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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The Drowned Man – A Review (from an LIS perspective) – Part II

Continued from Part I.

Part Two: The Drowned Man as a participatory culture.

Further to my previous discussion of The Drowned Man as a universe encapsulating its own internal logic and narrative structure, it is perhaps unsurprising that some members of the ‘audience’ choose to take that universe and give it a life of its own in the ‘real world’.

Immersion, is after all, is “the complete involvement in some activity or interest” (Miriam-Webster, 2013).  Why should immersion take place only in or at the point of initial engagement?  Why should it not follow us into our everyday lives (and thus extend and perhaps complete that sense of involvement into what might be called ‘total immersion’)?

For some who participate in The Drowned Man experience, the original site of immersion is not enough.  They wish to extend this sense of total engagement outside of that site and create an extended sense of immersion in their everyday lives.

In fact, the more I think about it, the more I believe that that is all fans are doing – extending the sense of immersion in a particular text, narrative or cultural artefact into the ‘real world’.

I’m not sure whether followers of The Drowned Man would call themselves fans, but there are some points of intersection with what I will call fans of popular culture.  Not the least of which is the object of their fannish activities, which is the performance itself.  The Drowned Man remediates and appropriates the narrative and cultural language of other media that attracts fan cohesion, participation and behaviour.  Its visual and textual structure harkens to other forms of entertainment, most notably film, television and the videogame, which marry images (in particular motion pictures), narrative, and sensations of immediacy.  It is also related to other textual (though perhaps less immediate) forms (both analogue or digital), such as books, comics, plays, musicals, cartoons, concerts and other narrative-driven, immersive or storytelling devices.  Such qualities invite an audience to immerse themselves in an alternate world or universe, or to project ourselves (or, indeed, a narrative) onto that world.  In so doing it also invites us to immerse ourselves fully outside the point of initial contact.  Those passionate enough about a text will seek extended immersion through the further remediation of the source text; through the perceived improvement of that text; through networking with other fans/remediators; and through the building of social/cultural/knowledge capital via such networks.

In short – cultural texts, artefacts or phenomena such as The Drowned Man (or The Matrix, Lord of the Rings, X-Men, Les Miserables, The Simpsons, Lost, One Direction, to name but a very few) invite an audience; and through remediation, the audience seeks in some way to become a performer of that text.

As Daniel Cavicchi (2008) explains:

I tend to think of it [fandom] as a degree of audiencing, a realm of marked cultural participation that is always relative to, and defined against “normal” or unmarked cultural participation […] [I]nstances of audiencing has mostly to do with the commodification of culture, which depends on a radical – and sometimes playfully manipulative – reworking of the relationships between performer and audience.

In this and the next part of the review, I’d like to focus on the ‘fannish’ activities of followers of The Drowned Man – on the building of their community, their commodification/remediation of The Drowned Man text, and the recasting of themselves as performers within that cultural text.

A small disclaimer: as a relative outsider to the community (or someone who has one foot in the proverbial door), it was left to my friend to open my eyes to its activities and behaviours – I cannot claim to accurately represent The Drowned Man fan community or any of its individual members.  My thoughts are based solely on my own experiences of the genre (with a little help from my friend); and on what I have gleaned from the online fan groups available on the Web.

The Knowledge Gatekeepers

One of the great things about participatory culture is that there is no gatekeeper.

Everyone owns a little piece of knowledge that they can share if they so wish.

The Drowned Man is vast in scale – so vast, in fact, and so chock full of cultural references that it is well nigh impossible to unravel or document them all as a single individual.  One stands a much better chance of comprehending the whole if one pools resources, knowledge and information.  It’s the reason why sites like Wikipedia work so well.  It’s because no one single person holds the keys to all the knowledge contained therein.  It’s because everyone holds a key and can throw the door open onto their own insights and expertise.

The first piece of documentation all audience members are handed before going into the performance – a summary of the two main storylines. Image courtesy of Mild Concern.

