Excerpts from “The Drowned Man” Pre-show Talk, December 1st 2013: Meet the Directors

Last December I had the opportunity to attend a pre-show talk with the directors of Punchdrunk’s The Drowned Man.  During this talk I managed to ask a question about the participatory nature of the production, and there were some other interesting tidbits related to documentation that were drawn out during the Q&A.  I had been meaning to transcribe the event, but, as is always the way, RL (“real life”) got in the way, until I was directed to a full transcript already posted on Tumblr.

Below I have posted some excerpts from the talk that touch upon LIS matters specifically.  The questions asked are by myself and other audience members, and are put to Felix Barrett and Maxine Doyle, the director and director/choreographer respectively.  The session was moderated by academic and immersive specialist, Josephine Machon.  Please note that this post will contain spoilers for those who are sensitive about the show being spoiled for them.

Many thanks to Ami from At the gates guarded by horses for getting round to doing what I didn’t.  To read the full transcript, go here.

 


 

[I ask about the participatory aspects of the show, and how much the fan activity around The Drowned Man was planned from the outset].

“To ask about the audience, because they’re very much an actor or actors in itself, and the participation and the performance and the kind of agency that they have – I wanted to ask how much that was intended? Because also the audience is a participant away from the performance as well, I mean they carry on world-building, on Facebook and Tumblr and they really become attached to the characters, and I was wondering how much that’s caught your attention?”

Felix: We’re trying to empower the audience, we’re trying to give them control. The whole thing’s to make them active so it’s theirs. So it’s incredible, we’re overjoyed when we see the Tumblr thing and just the ideas and response that people have to the work. And it actually provokes us to think of more ways that we could infiltrate the real world and we can give back to people who – I think the grand plan is ‘how can you break out of walls? how can you free yourself from going to the theatre for three hours in one space?’ All of this stuff that’s happening is all part of a dialogue that’s going to lead to something new and exciting.

Then within the show…

Maxine: It’s what I was saying earlier, they fuel the dynamic of the narrative. So, in the show, when William and Wendy start having episodes then the audience which was invisible to them then become visible. They see ten, twenty, fifty, a hundred apparitions and they become their demons, so the reality of that dialogue is really present. And also it’s exciting seeing an audience flying down the corridor chasing a character. That sort of sense of commitment and desire to be part of that story and be part of that world is kind of weird but sort of wonderful at the same time.

Felix: It’s sort of like a modern-day Greek chorus. They’re judging, they’re the Furies, they’re watching over, they’re casting their vote. My favourite bits in the show are when they slip from being invisible, safe, protected behind their mask, and suddenly be exposed because a character has reached a state of frenzy whereby they’re suddenly – imagine I mean sometimes it feels like we’re having a conversation, the three of us. And then you realise there are eighty of you… And it’s empowering as well.

Josephine: So why do you choose the white mask as well as the black mask, is there any point to these? [Audience members wear white masks.  Ushers wear black masks].

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Maxine: Well the point of the characters, well they’re not characters, they’re our stewards and ushers, that wear the black masks, and they’re there for your safety and the safety and protection of the cast. They wear black masks and can just disappear really into a dark corner. And they’re just there so people feel secure, because I think when they’re – one of the things that makes this work really exciting and allows us to take risks is that we know it’s safe, we know that there’s order and structure and rigor in the chaos of it. And then the white masks, well they offer a very different function…

Felix: The white mask comes from back when I did the experiment with the Woyzeck text for my finals. We didn’t have the mask and we were in rehearsals and it really didn’t work because all you’re going to do is see other audience’s responses to the action. By the way I hate a theatre-in-the-round, because all you’re doing is having other audience inform your reading of the situation. And obviously then the performers have their status, because if you get a colourful character watching then suddenly who are you going to follow? So suddenly the idea of a mask and removing them from the picture and adding them to the scenography was a useful device. Initially it was a neutral mask, sort of plastic blasé style, you know a physical theatre-empowering device, which makes the body into any character you give it, because it completely removes any emotion from the face. That would be the dream mask – the problem is it’s not wearable. And over the first five years we had people sort of drenched in sweat –

Josephine: We still have some problems with that now…

Felix: Sorry about that… So they’ve gradually – the neutral mask is white because that’s what it was historically and it’s just a blank face, genderless and emotionless. And what we’ve done is just gradually bring out the bridge of the chin and the nose so that it’s wearable and the actual detail, it looks like bone structures, is actually to try and make it comfortable. So it’s actually not an aesthetic decision as much as to enable audience to forget they put it on.

