Tag Archives: immersive

Fascination Punchdrunk

24 May

I posted the following thoughts on my other blog a couple of months ago. Due to lack of time said other blog has been neglected for ages and will probably vanish in the not too far away future. However, this post is theatre related and I figured I might as well make it a part of my theatre blog. I know most of my readers watch “regular” theatre: Musicals and straight plays. A lot have probably never been to an immersive show. But maybe even those who have had no contact with this form of theatre so far will find the following interesting.

Why do I love Punchdrunk and what do I get out of their shows? I’ve been asked about this several times so I thought I’d try and answer once and for all.

For those who don’t know: Punchdrunk are a British theatre company who specialise in immersive shows. They take over whole buildings and transform them into a huge and insanely detailed set. The masked audience is free to explore the set and follow performers who play out a story throughout the building. Now and then an audience member will get chosen for a very personal one on one performance with a performer and if you are lucky you might even get a walk out at the end of the show – the most personal way to end a Punchdrunk performance. Usually a Punchdrunk show lasts 3 hours in which the characters play out their one hour long  story (called loop) three times. That way the audience has the chance to see several storylines, revisit favourite scenes or watch narratives from different angles.
I got hooked on Punchdrunk through their production The Drowned Man which ran in a former postal sorting office next to Paddington Station for a year. The building had been transformed into the 1960s film studio Temple Studios (including a western town, a desert and so much more), the story was a take on Woycek with references to Nathaniel West’s The Day of the Locust. My current Punchdrunk obsession is Sleep No More in New York which tells the story of Macbeth in a 1930s hotel (The McKittrick) with references to Hitchcock’s Rebecca. I attended The Drowned Man 34 times in just 4 months (I was late to the party, something I will always regret) and have seen Sleep No More 45 times so far.

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The Drowned Man

The number of visits alone is enough to produce raised eyebrows whenever I talk about my love for Punchdrunk shows. Even though I have seen other, regular theatre productions more it is the fact that I will happily watch 10 Punchdrunk performances in a row without ever getting bored. It sounds insane and people keep asking what makes me go back again and again.

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Sleep No More

First of all it’s the quality of performance you get to see when attending a Punchdrunk show. Some of the finest dancers and actors can be found in their productions and watching these guys and girls do what they do best while often standing just a few metres away is breathtaking. The second aspect is the set. Attending a Punchdrunk show is more than just watching a performance. You are transported into another world the minute you enter the building. I used to say going to see The Drowned Man was like visiting my second home. And it really felt like that after a while. When The Drowned Man closed I honestly felt like I had lost my save place – the place I could spend three hours in and forget about the outside world.

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The Hotel Lobby in Sleep No More

I guess that’s one of the main things that attracts me to Punchdrunk. Watching their shows means leaving everything else behind for the time being. It’s like a timeout from regular life. You get to be in a different world and to a certain extend you become someone else too. There is definitely a psychological aspect to it – everyone wants to break out sometime. I don’t consider myself the most outgoing person in real life. I don’t trust people easily. However, in a Punchdrunk show I have no problem putting my trust into a (most of the time) complete stranger. I don’t know most of the performers in the show and yet I’ve let them blindfold me, take me into pitch black rooms, force feed me oranges (don’t ask) and I’ve drunk whatever they have handed me without asking what exactly I was about to swallow. It’s the strange thing a Punchdrunk show will do to me. I become obedient in a way but it also sets me free. No worries, no second thoughts, no pondering if doing this or that is a good idea or not. In a Punchdrunk show I can just BE. It’s like walking around in a dream and it gives me goosebumps every single time. The thrill cannot be described, it has to be experienced.

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The desert in The Drowned Man

The Drowned Man probably described it best in one of its most used quotes: “We live inside a dream.” This is exactly what Punchdrunk shows are for me. The chance to live in another reality, if only for a few hours. And who doesn’t want that now and then.

You can find out about Punchdrunk’s latest ventures here.
And if you are ever in New York I urge you to check into The McKittrick for an evening.

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Instructionally Invited at Vault Festival

10 Feb

How do you review a show that makes no sense, has no proper storyline and leaves you completely confused but is so entertaining and ridiculously hilarious you can’t help but be amazed by what you have just witnessed?

That’s the dilemma I’m facing right now. Instructionally Invited is an immersive piece of performance art – I’m struggling to refer to it as “theatre” – currently on at Vault Festival. Its first run at The Space last summer received mixed reviews and I can see why.

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If you are entering this show expecting any kind of narrative you will most likely come out disappointed. With Instructionally Invited Gruff Theatre offer an immersive experience in which you are the guest at a completely mad party. I don’t want to give too much away which is why I won’t go into any more detail.

“So if this show doesn’t even have a plot why should I go see this?” you probably ask yourself now. The answer is simple: Because you will experience and hour of absolute madness and will leave the room with a big smile on your face. “The Beings” as the characters in the show are called are funny, weird, a little gross but always entertaining – a bunch of comical eccentrics. Don’t expect them to make any sense even though they are behaving strictly by the rules – if only we had the slightest idea what these rules were about.

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Audience participation is part of this performance and although you won’t be humiliated in front of a crowd you have to be open for some rather strange requests. There are not many shows in which you end up with your ear on another audience member’s shoulder and being required to dress up in a scruffy coat might seem a bit strange too.

Personally I enjoyed Instructionally Invited a lot and judging from the huge smiles I saw on my fellow audience members’ faces I’m guessing so did they. However, I do think this show will only appeal to a rather limited audience. Regular theatre goers might miss an actual story and I can see that a few of the interactive bits will put some people off.

