Power To The People

I have been intrigued by an article in The Independent, by Emily Jupp, about the latest offering from immersive theatre company You Me Bum Bum Train. Founded in 2004, the company has been at the cutting edge of the immersive theatre form, winning awards for their work which relies heavily on significant groups of volunteer performers. Jupp writes the article having experienced being one of those volunteers.


You Me Bum Bum Train: The latest journey into challenging immersive theatre

As a volunteer at the immersive theatre production of You Me Bum Bum Train, I’ve been able to do things I wouldn’t normally do. I’ve fixed two sewing machines, I’ve lugged furniture around, I’ve painted walls and I’ve felt incredibly capable and resourceful while doing them. Tackling things outside your comfort zone is at the heart of the You Me Bum Bum Train experience, where an audience member, or “Passenger”, is thrown into the heart of the action.

From tonight, Passengers will arrive at the old Foyles bookshop building in London where the new YMBBT show takes place, and be hurtled from one short scene to the next, in each of which they have to improvise their part while the rest of the cast react. The Passenger has no idea what is going on behind each door and the YMBBT team would like to keep it that way. They don’t even have publicity photos. Instead, the founders strike silly poses against surreal backdrops – see right. So I can’t reveal what’s happening this year. But previous scenes have involved discovering you’re the head of MI5 and making a world-changing decision or having to operate a forklift truck without any guidance.

In each scene the audience member is the focus of attention and the cast of volunteers – who aren’t professional actors but who often have skills or experience relating to the context of the scene – interact with that Passenger. Each scene is timed and during the one I was cast in we had about two minutes before resetting and then running the scene again with the next Passenger. There are about 70 Passengers passing through in one night, so it’s frantic.

Kate Bond and Morgan Lloyd founded You Me Bum Bum Train at art school in Brighton in 2004. It was held in the basement of an office block. “I found it very depressing trying to find something that meant something to me at art school,” says Bond. “A lot of art is very egocentric but what I love about this is there is no one leader and it’s not a production where every scene is rigidly fixed, so it’s accessible for everyone. No volunteer ever gets turned away.”

YMBBT has grown to huge proportions. It was awarded the Oxford Samuel Beckett Theatre Trust prize for its show in 2012 at the Barbican in London and an Olivier award for outstanding achievement. Stephen Fry, Dominic West, Jude Law and Sir Ian McKellen are just some of the show’s celebrity fans, but there aren’t many detailed reviews or articles about the experience. That’s because secrecy is key.

“If a Passenger has been forewarned then they always say they regret knowing about it,” says Bond. “In the early days, people would just find a flyer in a pub saying You Me Bum Bum Train, a time and a location and nothing else.”

In a recent show, one Passenger had been told by his friend that they were going to see Billy Elliot and had no idea what would happen. “He had to take a break from the show because he was shaking and he just wasn’t prepared for what was going on, but he said it was amazing, he just felt overwhelmed.”

“A lot of the shy people say if they knew what they were going to do they would never have taken part but they get a huge confidence boost from realising they can.”

The show is run on a shoestring budget; props are scavenged from websites like Freecycle and car boot sales. It’s amazing how detailed and realistic they are considering they started with a building site three months ago. In one of the scenes I rehearsed for, the scene director suddenly stopped talking to examine the ceiling. “It still needs cornicing. It won’t look right without it,” he said. The cornicing was added the next day.

YMBBT receives a grant from the Arts Council to help with running costs, and Bond and Morgan pay themselves a small wage (Bond is on working tax credits), but the army of volunteers are all unpaid, aside from being given meals. “It would be nice if Bum Bum could give back more,” says Bond. “We have a fantasy of treat chutes going through to every floor with snacks and vending machines and making it more Willy Wonka for all the volunteers, but we haven’t been able to yet.”

They’ve been criticised for not paying, but the production couldn’t happen any other way, Lloyd and Bond worked out that a ticket (£48.50 for this production) would cost around £2,000 if they paid their volunteers minimum wage and broke even on the running costs.

The best bit about the volunteer experience is that people from all walks of life and all ages get involved. “It makes people more open-minded because it is such an open-door policy and you meet people from different backgrounds,” says Bond. “We had a lawyer who asked to volunteer and afterwards she became a human rights lawyer instead of a commercial lawyer because of the experience.”

The bonding element has even produced some Bum Bum marriages over the years, says Bond. “A bit like going to war, it brings people together, and they achieve things that are really huge.”

The criticisms leveled at Lloyd and Bond go back a number of years, some of which from 2012 you can read here in The Guardian and The Stage. I think it raises an interesting issue for immersive theatre, which by it’s nature often require very large casts indeed. Also, if you audience are expected to become characters in the story, as is often the case, why not invite non-professional actors to be part of the permanent cast?

In a not unconnected story from The Guardian in September a German theatre company, Schauspielhaus Bochum  asked their audience to pack into a refrigerated truck to give them a glimpse into the hardships experienced by the migrants and refugees trying to reach Europe from war zones. 63315453-65e3-413c-9251-a124cfca5b1d-2060x1236

The event was billed as a memorial to the 71 people, four of them children, who were found dead inside an abandoned lorry in Austria. About 200 people took part in the event, entering a 7.5 tonne refrigerated truck similar in size to the one found in Austria.

Next to it on the ground was a rectangle marked out to measure 2.5 metres by six metres which represented the size of the original truck’s interior.

Seventy-one volunteers first tried to stand inside the rectangle before trying to cram inside the lorry. When they did the truck’s doors could not be closed.

“The lorry was completely full, the people were squeezed right up against each other,” explained Olaf Kroek, the theatre’s artistic adviser.

“This action is not disrespectful,” he said. “What is disrespectful is the political reality in Europe that people suffering so greatly hand over thousands of euros and must take such unsafe routes while for the rest of us Europeans it is so easy … to travel in the other direction.”

Both pieces pay testament to the ever-changing nature of theatre as an art form and in an increasingly digital world, it should come as no surprise that audiences are demanding, and expecting, their theatre experiences to be more visceral, more real.