[An audience member asks about the essentially ephemeral nature of the performance and whether it will ever be formally documented].

“Have you ever thought about the posterity of Punchdrunk’s work? About how in twenty-five years, when people talk about The Drowned Man, how can you explain to someone what it was and how it was done and what the script was? You’ve put it all together in such a fragmented way…”

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Felix: No we’re not really very good at documenting… As a company we always look forward rather than…. But there are so many projects we’ve done we don’t even have images from, which is a real shame. And so, no we haven’t thought of that at all. Although we do have a big chart on the wall upstairs in the green room which explains what scenes happen in the show, where people will be, but we’ve yet to come up with an articulate way to really put that on paper. We don’t have the visual data representation. You know I wish we had some sort of omnibus…

Maxine: In this show actually, we do have a script. We do have all of the dialogue, but that’s probably fifteen percent of the show. Most of the show is physical so that brings up the whole debate about how do you document choreography… So we’ve got an abundance of images and we have our planning notes, but we often talk about if we can make little films of all of these stories. And at least start the document process that way. Felix won’t let me do that.

Felix: Only because… We probably will do for this. If we can squeeze more time in the space, we will film more of it, but we always have the battle of do we try and film it, for posterity’s sake, or in doing some sort of low-res video recording does that undermine that which we’re aiming for, which is something that feels cinematic. And feels so richly textured. And sepia, and tungsten, and tactile in a way that video feels disposable. And I suppose I’m loathe to – well cheapen is the wrong word – undermine everyone’s hard work by putting it into that kind of box. And yeah, we don’t have the time to do that. If we had the money, we’d film it properly, but then it would be like why not just do a film?

[An audience member asks about the authentic set and its props, and where they’ll all end up… Important because the set itself incorporates innumerable documents, from books to letters, to vintage magazines, postcards and even parking permits…]

“So the set is absolutely incredible, and it’s one of the things that is most enjoyable, how immersive it is and how it engages every sense of your body. So two questions: What happens after the show? What happens to all of this, are you going to keep it, are you going to sell it or are you going to throw it away? And another question, like in a room like this, how do you arrive at the decisions of what gets put where? How do you select from the found objects and objects that are made, etc”

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Felix: You should definitely come to the talk with Livi here, she’s one of the brilliant brains behind the aesthetic, and will tell you everything about their process. But, for now… we collect props for five months, everything’s sourced. Up until this show, everything you see and touch is real. In New York we have an outdoor walled garden which is made of real brick, and the floor bends about four inches down from the weight of the tonnage.

But part of the reason why this had to be a film set is because we knew we were building from scratch and because the walls would be fake we were allowed to have a level of façade. So quite a lot of the detail here is actually plastic because it’s a film set and it’s allowed to be.

In terms of what we do with it afterwards, that’s a really good question. And I don’t know. We have a really big store down in the docklands, but it’s smaller than this building. There might be a sort of massive car boot sale? I’m getting the neons.

[So in other words, if any information professional wants to take on the truly daunting task of collecting, indexing, classifying and organising everything to do with The Drowned Man, they’ll need to get down to that boot sale with a hefty wad of cash…]

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Notes: “What is a fan?”

My current musings are centred on what a fan actually is, and as with most things, there’s no right or wrong answer to this question; although for the sake of clarity I have to get some sort of definition sorted out before I take the plunge and actually start researching them in earnest.

Reading Hills (2013) has prompted me to note a short summary of how fans should be ‘divided’, if not strictly delineated as a single entity.  The general consensus seems to be that fans exist on a continuum.  Abercrombie and Longhurst (1998) have posited the following:

CONSUMER    FAN   CULTIST  ENTHUSIAST  PETTY PRODUCER

Fiske (1992) thought that fans engage in three categories of fan productivity (although he conceived them as being analytical tools rather than iron clad sub-divisions):

SEMIOTIC : ENUNCIATIVE : TEXTUAL

Abercrombie and Longhurst sought to differentiate consumers from fans according to Fiske’s model of fan productivity:

CONSUMERS  Enunciative productivity

FANS  Textual productivity

Hills finds this too simplistic, especially in an era where “digital fandom collapses semiotic and enunciative productivity into hybridized or generalized textual productivity” (p. 150).  It’s worth bearing in mind that Fiske’s original model of fan productivity was formulated in 1992 when the internet had yet to go mainstream.  Therefore ‘fan talk’ – largely verbal in Fiske’s day – has seen a radical shift from the verbal to digital, non-face-to-face platforms.  Verbal enunciative productivity, of course, has not ‘disappeared’; but Hills sees the digital as having, to a large extent, collapsed the semiotic and enunciative into a more generalized form of textual productivity.  Therefore, he surmises, it is time to seek a new paradigm to explain the concept of fan productivity as a whole.

