Erica Ostlander discusses promenade theatre's immersive and interactive departures from traditional theatre
Image(s): Future of Storytelling
Storytelling is an evolutionary art, employing new methods to send an audience on a journey, and in the special case of an exceptional story, transporting them anywhere imaginable. While deciding on what book to read or movie to watch, people have a natural inclination towards the stories that fulfill a fantasy and grant the ability to escape our true identity. The concept of wish-fulfillment fantasies in art is commonly seen as an easy way to attract an audience, but it requires hard work and dedication to create something comparable to a dream as to garner this attention. A form of storytelling that has exemplified this practice is called promenade theatre, an interactive form of performance that allows an audience to travel to different theatrically designed rooms at their leisure, giving people the unique ability to escape from their seat in a theatre. A key feature of this type of performance is the absence of a formal stage, making room for experimentation in story structure and physical design, as it can now be crafted to immerse an audience into a story through all of their senses. I believe this lack of limitations has the unique opportunity to grant new life to the classics, reinventing what it means to watch a show.
Punchdrunk is a theatre production company that has produced the iconic show Sleep No More, a promenade-style showing of Macbeth, and a cornerstone piece in the repertoire of immersive theatre. This studio prides itself on being a site-sympathetic company, as they build their shows based on the surrounding architecture and atmosphere of the space. For example, a woodsy area can be turned into a fairy hideaway and a worn-down warehouse can become a witch’s secret coven. Sleep No More takes place in a restored warehouse in Manhattan that was rebranded as the luxurious Mckittrick Hotel and a jazz bar from the 1930s. The lavishness of the set was based on the Hitchcock film, Vertigo, and the dazzling life of upper-class New York City. To create the illusion of reaching this place in time, the audience must navigate a maze upon entering, as to disorient the perception of their surroundings. Another illusionary method employed is the use of white ghostly masks to cover the faces of all those who enter and the instruction to remain as silent viewers, almost as a way of eliminating your presence in the story. Finally, everyone is encouraged to act independently while following the actors and exploring the building, all in pursuit of getting lost in the grim story of witches and murdered kings.
I asked a friend who attended one of the showings of their experience as a silent observer, and they recalled one event that stood out to them during this performance. "While the actors typically did not acknowledge the audience members tailing and observing them at all times, there was one moment where an actor began a ballroom-style dance with a bewildered teenage male guest. It was not only quite amusing, but it also reminded us that anything could happen, and really kept us on our toes!” The brief moment of pulling someone directly into the story is something that would not happen in a traditional broadway performance, but it now can be a transformative tool to submerge an audience into a story.
The term ‘punchdrunk’ describes the dazed and sickening feeling of being punched several times in the head in a boxing arena, and I think this is drawing from the idea of sensory overload as if it is knocking the audience out of reality. As said in the email guests receive upon purchasing their tickets, there is a chance of being in “intense psychological situations” This paints an almost violent image of performance, which is a stark contrast from the blissful experience created by traditional theatre. Maybe a violent attack of the senses is what is required to reawaken a love for theatre in the larger populace, a complete knock-out form of artistry to permanently change how we observe art.