Ten Collaborative Commandments

Over the course of the last twenty years collaborative, devised theatre has gone mainstream and is now an accepted part of our cultural landscape.  It has its roots in the 1960’s with figures such as Jerzy Grotowski, Peter Brook and Joan Littlewood often recognised as contributing to its emergence as a legitimate way of making theatre. In the intervening years and through the work of companies such as Living Theatre, The Open Theatre, Australian Performing Group, People Show, Teatro Campesino, Théâtre de Complicité, Legs on the Wall, Forced Entertainment and Third Angel, to name but a few, collaborative theatre continued to thrive globally. Today, companies like Coney, Lundahl and Seitl, Ontroerend Goed and Look Left Look Right are creating new, immersive, collaborative work for a much wider audience, with Punchdrunk being the commercial daddy of them all.

443ee612-5993-4fe3-ab4a-328dcb2f5a1b-680x1020For me, though, devising remains a way of truly learning the art of theatre making and it is not surprising that most theatre and drama examination courses have an assessable element to them that requires students to collaborate, devise and create new work. It allows student theatre makers to respond to what is of interest to them in whatever style and form they think most appropriate, and this is its power – the power of immediacy. In a recent article published in The GuardianNathan Curry and Kat Joyce from theatre company Tangled Feet talk about the strengths of devised work, their process and how it allows them to respond much more quickly to a subject than perhaps a more traditional playwright can. The full article is here, but is an extract:

Devising offers a swift way of responding to a turbulent political situation. We are currently in rehearsals and able to react immediately to new information emerging from research and conversations with healthcare professionals.

The devising process is a lot like doing a jigsaw with a blindfold on. Early on, there is a lot of playing, testing and failing and a huge amount of material left on the rehearsal room floor. The second half of the rehearsals have become about fitting everything together in a shape that is dramaturgically strong and creates a journey for the audience with well-crafted character arcs – often the biggest challenge for devised work. Our design team are in the room reacting to discoveries we are making and throwing new ideas at us to explore.

What is so rewarding is that a group of artists reacting to each other and riffing through new thoughts enables beautiful and surprising theatrical discoveries. With sound, design, choreography, aerial work and script all evolving alongside each other, it can often feel chaotic: but sometimes the most powerful moments come into focus through some sort of alchemy.

Just for interest, here is an example of Tangled Feet’s work.  A piece called Push, which, to quote the company, is a funny, irreverent and insightful look at the relationships between new mothers and their offspring, and the expectations of society around them. Performed in the very outdoor spaces that parents inhabit, Push tells stories that everyone can recognise.


To finish with, I would like to share these this tips for collaborative devising by John Walton, artistic director of theatre company Fol Espoirpublished in The Guardian’s Culture Professionals Network.

Devised theatre: ten tips for a truly creative collaboration

Be passionate about your source material

It might be a story you love, an injustice that enrages you or a question you can’t stop asking – just make sure you’ve chosen a starting point that fascinates you. This curiosity will keep you alive to new possibilities, make you fearless when things get tough, and ensure you’re always digging deeper.

If you don’t care, why should an audience?

Do your research

The more you know about your starting material, the freer your imagination will be within it. Research nourishes rehearsals, provides a huge wealth of material from which to devise, and gives authenticity to your final production. The latter is important; if an audience questions the world you create, it’s almost impossible for them to relax into the fantasies you’re weaving. Of course, if you’re creating a clown show, ignore all the above; ignorance will be bliss.

Get your material out there as soon as possible

Nothing gets me off my backside like the prospect of public humiliation. Without the pressure of a reading or work-in-progress night, I wouldn’t create anything. Early previews will stop you over-thinking, get you creating, allow you to test material and (hopefully) build a buzz for the show. If premature exposure sounds too terrifying, you can always invite supportive friends into your rehearsals.


Unite the whole company around a common purpose

Set aside some time early on to explore everyone’s personal objectives for making the piece. Then, as an ensemble, write a unified mission statement for the show. This might range from explicitly political aims to simply wanting to create a joyous evening of fun – it might even change as the project moves forward. It will provide an essential framework against which you can judge every decision you make and ensures that everyone is travelling in the same direction.

Keep an open mind

Few things will choke creativity more than your brainy ideas about what you think will work. Admit that you know nothing, keep an open mind and listen attentively to the people with whom you’re working. The smallest comments can spark Eureka moments, and there really is no such thing as a bad idea. Some of my favourite scenes were inspired by tiny glimmers in otherwise awful improvisations. It’s often the most disastrous rehearsals that tell me where I’m going wrong. As long as you’re venturing into the unknown, there’s no such thing as failure.

The importance of story is relative

Some people swear that story is everything, but it really depends on the show. If I’m adapting a pre-existing narrative, story will undoubtedly be high on my priorities. But sometimes it will only emerge once we start connecting the material we’ve made. In comedy, it’s often just a framework from which to hang the gags. What’s certainly true is that an early obsession with plot will close you off from many discoveries.

Always look for counterpoints

If your subject matter is serious, look for the moments of humour. If you’re doing comedy, remember that it’s probably not funny for the characters involved. Similarly, don’t get stuck in endless dialogue; the way you tell a story through action, movement, music, design, sound and lighting is just as important as the words.

Everyone works differently

Devising doesn’t have to mean endless improvisations. Let people create material in whichever way works best for them. Some of the best scenes will come when people are just given time to go home and write.

Don’t be precious

Throw away your rehearsal plans if they’re not helping, give your best jokes to another actor, consider moving your final scene to the start, simplify the plot-line, and mercilessly edit your show to the shortest length possible. I’ve never regretted any cuts or changes I’ve made to a show; getting the rhythm right trumps everything.

Stay optimistic and enjoy yourselves

Things will inevitably go wrong, but remember to keep looking for the joy and inspiration to create. Stuck in a hole? Play a silly game or get outside and do something fun. You’d be surprised how many good ideas come when you’re not trying.