Hills also criticises Jenkins’ theory of participatory culture for being too broad in an age where Web 2.0 has afforded participatory activities on a wide range of levels by a large swathe of users; coupled with which, participatory activities have had a “long history in political theory, human geography, sociology, and design” (Wyatt et al., 2013).  He draws on the work of Shafer (2011) to construct a bipartite model of participatory culture which is more relevant:

EXPLICIT: the production of cultural artefacts by social groups which constructs and is constructed by group identity

IMPLICIT: the production of content which is not necessarily in the context of fan-based community

This is supported Busse and Gray (2011) and Wyatt et al., who also see fannish activities as taking place on a continuum, and remind us that such activities are not always the works of creativity so valourised by Jenkins and others.  It is worth then, not merely distinguishing fans as being uniquely engaged in participatory cultures; nor to focus on those fans which engage in ‘traditional’ forms of textual production such as fanfiction and fanart, as textual production of all types (e.g. writing wikis, guides, reviews or even comments) are part of the digital landscape of both fan and non-fan communities alike.

REFERENCES

  • Abercrombie, N. and Longhurst, B., 1998. Audiences: a sociological theory of performance and imagination. London: SAGE Publications Ltd.
  • Busse, K., and Gray, J., 2011. Fan Cultures and Fan Communities. In: Nightingale, V., ed. 2011. The handbook of media audiences, [online], Ch. 21.  Available at: Wiley Online Library <doi: 10.1002/9781444340525.ch21> [Accessed 27 November 2013].
  • Fiske, J., 1992. The cultural economy of fandom. In: Lewis, L. A., ed. 1992. Adoring audience: fan culture and popular media. London: Routledge. Ch.2
  • Hills, M., 2013. Fiske’s ‘textual productivity’ and digital fandom: web 2.0 democratization versus fan distinction? Participations: Journal of Audience & Receptions Studies, [online]. Available at:<http://www.participations.org/Volume%2010/Issue%201/9%20Hills%2010.1.pdf> [Accessed 13 November 2013].
  • Schäfer, M. T. , 2011. Bastard Culture! How User Participation Transforms Cultural Production, [e-book] Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press. Available at:<http://mtschaefer.net/media/uploads/docs/Schaefer_Bastard-Culture_2011.pdf> [Accessed 6 February 2014].
  • Wyatt, S., et al., 2013. Participatory Knowledge Production 2.0: Critical Views and Experiences.  Information, Communication & Society, [e-journal], 16 (2). Available at: Taylor Francis Online <http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/1369118X.2012.746382> [Accessed 13 November 2013].
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New article on fan comics and the everyday

Hi folks,

I’d like to draw your attention to an article I wrote that was recently published as part of the Multimodality of Comics in Everyday Life cluster on the Media Commons site.  The piece is called Fan Comics: Comics as Fan Sense-Making in the Everyday, and talks about how fans draw upon the everyday to create context for the comics they draw; and about how they create comics to make sense of their everyday experiences as a fan.

Special thanks goes to Jeanne and LevyRasputin for talking to me about their work, and kindly letting me reproduce their wonderful artwork.

And please do take the time to read some of the most excellent articles by my fellow scholars on comics and the everyday. 🙂

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User-generated representations and sense-making in fandom

Last Friday I happened to go to two very interesting talks hosted at City University London, one led by Simon Attfield, and the other by Blaise Cronin.  The latter was a walk through library and information science research and meta-research, given with the usual charismatic flair of the speaker.  The latter was a talk about how we make sense of material via user-generated representations, which I’m going to talk about here because much of it feeds into my research into fans and their information behaviour.

When presented with raw data, people choose to implement different strategies in order to make sense of what they are seeing/reading/witnessing etc.  They have to break down that raw data and arrange it in some ordered, coherent way that aids in transforming what is implicit into something explicit.  This is called schematising, and may take the form of diagrams, flowcharts, formulas, or narratives.  Attfield et al.’s studies showed that narrative was one of the more successful forms of user-generated representation when it came to making sense of a problem and the events related to it.  For example, witnesses to a crime were able to use narrative to better comprehend and cohere their thoughts and memories, even if their narrative did not follow any particular chronological order.  Witnesses would fill gaps in knowledge through narrative-making devices using what might be assumed to be their prior experience or understanding of the facts.  Whilst perhaps not strictly accurate, these sense-making strategies were successful because they were engaging and could explain investigatory activities more efficiently.  In other words, the more complex the sense-making process, the easier it is to elucidate our own cognitive processes.

