Punchdrunk and the Politics of Spectatorship

From Punchdrunk’s “Sleep No More” in NYC. Photo by Robin Roemer

There is a scene in Sleep No More when the mad Lady Macbeth takes a bath to try and wash Duncan’s blood from her hands. After the bath she stands up in the tub and raises her arms towards the audience gathered around her, inviting them to pass her a robe. One evening a few weeks ago, an audience member didn’t understand the cue. When Lady M rose from the bath naked, wet and shivering, and stretched out her arms, the audience member, confused, returned the gesture and moved to embrace her. The performer playing Lady M broke character, screamed, and a group of black-masked crew materialized to escort the spectator from the show.

Every piece of performance, whether intentionally or not, creates its own model for the relationship between the spectator and the performer. There is a long history of experimentation with that relationship, and developments are often co-incident with challenges to, or re-imaginings of, political and societal systems. Brecht’s Epic Theater reframed the relationship for his ideal audience of active citizens willing to change society. Augusto Boal took this active engagement a step further in his Forum Theater, created in Brazil under military rule, inviting the audience to step inside the piece and alter the situations it portrayed. And in New York the idealism of the late Sixties set the scene for companies like the Living Theater and the Performance Group, who, with Dionysus in 69, created the granddaddy of Punchdrunk’s“immersive” form. Understood as part of this genealogy, Punchdrunk’s current New York hit Sleep No More points to a potentially troubling way that this spectator-performer relationship is being reconfigured for our consumption-obsessed time.

According to Sleep No More‘s website, “Since 2000 Punchdrunk have pioneered a game changing form of immersive theater in which roaming audiences experience epic storytelling inside sensory theatrical worlds.” Punchdrunk seems to have sprung from a particular art-world trend of the same time: Christopher Buchel, the Swiss artist who creates site-specific immersive pieces where audience members hunt for clues inside hyper-realist film-style sets, had been making work since the 1990s; in 2001 Mike Nelson, a British artist who works with site specific installations, was nominated for the Turner Prize; that same year GregorScheider won the Golden Lion at the Venice Biennale for his work Totes Haus u r, an installation of a house with moving walls and hidden rooms that the audience could explore. Punchdrunk’s work adds live performers to these “immersive” installations.

Sleep No More was created by the company in 2003, and restaged in Boston 2009 at ART, where Diane Paulus had taken over as artistic director. Paulus’ career has been built on that is innovative and ‘edgy’ (often experimenting with re-configurations of the audience/performance relationship), while still maintaining commercial appeal. The show that launched her career was The Donkey Show, a roller-rink version of Midsummer Night’s Dream staged in a downtown nightclub. The Donkey Show was conceived of by Randy Weiner, a playwright and Paulus’s husband who is one-third of EMURSIVE, the production company responsible for the commercial run of Sleep No More in New York.

Sleep No More follows a formula that Punchdrunk has perfected over the course of many shows. The piece is staged in a non-theater space–in this case, across six floors of warehouse on West 27th Street. The warehouse has been transformed into the ‘McKittrick Hotel,’ (a reference to Hitchcock’s Vertigo) complete with a fictional history that is outlined on the website. Inside the ‘hotel,’ sets are rendered with meticulous precision; bedrooms complete with drawers of paper, and cupboards full of period dresses; a taxidermy shop with half-finished specimens on trays; a forest with a low fog hugging the ground and the trunks of the trees.

The narrative is based loosely on Macbeth, the aesthetic is Hitchcock-noir, and scenes take place throughout the building. The audience wears white masks to distinguish them from the unmasked performers, and they are free to explore the space and encounter scenes by chance, or to follow a particular performer on their ‘loop’. Popular performers end up like the Pied Piper, with crowds of masked audience members chasing them through the building. (Sometimes in the show I’d turn a corner and encounter a beautiful, usually half-naked, dancer running through a corridor, with a horde of masked spectators tripping and shoving and elbowing each other to keep up with them.) The vignettes the audience encounters are mostly highly athletic dances, and the piece is almost entirely without text. Occasionally a performer might mumble “out, out damn spot,” or a similarly iconic line, but for the most part the story and the relationships are expressed physically rather than verbally.

Some of the scenes are mesmerizingly beautiful. The dinner at which Banquo’s ghost appears is staged high up in a giant ballroom, and backlit so that bodies cut through light and fog in slow-motion, literally climbing the walls, the table, each other, as the dinner party descends into chaos. The prophecy scene with the three witches becomes a wild orgy to pounding drum and bass, with one ‘boy-witch’ stripped naked, covered in blood and wearing the head of a ram, an ecstatic ritual that made me think of Herman Nitsch’s Orgien Mysterien Theater.

Another startling thing about the Punchdrunk experience, and one that the company has used since the beginning, are the one-on-ones, moments when a spectator will be singled out by the performer and taken to a private space to experience a scene alone with the actor. For the majority of the performance, even though the traditional spatial relationship is broken down and spectators surround the performers, the performers seem to carry with them an imaginary “fourth wall,” rarely acknowledging the audience’s existence. When they do appear to see me, as a member of the audience, I feel very much a part of their fiction, like a ghost they have caught sight of, frightening and distant. In this context the one-on-ones become visceral and shocking: Performers will touch you, kiss you, remove your mask and stare into your eyes.