I think these might become my Ten Commandments for all collaborative work from now on. On a final note, John Walton writes a great blog, in which he details the rehearsals of all his new work in great and interesting detail which you can read here , and if you want a good wide read about the history of devised, collaborative work, Devising Performance, A Critical History by Deirdre Heddon and Jane Milling is worth a go.

Lacking Definition

3.190241Like anything else, the academic and theoretical study of theatre-making is always bound by a shared lexicon. However definitions sometimes lead us astray. Take Bertolt Brecht’s concept of Verfremdungseffekt for instance.  When John Willett published his seminal english language Brecht on Theatre in 1964, he translated Verfremdungseffekt as the alienation effect, which for many years led to a mis-interpretation of what Brecht actually meant. Subsequently it has been re-translated as defamiliarization effect, estrangement effect, distantiation or distancing effect, the latter having become generally accepted as nearer Brecht’s original intent. Another would be the definition of the role of the Dramaturge, which differs almost from theatre to theatre, let alone country to country. In this case, it has recently been removed as an area of study from the International Baccalaureate’s Theatre Arts course simply because there is no one internationally accepted standard definition.


Currently one area of performance that is struggling to find a standard definition is Immersive Theatre, which continues to grow in popularity around the world. In an article for Everything Theatre published a few weeks ago, Marni Appleton asks the question What even is immersive theatre?

Traditional theatre is making room for a different type of performance. More and more often, audiences are invited to throw themselves headfirst into a show rather than simply sit back and watch. But what does this mean? With everything from laptops to restaurants being described as ‘immersive’…… what we should expect from this type of theatre.

Punchdrunk are widely considered to be the pioneers of immersive theatre, having been at it since 2000. There is no such thing as a typical Punchdrunk show; projects range from interactive audio-tours to secret collaborations with musicians, so it is not always easy to identify the common ‘immersive thread’. Their most recent, large-scale UK show, The Drowned Man, was like being inside a dream. The venue started life as an abandoned postal sorting office, but you wouldn’t have been able to tell. The award-winning design transformed the space and no detail was overlooked: drawers were filled; real trees were brought in for the forests; authentic smells and textures were sourced, all of which heightened the senses and gave audience members very surreal experiences. The space could be treated as one giant art installation – it was possible to get a sense of the narrative without crossing paths with a single performer – or you could chase one of the many characters across four floors. The choice was yours. There is so much in a Punchdrunk show that you can never discover everything in a single visit; just one of the reasons Punchdrunk enjoys repeat visitors and dedicated fans, who love the fact there is always something new to be found.

Performances in The Drowned Man were mostly physical, set to an impressive (and loud) cinematic score, so opportunities to converse with the characters were thin on the ground. If you were very lucky, you might be selected for a sought-after ‘one on one’ experience, where a character would draw you into a room and interact with you alone. But aside from this, audience interaction with performers was fairly minimal. There were no opportunities to influence their journeys or the direction of the story; the next scene always continued as scripted.

Does this affect whether or not the show is immersive? David Frias-Robles, co-founder of the theatre company Myriad & Co thinks so. For him, audiences have to be able to change or influence the narrative of the show, for it to be considered immersive. ‘Of course there has to be a basic structure,’ he says. ‘But there also has to be some form of choice for the audience.’


David has worked extensively in immersive theatre. As well as establishing Myriad & Co, he has worked as actor and director on a range of projects including The Backstage Tour, shows with Secret Cinema and epoch’s The Factory, soon to be seen at VAULT Festival. One of David’s recent projects, Canvas City saw Canvas Bar in Old Street transformed into a 1930s speakeasy. Audience members came to the bar dressed in clothes from the era and were encouraged to adopt their own persona. As the night unfolded, the lines between performer and audience became blurred. There were three crucial, pre-planned moments, but in between those, audience members were able to aid and influence each character’s journey.

The only drinks available on the night were a selection of whisky-based cocktails served in tiny jars. This added to the authentic feel of the night, which was surprisingly effective, considering very little of the bar had been changed. For David, it is these details that are crucial. His idea of an immersive show is one where the audience is in costume, where a narrative has been built up before the performance itself, and where every single detail that might betray the experience as a performance has been eliminated. While this is almost impossible to achieve, the best immersive theatre, he says, comes very close.

Coney is one of the companies producing ‘audience-led’ theatre. Coney’s A Small Town Anywhere and Early Days used the audience as the cast in shows that were part-game, part-improvisation and partly structured. There are a number of experiences that operate in a similar way, such as Heist by differencEngine and the recent New Atlantis by LAStheatre. But if everyone is playing and no one is watching, do these events still count as theatre? And if they are, this begs the question of live action role-play, murder mysteries and other similar games. Do these come under the umbrella of immersive theatre too?


With audience-led, fully participatory work at one end of the immersive spectrum, there are also supposedly immersive shows that sit right down at the other end of the spectrum. The word ‘immersive’ is often used in relation to shows that simply have non-traditional aspects or some immersive elements. The Roof at the National Theatre was a non-traditional performance staged in a car park, which made clever use of audio by giving each audience member a fancy pair of headphones. However, there was no interaction with the characters and there wasn’t even anywhere to go; viewers simply stood and watched the show instead of sitting down. Whilst this may have been different and exciting for immersive novices, it would have been a disappointment to anyone wanting to get properly stuck in. Many would argue that this was not representative of the genre.

While immersive theatre is difficult to define precisely, it is certainly enjoying a boom at the moment. Is it just a phase? Perhaps. But this writer hopes not. Immersive shows are pushing and breaking down the boundaries of theatre and attracting new audiences – many who aren’t regular theatregoers. As audiences, we should expect the unexpected from this type of show, but what does that mean in practical terms? Great theatre is often risky, and immersive shows are no exception. But throw yourself into the experience, and it might just be a revelation.