There are a couple of digital Drowned Man communities that I am aware of on Facebook.  One of them is a closed group (though is by no means stringent about who they let in), which is gradually aggregating information about the production.  The Drowned Man Content Discussion Group is a prime example of a participatory culture, as it acts as a hub for people to exchange thoughts, ideas and knowledge on the object of their interest; it is also a place to hang out; and it also a growing archive of material related to that object of interest.

For example, looking into their Files section, you’ll find cast lists; cast galleries; maps of the set; soundtrack playlists; and so-called ‘cheat sheets’.  There are also scans of documents from the set that aid in fan’s world-building activities, and shed light on the world itself.

Playlists can also be found on YouTube and Spotify, depending on your preference; and then there are tumblr blogs that share recaps of individual shows, and the thoughts and reactions of ‘audience’ members.  Again, because experiences of the show are very subjective there are intersections in fan narratives of the text, but also wildly divergent documentations of those experiences.  It is important to note that fans do not only put out their own views on the production; they also take the time to read and remark on other people’s observations.  This can lead to the serendipitous discovery of many aspects of the show that were previously hidden.  It can also lead to connections between participants who share common opinions, interests, or attachments to certain characters.  As yet, however, there does not seem to be a cohesive, centralised fan community for The Drowned Man.  This may be because the community is still in the nascent stage; it may also be because the fandom itself is relatively ‘niche’.  The Temple Studios tumblr blog has attempted to draw together a resource of online sites about The Drowned Man, but it is difficult to say how comprehensive or current this list actually is.

Another factor which may also be affecting cohesion of the TDM fan community is the fact that sharing information about your experiences appears to be highly contentious.  The Drowned Man Content Discussion Group qualifies itself by adding a “Contains SPOILERS” warning to its title, warding off those who might not want their experience of the show contaminated.  Some amateur reviews of the production have been marked with the spoiler warning; or have been encouraged by other fans (whether politely or not-so-politely) to carry a spoiler warning.  The visceral nature of the show, and its hyper-stylised, highly-symbolised themes, in turn invite visceral reactions to the show and its characters.  Consequently, many audience members invest themselves emotionally in The Drowned Man, and thus develop a protective relationship with it.  Other members may find a thrill in uncovering one of the show’s many mysteries and having ownership of that knowledge.  In sharing that knowledge they are able to develop their own knowledge/social/cultural capital, and because of this many feel the need to share what may be considered spoilers in order capitalise on that knowledge and/or add to the community as a whole.  This tension between the potential spoiler and the anti-spoiler fans is certainly apparent in the TDM community, and is testament to the high emotional investment of its members in the world of Temple Studios.

It is interesting, then, to compare the TDM fan community with other, spoiler-based groups such as the Survivor fans studied by Henry Jenkins in Convergence Culture (2006).  With the Survivor fans, the legitimacy and veracity of those fans who apparently knew too much was always questioned.  Can the information be relied on?  What is the ulterior motive of the person who provided the information?  Are the rumours true, or are they misinformation?

With fans of TDM, however, veracity appears always to be assumed in the quest to unravel a mystery to which there are no YES or NO answers, no right or wrong, no winner or loser.  Instead the questions are – Do I want to know this piece of information?  Is this going to ruin my experience?  Is it simply too much information?  This is similar to the conundrum faced by fans in many fandoms, although TDM fans can also add another dimension to that list of questions.  Namely: Will this ruin the projected relationship I can build with a character?  And will it ruin the projected relationship I can build with the story itself (bearing in mind that the story is, essentially, fluid, non-linear, discontinuous, and malleable to the imprint of audience members)?

The TDM community treads a precarious line between knowledge as potential ally in fan world-building, and as potential destroyer of the world they have already built for (and by) the production itself.

Knowledge of the text makes TDM fans owners and performers of the text – but how one chooses to perform the text may take on a wide variety of forms.

There are those who perform at the initial site of engagement, as potential actors and agents on the set.

There are those who act as information brokers and resource builders within the fan community.

Some perform the text through documenting and reliving their experience of it.

Others perform it via creative re-interpretation in a variety of different media.

Continued in Part III

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The Drowned Man – A Review (from an LIS perspective) – Part I

Part One: The Experience

Poster for ‘The Drowned Man’. Courtesy of PunchDrunk and The National Theatre.

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

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