The meticulous beauty of the sets and scenes, the freedom to move through the space, the shock of those one-on-ones, all make for an addictive formula. Since the show opened in New York, it has acquired a cult following of ‘superfans’ who attend the show repeatedly and extend the experience online. One superfan, a woman in her fifties, travels in from out of town to see all the weekend shows–up to 12 hours of SNM in two days. Another superfan I spoke with has attended the show 37 times and counting, and runs a blog called They Have Scorched the Snake…but not killed it, bitches!, where fans share their experiences of the show, confess crushes on performers, and post fan-art and fan-fiction. On other blogs such as The Bloody Business, the participants engage in role-play, take on personae such as ‘Thane of Glamis’ or ‘Cawdor’, and joke about 12-step programs to quit the SNM habit. Some superfans collect show memorabilia in keepsake boxes, and post photos of their treasures online. Others create art for the cast: one has crafted voodoo dolls for each of the performers, replicating their features, hairstyles, and the costumes of their characters. A superfan even infiltrated the ranks of the SNM interns, smuggling out information on performers ‘tracks’ (allowing superfans to know who will be playing which character when); and stage managers find documents around the set printed on ‘McKittrick Hotel’ stationary which have been created and distributed by superfans, checklists for navigating the piece.

With theaters and art institutions straining to keep up with digital entertainment forms, and hosting talks, themed post show dinners, or book clubs to try and cultivate a community among audience members, the level of loyalty and identification this grassroots fandom feels for SNM is an anomaly. So what exactly is it in the Sleep No More formula that inspires it?

1. Commerce

The New York Sleep No More is now in the hands of commercial producers, who ultimately control the production. But Punchdrunk’s willingness to tie their work to commercial interests extends to recent UK productions, too. Lyn Gardner, writing in the UK paper the Guardian, in an article titled “Is this a sell out I see before me?”, describes recent Punchdrunk projects developed as marketing strategies for companies: Creating a live experience of a zombie videogame for Sony, or events to promote Stella Artois. Gardner concedes that partnerships with business might be a canny move in these “cash-strapped” times, or in any times if it helps the company to create their own work. The thing she finds troubling is when these commercial concerns begin to undermine a company’s own productions, concluding, “rarely have I seen a more commercially minded show than Punchdrunk’s current stateside hit, Sleep No More.”

It’s true that the show has built commerce into its structure. After standing in line on West 27th Street, the first stop is a themed bar where I wait until my group number is called. And yes, the drinks are overpriced, as is the Sleep No More Book, a kind of glorified program that someone tries to sell you as you leave at the end of the night. But overpriced drinks and programs are familiar from any Broadway show, as are the high ticket prices ($75-$95). The producers’ innovation is to extend the theme of the show into a kind of Sleep No More brand.

There is a second bar that opened recently on the roof of the building, targeted at the general public rather than show goers, where the prices for punch start at $50. Construction has begun on a themed restaurant just below it. The website for the show features a ‘hotel gift shop’, and a ‘guestbook’ with quotes from celebrities like Pink and Leonardo diCaprio. The space is also regularly used for themed parties, and is hired out by businesses for events. On a recent night a late booking came in for a group of 100. Usually a group this large would be given a separate time slot, but that night was booked, so the producers squeezed them into an already full show. An American employee involved with the piece remarked that “at this point Punchdrunk have lost control.”

The commercial trappings maybe justifiable from a producer’s point of view, and it’s difficult to unpack which of these choices are Punchdrunk’s and which are Emursive’s. But this isn’t just commercial add-ons around the edges of a performance, here commerce is the heart of the piece, the motor of the Punchdrunk’s artistic machine, regardless of whether the company or the producers are responsible for the booze and merchandise that surround the production. The relationship of consumer to product colors every aspect of the piece, and creates the architecture for the interaction between audience and performer.

Felix Barrett, the artistic director of Punchdrunk, stated in an interview with a UK paper that he made work by ”listening to the building and hearing what it wants to have performed inside it.” And while the visual artists who are Punchdrunk’s contemporaries, such as Buchel and Scheider, create work that is in dialogue with the architecture or the socio-political currents of the surrounding neighborhoods, Sleep No More has taken a building with a strange and rich history, and painted over it with the fiction of the McKittrick. (The building on West 27th Street that houses the show was previously home to Twilo, the infamous Chelsea club whose debauchery makes the Sleep No More ‘orgy’ scene look like something out of Disney theme park.) And the McKittrick is a broken metaphor. It doesn’t illuminate much about the play, and somehow contains within it–as well as hotel rooms–a forest and a ruin. What it does well is help to sell things, providing a theme for all those extra bars, restaurants, and memorabilia.