In a short, but instructive piece on its website, arts venue The Space in East London, attempted to answer the same question as Appleton:


Many people go to the theatre to lose themselves in the production, to forget their everyday worries and troubles and be transported into another world. However, no kind of theatre transports an audience quite like immersive theatre. In immersive theatre, the audience are not merely passive bystanders. They are part of the story, however small their role may be, and they are in the middle of the action.

In an immersive theatre production, the audience in some way plays a role, whether that is the role of witness or the role of an actual character. They may be allowed to roam and explore the performance space as the performance happens around them, allowing them to decide what they see and what they skip. They might be herded from room to room so they see the key scenes. They might even be invited to become a more active part of the performance. The lines between performer and audience and between performance and life are blurred. The audience is placed within the environment of the story and therefore play witness front and centre to the events without the distancing factor of a proscenium.

However, this lack of separation can cause anxiety. If an audience member is not expecting to become part of the performance or is uncomfortable with that idea, it can be very off-putting so there must be some form of consent between the performer and the audience. Whether that’s the conscious decision to take a performer’s outstretched hand or knowing that one has the safety net of being able to back away from the performance, there must still exist some form of separation and boundaries between performance and audience for the benefit of everyone involved.


The origins of immersive theatre go all the way back to the beginnings of modern theatre in the 19th century. Call-and-response, when a leader puts out a call and an audience calls back a pre-ordained response, has long been a concept in music, adding a participatory element. In the centuries that followed, things like murder mystery theatres and haunted houses also put their intended audience into an environment and allowed them choice in how they viewed the story. Even traditional proscenium theatre started to adapt some immersive or interactive elements. In 1985, the Tony Award-winning Best Musical, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, required that the audience vote on who killed the titular character, spurring one of seven possible endings.

Well-known UK-based theatre company Punchdrunk are known as pioneers of the form of immersive theatre. While they have been producing immersive and promenade theatre since 2000 in the UK, they and immersive theatre as a genre meteorically shot to worldwide fame after Sleep No More, their 1930’s film noir adaptation of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, was unanimously well-received in New York.

Since the success of Sleep No More, countless immersive productions have popped up on both sides of the Atlantic. In New York, these include Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812, a techno-rock musical adaptation of a chunk of Tolstoy’s War and Peace, and Then She Fell, an adaptation of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland set in a mental hospital. London’s immersive theatre scene has recently featured an all-night production of Macbeth in a block of flats; Leviathan, a production of Herman Melville’s Moby Dick in which the audience stands in for the crew of the ship chasing after the famed whale; and The Drowned Man, a combination of Georg Buchner’s Woyzeck and Nathanael West’s The Day of the Locust set in a 1960’s movie studio and produced by Punchdrunk.

No doubt the debate will continue long and loud as the form evolves.

Alternative Experiences

Today I would like to share two new excellent video documentaries from the American Theatre Wing. The first is about the creation of site-specific theatre. Since I Suppose is a site-specific theatrical experience based on Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure which allows the audience to travel on an immersive journey through downtown Chicago.

The video follows members of the Melbourne-based theatrical group, one step at a time like this and Chicago Shakespeare Theater who share a behind the scenes look at how the experience was created using digital technology and the architecture and culture of Chicago.


The second explores another visceral theatre experience but this time of the immersive kind. In the documentary Randy Weiner (Producer, Sleep No More), David Korins (Scenic Designer, Here Lies Love) and Zach Morris (Co-Artistic Director of Third Rail Projects) describe the ‘staging environment, the state of heightened theatricality, and the effect of the immersive movement on the audience and its influence on today’s theatre scene.’


If you are a first year IB Theatre Arts student reading this, both of these videos would be superb for your Collaborative Project.

Too Much Of A Good Thing?

Leaving Planet Earth 015If you read Theatre Room regularly, you will know that I have written on a number of occasions about the ever-growing popularity of Immersive theatre, especially in Europe. You also know that I am drawn to this form, especially as a way as bringing new audiences to the theatre and challenging theatre students take risks in their exploration of the possibilities in performance. All things ‘immersive’ are clearly drawing audiences and there is lots of ‘jumping on bandwagons’ at the moment.  It was with some interest then that I read Lyn Gardner’s Theatre Blog in The Guardian this week.  London-centric, by its nature, but certainly making a point that is worth considering wherever you are:

Immersive theatre: living up to its name, or just an overused gimmick?

Immersive theatre has become ubiquitous, but too often such billing is just a commercial come-on designed to sell tickets

My, there is an awful lot of immersive theatre around at the moment, particularly if you live within reach of London. You can watch Titus Andronicus performed in a car park in Peckham, visit Dorian Gray’s townhouse in Greenwich, pretend you are a spy in CoLab’s London-wide, digitally-augmented Fifth Column or – if you’ve £200 to spare – spend the night in a London hotel and watch the immersive play Backstage Tour.

Some of these shows deserve the tag. But I’m beginning to think that immersive has become one of the most overused terms in British theatre, in similar vein to that other much misused term, site-specific (or site-responsive), which is likewise often bandied about with little or no justification. Standing around watching a show in a room that appears to have been designed by an Oxford Street store window dresser doesn’t magically make the audience experience something immersive, no matter how many stuffed animals you incorporate into the set.

It you want an enjoyably sly swipe at the immersive phenomenon, take a look on the excellent Exeunt site, where Natasha Tripney has cleverly reframed her East Coast trains journey back from the fringe as immersive theatre.

The rise of immersive theatre undoubtedly reflects an interest from audiences – often audiences who may not think that traditional drama in traditional theatre playhouses is for them – in experiencing theatre in a different way, one that allows them to be part of the story and feel as if they have dropped down a rabbit hole into another world like Alice. In some instances where the audience can genuinely roam where they want, the experience is more akin to gaming than traditional theatre.

Some companies – ConeyLundahl and Seitl, Punchdrunk, Ontroerend Goed and Look Left Look Right among them – have perfected the art, finding ways that make sense of why the audience is present at all and allowing them to play their part. Such companies don’t mistake mere intimacy (lovely though it can be) for immersion, and in some instances give us genuine agency.

