Georgia Heneage on the production company that popularised immersive theatre
It’s dark, and the walls of the disused post office hum with white noise. Masked audience members roam freely between worlds – a dusty saloon bar, a tawdry Hollywood dressing room – while immersed in an atmosphere that’s appropriately dreamy for a plot which hinges on the ethereal figures who exist on the edges of the movie industry.
But plot isn’t really what matters here: an audience’s experience of the 2013 Punchdrunk production The Drowned Man, loosely based on the 19th-century tragedy Woyzeck, is an experience above all else, where every dramatic detail is designed to transform the play’s reality into your own.
Formed in 2000 by Felix Barrett and Maxine Doyle, Punchdrunk pioneered a genre of experiential theatre-making that has since spread throughout modern drama. Their innovation wasn’t just to deconstruct literary sources – Shakespeare, Edgar Allan Poe, Daphne Du Maurier – but to take those deconstructions to specific locations, such as factories, army barracks and tunnels, and create multi-sensory experiences. Their virtuosity helped theatre to loosen itself from being an act of passive observation to one of proactive and provocative engagement.
Of course, audience interaction is – and was then – nothing new, but theatre had always been defined by a rigid boundary between the stage and stalls. This frontier was only truly breached at the turn of the 21st Century, when a handful of theatre-makers began dipping their toes in the remote waters of immersive theatre, such as the collaborative group Shunt, who staged immersive performances in site-specific locations such as railway arches and vaults. As exciting as they were, though, these experiments remained on the margins and were regarded, accordingly, as marginal.
Punchdrunk was the first production company to make immersive theatre accessible. They received mainstream recognition in 2005 when National Theatre director Nicholas Hytner decided to collaborate, saying they represented “the polar opposite of everything I’ve ever been able to do in the theatre”. The form exploded so powerfully that it’s now hard to come across an empty building or cobbled corner of the Edinburgh fringe that hasn’t been colonised by an immersive play. And not just in the UK: theatre-goers in the US were equally mesmerised when Punchdrunk’s Sleep No More was transported across the Atlantic, prompting American theatre to take its own immersive turn.
It’s true that the growth in immersive drama may be theatre’s way of keeping up with the technology utilised elsewhere in the arts, such as increasingly realistic movies and TV shows. But it’s also true that those other forms are still largely passive, and they’ve got some keeping-up to do. Punchdrunk ushered in an era not just of experimental theatre, but also of interactive experiences all across the arts world, including commercial cinematic experiences like Secret Cinema.
And now, of course, there is Covid. If Punchdrunk played an integral part in the development of modern theatre, they are likely to play an even greater one in redefining – and keeping afloat – an art form that may struggle to find its feet in a post-pandemic world. Masks and social-distancing in large spaces come naturally to a company like Punchdrunk. Their time was then – and now.
Illustrations by Phillipa Warden Hill