Casting call for buildings: on location with Punchdrunk and Spectators’ Guild
It’s easy to see why Paynes Wharf, near Deptford Creek in south London, is playing the lead in the Spectators’ Guild company’s production of Venice Preserv’d. It has an old Thameside maritime facade – a former boilermaking works – arcaded like the Doge’s Palace, next to a new flatblock in the manner of a campanile, and its developers put serious money into the production. And they offered guaranteed availability with a scheduled window in the site’s post-construction schedule.
For, as the guild’s producer Harry Ross and production designer Helen Scarlett O’Neill know from their work with Secret Cinema, the company that stages elaborate movie events, any big, workable, public space in London is hard to find. Should they dream of a place with character, let alone the right looks, they’re into the near-impossible. There is noSpotlight for immersive venues, no showreels for talented but unknown ex-warehouses. The agents do not ring.
Mostly, Ross and friends keep their eyes open and ceaselessly ask around. Ross, who as a cyclist has travelled at just the right speed to observe the built landscape, collects London buildings, holding in his head half the current suitable specimens, tunnels included. He can charm any watchman into letting him past the gates within five minutes, and will wander around the metropolis yelling queries up to blokes on scaffolding, if that’s what it takes.
Once spotted, though, a space can be even harder to secure. It can be done, especially if it’s a pro tart of a place for hire anyway, as with the former Farmiloe stained-glass manufactory in Smithfield, much used as a movie location before being taken over for the duration of Secret Cinema’s The Grand Budapest Hotel-related live extravaganza in March. But the turnover of acquisition, renovation, demolition, repurposing and new construction in London has accelerated so fast since property became the international investment after the 2008 crash, that places the site-specific event companies have stashed away as promising hopes suddenly sprout into multi-storey plutoflats.
That’s what makes Venice Preserv’d as an on-site production a novel venture for everybody – and is maybe the way that immersive theatre will have to go. The developers wanted the company and its production to show off the artistic potential of this great space behind the restored river facade. They’re looking to theatre to put some character into the wharf so that it won’t lapse into just another stretch of the executive luxury-flat cliffs now walling the Thames.
Director Charlotte Westenra has wanted to put on Thomas Otway’s Restoration tragedy for a long time – it being an entirely modern story about selling out, in every sense, in a privileged imperial city awash with money and betrayal, yet sinking fast. Then came this loan of what she feels is “a beautiful, significant space” that, both visually and contextually, correlated with her concept of the play.
I’d describe the production as location-referential more than site-specific. While Westenra exploits onsite advantages with glee – she will flood the central courtyard to simulate a bridged Venetian canalscape – she also looks out to a wider geographic “where” as a context for the old narrative. The audience can choose to come down to Greenwich pier by boat, as if on their way to a Venetian carnival, and, as they promenade the wharf’s tideside terrace or look through the space’s mighty windows, they cannot fail to see the uncaring, rising water and moneyed Canary Wharf on its far side.
The site’s most overwhelming area is a lofty nave the length of the gutted old building, which O’Neill will dress with decaying lace. Although Westenra’s approach to Otway’s bitter power play will remain a semi-formal staging, in which everybody will view and hear the same scene at the same time, it won’t be a Punchdrunk company gig with each audience member stomping his or her own route with a request to “wear appropriate shoes” on the ticket. If the walls could speak at Payne’s Wharf they’d be talking about investment, dividends, futures. Most of them – other than that 1860s frontage – have no past to speak of.
Get Felix Barrett, head of Punchdrunk, immersive veterans, on the subject of listening to walls, and it’s a whole different story – mostly about the past. He has known since his first student production in 2000, in a Territorial Army HQ in Exeter, all the highs and woes of the quest for unlikely performing spaces. He knows Deptford, too – he put on two shows in the old Seagar distillery, now a mighty block of “lifestyle living” just a drinker’s spit from Payne’s Wharf.
He’s full of admiration for the guild – “They’re going outside? First thing we do in a place is overpaint all the windows black”. But he doesn’t envy them the site, no matter how painlessly secured, because for Punchdrunk, building a narrative means narrating the building. For that, it needs not a beautifully embalmed corpse of a place, let alone a place that’s mostly newborn, but “a good dirty body of a building”. Or anyway, a building on its last breath, as many of his have been over the past 14 years. The first time he gains entry into a secured desired venue, he has to be alone, because “you have to listen, ask the buildings: what do you want? Tell me what you want.”
Westenra wanted to do her cherished show and was grateful for a supportive, expansive space as setting: Barrett doesn’t cherish anything so finished as a script, just a dozen two-word ideas, as many again in one sentence, and a well-developed few that run as far as a single paragraph. None go further until he can hunt and hold his site. It’s getting more difficult in London. Rare are the developers, he says, “who realise that dormant space could be a positive creative force”. Or that Punchdrunk could give a death-sentenced building a last hurrah (Faust in a former archive in Wapping Lane, The Duchess of Malfi in a doomed pharma HQ in Docklands), rather than a squalid slide into graffiti before the cranes move in. Now there is also competition from proliferating event companies and movie shoots. The economics have changed. The old Paddington mail sorting office, elaborated internally into “Temple Studios” as home to Punchdrunk’s most recent production, The Drowned Man: A Hollywood Fable, took three years to run to ground and secure, and was the first site where the company has had to pay properly for use.
How did Punchdrunk find it? Like its predecessors, by a combination of time, luck and legwork. Barrett used to draw a circle on a map, calibrated to the distance an audience might travel, then divide it into blocks. A-Z in hand, his team walked every alleyway, always looking up (“the hidden gems are above your eyeline”). The building should ideally be reticent, reclusive and exude a sense of danger: “The day we found the building for Faust, after nine brutal and bruising months, we could feel the electricity run through the fence. There was a big sign, DANGER: DO NOT ENTER … We went in.” (Punchdrunk never took the sign down, despite the misgivings of its National Theatre backers.) When Punchdrunk was invited into the safe, alive space of the Battersea Arts Centre, a former town hall, the first task was “to kill it off, a stake through the heart” before the right show, which turned out to be The Mask of the Red Death, could crawl out of its demunicipalised woodwork.
After Punchdrunk field trips, the team usually worked the phones for weeks, and got nowhere. For every hundred spaces that might fit the bill, only one was available for work – until, so often, it was out of the game. Three times Barrett came close to securing a hospital. (He would have liked to put on Faust in hospital wards, grief and loss flowing along every corridor – corridors are all plot.) Every time, in the end, pffft. Eventually, he learned that, “You can’t dream about the perfect space for the ideal show because a show may be almost go after three years” – then comes the NO – “and when you secure another building, it has to be a very different show”. Right now he has seven possibles waiting for a green light, and 50 that could happen, but their stories will have to be scored to what he hears on that first interior walk, “the beats and rhythms of the space, crescendos, diminuendos, staccato”. Punchdrunk is about being site-sympathetic, rather than site-specific, though. In New York, its backers wanted Faust, but Faust was outside the available venue’s range: it performed Sleep No More – Macbeth – brilliantly.
Barrettt’s own role is always Prospero. He says he is in the sandcastle business. Almost everywhere Punchdrunk has ever commandeered, all those not-so-gorgeous palaces, has since been replaced with cloud-capped tower blocks. So for the first time, the company now keeps proper records of its plays, including the buildings’ own stories, against the inevitable time they, too, vanish into thin air, shortly after the play closes.