But I keep on seeing shows that claim to be immersive, and turn out to be anything but. Performing a show in a car park (Titus) while Southern trains constantly thunder by, so that Rome appears to be situated at a railway junction, or making audiences run away from zombies in an underground space in Edinburgh (Generation of Z on the Fringe), doesn’t make it immersive, it just makes it a show in an unusual – and not necessarily suitable – location. That’s fine. But short-changed audiences will quickly learn that immersive shows often don’t deliver on what they promise, and they will stay away.

Strong and portentous words from the venerable Gardner, and she is rarely wrong, in my opinion. Her reference to The East Coast Trains Show written by a fellow critic Natasha Tripney, and published in Exeunt is definitely worth a read (and a wry smile). Beautifully tongue-in-cheek, but harbouring similar grievances expressed by Gardner and a sense that she too has experienced one too many pieces of immersive theatre that simply are not.

Immerse Yourself

As théâtre du jour, the popularity of immersive performance keeps on growing. I have written here many times about its attractions and why it possibly draws the audiences that it does. Today I want to share a mixture of things that have come my way in the last week or so, all of which making interesting reading and listening.

Firstly an audio slide show published in the UK’s Guardian this week. Made by  and Felix Barrett, the director of Punchdrunk, explains how they dreamed up The Drowned ManClick the image below to have a look and listen:

The Drowned Man_DC.indd


















The second share today is also from The Guardian and written by Veronica Horwell, Casting Call For Buildings explores how site-specific theatre companies go about picking the right venues for their shows? Horwell looks at two current performances – again Punchdrunk’s Drowned Man and The Spectators Guild’s new show, Venice Preserve’d.

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.

Venice Preserv'd

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.

Felix Barrett of Punchdrunk

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.

My third and final share comes from one of my students, Mia, who as just written a comparison of the working practices of a number of immersive companies including, Punchdrunk, You Me Bum Bum Train and dreamthinkspeak. As part of her research she contacted the companies and got this great little Interview with Tristan Sharps, Artistic Director of dreamthinkspeak.

Being Taken For A Ride

As trends in theatre go, the immersive genre just keeps expanding and redefining itself. This week, some of my own students staged a piece called The Ward which entailed masked audiences, elevators, stairs, four different spaces, touch, taste, smell, specially created video and a cast of 24. It was risky, edgy and played with the form very successfully. We were all delighted with piece and no more so than its creators, deservedly so.

Rift's Macbeth posterIt is seems hardly a week goes by now where I don’t read about a piece of immersive theatre playing somewhere in the world, and this week was no exception. The first I’d like to share is news of a UK company, Rift, who are planning to stage a version of Macbeth. The company have a reputation for staging immersive reinterpretations of classic pieces of theatre. Theatre Critic, Matt Trueman, wrote about this new work in progress in The Guardian.  What caught my eye, however, was that their version comes with a twist – it will take place overnight and the audience will be invited, encouraged even, to go to sleep during the performance. You don’t just by a ticket, you buy a bed and meal and there are 3 levels of ‘package‘ available, depending on the amount of comfort you want to enjoy during the ‘show’. The company says of its plans:

Face-to-face with witches in an underground car park. Feasting with the Macbeths. Bedding down for the night on the 27th floor as a siege rages around you. Characters sleepwalking through the walls: confiding plots, summoning apparitions and conspiring murder. In the morning waking to find the battle lost or won.

This is William Shakespeare’s Macbeth seen from the inside out. This production like a fever-dream leaves you questioning ideas of space and status; dystopia and utopia; waking and sleeping.

This production scatters the story of Macbeth over one night. From Dusk till Dawn

Felix Mortimer, artistic director of Rift talks in this documentary about how they work – in this case on a production of Kafka’s The Trial.

Meanwhile in Australia, the Perth Festival International Arts Festival is in full swing and immersive is clearly the order of the day with Punchdrunk, Look Left Look Right and Rimini Protokoll are all presenting wildly different immersive work. Punchdrunk’s The House Where Winter Lives is for 3 to 6 year olds,  Look Right Look Left are performing a reworking of their city-specific work, You Once Said Yes originally made for Edinburgh and Rimini Protokoll are staging Situation Rooms which requires its audience of 20 to wear headphones and carry iPads.

Australian writer and critic, Jane Howard, wrote about all three shows in her article for the Australia Culture Blog, The Guardian. In it she talks to the creatives behind the pieces.

Perth festival’s immersive theatre: ‘being confused is perfect’

While the headline shows of the Perth festival may be playing to hundreds at a time, in pockets all around the city this week performances are happening on a much smaller scale. These immersive theatre pieces are reliant on the actions of audience members to stage the work: from the solo audience of You Once Said Yes to the tightly choreographed interaction of audience members in Situation Rooms to the rambunctious collaboration of children in The House Where Winter Lives.

Kathryn McGarr, one of the performers with Punchdrunk’s The House Where Winter Lives, tells me that immersive theatre “inspires people a bit more”. And then there’s the practical consideration: even with the best will in the world, faced with a comfy chair in a warm, dark room it’s sometimes hard to stay awake. “People do fall asleep. Whereas there is no way you could fall asleep in a show like this.”

The House Where Winter Lives

The House Where Winter Lives

That much is certainly true. The adventure sees Mr and Mrs Winter take the audience of three to six-year-olds on a journey to discover the lost key to the larder. While Punchdrunk have created many immersive works for adults and even older children, this is the first time the company has pitched at such a young age group – and when you see their reactions it’s easy to think that this audience is perhaps the perfect age to be experiencing this work. Entirely without ideas of what “theatre” should be or how you should behave when watching it, they fully invest in the world.

Punchdrunk give the children a high degree of autonomy in their reactions. “We’ve got the script and we’ve got the structure and we’ve got certain things that we can do, and then we know when we can riff a bit and let them fill in the answers,” says performer and co-creator Matthew Blake.

