May 2012 StoryCode Forum
Guidestones and PunchDrunk
Jay Ferguson, Colin Nightingale, Peter Higgin
Tuesday, May 22, 2012 at 7pm
Film Society of Lincoln Center, Film Center Amphitheatre, 144 West 65th Street
series page

This particular evening I join a community “transmedia” folks to hear about telling stories in nontraditional ways. In particular, I’ve been drawn in to hear more about a particular story that has been haunting me for months.  Here’s what the Film Society of Lincoln Center folks say about these StoryForum gatherings:

  • “Hosted in partnership with StoryCode, New York’s leading transmedia gathering, StoryForum is a free monthly meeting of artists, designers, writers, filmmakers, advertisers, and storytellers of all stripes. Featuring presentations from industry leaders as well as up-and-coming talents, StoryForum is a place for audiences and artists to interact and get a taste of some of the most exciting immersive media projects in development today.”

I’ve met a few theatre-focused “transmedia” folks and I’ve been curious.  And because tonight’s gathering is [a] about two blocks from my apartment and [b] on the topic of one of my most provocative theatrical experiences of the past few years, I jumped at the chance to join in. The Sleep No More experience that I’ve put aside, observing that it seems to divide people into repeat visitors and flummoxed one timers, pondering a return visit  And then, at the last minute, an email from the Film Society of Lincoln Center alerts me to a meet up of this technololgically-oriented group. The PunchDrunk aesthetic and this particular production is to be addressed, and also an experiment involving real life participants wired and connected to remote partners in different parts of the world experiencing Sleep No More that has transpired just the week before (reported as part of a New York Times article published this same day). Sleep No More and transmedia and hot-off-the-presses study results. What’s not to love?

The first speaker, Jay (and his business partner who hops up from time to time) speak excitedly as folks who come from a commercial filmmaking background and perspective who have found serial filmmaking, delivered in 3 minute “bites”, delivered via email links and hidden clues, evoking for the savvy people in the audience (and even for un-savvy me) images of gaming and “easter eggs” and magic hidden details to get into new rooms, new avenues, new portals, new parts of a story.  As they describe their website Guidestones they speak of sponsoring partners written into plotlines or games on the side.  One of the characters is a Toronto Blue Jays fan and the Blue Jays organization is a sponsor, for example, and a pizza establishment provides background and, oh surprise, an incentive game to watch more of the shows.  To my newbie eyes this feels like smart filmmakers who are exploring new delivery mechanisms for filmed content and link money making into the mix. More power to them.  “We’re all about the branding at Guidestones,” says one speaker.

And then, our second speakers from PunchDrunk begin to reveal their purely storytelling philosophies after noting their initial reticence to show images of their set designs and story telling strategies.  For them the experience is the theatre in the theatre (and the adventures to be found there) and the reason for the whole enterprise.  It’s not about sponsorships, it’s about the environment and the surprise of the immediate.  A company started by theatre kids in London over 10 years ago who were then and remain to this day fascinated by crafting site specific non-linear, even relatively nonverbal experiential environments in old storage buildings or deserted tunnels transformed to new theatrical realities.  Their idea is to create experiences that makes people feel punch drunk.  Disoriented.  They shift perspectives by buffeting their audiences with stimuli and allowing them, as individuals, to find their own way.

Their story, like many company stories, involves serendipity — Colin is now a current senior producer, was a restless artist who found his way to the early PunchDrunk characters in a South London installation in 2002 or so.  One early production was observed by the National Theatre‘s Nick Hytner, who became a sponsor and champion.  A series of installation experiences inspired by classics — Faust in 2006 and Masque of the Red Death in 2008 — helped them find their footing in lush and evocative environments and cemented their aesthetic of individually guided experiences of those theatrical landscapes.  After several more London-based experiences the group brought its newest work Sleep No More (based on Macbeth and drawing from other traditions too) to Boston after a short run in London.  The Boston run ran for months, and the group established a connection to the MIT Media Lab.  The installation as it exists now in New York City’s Chelsea neighborhood is the largest and now longest running show the group has ever had.  It opened in March 2011 and there is no end in sight — 400 people a performance, 8 performances a week, 3 hours for each performance.

My only visit to the McKittrick Hotel, the location of PunchDrunk theatre company’s New York City installation theatre experience Sleep No More in West Chelsea, occurred in July of last year. This production is one that breeds converts and acolytes, and I’ve been curious about way to debrief my solitary first exposure to it.  Bemasked, exposed with little advance preparation to a world of noiry suggestion, of sometimes semi-clothed individuals enacting dramas suggested by bits of MacBeth — I found disjointed stimuli. There is craziness, there is royalty, there is blood and a loopy queen. Shakespeare and detective novels and a nightspot where jazz is played and drinks are served are mashed up into a wild and wooly self-directed experience.  I was flummoxed a bit by the experiential dead ends. You can end up in rooms where nothing happens or something has just concluded for extended periods.  You have group experiences involving deafening music, strobe lights, and nude dancing and stifling solitary stuffy inside-the-mask exposure to the world.  You are forced to embrace a world of mute blank faces watching, experiencing, shrouded in secrecy as we experience sometimes quite sensual and sometimes quite disturbing scenes together.  And you are warned not to talk at all.

This knowledge preps me for the theatre-makers description of last week’s MIT Media Lab experiment at Sleep No More — over 5 nights 13 pairs (1 in the installation linked via head set and other electronics on their body to a remote partner in cyberspace, so 26 people in all) experienced 5 different performances of Sleep No More. They’re still processing the experience — the New York Times reporter’s experience as one of the 13 on-site partners is included in the link provided at the top of this article.

So I learn that every Sleep No More audience, as audiences at any PunchDrunk production, is presented raw material to make of what they will. There is no one story but as many stories as there are people on any particular evening. I conclude that my dis-connected mid-2011 experience as not rare, perhaps not unexpected, and may have merely prepared me for a return visit. I now know the routine and the arc of the evening, and may feel emboldened to explore new rooms, new adventures.  The online MIT Media Lab coordinated experience extends the PunchDrunk environment a few steps further than I’m personally invested in going, but I see the interest in those explorations.  In a space, feeling the heat of bodies and sweat of experience and on the spot decisionmaking — absent physical handicaps preventing maneuvering among people and down stairs — this is the adventure that seems the most theatrical.

Thrilling possibilities in all of this.  And these StoryCode community members are smart and welcoming characters attempting to wander through them together. Where the theatre world fits among the technologists is a fluid conversation in which I am more and more invested.

© Martha Wade Steketee (May 23, 2012)

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