This interests me because narrative structures are a significant proportion of fan sense-making activities.  Yes, I’m thinking of fanfiction in particular, but that isn’t the only form of narrative fans engage in.  There are also fan comics, poetry and essays, for example.  Chapter 5 of Henry Jenkins’ seminal Textual Poachers (2012; 1992) focuses on fanfiction and lists ten ways in which fan writers rework, remediate and renegotiate the source text.  It is striking just how many of these ways have to do with making sense of the inconsistencies in that text.

Producers of media narratives often do not have the same vested interest in a product and its characters that the fans do.  The entertainment industry is ratings-driven and therefore it is prone to tweaking characterisations, leaving plot threads untied, or cancelling a product before its narrative arc has been resolved.  Examples of this might be The Legacy of Kain series in videogames, Firefly in TV shows, and numerous comic titles that never found a readership.  This can leave many fans, who felt they had a personal stake in the characters and their development, or indeed, in the universe or narrative itself, feeling frustrated and let-down.  In some cases they may be left with many disparate fragments of a story or a character, that defy an easy or common-sense solution.  In other cases the producers will develop a narrative or a character in a way that some fans feel to be OOC (out of character), or outside the logic of the metatextual narrative (that is, the fan’s textual comprehension of the narrative as a whole entity).  In all these cases, fans may feel impelled to explore these shortcomings and fill in the gaps in their knowledge.  As Jenkins, referencing Star Trek: The Next Generation, opines:

[Fans pool] the information explicitly given about the character on the aired episodes… to offer a succession of speculations designed to account for a perplexing gap in the narrative information. (pp. 101-102)

and:

Just as other fan extrapolations override gaps in the narrative information, these speculations focus on kernels of excess information, background details tossed into ongoing stories.  Repeated viewings have placed increased attention on these narrative gaps and kernels, requiring fuller integration into the fans’ metatextual comprehension of the narrative world and character relationships. (p. 103)

In other words, the fan attempts to make sense of what they are presented with.  A series of television programmes, movies, books, comics, etc., can present a far more complex world, set of personalities or circumstances than we might encounter in our everyday sense-making activities.  For example, the Marvel Universe, its chronology and its hundreds of characters presents an entire world with its own internal logic, one that is often broken when a writer who has not done their research properly gets something wrong or develops a character in a way that ‘goes against the grain’.  Sometimes this may lead to a formal retcon by a later writer; mostly, fans – for whom these kinds of misrepresentations are important – struggle to fit them into the metatextual narrative they have of the Marvel Universe.  Mentally negotiating decades’ worth of a favoured character’s existence can be as challenging (if not more so) for the fan as arranging a witness statement of, say, a traffic violation or a criminal offence.

It is my contention that fanfiction is just one of the many sense-making tools that fans use to gain a better purchase on a complex body of information, or to reclaim a complex body of perceived conflicting information.  As Attfield et al. found in their studies, narrative structures better aid in the cohesion and exploration of complicated information ecologies, and, where there are gaps in knowledge, people draw on life experience to fill these in.  Considering this, it is perhaps natural that fans should choose to navigate their way through the metatextual narrative of fandom via narrative itself.  Indeed, fans seem to find this creative, expressive kind of documentary practice uniquely satisfying, engaging and rewarding.  Whether it is successful in terms of sense-making would make a fascinating area of further research.

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Announcing… My first ‘proper’ publication

Many thanks to the fantastic folks at The Comics Grid for reading, accepting and publishing my book review of The Adoring Audience.

For those interested in fan studies who haven’t read the book already, it is a recommended read.  I suppose I can’t ‘highly’ recommend it, as it’s about 20 years out-of-date.  But as a grounding in fan behaviour it is still entirely relevant, and is wide-ranging in its scope.  Not to mention which, it is one of the seminal fan studies text, so I suppose I should tout it as required reading, if that is your field of study, and particularly if you are coming at fan studies from a point of total ignorance.

Anyway, please do read the review if you’re interested, and I welcome any comments or thoughts you might have on the book.  And please do check out The Comics Grid if you’re interested in comics scholarship.

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