Punchdrunk is an award-winning immersive theater company that transforms warehouses into huge and elaborate sets that audiences can move around freely. And as they do, a drama unfolds around and with them. Here the audience is not separate from the action but a part of it. And because of this, there are many similarities between the show and the video game Punchdrank.
Here, Alan Wayne and Bertie talk about their different experiences of Punchdrunk’s latest production, inspired by the fall of Troy – The Burnt City. The show is running in London until the end of September.
Bertie: It’s been a few weeks since I’ve been to The Burnt City. I remember there was a strong cold wind blowing around the Woolwich Arsenal in London when we were there. I’m still thinking about the show. And I wanted to know how much you knew about Punchdrunk before you left? What Were You Hoping For?
Allen: So that was my first trip to a Punchdrunk production, but I was interested in theater and I remember friends telling me about Punchdrunk at early controversies. But the idea of promenade/immersive theater came to my mind when reading about some games having a theatrical quality to them, which seems like a strange analogy if, like me, your experience of theater was mostly cheap seats. In the balcony in the West End.
Bertie: Ok! This was also my first experience with Punchdrunk. But I had heard about the group before. I’d heard about it from friends who had seen Punchdrunk’s Sleep No More show in New York, and, frankly, the experience was terrifying! A dark warehouse where everyone wore masks and split up to walk through it alone, and that felt like quite an intense and intensely personal experience. How did you like going in? I remember there was a certain sense of nervous excitement in the queue when we were there. were you nervous?
Allen: I was toying with the idea of wearing a mask (fortunately they were designed so they fit around the glasses), as it kind of becomes your avatar in that world without breaking the immersion, doesn’t it? You are trying to experience these performances but without being distracted by the fact that there are other people in the same place, and the actors who are trying to pretend are not there – at least in such moments people make mistakes. Let’s not meet each other in the way, physically. I’ve heard there are face-to-face demonstrations too, although this didn’t happen for me. Plus, space is so dark it’s like wandering through a dungeon.
Bertie: I also liked the masks – I thought they helped to separate the audience from the artist and add a sense of protective anonymity, as it can be quite difficult to stand face-to-face with an artist in the dark, or even that it can be very difficult to see them too close by.
But only for show! What did you think? Because as you mentioned above, there’s an underlying video game-ness to it – the idea that you’re walking around in an environment that’s alive, a simulated world of sorts, really. And you can go wherever you want and follow whoever you want. There was a moment when I was walking down a dark hallway in a hotel, completely alone, wondering what I would find on the other side of the door I was passing through – or what was about to explode. It wasn’t a comfortable experience, but it was a powerful one, and I was overwhelmed by how game it was. did you feel it?
Allen: I definitely went in with the mindset of what kind of games I was thinking about. Initially, I thought it might be the equivalent of a walking sim, but the difference is that you’re actively interacting with the environment or puzzles to trigger an event, whereas here the performances are happening in real time. are there whether you are there or not. You can wander into a seemingly abandoned area and have just a seat to yourself and then suddenly someone is dancing (since most performances were essentially wordless choreography) and the place becomes a scene. And there are all kinds of directions you can head off. I didn’t even discover Troy until the second half!
How did you experience it? Were you led by a specific actor or where the rest of the crowd was going, or was your attention suddenly drawn by a sound or light?
Bertie: So I purposely broke away from the group I was with and walked in the opposite direction, into a kind of Chinatown, with lanterns hanging from shop windows and narrow, winding streets, and the moment I turned the corner, two actors came up to me and climbed the wall right next to my head – I had to quickly jump aside. I couldn’t get close to the action if I tried.
Incidentally, I loved how the performers were outlining the space they needed and where they needed to go. They move at a kind of 75-percent pace, a stylistic pace that gives everyone time to react, and they clearly indicate where they’re going.
But as to who I followed: I followed a fad. In the beginning, I was contradicting everybody, because I am that person, I guess. I watch the troupe of ‘masks’ follow the characters around me, like an invisible swarm of ghosts hovering around one of the living, and I go the other way. I pushed on the sides and tried to find something of my own – I scraped the doors, walked down the hallways. It was scary! But eventually I got tired of it and I found myself upstairs in a huge room with a huge table and, I think, with the gods who were taking a bath for some reason, and I chased some of them out there .
But it took me ages to get my bearings and understand what the fields were and how they connected. It’s like a warren out there.
