Theatre experience company Punchdrunk cannot be accused of under-estimating the inquisitive nature of audience. Set up in 2000 by Felix Barrett, the artistic director describes his favourite creation so far as ‘The Moonslave’, a show which ran for four nights to four people, one person per night The ‘audience’ followed a trail, beginning with a package marked with their name, to deep in to the woods where two hundred grinning scarecrows were waiting for them in the dark. It’s a decade of such attention to the personal experience of story, which has meant of all the creative entertainment industries, theatre seems to be right up there at the forefront of storytelling immsersively.
Punchdrunk’s latest production, ‘Sleep No More’, a contemporary piece based around Shakespeare’s Macbeth, set in a New York nightclub is no exception. A middle-of-the-road Manhattan theatre audience were persuaded to cover their faces, remain silent for two and a half hours and were taken on a virtually dialogue-less journey for an ending they probably already knew. Allowed to go anywhere, touch anything apart from the actors, they had to work out the story themselves. Each set was dressed with a Kubrick level of detail, and multi-textural references to Hitchcock sewn throughout. This is not a toe in the water strategy to immersive storytelling, and there might be more than one reason why Felix and his wife live on a boat. But, at a time when most publishers are counting the real costs of the creation and marketing of their first venture in to e-books, is there anything to learn from this innovative but not-really commercial company?
Perhaps. What Punch Drunk have proved in the last decade, is despite the usual argument that entertainment can’t compete with the personal preferences of your own smart phone. In fact audiences will forget them if they’re sufficiently engaged. The pull of those phones, tailored to our own interests is a strong one, yet there is a dangerous assumption within the industry that all readers want to do is read. Could this be an assumption akin to the argument that theatregoers just want to see live performance? Theatre production organisations like Punchdrunk, Coney, House of Fairytales and dreamthinkspace has learnt to coax the theatre audience out of the three-sided box. Such companies have tracked down or built their own spaces and embraced all its dimensions, taking its audience with it, and also, in doing so have found new audiences not previously interested in theatre.
The secret to truly immersive storytelling is to create intimacy, but this is something hard to do in an audience of hundreds. With ‘Sleep No More’ Punchdrunk, (perhaps struggling to get funding for elaborate scarecrow based performances for one viewer) cleverly turned inexperience of the one to one relationship to their advantage. The presence of others around you, in your reading of the text is an obstacle for the true personalisation of the story. So, the company masked every audience member, and placed voyeurism at the heart of the performance. The ‘reader’ watches other people going through Lady Macbeth’s suitcase and reading correspondence kept hidden by the King. Implicit in their actions, you are free to stop them, but your own moral code is suspended.
This allows the audience member to be a reviewer, spectator and participant simultaneously. They are at the centre of the narrative but have no control over the story. One of the problems with immersive storytelling (outside of gaming) has been the reader’s desire to be at the centre of the story’s world, but without the skills to create a narrative. Punchdrunk theatre has created a labyrinth of options, where no matter what is chosen, the experience is enhanced and the narrative holds firm. It’s an authored piece, yet you choose how to read it, and however it’s read, Punchdrunk will get what they want to say across.
The piece also works because it has community built in to it. Punchdrunk has no navigable company website, they do no marketing and no social media. However, by forcing the audience to be silent, no clear story thread to follow and many individual experiences within the text, the community is where you can discuss and trade your own reading of the performance. This community springs up organically after the show, with others, over drinks on on-line later at home, and Punchdrunk has a loyal, interested following, and their shows sell out in hours.
It’s clear the key to successful digital story telling is to make your audience the centre of the narrative; it was perhaps always going to be theatre with its use of live actors who figured out how this could work first. However the intimate relationship between the reader and the text is a lot closer in the book model than the theatre model. As Publishers are already used to the one-on-one relationship between text and reader, and therefore perhaps already have an advantage, and perhaps they can look to theatre and have more faith in what an audience will do for good story.