Co-creator and performer Frances Moulds agrees. “There is a journey we need to go on,” she says, “but we can go with whatever they give us … That we’re open is actually a key thing: we’re open to anything they say and we want to hear what they’re saying.”

Allowing for audience response and choice is also central to You Once Said Yes, a show performed on the streets of Northbridge for an audience of one. That person has to be directed to a certain extent, concedes production manager Rosalyn Newbery, but “that has to be done sensitively and without dictating, because their responses and their reactions are very important, and they will change certain things”.

You Once Said Yes

You Once Said Yes

The title, she says, strongly suggests to the audience how to respond. Yet they can still say no, they can take an alternative route from that which is expected of them and the performers and production team must know how to be responsive to that.

James Rowland, one of the performers who travelled with the piece from the UK to join a local cast, says “no one show with one character will ever be the same, just because of the way people talk to them. The number of shows we’ve done is the number of shows there’s been.”

Many immersive theatre pieces rely on these interactions between the audience and performers and the self-direction and personality the audience invests into the work and the world. Rimini Protokoll’s Situation Rooms is the exception to this rule.

The documentary theatre piece invites the audience to step into the shoes of 10 people each as they talk about their relationship with the weapons industry. Following instructions on an iPad mini, with the world on the screen mirroring the environment built by the company, the audience move and silently interact in the exact place of the person whose story they’re hearing.

One of the creators, Helgard Haug, says the precision of the work is integral. “I think everybody understands that it’s perfect if it works, if you’re following it precisely. If you are in a space and you’re sitting at a table and you’re in the story of a person, and in the film you see a door opening and a person entering the space, and if that repeats in the real environment, in the real space where you are that’s the fun of it.”

While they walk through the space Haug wants the audience to question how these people fit into our society and why we each exist in the reality we exist in. After seeing the show, she says “to be confused is very productive. After half an hour leaving this building and being confused is perfect. Being exhausted is perfect. Needing a cup of coffee and a deep breath to then find your own skin again is just a very good thing to do with that content.”

Situation Rooms

Situation Rooms

While Situation Rooms aims to highlight the realities of a wider world, You Once Said Yes is about highlighting the realities and personality of the participant. Being involved in the presentation of such immersive work holds “massive privilege” for an actor, says Rowland.

“It’s pretty much the only arena in one-on-one performance where you really get that opportunity [to really meet the audience]: without lights, without a stage, in a situation where you just say, ‘No, go do whatever you want to do. Do your thing within the parameters of the show,’ which is lovely.”

That is one of reasons that people have responded so well to the show, he argues.

“By the end they feel they are, and they have been, valued, and it is about them as much as it is about the stories they’re unwrapping.”

Trafficking Words

My second post today is an article from The Guardian written by Haleh Anvari. It is about a rather special piece of immersive theatre that takes place in the back of a taxi, in the Iranian capital Tehran. Just fantastic!

Immersive drama set in a Tehran taxi

Iranian cabs afford passengers a degree of anonymity, paving the way for uninhibited conversations and a new play

That Tehran is beleaguered by appalling traffic and toxic air is no secret. The use of that traffic as backdrop to a play in a moving taxi, especially during some of the most polluted weeks of the year, is testament to the resilient creativity of the city’s young artistic community and their readiness to push boundaries not just in terms of art but physical wellbeing.

"Unpermitted Whispers", a play by Azadeh Ganjeh.

“Unpermitted Whispers”, a play by Azadeh Ganjeh.

Unpermitted Whispers is a 35-minute play that takes place in one of Tehran’s “Rahi” taxis, which traverse the city along fixed, often straight-line, routes. Rahis pick up passengers at major intersections and drop them off anywhere along their set route, making for a convenient method of getting around town and one cheaper than the minicabs available in every neighbourhood of the capital.

In contrast to the minicabs, which provide door-to-door service, the Rahi system affords passengers much more anonymity, allowing for candid and uninhibited conversation. Tehranis frequently share stories that they have overheard in these communal cabs; for many, they serve as an extension of the private sphere in which Iranians feel safe to talk about issues of the day. Unpermitted Whispers takes advantage of this unlikely superimposition of public and private to tell the story of three passengers, all women, who are picked up by a male driver at different points along his route.

To see the play, we were instructed to assemble at a busy downtown coffee shop around the corner from the University of Tehran. The modern café, run by a troop of young, funky Tehranis, is an essential part of the production. It acts as the foyer to the moving theatre.

A short wait and a couple of lattes later, we were asked by a young woman to follow her outside to the nearest intersection. We waited on the street corner just as we normally would to catch a Rahi. A nondescript older model grey Peugot stopped at our feet and the usher beckoned us to get in. Before the taxi pulled away a young woman threw herself in beside us, and the play began.

There are four shows nightly, necessitating arduous organizational exertions. For one thing, the sessions can hardly be expected to start exactly on time, since the stage is at the mercy of Tehran’s nightmarish traffic. The taxi’s dramatic maneuvers are an additional cause for concern. Twice during the performance we attended, the driver swerved violently to the side of busy Taleghani Street to facilitate the unfolding drama.

As Tehranis we are very familiar with the communal cab, both its discomforts and its possibilities: the forced intimacy that results from sitting beside total strangers, the unwanted physical contact, the vexingly loud conversations on mobiles, as well as the impromptu debates and spontaneous venting about contentious social and political topics.

The play’s first scene was performed entirely on the telephone, as we eavesdropped on a conversation of a kind with which many Iranian women are familiar: a young bride wants to go to the theatre with her university friends but needs an alibi as her traditional family and jealous husband will not approve.

The second scene involved another young woman, who had lost her brother and fiancé after they were called up for national service. It was confusing and a tad overdramatic – especially when she leapt out of the car while it was still in motion.

