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Immersed in Punchdrunk

An AHRC-funded doctoral student has been the first to benefit from being embedded in an innovative theatre company.

The beauty of the AHRC Collaborative Doctoral Awards is that they offer doctoral students the chance to embed themselves with organisations outside of their normal learning environment, while offering universities the opportunity to build strong bonds with those organisations. In the case of University of Exeter’s Collaborative Doctoral Award, this was simply the chance to cement a relationship with former students who had gone on to great things in the world of theatre.

Thus, the drama studentship in Audience Immersion: Environment, Interactivity, Narrative in the work of Punchdrunk formalised what had been a casual relationship that the immersive theatre group had maintained with the university since their undergraduate days there.

Punchdrunk's 'Sleep No More', 2010. Photo by Thom Kaine

“Felix Barrett, Peter Higgins and Euan Maybank of Punchdrunk are all Exeter drama department graduates,” says Dr Jane Milling, senior lecturer at the University of Exeter. “They worked together on a final project as part of the degree and made this extraordinary piece of theatre that was like nothing I had experienced before. They captured something and that show had all the elements of what people would recognise as a Punchdrunk show now. You were isolated, you walked through a series of environments, there was music and there were all kinds of discoveries to make, sometimes having to do something to activate an experience.”

Milling got in touch with her former students as they developed their own canon of immersive theatre, with conversation soon turning to the idea of PhD students being allowed to have their own immersive experience, in Punchdrunk's offices, rehearsals and shows. Drawing up guidelines together, the Punchdrunk team and Milling set about creating a framework that would allow students to examine just how the magic happens. It also played to Milling's interests regarding questions of community, creativity and interactivity.

“I think we wanted to look at the immersive experience that audiences were having,” says Milling. “There weren't specific tasks to be achieved. We wanted to look at the quality of that immersion and at how Punchdrunk as a theatre company work with different levels of that experience, from the moment you book your ticket to being in the pub afterwards with your mates.”

Conor Doyle, Ed Warner, Omar Gordon, Tomislav English and Vinicius Salles in Punchdrunk's 'The Drowned Man: A Hollywood Fable'. Photo by Birgit and Ralph

Dr Milling has no doubt as to the value of studying Punchdrunk’s work, as she believes that they have been at the forefront of a sea change in the way that we experience stories. They were among the first in theatre to recognise and act upon the fact that younger audiences are as used to the narrative arc of a video game as they are that of a play, film or television programme. After all, what could be more immersive than a world you have to keep your eyes on, lest your character get killed? And what could be more experiential than a world that you can interact act with, change and control? Video and computer games offer all of this and this area of research was very familiar to the PhD drama student who took on the first Collaborative Doctoral Award with Punchdrunk.

Dr Rose Biggin spent a lot of her time looking specifically at the idea of being immersed in a piece of work and what that meant in the context of a Punchdrunk show. From the start of her PhD in 2010 to the end of it in summer 2014 Biggin asked what this term meant and what it did not.

“I read some of Punchdrunk's fan mail and spoke to long-term fans to try to see how they were talking about the immersive experience,” says Biggin. “I was interested in whether it was a binary thing. Whether there was sitting down and watching, being passive and then getting up and moving about, being active. The more I looked at Punchdrunk's work the more I would see how they mixed up group performances, one-on-ones, big spaces, small spaces. It was an interplay between these things that tended to lead to immersive experience, and it was not as simple as you are more immersed because you are able to interact.”

Fernanda Prata and Jesse Kovarsky in Punchdrunk's 'The Drowned Man: A Hollywood Fable'. Photo by Birgit and Ralph

Biggin was also interested in placing Punchdrunk's work in a wider context, not just of theatre but of immersion as a whole. Looking at settings from IMAX cinemas to theme parks, Biggin considered these alternative immersive spaces alongside early performance art clubs in New York. Although she is keen to point out that immersive is not simply code for interaction or even distraction.

“When you're fully immersed in something like a Punchdrunk performance you are completely mentally engaged with it,” she says. “The point is that you are not looking at your phone. It is a powerful focus and engagement with one thing. It is the opposite of that simple idea of interaction. It is almost a luxury to get to turn your phone off now and just focus on one thing. I looked at computer game studies, aesthetics, and cognitive psychology to explore the way I was thinking about immersive experience in this new context.”

The relationship between Punchdrunk and the university meant that they were happy to open up their archives, rehearsals and half-built sets to Biggin. She also got close to various sections of their audience in order to understand what they got from the experience, be it a one-time thing or from those who make sure they see everything that Punchdrunk make.

“There was quite a range,” says Biggin. “I was expecting it to be arts- and theatre-heavy. But there were lots of people who would not identify as having a career related to the arts. Some people I spoke to said they would not go to see traditional theatre but would make an effort to go to Punchdrunk shows. Immersive experience is a lot more complex than you may think. At the moment we see it as being in the room and you get to at least view some interactivity, probably in a decorative space with the sort of things we understand “immersive theatre” to mean. But it can be a lot more than that.”

Having such a successful group on hand to inspire students is an amazing resource for any drama department to have and there is another added bonus too. “I don't think they realise, but they have been a phenomenal recruitment tool for the department,” says Dr Jane Milling. “To be the place that Punchdrunk hail from has been a wonderful thing to lure potential students with.” However, research into the work of Punchdrunk also looks to continue at the University of Exeter, as its drama department keeps the channels of communication open and adopts members of the growing theatre collective as research fellows.

Punchdrunk's 'The Masque of The Red Death'. Photo by Stephen Dobbie

Article by Iain Aitch

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