling set encourages audiences to be active in their participation without the need to be “spoon-fed”. This comparison between immersive theatre and gaming is nothing new, with one Guardian article citing ‘the balance between scripted-events and audience freedom’ as key to the unique experiences immersive theatre can provide. The gaming industry have also made note of and capitalised on these similarities. Sony hired Punchdrunk to create a short post-apocalyptic production in disused tunnels under Waterloo Station as a promotional event for fans and press to experience a ‘prequel’ to events in the video game Resistance 3. Similarly, a project funded by Arts Council England between Punchdrunk and MIT has been set up in an experimental venture to combine gaming and theatre, with these cross-overs and collaborations between different sectors within the creative industries increasing (Papaioannou, 2014:163), perhaps in part due to a need for companies ‘to innovate in sourcing alternative financial means.’ (Alston, 2012; Jakob, 2015).
The success of The Drowned Man, and of Punchdrunk itself, have arguably been facilitated by the rise of the ‘event-economy’ and ‘experience industry’, which capitalize on selling these unique experiences (Alston, 2013; Pine and Gilmore, 1991). The Drowned Man was most certainly an ‘event’ with its limited run creating a sense of exclusivity for those who managed to snag tickets, as well as encouraging those who could to visit multiple times in order to explore things they may have missed first time round, thus encouraging audiences to ‘work for your experience’. This sense of social capital that could be gained from having been is even echoed in Punchdrunk’s elusive and often fairly vague marketing strategies, such as a pop up caravan set piece in Paddington Station, which promote a sense of having to be ‘in-the-know’ about the company.
Alston, A. (2013) Audience Participation and Neoliberal Value: Risk, agency and responsibility in immersive theatre, A Journal of the Performing Arts, 18(2): 128-138
Pine, J. and Gilmore, J. (1991) Welcome to the Experience Economy
Papaioannou, S. (2014) Immersion, ‘smooth’ spaces and critical voyeurism in the work of Punchdrunk, Studies in Theatre and Performance, 34(2): 160-174
Alston, A. (2012) Funding, product placement and drunkenness in Punchdrunk’s ‘The Black Diamond’, Studies in Theatre and Performance, 32(2): 193-208
Jakob, D. (2015) The eventification of place: Urban development and experience consumption in Berlin and New York City, European Urban and Regional Studies, 20(4): 447-459