by Ben Ratchford
Punchdrunk is best described as an immersive theatrical experience. It is structured as follows: spectators enter an abandoned warehouse or office space or other such nondescript building, dressed all alike and wearing masks which obscure their whole faces – they are instructed not to speak. After the opening, spectators may find a number of different “scenes” throughout the building, where unmasked actors play out different moments in the story, which move, change, and interact with one another at all times throughout the show, and in which the audience members are, at times, encouraged to participate, either by interacting with the environment, or directly with characters themselves. Thus the audience members, although they must wear masks and cannot speak, have the opportunity to (or, more often, have no choice but to) get close up to developing scenes and engage with the world in front of them.
The show transpires around the spectators, both in time and space, and it is up to the audience members themselves to choose what they want to see, where to go, and how much they want to personally intervene in the developing story. There are several branching paths at any given time, likened by Alysia Judge to side quests in a video game, which may not interact with the main story at all. This has the feel of a complex and realistic world where interesting events don’t wait for you to see them. The whole experience then becomes a game of chase, trying to see as much as possible before the final scene. To allow guests to experience as many paths as possible in a given visit, the show loops back to the beginning twice for a total of three cycles over about 3 hours before the final scene plays out, giving spectators the opportunity to ‘play’ the show in as many ways as possible, though even still one will leave with the impression of having missed something happening behind closed doors.
Although an open-floor interactive theatrical experience would be engaging on its own, I don’t think that the sense of immersion would be nearly as strong if not for the fact that one literally cannot see everything going on at once, and the agency given to the viewer in choosing their own path in that world. The world will go on whether or not you are a part of it, and this strongly implies that the world you are inhabiting is a real one, with real people and space connected to it. Paired with the fact that the space lacks barriers between the fictional (the show, the actors) and the real (the audience, although as we will see this becomes complicated), the barrier between the two within the minds of the spectators breaks down too. I think that, in addition, the duality of time in Punchdrunk, the combined real (unstoppable) and unreal (looping) temporality of the theatrical space serves to create the powerful effect of an alternate reality, at once combining an undeniable reality with an undeniable fiction to produce a strong immersion, much like one might experience in a dream.
The experience is described by Papaioanno as a “positive displacement” of the self, meaning that one has the impression of losing themselves and instead playing a character as the show progresses, allowing themselves to become integrated into the world moving around them, leaving the true self and the real world behind. This is likened by Papaioannou to “being a part of an image that is [in the process of] being painted.” This works both in the sense of the space, ie “becoming a part of the cinematic landscape” through interaction with it, and in the sense that the plot is developing around the audience at all times. He claims that it is movement, the physical displacement of the self in response to frightening and changing scenes around the audience member, which makes up the core of the experience, citing the “nomadic spectator” from Deleuze and Guattari. In this framework, the spectator essentially occupies a non-territorial space, the interstitium between nodes of action, and the reality of their experience comes from the ever intense movement between spaces without rest. This effect is intentional on the part of Punchdrunk, which places action all around the space and forces the audience to search for it, or at times run from it when it becomes dangerous or frightening. This dynamic and living space is what Deleuze and Guattari call a smooth space. In simpler terms, this is simply to say that by avoiding sedentary and structured spectator behavior, like that which we might observe in the traditional theater, the audience is forced into a more dynamic, active, and thus excited state. They are forced to act as though the space is real; unlike in a traditional theatrical experience which segregates the audiences’ physical form from the fiction on the stage and thus necessarily separates reality from fiction, the audience is here forced to engage with the fiction on a physical level. Here we return to the “positive displacement” brought up by Papaioanno earlier, in the sense that this physical displacement of the audience inevitably concludes in a metaphysical displacement of the self away from reality and into the fiction of the show. In its place exists an undefined character of sorts who inhabits neither the fictional or real space, but rather the space between – the nomadic spectator in the smooth space.
This obviously ties in to a discussion of theatrical collective voyeurism – in this case the performance of voyeurism through masked encounters in the Punchdrunk space. Just as in the Singer reading, we here conceptualize voyeurism in the theater as an agreed upon and social activity, essentially breaking down into active “lookers” and passive “looked at.” Punchdrunk has the additional element of removing the power from the lookers by placing them on an even footing with the actors, even taking away their power in certain contexts and turning the “lookers” into the “looked at,” creating an entirely new experience in which the position of “spectator” is destabilized at all times. This effect is further achieved by the uniformity (and therefore anonymity) of the audience; all ties to reality (ie to the former self who exists outside of the theatrical space) are cut, in some sense eliminating this distinction entirely. Whereas in traditional theater, one engages in a collective private act of looking (identity is known to other audience members), here there is a more private engagement with the medium even in a group due to the anonymity, which also serves to destabilize the foundation of “spectator” as a position.
The unique sort of fun produced by Punchdrunk was compared by many journalists to a video game, as Sleep No More, one of Punchdrunk’s many shows, was heralded as 2011’s game of the year (paraphrasing from this article from The Guardian, and the closest evidence I could find for this claim was this article by Dan Dickinson).
Sleep No More has come to be only the first in a line of immersive experience-based games, in some sense – one could argue that this led to the genesis of the “walking simulator,” a genre of game based not on any exhibition of technical skill, but on experiencing a story or world. Steve Gaynor, designer of Tacoma and Gone Home, cites it as the inspiration for the key rewind mechanic in Tacoma, explaining that he wanted to bring the element of being present in the action of the scene, giving the player agency in the scene, to the game. It will be interesting to see how this growing genre of interactive and immersive media will develop in the future, but for me it is nearly impossible not to draw a parallel between the rise of the immersive “experience” as a genre of media and Bazin’s “Myth of Total Cinema.” Only time will tell what the future of games, theatre, and cinema hold for audiences of the 21st century.
I know this post is already too long, but on this point, Punchdrunk was commissioned by Sony in 2016 to make a “multi-sensory virtual reality experience” using a blend of live-action film and live acting, “[blurring] the lines between the physical and the digital.” I won’t say more about it now, but you can read more about it here: https://phi-centre.com/en/event/believe-your-eyes-en/
One more note is the way that Punchdrunk has taken influence from games as well, and the similarities between the two. This quote from founder Felix Barett says it all, I think: “That crazy space between video games and theatre, I reckon is the next frontier,” says Barrett. “In the next decade that’ll be the big thing. What happens when you actually have World of Warcraft in the real world?” From: https://www.theguardian.com/games/2019/feb/08/playable-shows-are-the-future-what-punchdrunk-theatre-learned-from-video-games
Sources not otherwise linked in the blog post above
Spyros Papaioannou (2014) Immersion, ‘smooth’ spaces and critical voyeurism in the work of Punchdrunk, Studies in Theatre and Performance, 34:2, 160-174, DOI: 10.1080/14682761.2014.899746