Allen: Have you tried to interact with any object in the rooms? I was quite nervous about touching anything, lest a staff member dressed in black and standing ominously at the edge of the set suddenly swoop in to tell me. But I wondered if there was an actual interactive element that would make it more game-like.
Bertie: It felt like they were promoting it quite a bit, both from what they told us about before we walked in and the myriad carefully crafted items there were to see. I’ve never seen sets with such complex populations. But like you, I was hesitant to mess with them.
Although some people were not! When I was in the hallway of that hotel, I found two men lying on cage beds and driving metal cups across the bars as if they were in a prison. What a strange sight it was! It looked like something was choreographed for the show but it was not – these were masked audience members! And when I went in, they froze and looked at me. I think I did a quick reverse and went out.
Did you find anything weird?
Allen: Nothing as such, although I remember being a bit sloppy towards the last hour trying to find my way back to the bar. When I got there it was a weird surprise that the area had also turned into a performance space where you had a band (along with the gods, I guess) playing 80s songs like ‘Blue Monday’ and ‘Sweet Dreams’ Was performing a cover of Pop!
Bertie: You know, you hit on a common theme there: fatigue. It’s a long show and you weren’t the only one tired from it – from a combination of trying to figure out what was going on and just being on your feet the whole time. That’s why almost all the characters take you to the bar at some point so you can sit down. And that’s why there’s a lot going on in the bar too – a lot of the characters act out on the bar stage, making the whole area feel like part of the show.
I think that way there’s breathing space so the show is also designed as a kind of dance, so it can be repeated and looped, and so people can dip in and out and some Can’t feel tied to the visuals or the plot. You are much freer to explore and interpret things in your own way rather than being told what is going on.
To that point: what did you make of the story and the story – were you able to understand what was going on? Because I’m going to be frank with you: I had no clue.
Allen: Oh yeah, it didn’t make a narrative sense to me! I have some knowledge of the Trojan Wars but honestly I didn’t know when I was seeing characters that were mortal or gods. I guess it didn’t help when I went in, I somehow missed a big display showing you all the characters and actors with their family trees and origins, so that must have helped!
Still, I admired how the art direction took all kinds of inspirations: you had Cold War-style outposts between Troy and Mycenae; Troy had that kind of Weimar Art Deco decadence; Even that large stone table, which was the closest it could get to being classical, had a bit of scientificity to its use of lighting. I thought it was interesting, because when you first walk inside, you see displays of ancient Greek pottery—a more traditional presentation of these events—before it goes completely left field. Unlike movies or games where the emphasis is always on ‘authenticity’, it is something theater usually stages its stories in different contexts and draws inspiration from other eras and genres.
By the way, did you see the finale under that big hangar-like place where the stone table was? I definitely felt like I was being taken there, but then I also heard that there are actually multiple endings. It’s really impossible to experience everything in just one visit, it really makes you want to revisit it several times, I feel like a choice-based narrative game with multiple paths!
But in terms of game analogy, I think the game experience I compared it to was Immortality, again a completely different kind of game, but in the sense that your curiosity drives you from one scene to the next and then again. Will lead to another scene. Obviously not as instant as a magical match-cut, but still the same feeling that the more you experience, the more you’ll piece together what the hell is going on.
Bertie: The finale was in that big hangar-like space under the stone table – yes. However, what felt like another ending in the underworld had been framed as the piazza, moments earlier.
And yes, it is definitely made for repeated viewings. There’s nothing clear or obvious about the story it tells, except at the end – there’s a definite crescendo that you can feel. Even those who are familiar with the story of Troy will find themselves spending a lot of time wondering who is who and what specifically is going on. I believe they intentionally rotate the cast each performance to mess things up. So not knowing what’s going on is really the effect I think the show is supposed to have, because it’s that grasping sense that draws you closer and makes you miss it for days and weeks to come. and discusses.
And there’s a lot to talk about, as you can see here – not least because it’s one of the most dazzling and audacious productions – purely from a production values point of view – that I’ve ever seen. . A complete warehouse equipped with startling details. It is an unforgettable experience.
The question is, would you go back – would you watch a Punchdrunk Show again?
Allen: To be honest, I wouldn’t mind watching The Burnt City again! Maybe it’s jumping in the deep end, not having been in any kind of theater for years, but I’ve got a taste for something similar now.
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