If you enjoy immersive / interactive theatre in general and are open for something smaller and more experimental than all those big scale productions put on by Punchdrunk, Secret Cinema etc. then please go and visit “the Beings” at Vault Festival.

Instructionally Invited is running until 15th February. For more info and to book tickets visit http://www.vaultfestival.com/project/instructionally-invited/

Find Gruff Theatre Company on Facebook and Twitter @GruffTheatre .

Then She Fell at Kingsland Ward at St. Johns, New York City

26 Jan

Let me begin this review by pointing out that it is impossible to do Then She Fell justice with words. The moment you enter the former outpatient building of Greenpoint Hospital in north Brooklyn you become part of a strange and fascinating “Wonderland” and the next two hours feel like a dream.

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A show can’t get more immersive than this adaption of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland. With only 15 audience members per show this is an intimate and very personal experience. You are checked in by a nurse bearing a clipboard planting the suspicion that you might be a patient in a mental institution. After a short introduction the audience is picked up – some one at a time, some in small groups – and let to different rooms of the building. From now on everyone will experience a different show making this a completely individual journey. You will meet Alice, the White Rabbit and the Mad Hatter amongst other characters.

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Most of the words in the show are by Lewis Carroll and if you explore the rooms you will find his poems and prose in drawers. If you are unfamiliar with Alice in Wonderland the whole experience will probably be highly confusing, maybe even frustrating. Nothing is explained as you are lead from room to room, encountering character after character. Everything seems to happen in a dreamlike daze – the fact that several scenes include alcoholic drinks might have something to do with that (you have to be 21 to attend the regular shows, however there are special non-alcoholic shows for the younger audience).

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Then She Fell makes you feel like a child watching adults and their self-important, social rituals that make no sense but are both creepy and thrilling. The show addresses the love of Lewis Carroll for Alice Liddell, amongst other things, a love that seems uncomfortably erotic when you look at photographs he took of the young girl. But Then She Fell does not dwell on these images. Lewis Carroll becomes a character amongst the characters he created. He is a part of Wonderland just like Alice and all the others.

There is no way to describe the scenes you discover while walking through the building without giving some of the magic away. So all I will say is that you might find yourself as participant in a completely mad tea party, you might end up taking dictation for the Hatter or have a very personal conversation with Alice about your first love.

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Some might say Then She Fell feels like a two hours Punchdrunk one on one. A lot of the things you will see are performed for you and only for you at that very moment. You will be invited to participate and even though you don’t get to choose your journey yourself everything you see and discover feels unexpected and new.

Then She Fell is a unique and quite simply wonderful experience that is worth every penny. Smaller and more intimate than Punchdrunk’s Sleep No More and The Drowned Man this show guarantees interaction and complete immersion. You might feel slightly uncomfortable to be in the center of the performers’ attention at first but once you allow yourself to settle into Wonderland you will feel an unbelievable thrill.

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Then She Fell is a mad journey through Wonderland, an insane rollercoaster ride that will sweep you off your feet and occupy your thoughts for days and weeks after you have left the building. All you have to do is follow the rabbit hole.

Then She Fell takes place at The Kingsland Ward at St. Johns. For more info visit http://thenshefell.com.

Immersive – the new theatrical “in” word

11 Nov

Is it just me or has immersive become the “in” word to describe theatre productions over the past year or so? I asked this question on Twitter the other day stating that most shows that call themselves immersive don’t even fit into that scheme.
A site specific production is not automatically immersive. The same goes for a promenade performance. I get the feeling a lot of people (even those who work in theatre) just don’t know what immersive actually means. Either that or we are talking about producers selling a product knowing fully well customers won’t get what they paid for.

The Drowned Man (Punchdrunk)

The Drowned Man (Punchdrunk)

I watched a production of Titus Andronicus a few weeks ago. The show was staged in a car park and called itself immersive. I loved the show and was impressed by the modern and unusual approach to the material. But Titus Andronicus in a car park was not immersive. It was a promenade production, simple as that. I spoke to one of the performers about this and he agreed that there was no way this production could be called immersive. After all immersive is more than getting a hug or a handshake from a performer and watching the performance while walking through or standing in the middle of the set.
Most so called immersive shows are site specific and/or promenade productions – be it Titus Andronicus in a car park or Here Lies Love in a club-like venue. Some of them may have certain immersive elements but very few shows that are advertised as immersive actually deserve that label.

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Titus Andronicus – Promenade but not immersive

So what makes a show immersive then? It’s quite simple: An immersive show makes you feel part of the story. It’s not to be confused with an interactive show in which you actually take part in the story and in which your decisions might even change the course of the show. Even though immersive shows usually have aspects of audience interaction, the audience doesn’t actually decide anything. You feel like you are in the story, performers interact with you, it looks like you are a part of what is happening. But everything you see and everything that happens is choreographed and very much controlled. And that is the beauty of immersive shows. They draw you in and make you feel part of them but they never let you take control in any way. Still you will end up thinking about your experiences for days, weeks, maybe even months. Immersive shows often have a much bigger impact on the audience than other kinds of shows.

Sleep no more (Punchdrunk)

A performer who has been working with Punchdrunk (the “Gods” of immersive theatre) for years once told me about “The Drowned Man” (Punchdrunk’s last London production and a prime example of an immersive show): “This show is not interactive. We (the performers) and the director decide the course of the performance. The audience is a part of this but they have no influence in what happens in the show. We just make them believe they do.”

That sums it up quite well I think.

Then She Fell, another great example of an immersive theatre production

Then She Fell, another great example of an immersive theatre production