Among the countless gifts of the smartphone age, one of the most precious (and mainly illusory) is control—GPS-assisted, carefully curated, algorithmically filtered, “friend”-approved control, which means never having to be lost again.
Felix Barrett would like to blow that notion to hell, using the unlikely weapon of theater. “You don’t need to have an opinion anymore; everyone will have it for you,” says Barrett. “So what we try to do is make experiences that are about the individual having to get out there and stake their claim. We’re not going to tell you how to do it, you need to put the work in and uncover the secret yourself.”
Barrett is the founder and artistic director of London-based theater company Punchdrunk, creator of Sleep No More, an acclaimed interactive interpretation of Macbeth. Through Punchdrunk, Barrett has sought to create experiences that challenge audiences to physically interact with a narrative, and that push the idea of entertainment into a more primal place, where a show becomes a thing that happens to you because of decisions you make, not just something you watch passively. The company’s next few projects, including Punchdrunk Travel—yes, travel— will push audience interaction further, all but eliminating the line between theater and real life. The result may be discomfiting, but, Barrett hopes, ultimately rewarding, leaving participants with something priceless: an actual, real-life experience and a great story to tell.
Since Barrett launched Punchdrunk in 2000, the company has created over 20 interactive, immersive projects. Shows have combined elements of traditional theater, dance, art installation, and cinema with astonishing levels of art direction and “the poetry of spaces” to provide an open-ended experience for ticket buyers, who take an active part in exploring the story.
The company gained recognition in the U.K. for productions such as It Felt Like a Kiss, for which Punchdrunk partnered with Blur frontman Damon Albarn and filmmaker Adam Curtis; it revived the dark spirit of Edgar Allan Poe for The Masque of the Red Death; and partnered with the writers of BBC TV series Dr. Who for the ongoing children’s show The Crash of The Elysium. But Barrett and company are perhaps most famous for Sleep No More, which has been staged in unusual spaces in London and Boston and is running in New York through September 5. The New York edition of the show, directed by Barrett and partner Maxine Doyle, takes place in a vast Chelsea warehouse space which has been transformed into the moody, 1930s-era McKittrick Hotel. Audiences are required to wear Venetian beak masks while they explore six floors and 100 spaces, all set designed with staggering detail by Barrett, Livi Vaughan, and Beatrice Minns. Participants literally follow the story by tracking players as they move from scene to scene. As Barrett would have it, the experience is solitary, as one way or another, participants find themselves separated from their companions.
In July, Punchdrunk produced its third brand-backed project, The Black Diamond, and is currently at work on a show for Sony Playstation. The new shows represent increased collaboration with brands, but they also represent a new level of involvement for audience members, an exploration of immersion that will reach its pinnacle with Punchdrunk Travel.
The travel initiative will launch in September, and while Barrett is keeping many of the details under wraps for now, he says the new venture is the purest distillation of the Punchdrunk ethos—making the audience the center of the action.
The idea behind Travel is that audience members, or travelers (those with control issues and the agoraphobic are advised to look away now) will arrive at the airport, set to embark on a journey without knowing where they are going or what will happen when they get there. Punchdrunk will organize a theatrical experience around the brave participant; the trip, and by extension, life, is the show. “The idea is that your life becomes a theatrical wonderland,” says Barrett. “Everything is centered around you, whether you’re in the streets, or sitting in a cafe or whatever you’re doing you’re lost inside the show. It’ll be difficult if not impossible to pinpoint the exact place where the show stops and the real world continues.”
Clearly, partaking of the full Travel experience will require a considerable investment of time and money, but the company is exploring more accessible ways in. “We’re trying to make it scalable so whatever you can afford you can get a taste of it,” says Barrett.
Taking immersive theater on the road is just the most extreme manifestation of Barrett’s core mission and the latest project to challenge Punchdrunk’s classification as a theater company. “I would still call Punchdrunk a theater company, because I suppose everything we do is inherently theatrical,” says Barrett. “But it doesn’t have to read as theater. A lot of what we are excited about is heightening real life—how can you feel as though you’re the hero of your own movie. It’s tricky, though, because we’re most excited about the cross fertilization of disciplines. If you can define it too easily you probably haven’t gone far enough.”
Punchdrunk’s current production of The Black Diamond, created in conjunction with Stella Artois and agency Mother London, augurs the more participatory, audience-as-actor direction. The show, Punchdrunk’s second for the beer brand, is a seven-part interactive experience based on a noir-ish story of love and thievery set in 1960s Paris (the theme speaks to Stella’s '60s-chic ad campaigns of recent years). Audiences start off at an apartment party in Shoreditch and then follow the story online and in venues across the city.
The new Playstation project, launching August 31 in London, will take the audience-as-player angle further and will represent a dedicated exploration of game mechanics in theater. It would be easy to look at much of Punchdrunk’s work through a gamification lens, but Barrett says only now is the company really exploring the potential of applying game principles to the theatrical form. Barrett has included game elements in shows before, most significantly in Masque of the Red Death, but he felt that the theatrical show and the game were conflicting elements, and he is keen to focus exclusively on the unique aspects of games and what happens when you take them outside of their traditional sphere.
“In terms of giving the audience characters so they have a real role to play... Playstation wanted us to push that,” says Barrett. “To figure out what would be the next step. So we get to do one of the things we’ve wanted to do for ages, which is to take the different rules and formulae of games and apply them to theater.” All the threat-laden, tension-filled fun of a video game will be magnified when it’s actually happening to you, says Barrett. “It will be a proper study on fear and the audience as player, as viewer and as character,” he says. “It’ll be very frightening as well.”
Punchdrunk approaches brand projects as a kind of well-funded R&D lab, a chance to push its own work , and take a creatively game brand along. “We only work with brands that share the same ideology,” says Barrett. “It’s all about what’s the most exciting project that the two collaborating forces can create; it has to push us creatively and push the brand a bit out of its comfort zone.”
Outside of the brand initiatives, Punchdrunk is working on its next major London show, which will be “on a completely different scale,” says Barrett, “almost a different form.” But the essence is the same—creating an experience that acts as “a counterpoint to the communal, the mass produced, the homogenized.” “We don’t want people to say ‘I went to the theater last night,’” says Barrett. “We want them to say, ‘this happened to me last night.’”