Voyeurism and masked encounters: The pleasures of a Punchdrunk experience

Voyeurism and masked encounters: The pleasures of a Punchdrunk experience

Punchdrunk is probably one of the best-known theatre companies offering immersive theatre experiences and has an ardent fanbase. They have created a number of immersive productions in which the audience were free to explore the different rooms of an old building or abandoned warehouse, each of which contained a different scene from the story. The audience could choose which scenes they wanted to watch and in what order, meaning that each performance was unique. Their 2011 show Sleep No More, an adaptation of Shakespeare’s Macbeth with a film noir inspiration, is still showing in an abandoned warehouse in New York, renamed the McKittrick Hotel. In 2022, The Burnt City was launched in London, which is based on Greek tragedies and mythology surrounding the Trojan War.

 

In Punchdrunk’s immersive productions, the audience is immersed in a paradoxical practice. As audience members, roaming freely through the premises, “we write our individualised plotlines in our own movements, but are constructed within the spectacle as realist voyeurs, watchers, and readers, not agents.”[1] Visitors at Punchdrunk productions are neither meant to interfere with the story plot, nor directly interact with the actors. The audience remains largely unacknowledged by the performers and is merely intended to track down and follow the actors around, as well as to observe them – if at times from a very close distance. However, visitors are free to explore their surroundings, opening drawers and cupboards, reading notebooks and letters that seem to have been carelessly left lying about. The sets where Punchdrunk’s immersive shows take place are carefully crafted theatrical worlds, which could be considered as art installations in their own right. But they also double as “hands-on” museums, filled with artifacts for the audience to explore.

 

At the heart of each production lies a story. Although the individual experience of the show is arbitrary and at the discretion of the viewer, the plot remains a priority. Prior knowledge of the classical plays and stories the show draws upon can come be useful, if not necessary, to make sense of the experience, recognize the characters embodied by the actors, and piece together the plot fragments. In the case of Punchdrunk’s Sleep No More, it’s Shakespeare’s Macbeth that visitors should be familiar with, while The Burnt City is based on two Greek tragedies: Aeschylus’s Agamemnon and Euripides’s Hecuba. As Felix Barrett from Punchdrunk explains: “We want the audience to be able to find their feet. Without a working knowledge of a text, or the source material for a story, it can be quite discombobulating when you enter. We want audiences to be able to find the peaks and characters that are familiar and actually be able to solve the mystery box of the show. That familiarity is a reassuring hook the audience can use to track themselves through the evening and uncover the secrets underneath it.”[2]

 

A unique personal experience

Attending a Punchdrunk performance can be very much considered to be a social event. As a visitor, you are often moving as part of a group: Chasing after a character or being part of a small crowd of silent witnesses in white masks observing a scene. Yet, Punchdrunk’s shows purvey the impression of a unique personal experience to its visitors. You are invited to wander around freely and on your own, choose which rooms you will visit, in what order, and for what duration. For this reason, Punchdrunk encourages you to let go of your companion and explore the premises on your own:

“No two audience members within the spaces have the same show and every evening the experience you’ve had is yours and yours alone, and in fact even if you’re holding hands with your loved one when you arrive we’ll make an effort to try and separate you because you’ll have a better time when you’re fighting for yourself and you’re selfish for once.”[3]

In addition, Punchdrunk productions offer some quite intimate one-on-one encounters with actors – if you get very lucky.

“There are secrets in [The Burnt City] that are very difficult to find and gain access to. A character can select an individual audience member and unlock areas of the building for them that you can only access if you’re invited in,’ he says. ‘To have individual access to [a character] is very rare – it’s almost a filmic close-up among vast, sweeping landscape shots that make up the body of the show (…)”[4]

This is one of the reasons, why many of Punchdrunk’s ardent fans keep coming back to revisit the same shows multiple times. Not only does every visit offer a new, unique immersive experience and the opportunity to explore more of the large sets and multiple narrative strands of the plot, but there always seems to be more that you have not seen yet.

 

[1] Worthen, W. B. (2012). “The written troubles of the brain”: “Sleep No More” and the Space of Character. Theatre Journal, 64(1), 79–97, here: p. 96. Online: http://www.jstor.org/stable/41411277

[2] https://www.culturewhisper.com/r/theatre/punchdrunk_the_burnt_city_woolwich_works/16484 (6.4.22)

[3] Barrett 2014, cited in Rose Biggin, Immersive Theatre and Audience Experience. Cham: Palgrave Macmillan, 2017, p. 8.

[4] https://www.culturewhisper.com/r/theatre/punchdrunk_the_burnt_city_woolwich_works/16484 (6.4.22)

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