Debating going to see a Punchdrunk show for the first time? Never done anything like this before? Here’s my guide on how to get the best out of your first visit:
What to expect
In most theatres, you sit down in your designated seat and watch the action unfold in front of you. If the play requires a change of setting, they’ll move the scenery. With Punchdrunk, they take over a whole building, fill every room and space with richly detailed sets and ask the audience to explore it for themselves. A bit like stepping into a Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory, everything you can see, you can touch and examine. If you see a filing cabinet, open it: inside you’ll find typed documents, letters, folders, paperclips, pencils etc. and this level of detail extends across everything you can see. The actors move throughout the building and it’s up to you to find them and to follow them through their story. This is choice-driven theatre, so the decisions you make will affect what you see. Punchdrunk are experts in the sinister and it’s quite dimly lit, so do take care.
As with any other form of theatre, there’s no phones, no photography and no talking. You can take your phone in, but please make sure it’s switched off first.
What to wear
There is no dress code for Punchdrunk – this is just advice on what to wear so that you’ll be comfortable.
1) First and foremost, COMFORTABLE SHOES. I cannot stress this enough. You’ll be on your feet for anything up to 3 hours. When following a character, you’ll be going up and down flights of stairs and at times, you may have to walk fast or even run to keep up with them.
2) All of the audience are masked – there are many reasons for this, but on a practical level, with 20-30 actors and several hundred marauding audience members, the masks help to distinguish between the two. Otherwise you run the risk of audience following audience, which wouldn’t be very interesting. The mask is not uncomfortable, but if you wear glasses, it will sit further away from your face and may give you slight tunnel vision. If you have the option of wearing contact lenses, these would be preferable. You are now allowed to take the mask home with you after the performance as a souvenir, but any masks that are left behind get recycled and are washed between every performance. In the summer it gets very warm, so a tissue to wipe your face occasionally isn’t a bad idea. You can take your mask off in the bar.
3) It’s probably best to avoid wearing white/cream, anything brand new or expensive. The only reason I say this is because there is use of stage blood and you may find yourself very close to the actors. If they were to inadvertently brush past you, there might be some residual staining.
4) A warm coat – but only for outside in the queue. It takes time to get several hundred people into the building, so dress for the weather. Once inside, I’d strongly recommend putting that coat and most of your layers into the cloakroom. You might be a little bit cold in the waiting area, but once you’re inside you’ll warm up very quickly – I often get halfway through wishing that I’d handed over my cardigan.
5) Something with pockets – just for things like your ticket, cloakroom ticket(s) and some cash for the bar. All bags must be put into the cloakroom – they have allowed me to take in a small handbag before, but you soon get fed up with carrying things.
I was very unprepared for my first visit (hence why I’ve written this guide) and one of the things I initially struggled with was the fact that I had to make decisions QUICKLY. I’m not very good at that. But it’s important to get your head around the following:
There are scenes running simultaneously all over the building and you cannot see all of them in one go. It is not a matter of waiting for you to show up – those scenes happen whether there is someone there to watch them or not.
The sooner you come to terms with this, the better. There is something magical about being the only person to have stumbled across a scene with no one else watching. If you come across a scene with 2 or more characters, at some point they will go their separate ways and you will have to make a choice of whom you would prefer to follow. There are no right or wrong characters to follow because they all have a story (some characters only operate within a limited area whereas others will take you all over the building). But if they leave and you stay put, you could be waiting a long time for another scene to happen where you are. Go with your gut instinct and follow whoever interests YOU.
In my early visits, I found it was best to just find a character and follow them. When they meet another character, you might find that you want to follow them instead. Following lots of characters will give you lots of snippets of stories (there’s nothing wrong with this, but you may find it a very disjointed experience), but following one character for a considerable length of time will give you a whole story in detail and is often more rewarding. Prolonged eye contact is deliberate and may lead you to something very special if you are brave enough to take the opportunity.
It’s also entirely normal for you to want to do a bit of exploring of the rooms and the building – it’s an amazing space and a vast amount of work has gone into everything that you can see, hear, smell, touch and even taste. But following characters will give the place more context. In The Drowned Man there are 4 floors and in Sleep No More there are 5 floors (6 if you include the balcony).
Go it alone
In the lift, you’ll be told to ‘say goodbye to your friends’ and explore by yourself. Please trust Punchdrunk on this because you’ll lose them anyway – one of you will stop to look at something and the other will keep walking – and hand-holding is frowned upon (actors have been known to physically separate hand holders). Better to absorb yourself in what you’re watching than worry about whether the person you’re with is watching the same thing. You’ll have a far more interesting journey alone and lots to talk about in the bar afterwards.
Give them some space
Sometimes it will feel perfectly natural to go and stand right next to a character – e.g. when they’re reading a letter and to walk within a few feet of them – other times you’ll prefer to hang back. It may take you a little time to gauge what is appropriate (I still find myself standing in the way at times, mostly with scenes that are new to me). While there will be some speech, much of the content is contemporary dance. Fear not, it’s pretty obvious what’s going on or how the person is feeling from the choreography. Punchdrunk have an international cast with some of the finest contemporary dancers from all over the world, so stand back and let them do what they do best. In some of the bigger scenes, a member of staff in a black mask may ask you to move somewhere else in the room – this is for your safety. When there is a lot of audience around, it can make it more difficult to follow one particular person, especially on the stairs and this can make people quite desperate. Be prepared for the fact that you might lose the character you’re following.
There is no set interval, however there is a bar and it opens an hour after the start time – the upside of this is that if and when you need a break, you can effectively choose your own interval(s). You are allowed to remove your mask in the bar and several characters drop in as part of their story, so there are things to watch while you sit with a drink. It gets pretty crowded after the finale, so if you’re hoping to meet up with friends after the show, best to pre-arrange to meet them at e.g. “the right hand end of the bar”.
The Loop Concept
I’ll let you into a secret. The show itself is about an hour long and happens 3 times*. So it is both sequential and cyclical. If you follow just one character and never lose them, you will eventually find that you are back where you started and they are starting to repeat things that they did an hour ago. You are not going mad. You can even use this to follow a few characters one after the the other by simply waiting for a scene to come round again (by waiting, I do of course mean while following a character).
*for those veterans of a nit picky disposition, by 3 times I do of course mean that the first loop starts part way through, the 2nd loop is complete and the 3rd loop has a couple of edits so that everyone ends up at the finale at the same time.
The Pandora’s Box that is The Internet
Punchdrunk shows are best experienced for yourself rather than reading spoilers on the internet and part of the magic lies in going in completely blind to the details of the layout, the characters and their stories. Please trust me on this one. I have written this guide to give you enough to get you started without ruining any surprises (I did debate excluding the number of floors). There is a vast amount of information on the internet (facebook, tumblr, wordpress and no doubt many others). Be careful what you read. My visits are into double figures and there are plenty of things that I refuse to read or look at, simply because I want to see it for myself without preconceptions.
Now if all this has tempted you to see a Punchdrunk show ‘The Drowned Man: A Hollywood Fable’ is currently running in London http://www.templestudioslondon.com/ and ‘Sleep No More’ is running in New York http://sleepnomorenyc.com/