The Drowned Man: An interview with immersive theatre masters Punchdrunk

As immersive performance pioneers Punchdrunk release a limited edition book of photographs from their 2013 show The Drowned Man, we speak to artistic director Felix Barrett, and photographer Julian Abrams about creating and capturing the spectacle and the intimacy of their now world-renowned productions.

As immersive performance pioneers Punchdrunk release a limited edition book of photographs from their 2013 show The Drowned Man, we speak to artistic director Felix Barrett, and photographer Julian Abrams about creating and capturing the spectacle and the intimacy of their world-renowned productions.

The Drowned Man: A Hollywood Fable, produced in association with the National Theatre, was Punchdrunk’s biggest production to date, and took place in a vast disused postal sorting office in Paddington, London, running for a year in 2013. Transformed into the fictional Temple Studios and surrounding outskirts of a town, the venue’s 200,000 sq ft. of labyrinth of spaces became a multi-sensory fantasy world, with interactive environments filled with intricately detailed installations, smells, sounds, and even tastes.

This is storytelling on an epic level. Their now legendary shows offer theatrical escapism like no other, where audience members – up to 600 per show – are free to roam to around the whole building, wearing white masks to distinguish them from performers. Overlapping scenes and multiple narratives are played out around them, through contemporary dance and traditional acting, with dramatic crescendo moments and intimate encounters.

In the recent book of the same name, Abrams’ images capture a sense of these intense and highly imaginative performances – the dark and atmospheric low lighting of the show, the secret little details, the emotions conjured by smells, the unease, the fascination, and the bizarre but beautifully composed scenes.

Creative Review: Could you tell me a bit about how Punchdrunk was formed?

Felix Barrett: Punchdrunk started as an idea I had with some friends at university. It was born from a desire to create work in which the audience is at the centre of the experience. We wanted to wrench them from the safety of traditional theatre seats and place them at the heart of the action, equipped with identity and purpose. We were trying to test would could be done in a theatrical setting, and that sense of pushing boundaries and experimenting with new ideas is still at the heart of what we do.

The most interesting moment came when we introduced masks, suddenly inhibition fell away and people found a sense of freedom in their anonymity, allowing them to fully explore their surroundings and become totally absorbed in the world around them.

CR: And Julian, how did you become involved with the company?

Julian Abrams:  I have been a photographer for the past 15 years in various guises, from pop music, fashion and beauty, advertising, landscape, and now working with artists and designers across multiple disciplines. Light and how to control it, is at the core of both my artistic and commercial practice and is ultimately what drives me.

I was given a ticket to see The Drowned man by a friend of mine. I knew very little about what to expect and was absolutely blown away. I tend to see in pictures and as I walked round I saw the show in very cinematic terms – wherever I turned I felt I could have made an interesting shot, whether it was a piece of performance or an intricate piece of the beautiful set design. It seemed so obvious to me that the show should be photographed that I was compelled to approach them.

CR: Could you tell me about the design process of the show?

FB: I have worked for a long time with an exceptional design team, led by the wonderful Bea Minns and Livi Vaughan. Once we know the idea of the show, then it is all about lots and lots of research. We pride ourselves in the idea that detail is everything. The detail also has to be completely accurate, with our own little twists added.

We spend months searching for exactly the right props, costumes, and design details. Even if the audience might not notice a tiny design flaw, we will – and the truth is that our audiences are so committed they will probably notice it too!

CR: What are the influences and inspiration behind the design, and would you say Punchdrunk has an overarching aesthetic in all of the work?

FB: The design for The Drowned Man takes inspiration from an era of faded glory in Hollywood, at the tail end of the great studio systems, when things were still unbearably cool, but the edges were beginning to fray a little. We are all big film fans so there are loads of film influences woven into the design – Day of the Locust and Sunset Boulevard were particularly influential.

I think the one word that I would use to describe Punchdrunk’s aesthetic in design terms is detailed. For the rest, it is about each project in turn and trying to capture the very real essence of a world, whatever and wherever that world might be.

CR: What about the influences and inspiration for the photo series?

JA: During our first pre-production meetings we discussed the key references that I got from the show, which included the films of David Lynch and Hitchcock and the photography of Gregory Crewdson.

During the actual shoot I was drawing from all sorts of influences that have inspired me over the years including photographers Guy Bourdin and William Egglestone, artists James Terrell and Garry Fabian Miller, the visual style of Wes Anderson, the cinematography of Christopher Doyle and the general hallucinatory paranoia of the film Jacob’s Ladder.

I also drew from my experience in the commercial interior design world, as well as from a period of time when I had worked extensively with film costume and prosthetic make-up, creating darker cinematic themed imagery, which I felt suited the style of The Drowned Man.

CR: What are the main challenges when creating immersive productions on this scale?

FB: Time and space. The buildings are extremely hard to find. And then you need to be able to keep hold of them for long enough. The build takes time, so you will often be in a building for months before a single member of the public has set foot inside. We try to keep our audiences fairly small, so you then need to be able to play for a long run so that everybody can get to see it.


CR: And what are the challenges when shooting performance, particularly in terms of promenade or immersive theatre?

JA: The shoot period lasted nearly three weeks and we shot over 15,000 images, which meant that editing was absolutely crucial to the final book. It was all shot outside of show times as we didn’t want any audience members in the shots. I worked directly in collaboration with Maxine Doyle (who choreographed and co-directed the show) who selected certain scenes to run for me and I would slow things down, pause, re-run etc.

The main challenge was the lighting. Anyone who has seen a Punchdrunk production will know that the show lights are set very low and the darkness is crucial to the desired atmosphere. This was not such a problem for the set shots as I could use a tripod but capturing the performance was another matter. Although there was a little flexibility in increasing the light intensity from show levels, it proved very challenging when shooting the performers. However, in terms of maintaining the integrity of the show it was essential we didn’t use any external lighting, as this would have completely changed the aesthetic.

It was shot on a Canon 5D Mark 3, with fast lenses.  I did extensive tests and pushed the camera to the limit of what I felt was acceptable quality-wise but I was permanently operating on the limits of what was technically viable.

CR: The interest from brands has resulted in a number of projects and collaborations for Punchdrunk – what are your thoughts on the success of these?

FB: We love these projects. They are our research and development opportunities, where we can experiment with our more daring ideas with the support and investment of some adventurous partners. For example, we recently created Silverpoint, an interactive ‘live’ world meets computer game experience, with the help of Absolut Vodka. It proved a success and I am now working on how I might take the idea even further.

At the moment the interest seems to be growing. I think that a lot of brands are thinking about ways in which they can make their customer experience more enriched, and partnering with companies that create live experiences is definitely one way to do that.

CR: What are your thoughts on other theatre companies and events that take such obvious influence from Punchdrunk? How do you keep things ahead of the game?

FB: There are some amazing companies around making amazing work, which is really exciting, and it is always an absolute honour to be recognised as an influence, on any level. British theatre is a community that supports each other, and it’s brilliant to be contributing to that in any way possible. In terms of keeping things fresh, I just keep trying to have good ideas, find the right people to work with and ultimately make interesting shows that people want to see.

CR: Where would you say the immersive performance trend is heading?

FB: There is no sign of it stopping just yet! I heard that the tickets for You Me Bum Bum Train [another immersive performance company] all sold out pretty fast – there is definitely an appetite for us to keep exploring things.

CR: And what’s next for Punchdrunk?

FB: The company has got a lot of things in the pot gently simmering away. Nothing is quite ready to talk about, but with any luck the second half of 2015 and 2016 are looking very exciting indeed.

The Drowned Man: A Hollywood Fable is available now from