The magnificent scenes from their most recent large-scale public work, The Drowned Man, kept edging into my mind’s eye as I sat down to speak with Peter Higgin (Director of Enrichment & Punchdrunk Village) and Alex Rowse (Enrichment Producer) in one of the office spaces within the The Mill Co’s Cannon Street warehouse.
Punchdrunk have made a name for themselves by producing exciting, large scale and immersive shows such as Faust, The Masque of the Red Death and The Drowned Man: A Hollywood Fable. Their work is produced in the UK and internationally and they have collaborated with arts giants such as the National Theatre, Manchester International Festival and English National Opera to create unique and groundbreaking theatre.
Starting out of Exeter University back in 2000, friends Felix Barrett (Artistic Director) and Peter Higgin began trying out ideas and funding the work themselves. They started doing some experiments in the South West and then after a couple of years in London. They slowly got more recognised, got Arts Council funding for projects and then eventually became what is now known as a National Portfolio Organisation in 2008.
I asked them what led to their success and what makes them different from other theatre companies.
Peter explained that they initially challenged themselves to think about what theatre can be.
“We were asking ‘what if you offer something which is less passive, more physically and emotionally engaging?’ We wanted to take theatre out of the seat and get people onto their feet, using all of their senses and radically reinvent what a night at the theatre might mean.”
Skilled in space-transformation, sometimes converting entire buildings into sets for their actors and audiences, Punchdrunk invite people into new and undiscovered worlds, allowing them to explore these places at their own pace.
I am told that sometimes the story dictates the building they take over and sometimes the Artistic Director, Felix Barrett finds a space and asks: “So what story can this space help us to tell?”
With their largest production, The Drowned Man they knew they wanted to base it on Georg Buchner’s famous play, Woyzeck.
Woyzeck is a play containing a series of scenes which are fragmented and nobody really knows what order they go in, because the playwright never finished the play. So the challenge they had was ‘how do you show a piece of work where nobody knows the order of it?” Their idea was to scatter the scenes around a building and let the audiences come across them themselves.
Once Woyzeck was chosen, they then needed the architects, the choreographer, who supports the performative language of the world itself, and the design team, who create the layout of the world. It’s a huge undertaking.
“Obviously a really key element is our production management – thinking about the audience flow, health and safety and licensing. All the complex logistical things you need to do to turn a space, that isn’t a theatre, into something that does have infrastructure. So for something like The Drowned Man you’ll be looking at a staff team of around 250.” says Peter.
As well as space-transformation, Punchdrunk puts the audience experience high on their creative agenda.
“The audience are where our creative journey begins and ends. You are constantly having to think about audience journey, audience care, audience experience, so artistically it’s at the heart of it,” explained Peter.
Punchdrunk are renowned for their marathon-length theatre runs, with critically-acclaimed The Drowned Man running from June 2013 to July 2014 and Sleep No More still going strong, years after its New York premier in 2011, but this isn’t the full picture.
As well as their public facing output, Punchdrunk also run community enrichment programmes which sound equally as awe-inspiring.
In their new Tottenham warehouse they have created a fictitious place called ‘The village of Fallow Cross’.
Artistic Director, Felix Barrett explains what Fallow Cross is here;
“The village houses a series of structures – that include the church, the school room, the bric-a-brac shop and the Mayor’s house – each of which hold the kernel of an idea, and provide a creative space to research and develop those ideas further. It enables us to develop the use and integration of digital technologies to create a new theatrical vernacular. It allows us to fuse these experiments with our innovative enrichment projects providing an opportunity for young audiences to help imagine and uncover the future of our work. And it is a laboratory to nurture Punchdrunk’s creative team, unlocking new ideas.”
Although it’s not a public space or production, there will be opportunities to take part in masterclasses to develop performance and design skills.
There are also workshops for secondary school, college and universities, plus primary and secondary INSET opportunities. Punchdrunk also hope to hold a couple of open days for the local community later in the year. (I don’t want to miss this!)
The more we talked, the more curious I became. Peter and Alex’s answers were punctuated with utterances of “our lips are sealed”. The future of Punchdrunk is a closely guarded secret which is not surprising as their work relies on the elements of mystery, anticipation and surprise.
Not to worry! A mini Punchdrunk world, that we can delight in is active right now, it’s called The Lost Lending Library.
In Peter and Alex’s words, it’s “a whole school project that unfolds over several weeks in primary schools. It’s for all ages and it’s about engaging pupils in literacy, speaking and listening. The premise is that, attracted by the children’s great imaginations, a magical library appears in the school”.
This project has already been rolled out to 30 primary schools in the UK and they’re currently looking for Haringey primary schools to take part in Autumn Term 2017.
Punchdrunk’s energy is palpable and they’re going to be a real asset to Tottenham, The Mill Co. Project and the local community. I asked them how they found settling into their new space after moving from their much smaller office in Shoreditch.
Alex says: “I guess you embrace any place that you move to, but what’s so great is that it feels like there’s a lot going on creatively around here”
Scene from the Drunken Man. Image by Punchdrunk.amp sessions in Down Lane Park.
Although Punchdrunk are an intrinsically nomadic organisation I am filled with a sense of promise and excitement (yes, they’ve managed it yet again) at what’s to come for the adventurers of Haringey.
Interview and words by Selma Willcocks.
Images by Amanda Stockley, Paul.J.Cochrane and Punchdrunk.