How I Got Here: Punchdrunk founder Felix Barrett

Punchdrunk’s lavish theatre shows have inspired all kinds of immersive experiences – from pop-up supper clubs to musical performances. Founder Felix Barrett reflects on how the company got started and the pressures that come with fame

Punchdrunk is best known for turning disused spaces into theatrical playgrounds – creating immersive shows where audiences can explore lavish sets and watch as plays unfold around them. Over the past two decades, it has become one of the world’s most talked about theatre companies, putting on sellout productions in London, New York and Shanghai and earning rave reviews, awards and a cult following in the process.

The company has also been creating site-specific performances for school children and care home residents through its community arm, Punchdrunk Enrichment, and recently took over an industrial site in North London, where it is developing ideas for its next production in collaboration with local residents. In December last year, it published the Punchdrunk Encyclopaedia – a book documenting all of its work to date.

We spoke to Barrett ahead of the book’s release about the company’s formative years, the show that sparked his interest in immersive theatre and Punchdrunk’s rise to fame.

Above: The Drowned Man (2013), a collaboration with the National Theatre, saw a disused sorting office in Paddington turned into a fictional Hollywood film studio. Photo: Julian Abrams. Lead image (top): The Masque of the Red Death (2008), Battersea Arts Centre. Image: Stephen Dobbie

Discovering theatre Growing up I wanted to make films – that seemed like the quickest route to connecting with audiences on an experiential level. But then [a] school teacher said to me, ‘you can’t go out and do a ‘Mickey Mouse’ film degree – you’ve got to get some proper theatrical training first’, so I fairly begrudgingly said ‘alright, I’ll do a theatre degree’. That coincided with me seeing HG [a mixed media installation in Clink Street Vaults, conceived by Robert Wilson, Hans Peter Kuhn and Michael Howells], which completely reconfigured what theatre could be.

My parents took me to a lot of plays and schooled me in the art of theatre and I think there were a few formative times [for me] where the action left the stage, and that feeling I got when things felt slightly out of control … I liked the idea that the theatrical rule set was broken. Even in standard shows like Cats the musical, when [the actors] run up behind you, or Return to the Forbidden Planet, when the cast were in the auditorium before the curtain went up …. that sort of breakdown of theatrical [norms], that [sense of] danger felt really fertile. And then I went to see this Rob Wilson piece. It was in an old prison and it had no performers, just sound and installations. Seeing that, and seeing that be deemed art, was mind-blowing to me because it was just this raw atmosphere. Up until that point, I didn’t think that could be classed as theatre.

Learning the craft I went to Exeter to study drama, which was amazing because I think unlike most university courses I know, it was just making, making, making. We did at least nine hours a day, five days a week … just trying, creating, failing and trying again. It was great to have that freedom.