The third featured a chador-clad woman from the shore of the Caspian Sea – her perfect Gilan dialect would have benefitted from subtitling – in search of her abusive husband, hospitalized somewhere in the city. We were taken to three hospitals and watched as she disappeared into each to “make enquiries.”

By this point, we had willingly suspended our disbelief and were interacting naturally with her plight, more like actual Rahi passengers than spectators. I and the other woman in our little group told her she should not endure being beaten, while the male passenger resorted to an Iranian adage:“You enter your husband’s household in a white dress and you leave only in another white garment – a shroud.” This provoked a heated conversation which was missed by the actress, then evidently hanging around the A&E room of the last hospital for the sake of verisimilitude.

The play was produced by Urban Arts House, an innovative new collective of young professional artists from different disciplines who are devoted to the urban culture of Tehran. They produce and encourage the making of experimental art in and about the capital, aiming to engage the public with the arts amid the city’s everyday spaces.

The show’s creator, Azadeh Ganjeh, is a scholar of Shakespeare who specializes in environmental art. Her three female characters were ostensibly inspired by major Shakespearean figures: Othello’s Desdemona, Hamlet’s Ophelia and The Taming of the Shrew’s Katharina. I felt that the play would have made better use of its setting had she introduced some male characters from Tehran’s own bustling streets and rounded out the stories with some of the more comical moments we encounter daily negotiating life in the city.

The Rahi drivers are as vociferous as the cabbies in any metropolis and often hold court, directing the conversations within their vehicles. In Unpermitted Whispers the only male character, the driver, was no more than that, a sidekick to the drama of the three women, each trying to overcome her difficult circumstances. At best he served as a symbol for the modern Iranian man, willing to help but unable to effect any real change.

It was a little disappointing, thus, to find that the stories addressed the strains and challenges of just one half of the population. The innovative use of the urban environment, on the other hand, was effective. Our voluntary participation in the drama within this one Rahi amplified the sense of Tehran as a living stage with ongoing dramas in every unseen corner.

We were dropped off some blocks away from the coffee shop where we had started our journey by the apologetic driver, who declared that he would continue to help the lady from out of town find her husband.

Trying to find the way back to our car, we asked directions from a young couple strolling down a quiet tree-lined street. As the man stopped to assist, his female companion ignored us and continued to walk on. There were tears quietly running down her face. Was this a real lover’s tiff or were they both part of the play? For a moment, it wasn’t easy to be sure.

Heads Above Water

I make no apologies for a very ‘British’ post today. One of my favourite theatre companies, Punchdrunk (I’ve mentioned them here a few times before) are about to open a new show, The Drowned Man: A Hollywood Fable.


My friend and colleague Sara saw their production of Faust and still rates it as one of the best pieces of theatre she has ever seen. In The Observer today Liz Hoggart writes a profile of Felix Barrett, Punchdrunk’s founder and artistic director.

Felix Barrett: the visionary who reinvented theatre

The founder of the Punchdrunk company has no time for stages or even seats. Their ‘immersive’ style has had huge influence in theatre and beyond. And their new show is their most ambitious yet

‘We’re trying to build a parallel universe,” explains Felix Barrett, founder and artistic director of Punchdrunk. “For a few hours inside the walls, you forget that it’s London 2013 and slip into this other place.”

Felix Barrett Punchdrunk

An elfin 35-year-old, with long, straggly hair and beard, Barrett is the man who changed British theatre, when he set up Punchdrunk in 2000, pioneering a form of “immersive” or “promenade” theatre. Their latest show, The Drowned Man: A Hollywood Fable, a walk-through tour of a seedy 1960s film studio, opens to the critics this month.

The three-hour performance will play out over four floors of a former sorting office next to Paddington station, west London. Co-directed by Barrett and long-time associate Maxine Doyle, and inspired by Georg Büchner’s anti-war fable, Woyzeck, it’s their first major London show for six years, and biggest to date. It has, Barrett admits, the budget of a small film.

Punchdrunk want to take immersive theatre to a whole new level. A night in their company doesn’t involve a stage, a programme, an ice cream at the interval – or even a seat. They find empty buildings, fill them with richly detailed sets and performers and then set the audience loose – wearing masks. The thrill comes from not knowing what’s round the corner or how you’ll react when you find it. “In the theatre, you sit there closeted and you switch off part of your brain because you’re comfortable,” says Barrett. “If you’re uncomfortable, then suddenly you’re eager to receive.”

Even if you’ve never seen one of their wildly inventive shows, you will have felt their influence through advertising, music videos and festivals. Everyone these days wants to copy the Punchdrunk magic. The Drowned Man has already sold 50,000 tickets. For the next five months, a cast of 34 dancers and actors will lead 600 people a night around 200,000 sq ft of warehouse.


Arguably Punchdrunk attract people who would normally run a mile from high-concept theatre. Their influences come from B movies, computer gaming and gothic novels. “It’s theatre for people who like theatre but don’t particularly like theatres,” says Colin Robertson, TV editor of theSun, an early fan. “Punchdrunk is theatre for the warehouse party generation. It has that DIY, chaotic feel about it that is so far removed from traditional stuffy theatre.”

Punchdrunk’s promenade productions have included Faust (where audiences explored an east London tobacco warehouse filled with scenes from Goethe’s play), The Masque of the Red Death (based on the stories of Edgar Allen Poe, staged in Battersea Arts Centre), andThe Duchess of Malfi (a collaboration with English National Opera in old pharmaceutical premises in Docklands). But it was their off-Broadway hitSleep No More – a spin on Macbeth that’s still packing audiences into a former warehouse in New York – that brought them celebrity attention.

The New York Times called it “a voyeur’s delight. Messes with your head as thoroughly as any artificial stimulant. Spectacular!” About 200,000 people have attended, including Justin Timberlake and Matt Damon. In many ways, Punchdrunk became the Banksy of the theatre world.

They’ve spawned countless imitators – from Secret Cinema and Gideon Reeling (Punchdrunk’s sister company) to You Me Bum Bum Train. Also, Rupert Goold’s Headlong company (EnronThe Effect) emerged at the same time.

