Why do I love Punchdrunk and what do I get out of their shows? I’ve been asked about this several times so I thought I’d try and answer once and for all.
For those of you who don’t know (where have you been hiding until now??): Punchdrunk are a British theatre company who specialise in immersive shows. They take over whole buildings and transform them into a huge and insanely detailed set. The masked audience is free to explore the set and follow performers who play out a story throughout the building. Now and then an audience member will get chosen for a very personal one on one performance with a performer and if you are lucky you might even get a walk out at the end of the show – the most personal way to end a Punchdrunk performance. Usually a Punchdrunk show lasts 3 hours in which the characters play out their one hour long story (called loop) three times. That way the audience has the chance to see several storylines, revisit favourite scenes or watch narratives from different angles.
I got hooked on Punchdrunk through their production The Drowned Man which ran in a former postal sorting office next to Paddington Station for a year. The building had been transformed into the 1960s film studio Temple Studios (including a western town, a desert and so much more), the story was a take on Woycek with references to Nathaniel West’s The Day of the Locust. My current Punchdrunk obsession is Sleep No More in New York which tells the story of Macbeth in a 1930s hotel (The McKittrick) with references to Hitchcock’s Rebecca. I attended The Drowned Man 34 times in just 4 months (I was late to the party, something I will always regret) and have seen Sleep No More 21 times so far.
The number of visits alone is enough to produce raised eyebrows whenever I talk about my love for Punchdrunk shows. Even though I have seen other, regular theatre productions more it is the fact that I will happily watch 10 Punchdrunk performances in a row without ever getting bored. It sounds insane and people keep asking what makes me go back again and again.
First of all it’s the quality of performance you get to see when attending a Punchdrunk show. Some of the finest dancers can be found at their productions and watching these guys and girls do what they do best while often standing just a few metres away is breathtaking. The second aspect is the set. Attending a Punchdrunk show is more than just watching a performance. You are transported into another world the minute you enter the building. I used to say going to see The Drowned Man was like visiting my second home. And it really felt like that after a while. When The Drowned Man closed I honestly felt like I had lost my save place – the place I could spend three hours in and forget about the outside world.
I guess that’s one of the main things that attracts me to Punchdrunk. Watching their shows means leaving everything else behind for the time being. It’s like a timeout from regular life. You get to be in a different world and to a certain extend you become someone else too. There is definitely a psychological aspect to it – everyone wants to break out sometime. I don’t consider myself the most outgoing person in real life. I don’t trust people easily. However, in a Punchdrunk show I have no problem putting my complete trust into a (most of the time) complete stranger. I don’t know most of the performers in the show and yet I’ve let them blindfold me, take me into pitch black rooms, force feed me oranges (don’t ask) and I’ve drunk whatever they have handed me without asking what exactly I was about to swallow. It’s the strange thing a Punchdrunk show will do to me. I become obedient in a way but it also sets me free. No worries, no second thoughts, no pondering if doing this or that is a good idea or not. In a Punchdrunk show I can just BE. It’s like walking around in a dream and it gives me goosebumps every single time. The thrill cannot be described, it has to be experienced.
The Drowned Man probably described it best in one of its most used quotes: “We live inside a dream.” This is exactly what Punchdrunk shows are for me. The chance to live in another reality, if only for a few hours. And who doesn’t want that now and then.