Punchdrunk’s project in the pipe-lines is “Punchdrunk Travel,” an “overseas holidays in which real-life and theater become indistinguishable.” Felix Barrett, the company’s artistic director, said in an interview with UK paper the Independent, “It’s unbelievable seeing what it does to an audience. They’re in a crowded street and anyone on it could be a performer in the film of their life. That level of theatrical threat is amazing.” The level of narcissism in this statement is also pretty incredible. The world and its inhabitants are reduced to extras in the film of the spectator’s life. It’s the opposite of Augusto Boal’s Invisible Theater, in which the performers are disguised among the crowds in the street, their actions potentially real, with the potential to disturb and disrupt. In Punchdrunk Travel, the actions of the public are potentially theatrical and so all threat is removed, as is any basic human urge to intervene. The spectator is a passive consumer not just in the context of the theater but in the context of the world.

2. Desire

To understand the paradigm Punchdrunk is setting up for the performer-spectator relationship, it’s worth considering the “one-on-ones,” the moments of private interaction.

Of the one-on-ones that I experienced or heard about, the defining features seemed to be seduction and fear, and, through both, a rendering of the spectator powerless. One I experienced involved being confined to a wheelchair and tipped horizontal while a beautiful young nurse sped me down dark corridors and stroked my neck. In another a “sexy-witch” cradles the spectator and feeds them tea by the spoonful. In the first of these the eroticism is dependent on paralyzed, in the second infantilized. I asked the artistic associate of the show here in New York about the sex-and-violence themes and she responded that while other emotions are possible, “seduction and fear are really strong.” She added, “A good one-on-one should perhaps make you fall in love.” And one of the performers explained, “Part of the thing they fall in love with is the escapism from their lives. You can forget yourself.”

Superfans often cite these one-on-ones as the moment that their obsession was ignited. They will recount them in minute detail on the blogs, as if recounting an encounter with a lover. Strangely, the posts never refer to the character, but always to the actor playing the character that night (performers know multiple roles and revolve through them depending on the evening). It’s never a scene with “Macbeth,” or a one-on-one with “Malcolm,” but always “Nicolas Bruder’s Macbeth,” or “William Pop’s Malcolm.”

I asked one of the cast members about why this might be, and he replied that the proximity to the performers allows the audience “to project onto those characters a version of themselves they’d like to be, a lover they’d like to have, a life they’d like to live.” In this understanding of it, the relationship between audience and performer is reconfigured to mirror that of consumer to advertisement. And in a closing of the circle between the commercial trappings of the show and the philosophy of the piece itself, the producers take advantage of this by selling the Punchdrunk book, which allows you to see which cast member played which role on the night you saw the show–to put a name to the face of your imagined lover. Desire is created, and then capitalized upon.

3. Agency

Any performance which shakes up the traditional spatial relationship between audience and performer, or which invites interactivity at any level, needs to deal with the repercussions of handing agency to the audience. There are performances–like Yoko Ono’s Cut Piece–where the performer relinquishes control entirely, where the proposition of the piece is to see how far, and in what direction, the audience will take its freedom. A different challenge is to find the balance between audience agency and the demands of a narrative. One evening during the Performance Group’s Dionysus in 69 a group of students tested the limits of the freedom the piece seemed to be offering by intervening in the action to kidnap the actor playing Pentheus, preventing his character’s death in the play. The Performance Group responded by inviting an audience volunteer to take on the role of Pentheus, allowing them to continue with the narrative and finish the piece.

In Sleep No More, there is a surprising lack of audience disruption. The artistic associate for New York explained it as a sensitivity on the part of the audience: “If you haven’t heard anyone speak for an hour, then people who are sensitive to the world we create don’t feel the need to speak.” I have a feeling it might be to do with the strength of the illusion that the piece creates. The power of the design, the totality of the illusion, creates a world so watertight that in my white mask I feel less a participant engaged in an interaction with it, and more like a powerless ghost gliding through it.

But the power of the atmosphere is not always enough. And on the odd occasion the most sensitive audience member can become confused by the degree of permissible intimacy. So what’s the back-up solution? As in the incident with the bathtub and Lady M, it is the black-masked attendants waiting in the shadows to escort the audience member from the show. It’s the touch-and-go policy of a strip club.

And even if the disruption is not a threat to the safety of the performers, possible ruptures in the fabric of the piece are quickly tamped down. The night I attended, an audience member challenged the implicit dynamic of the show by beginning a performance of her own, a kind of spasmodic dance just off to one side of where the scene was happening. She neither spoke, nor touched the performers, nor removed her mask (the three rules of the space that are spelled out at the beginning), and as she danced a group of audience formed around her, distracted from the official entertainment. Immediately, two black-masked crew members materialized to put a stop to it.

In Dionysus in 69 the modes of interaction reflected the idealism of a company concerned with breaking the hierarchy between audience and performer, and at their core suggested a trust of the audience. Sleep No More is predicated upon a basic suspicion of the audience. The way the piece is designed limits my desire to act or intervene–and if I don’t respond to suggestion, it will remove me from the show. It’s safe and smooth, but hypocritical. There is the illusion of choice and agency, but the offer is rigidly circumscribed, and the only real role allowed to me is that of passive voyeur, consuming the actions, images and sounds of the piece. I can open this drawer or that drawer, follow this actor or another. I have a choice, but it changes nothing. I’m a passive ghost moving through this illusion. And the only agency granted to me is the capacity to consume.

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