Part One: The Experience
As far as participatory culture goes, there’s quite a bit of literature out there in relation to videogames, TV shows, movies, cartoons, comics, and other so-called fandoms. People become part of a world; they immerse themselves in it; they absorb it, remediate it, regurgitate it. They expand on these worlds, banding together to create communities that pool information and resources, thus facilitating the creation of their own texts and cultural artefacts. In essence they create their own (digital?) information cultures.
But what about when the world we build our fantasies and participatory cultures on actually exists in “physical reality”?
Last Friday I got the chance to witness a participatory culture outside of the internet. And what I found enthralled and surprised me.
The Drowned Man is a production by theatre company, Punchdrunk, who are known for their challenging, interactive shows. I had heard rave reviews from a friend, who has since become a fan of the production, and who described it as “an alternate universe that you can just slide into whenever you like”. Now I’m generally not a theatre-goer – I like the odd musical now and then, but I can count the plays I’ve seen on one hand. Nevertheless, my friend’s description of The Drowned Man had me intrigued. When I finally took the time to go and see it, what I knew was only what he had told me: that it’s immersive theatre, that it takes place in a four-storey disused industrial warehouse; that there are two storylines which loop three times; that you can do whatever or go wherever you want in the show (bar talking); that you should wear comfortable shoes (lots of walking!); and that you have to wear a mask.
If you think this sounds demanding from a theatre production, you’d be right. The physicality of the drama sounded rather daunting, to say the least. By the day of the showing, whilst we queued outside waiting to be given admittance, I was excited yet nervous of what lay ahead of me. Finally the doors opened into a ramshackle, dreary old warehouse; we off-loaded our possessions in the cloakroom, were handed a mask —
And so the experience commenced.
We were led into a lift, in which was waiting a ‘lift girl’ – one of the show’s 30 or so characters – and, whilst she was introducing the fictional world of Temple Studios (a movie studio set somewhere in the late 50’s/early 60’s) and its characters, something rather mundane but very strange happened – she reached out and touched the face of one of the ‘audience’. You will notice that I put the word ‘audience’ in inverted commas, because I didn’t feel like I was part of an audience. What I felt like was any of the following: a bystander, a witness, a participant, a spectator. But not the passive sort of creature that the word ‘audience’ tends to conjure up.
And that was extremely unnerving.
My friend, who had come along with me, told me he was going to walk me through the first loop so that I could follow the ‘main storyline’ (or at least one of the main storylines – there are several depending on which character you follow). Then the plan was to leave me to make my own way through the following two loops. He led me through to the room where the first scene was playing out. Cue crawling ambient soundtrack, the two leads dancing to a yearning Shangri-La’s number against an amazingly atmospheric (and HUGE) set. A group of ‘audience’ members were gathered, watching silently behind their masks. About five minutes later the scene was over and the female lead rushed past us, leading us to her dressing room. A couple of the audience wandered off to follow the male lead; most of us followed the girl.
By this time I was beginning to realise that the actors were completely able to get up close and personal to us if they wanted to. Some of them would touch you, hold your gaze, even speak to you, bringing you into the performance, making you a part of the story. Ten minutes in, and I wasn’t sure I was liking this at all. In short – it felt very uncomfortable. For much of our modern culture we have been spoon-fed our entertainment, passive observers who have no control and who are eternally separated from the object of our observation by the so-called ‘fourth wall’. In the massive, dream-like world of The Drowned Man, the only thing that is there to serve as the fourth wall – as your protection from letting this half-dream become a reality – is the mask each audience member has to wear. The realisation that one has complete autonomy and independence in this world is a profound yet uneasy one; and for a while into the first act (or loop, I should say), I really didn’t want to leave my friend’s side. I felt I needed something to ground me, to anchor me into some semblance of normalcy.
At some point, however, the immersive pull draws you in and curiosity gets the better of you. There are so many threads, people, concepts, ideas and objects to follow. You find yourself constantly making choices. Should I follow this character instead of the one I’ve spent the past 15 minutes getting to know? Do I skulk at the back and drink it all in, or get as up close and personal as possible and hope that the actor draws me into their performance? Or do I abandon the ‘storyline’ all together and spend some time wandering through the set, reading letters and looking for visual points of reference?
And there is that choice. If you so wished, you could spend 3 hours rummaging through the vast set. There are many hidden objects that are there to catch the eye and expand on the story and/or the universe. The backdrop is scattered with documents – books, magazines, letters, postcards, notebooks, scripts, bills, timetables, agendas, pamphlets, albums, memos, and so on – that are accessible for both actors and audience to interact with. Not only do they add to the realism of the piece, but they also expand on plot points that are briefly alluded to in the narrative; some objects have a triple purpose, serving as both prop, plot device and historical artefact/document from the world of Temple Studios. Spending your time avoiding the narrative to explore the set can really enrich the entire experience, and perhaps give you cause to thank the autonomy that was at first so unnerving.
And then there are the characters (about 30 in all), who act (and re-act) out this one pivotal hour of their lives. There is certainly something voyeuristic about observing their actions in such a closed, personal space; but whilst the experience is immersive, it is also interactive. At key points in each character’s story arc, they will take a member of the audience to share their narrative in a personal, one-on-one encounter. In this way one becomes an actor in the world of Temple Studios; one’s actions are imbued with significance within that world, forever locked in one of the endless cycles the characters replay. In a sense, each performance is unique – or each loop is unique – because, while the audience’s actions do not affect the overall story for each character, they leave a singular imprint upon each retelling of the story which is impossible to reproduce.
The more one engages with the performance, the more one feels less voyeuristic and more of an actor with a real sense of agency. The audience is invited to invest themselves in the lives of the characters, in their environment, their belongings and possessions, their world. It is impossible to take it all in in one 3 hour showing; indeed, many people have returned time and again to re-experience Temple Studio’s pocket universe; to discover new characters, follow unfinished threads from a previous showing, tie up loose ends, uncover hidden secrets, or simply just to forget the outside world for a while. It’s not for everyone – the freedom to choose and be autonomous can be deeply unsettling – and The Drowned Man offers just that slightly off-kilter sensation. Like a lucid dream where you find yourself in the middle of a nightmare that you can eerily control, yet of which you are unable to affect the final outcome, its experiential power is one of immediacy, something to be lived in but whose internal structure cannot be unmade or reformed.
So was it worth it? Absolutely. Enough for me to want to go back and dip my toe inside that moonlit pool again. For the curious, the intrepid explorer, the participator, the immersive media junkie – this play is for you. For others, the ephemeral nature of the performance may be unsettling, disorientating, disappointing, frustrating. Be that as it may, it is certainly worth the ride, if only to say you’ve tried something new and different.
My only criticism?
The masks can be hellishly uncomfortable. If the guys at PunchDrunk would like to consider a redesign, just give me a call… 😉
Continued in Part II…