Q & A with Colin Nightingale, Senior Producer at Punchdrunk

Alex Peake-Tomkinson

How have you used technology in The Drowned Man? 

The whole building is wired for sound and light and we have central control of almost all of it.  The sound in The Drowned Man is very localised, though.  In one area, there is a town with a high street.  The high street has a sound and when you walk into one of the shops, it will have a different sound.  We kind of want technology to be robust and we don’t ever want it to fail.  We’re not using radically cutting edge equipment but we’re applying the equipment on a scale that people don’t usually.  We like to take stuff and push it to its limits. 

Will the future of interactive theatre be radically different because of the developments in technology?

Last year, we worked with Media Lab at MIT and it allowed us to kind of prototype what an online crossover into one of our shows might be.  That opportunity was amazing – we were working with incredible people, anything was possible.  We tried to push things to their limits and we tried to do multiple things. One big learning we got from that was that technology needs to be robust and it needs to be tried and tested otherwise it can really affect your ability to create well-executed pieces of work.  We’re very much a company that makes a lot of stuff and then edits and refines it down.  If the technology you’re using isn’t robust then it’s hard to go through that process and end up with something that’s really cohesive and polished.  We did a piece earlier this year called The Borough which was embedded along the streets of Aldeburgh.  It was for one person at a time on a 55 minute journey.  I wanted to use something for that that was not going to fail.  It didn’t feel like it would be acceptable for someone to walk around for 55 minutes and not get audio seamlessly for that whole time. Because of that, we used something very, very crude and then that allowed us to focus on the artistic content of what we were doing without having to wait for the technology to be re-programmed to do a very simple thing.  We always want a new bag of tricks. We don’t necessarily see our work as interactive, especially The Drowned Man because the audience can’t affect any of the performance, it’s pretty much the same thing every night – it’s more immersive.  The next level for us would be working with sensors. At the moment, we can’t hone the experience for each audience member but sensors would allow us to do that. If audience members walked towards particular objects, those objects could animate in a particular way if we used sensors.

I don’t think technology should really lead artists, artists should make work which they think is exciting and if technology is a tool which is available to help them do that, then that’s the way it should be. There’s a book by an American author Frank Rose called The Art of Immersion and very much what we do is immersive experiences. His idea is that the growth of immersion in entertainment has come out of the way people consume things on the internet. When I met him I told him that we started creating these immersive experiences before people even knew how the future of the internet would pan out. I was at a conference recently and was asked whether we’d tailor an artistic experience based on audience research but… we’re always just going to do what we find exciting.

Are there other theatre companies or productions you admire, or do you look for inspiration elsewhere?

At the core of the company, there’s quite a mixture of individuals so the influences come from everywhere. Film is a particular influence on Felix, the Artistic Director but we all just consume as much as we can of things, we’re all just looking for something new. At times, we don’t necessarily see ourselves as a theatre company anyway. There’s plenty that we see that does inspire us but I just wouldn’t want to name specific things. 

Partnerships with brands have enabled you to take on ambitious projects, will you be doing more of that in the future?

We’re always looking to collaborate. We’re just looking to make interesting work and if those possibilities can come through partnership with a brand, we’re always willing to do them. What we’re not is we’re not a company for hire, we’re not going to do just anything. The work we’ve done with brands over the past 3 or 4 years has informed the bigger work we’re doing.  It’s informed The Drowned Man.

Do you have any plans for what you’ll do next?

No comment. We always have plans but nothing that we can release at the moment.

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