Barrett founded Punchdrunk after studying drama at Exeter University. Dissatisfied with conventional venues, he fell in love with site-specific theatre. He staged an immersive take on the proto-expressionist masterpiece Woyzeck in an old Territorial Army barracks in Exeter as part of his theatre degree finals. The police turned up – “with dogs and everything,” he recalls fondly.

Paul Zivkovich and Kate Jackson in The Drowned Man A Hollywood Fable.

Paul Zivkovich and Kate Jackson in The Drowned Man A Hollywood Fable.

Along with Shunt, Punchdrunk led the charge for a wave of immersive, experiential theatre that aims to erase the fourth wall as much as possible. From the start, Barrett and his team knew how to create interventions on an outrageously grand scale with minimal resources, recalls David Benedict, London theatre critic for Variety. “Fringey sounds like they were a bit silly and small and fiddled around on the fringes. From the start, they were a bunch of people with quite a big idea and they pursued it with a) great imagination and b) rigour. They weren’t the first people to do site-specific, far from it, but they were the first to be bold enough to think big. The fact that they didn’t have any money released them in a weird way.”

The National’s director, Nicholas Hytner, was an early supporter. In 2005, he attended The Firebird Ball, inspired by Romeo and Juliet and Stravinsky’s The Firebird, in a disused south London factory. “I was suspicious when I was made to put on my white mask,” he says. “Maybe I was right to be. It turned out to represent the polar opposite of everything I’ve ever been able to do in the theatre and I was totally exhilarated – high on every moment of it.”

Hytner’s decision to have the National endorse the company led to their breakthrough show, 2006’s Faust, occupying five floors of a Wapping warehouse, and, a year later, The Masque of the Red Death.

It was this talent for getting into bed with very smart co-producers that set Punchdrunk apart, says Benedict. “It gave them the clout and the heft and the publicity. They never did upstairs rooms. When they did The Masque of The Red Death in 2007, they had the whole of the Battersea Arts Centre. And that was a very fashionable producing house because they’d already created mega-hit Jerry Springer: The Opera.”

In 2009, the Old Vic and Punchdrunk collaborated on a show in Tunnel 228 with contemporary artists underneath Waterloo station. It became more than a hit show, it became one of the “must-see” experiences in the capital.

Punchdrunk’s rise has coincided with audiences becoming much more adventurous over the past decade. It’s tricky to define cause and effect. Punchdrunk have driven the wish for something bold, but they also emerged at a time when audiences were tiring of sitting down in front of a proscenium arch before slipping out for the interval drink. And Punchdrunk became a byword for all that was different from that tradition.

Barrett gives little away about his personal life. We know he’s married to Kate, a media producer at the Tate, with a child. Although, touchingly, he reveals his company organised his “prenuptial bachelor party” (also known as a stag do) as a theatrical event, a journey that started with a key in the post and ended with 30 men in masks kidnapping him and forcing him to unlock a trunk full of his most embarrassing possessions. “It was the best show I’ve seen in the last 10 years,” says Barrett.

The darlings of British theatre have their critics, of course. TheGuardian‘s Michael Billington queried the “fairground shock tactics” of It Felt Like a Kiss (2009), their collaboration with documentary film-maker Adam Curtis, and musician Damon Albarn for the Manchester international festival, calling it “a real dog’s dinner of a show”. And theDaily Telegraph said of their 2010 foray into experimental opera, The Duchess of Malfi, that “the bag of tricks [was] looking increasingly jejune”.

Faust Punchdrunk 2006

Faust Punchdrunk 2006

“The trouble with a lot of site-specific theatre is it’s posh haunted house, with people rushing at you in corridors,” says Benedict. “When it works, you forget that, but it needs to be done with theatrical rigour.”

There have also been accusations of selling out. They have done corporate pieces for Stella Artois and W Hotels, while, at Sleep No More,tickets sell for $100, with programmes at $20. In London, with the National Theatre as co-producer, tickets for The Drowned Man are £39.50 to £47.50. Barrett claims sponsorship funds the experimentation, stressing that, as a charity, the company ploughs the money back. But they have, he concedes, paid attention to the bad press.

There is a sense that The Drowned Man needs to be a critical hit to restore some flagging confidence. Says Benedict: “The first time you go to a Punchdrunk show, it blows your head off, but the trouble is it’s a bit of a cliche if you’re relying on no one having seen it before. ”

In wider terms, perhaps we may see a return to straight theatre after a decade of playful deconstruction. Even if this happens, Punchdrunk will have made a fundamental mark – shaking up theatre and routine practice like none of their peers.

In another interview last week in The Independent entitled All the disused building’s a stage: Punchdrunk’s The Drowned Man is their most ambitious show yet,  Barrett talks to Alice Jones about why they keep pushing the boundaries.

The show is currently in preview so there are no official reviews. However here is one unofficial written by a member of a preview audience. The twittersphere  likes it too!


THE PUNCHDRUNK FILE (Courtesy of Liz Hoggart and The Observer)

Born Founded in 2000 by Felix Barrett. His regular collaborator is choreographer Maxine Doyle. They have come to be seen as the leading lights of a form of “immersive theatre”, where the audience is not seated but is freer to roam the performance site.

Best of times Their Hitchockian take on MacbethSleep No More, staged off-Broadway in 2011, seduced Matt Damon, Natalie Portman and Justin Timberlake to join the masked revels.

Worst of times Punchdrunk’s involvement in the launch of a new lager and a Louis Vuitton shop in central London raised eyebrows. Directing the Colombian pop diva Shakira’s world tour was, Barrett admits, “a tough experience”.

What they say “We aim to provide the quality of the West End while avoiding packing the audiences in like sardines.”

What others say “Punchdrunk have provided some of my most exciting dramatic experiences over the past decade. We are delighted to be working with them again in London after a six-year gap while they wowed New York; I can’t wait to see their new theatrical adventure.” Nick Hytner