I find my way through Troy’s maze of alleyways and come in through the side door. To call the space small would be gross exaggeration; just four place settings fit around the tiny L-shaped bar.
With just a few other guests around, the bartender is cleaning up. I squeeze my way to the end, past a wall covered in cloth squares, past the main door, planting myself on a stool and giving my weary feet some rest.
He clearly has a routine, as though he’s cycled through this eternally: up come the plants, then the shot glasses, then the menus, then the trays. Perhaps I’m too late? He wipes down the bar with a damp cloth from end to end.
A fresh shot glass is pulled from underneath the bar. But rather than fill it, he places it on its side and gives it a spin. Through the windows we can still see the bustle of people passing by – perhaps to the larger, louder bar down the block – as we wait quietly for the glass to settle.
The bottom of the glass points my way. The bartender catches my glance, and beckons me to the center of the bar. We lean in as he takes out a napkin.
“When you reach the end, there are only two things that matter,” he whispers as his red pen flutters over the napkin. “The things that you regret. And the things that you are thankful for.”
He unfolds and refolds the napkin, creating two squares. He points to the one to my left.
“Something you regret.”
He holds his hands over the napkin as shelter as I take the pen and write. He folds the napkin over my writing, then points to the other side.
“Something you’re thankful for.”
Again, I scribble under his cupped hands. I return the pen as he folds the napkin back into a small square and smiles.
“We will take good care of this for you.”
I nod. He raises a bottle.
“One for the road?”
“Please.” It is the only word I’ve spoken in a while.
He pours the clear liquid into a measure, and the measure into the shot glass. I raise the glass in a silent toast, lower my mask, and down the…sake? Grappa? Pisco? Whatever it is lingers on my tongue for minutes.
He rounds the bar with my napkin in hand, approaches the wall covered in cloth squares, and pins it to an open spot.
There is nothing more to be said. The guests filter out; the bartender continues about his business; and after a moment, I take my leave – this time through the front door.
Punchdrunk’s The Burnt City is playing at Woolwich Arsenal in London for the foreseeable future.
The world of immersive theatre is now a broad church indeed. It’s a word Barrett consistently resists using. “We’ve never been one to try to define,” he says. “I think if you can define it, then it’s less exciting for an audience. I’m driven by trying to ask questions of form, and trying to pre-empt things, or explore nooks and crannies that have yet to have a torchlight shone into them. Immersive is such a buzzword – but there’s a new word coming.” And for Barrett, where this new language will come from is through more cross-discipline exploration, in particular the fusing of immersive work with game mechanics. The seeds of this were sown years ago when Sleep No More was listed as the game of the year in an American newspaper round-up. “They reviewed the show as if it were a video game,” Barrett remembers. “And it was a real penny-drop moment. And so we tried to deconstruct the mechanics of games and understand them and really see what could be taken to evolve the form. Audiences are craving autonomy and agency.”
What is the appropriate reaction when you discover your words became a small part of history, and maybe influenced the future, for something you hold dear?
Last Friday on the Giant Beastcast, Dan Ryckert recounted his recent first trip to Sleep No More. (The discussion starts around 48:00.) I appreciated the conversation happening on a gaming podcast because the connection of the Punchdrunk show to gaming concepts has always been part of my worldview. Michael Abbott’s post drawing those parallels was part of what drove me to the show originally. I was so enamored with the execution of this theatre/game hybrid, I named Sleep No More my “Game Of The Year” for 2011 over titles like Bastion and Skyrim. (The piece also included what could be charitably called a walkthrough as well as a list of achievements.)
This morning, with the memories of SNM still dancing in my subconscious, I finally cracked open my copy of The Punchdrunk Encyclopaedia. Published this past December, the book covers the history of Punchdrunk, their projects, and their immersive theatre design concepts in an enjoyable non-linear way. The encyclopedia format, with cross-references between entries and occasional full-page related topics, allows you to wander between concepts like you would an immersive set.
My read was fairly linear, going A-Z and spending time on the concepts I wanted to know more about. And just as I was about to put the book down, at the “References and Further Reading” appendix, my eyes flicked to the corner and grew wide:
Why was I being referenced in the official history of Punchdrunk in any capacity? I quickly fired a text to Kathryn Yu, friend / managing editor of No Proscenium / my original shepherd into the world of immersive theatre.
After some random entry checks, I struck gold on the entry for gaming. With a closer read than my first pass, found this quote:
“We didn’t set out to build work to be like first-person computer games. Instead, as our productions became more intricate and detailed it was a lens through which audiences began to view and compare the work. We recognise that the work offers fully realised realities within which audiences are immersed. Immersion of this depth is addictive and those interested in gaming feel the work offers a physical alternative to gaming. Just as games are played many times over, audiences return again and again to Punchdrunk worlds; with Sleep No More, NYC, an audience member who frequented the production reviewed it as one of his top ten games [see Dickinson 2011].”
– Peter Higgin, Punchdrunk Director of Enrichment
Finding yourself referenced in a book without warning would’ve been enough to weird me out for the day. But then came a text from Kathryn: “I FOUND IT” and a link to a recent Guardian article:
This was a turn I wasn’t prepared for.
But something strange happened after Punchdrunk brought Sleep No More to New York in 2011.
“We had an amazing weird moment when the papers and blogs were doing their round ups of ‘best album of the year’, ‘best film of the year’ and so on,” [Felix] Barrett remembers. “In one of them, Sleep No More got ‘best game of the year’”. The article described the show using gaming vocabulary and vernacular. Its hidden secrets were “Easter eggs,” while discovering a new floor was “levelling up”, and the choice of where to go made it an “open world”.
“When we were described as a video game I started going back to games to find out more about them, to unpack it, and learn more about game mechanics,” says Barrett. He realised while Punchdrunk wasn’t “ever directly inspired by an open-world game”, open worlds give birth to choice, which creates a new way to tell stories – similar to what he was trying to achieve in theatre.
Some Googling reveals that I appear to have been the only person who ever declared the show “game of the year”. Which means Felix Barrett read that blog post and considered it an “amazing weird moment”.
Wait, there’s more:
“That crazy space between video games and theatre, I reckon is the next frontier. […] I’m taking literal game mechanics to enter theatre … That’s totally what we’re doing. Asking questions in that space. […] I actually don’t think there’s a vocabulary for it yet. For a while, ‘immersive theatre’ was bandied about, but whatever this new thing is called, playable shows are the future.”
– Felix Barrett
So…Felix Barrett read that blog post, considered it an amazing weird moment, and it may have triggered him down a path of deeper consideration of how to marry game mechanics theater, and that’s what Punchdrunk is working on now?
That’s one hell of a one-on-one.
I lay no claim to originating the idea of comparing immersive theatre to gaming. (Again, Michael Abbott’s post put the idea in my head long before I ever attended.) And I don’t dare believe that my words alone sent Punchdrunk down whatever creative rabbit hole they’re currently exploring.
But there’s something bewitching about my words echoing back seven years later in this way, in the book in my hands and the subhead copy on my screen. To know that I left even a small imprint on the Punchdrunk team, in the subconscious way that their shows did on me, makes me glow a little.
(Felix, Peter – if either of you somehow end up back on this small corner of the internet and read this, I’m not sure what to say except: thank you both.)