In little over a week, I will walk out of Temple Studios for the final time. Those words fill me with dread, but it is true. I fully expect to be a weepy, mascara-streaked wreck, along with countless other Punchdrunk addicts with whom I will share that last, precious show. Several have become friends through a facebook group, resulting in many evenings of standing in a queue together (sometimes pre-show drinks in a pub) before wandering alone for 3 hours through the gloomy world of Temple Studios and then re-convening in the bar for excitable post-show analysis. People I never knew a year ago who are the sole source of my addiction – habit-enablers, every last one of them.
I never expected this to happen. Seriously. (I would’ve budgeted for it for a start).
A year ago, when I booked my first ticket I was some semblance of a normal, rational person. The people who had seen Les Mis 7 times? Weird. Just weird. Why not go and see something else? I’d seen a few London shows twice and even seeing The 39 Steps 3 times seemed borderline ridiculous (it is good though – if you haven’t seen it, you should go. /tangent). My typical budget for theatre is around the £30 mark and I will move heaven and earth to find a good seat for the cheapest price I can get. I winced at spending £45+ for that first ticket, thinking to myself “this had better be worth it…”
My first visit was utterly overwhelming. It took me about 3 days to get my head around everything I’d seen (and not seen). Various friends went and we tried to compare scenes – only they’d been on an entirely different journey to me, so it was hopeless. Other friends were deeply suspicious and remain so to this day (I like to think they just fear what it’ll do to their bank balance if they go just once). I even persuaded my hairdresser to go – she never even knew anything like this existed, but she loved it. If you are prepared to give it a chance, I actually think Punchdrunk are remarkably accessible compared to many other shows which are a bit ‘out there’.
But it took 4 months for me to go back. I thought a second (perhaps third) time would be enough to see all of it. I must’ve seen most of it, surely? No. After that second visit, I had sand in my shoes, (stage) blood in my hair and a head full of questions. I started to buy tickets in 2s and 3s, wondering if that would ever be enough to see all of it. A series of Q&A sessions only served to reinforce my admiration for the show, the design, the meticulous detail (right down to the smell of TCP in the doctor’s office), the choreography, the sheer logistical nightmare of running scenes simultaneously, requiring performers to walk into opposite ends of a room at precisely the same moment and start a scene with the absolute surety that the other person will be there exactly on cue, the constant self-referencing which neatly ties one aspect to another. One of the directors had estimated that to watch every single scene in some sort of order would take around 12-15 hours. Their cast are trained in multiple roles so there are something like 86 possible permutations. It is mind boggling in every single way.
Yet they make it look so easy.
It very definitely isn’t. I’ve seen a few immersive/promenade/contemporary things in the last year, some more successful than others. Part of the problem is that Punchdrunk have set the benchmark so high in every respect that it’s hard to draw comparison. I have found myself in other productions getting annoyed that a tangle of cables hasn’t been boxed in, that ‘fine dining’ has been served on paper plates with plastic cutlery, that there are bottlenecks when moving audience from one location to another, that there is a short wait for it to be my (or my group’s) turn to see a scene. But this is what you let yourself in for with experimental theatre – the ideas are often great and each respective company has clearly expended their every last resource and ounce of creativity to make it work to the best of their ability – if I wanted something safe and predictable, I’d go and sit in a numbered seat in an auditorium.
So it is with the impending 17th visit to The Drowned Man that I look back on everything I’ve experienced. Theatre going won’t be the same ever again. Whilst I will be incredibly sad once it’s all over, I find solace in knowing that they have many ideas, if they can just find the right building. It has also taught me many things; I will be directing a play at my own theatre for February 2015 and this has given me the confidence to be brave with my set design and lighting – to not be afraid of the careful use of silence.
So I would like to say thank you to Punchdrunk, to their performers for their boundless stamina and the exquisite tenderness of those 1:1 encounters which, for a fleeting few minutes at least, were for me and me alone. To their backstage crew/front of house team who tirelessly keep the nuts and bolts of the show ticking over with such finesse – I will forever remember Summer 2013 to Summer 2014 as the year when one theatre production suddenly and unexpectedly consumed my every waking moment (and some very lucid dreams too). I wish I’d accepted sooner that I’d be going as many times as I did – I might’ve stood a chance of following characters one at a time in a more methodical fashion rather than running around trying to see everything.
Time to start saving up for the next one…
Before this starts getting too morose, one of the things that came out of the facebook group was an immense amount of fan art – there are some incredibly talented designers in our midst. I, however cannot draw very well. Especially not freehand on a computer, given that I am naturally left handed and use a mouse with my right hand.
None of these things prevented me from expressing myself by the medium of MS Paint.
I apologise for the following pictures. They are unsuitable for those who wish to treasure their memories intact and for those with a weak bladder. If you should wish to open the Pandora’s Box of my scenic interpretations, you will find them here.
Felix and Maxine – I am so sorry. Facebook made me do it.