Another look at the Drowned Man: Five things I learned about Punchdrunk (and a few questions)

Paul Zivkovich at the Drowned Man. Photo Perou.

Paul Zivkovich at the Drowned Man. Photo Perou.

I never imagined I ‘d be writing a third blog post about Punchdrunk’s The Drowned Man. After all, I regularly fail to write about theatre productions I have seen, such is the nature of blogging in a non professional capacity. But the response to my review of The Drowned Man, with a wide range of fascinating and articulate comments, made me think:

1) The Drowned Man feels like the stadium tour of an indie band. A new audience tries to discover what’s all about and some problems relate to scale: huge space, many people, that indie feeling is not there any more.

2) Punchdrunk has a huge fanbase I knew nothing about. Are their productions better appreciated by fans? Some art is better understood when you already know it’s a vital part of your life: subtleties open up, outsiders are baffled (and often amused, think of sc-ifi geekery and you get the picture). Does Punchdrunk fall into that category?

3) Following from the point above, some of the discussion centered around the audience’s contribution and commitment to the production, a “you get out what you put in” approach. While this is true for all theatre (all art for that matter),  are healthy scepticism and an expectation to be won over counter productive when it comes to Punchdrunk? Like missing the train early on and never being able to catch up. And if that’s the case, what’s the purpose of criticism?

4) If you push the audience’s contribution to its logical conclusion, could you have a production where the audience performs and the actors watch? And in that case, who takes artistic responsibility?

5) How come there are no press reviews yet? As far as I know, press night was a couple of weeks ago. And why is it so hard to find a cast list?

Answers in a post card, or even better at the comments section below.

7 responses to “Another look at the Drowned Man: Five things I learned about Punchdrunk (and a few questions)

  1. I went on July 2, with a friend who has seen one or two previous productions and was an enthusiast for Punchdrunk. I went expecting to be blown away. At his suggestion, we followed around first one actor and then another. On several occasions, we were standing within a foot of the action. After an hour, I lost my friend, but we met up at the finale.

    I enjoyed the atmosphere, the music, the sets – the feeling of being a chance bystander inside a film noir, with no idea of what was going on. I wouldn’t have dreamed of wasting any time at the bar, though I was quite glad when the 140 minutes we had been allotted came to an end. Overall I shared the disappointment of most of the people who have commented here. I had refreshed my memory of “Woyzeck”, having seen the Herzog film of it; but I never learnt the identity of any of the characters in “The Drowned Man”, or got any sense of a narrative, and I am, to be honest, amazed by the comments here from people who say that they did. Maybe their powers of observation and deduction are just much greater than mine. I just saw lots of variations on the themes of lust, sex and murder.

    If someone gave me a ticket, I would certainly go again; but for me £30 was a lot for the preview, and £50-odd would be way beyond my means. And I suspect that if I went again, I might get less out of it a second time, not more.

  2. I did see that their official Press Night is this coming Tuesday, 17 July. I’m eager to hear what the higher echelons have to say about it.

    A big question that lingers for me is shouldn’t a piece of theatre (play/performance art/etc.) be self-contained? In other words, shouldn’t one be able to go, engage, participate (from a seat or wearing a mask) and glean its meaning in a single viewing? That’s not to say that second viewings aren’t sometimes worth it: when I go to see theatre repeatedly I’m looking to have the experience again with a keener eye and ear. But I can rarely afford multiple viewings, and almost never at fifty quid a pop.

    Your third question cuts to the chase for me. While I understand the basic structure of Punchdrunk’s philosophy, I read or hear about audience members being selected to have one-on-one moments with the actors. If I saw someone dragged from the room, I’d want that experience as well! Is it just luck of the draw?

    The thing is that I believe in a level of theatre that I call “for connoisseurs”. There are definitely writers & companies whose work succeeds if their devotee audiences are very experienced, versed in the arts, or have learned the language of the stage. Some pieces are aimed at such audiences, and I’m drawing the conclusion that The Drowning Man was a piece that was relying on its core base to set the tone and the example. That wasn’t me, so I’m shut out of the conversation completely.

  3. You asked if Punchdrunk is best appreciated by existing fans. I’ll ask, how do you think those existing fans discovered Punchdrunk? 😉 Everyone was new once. “Sleep No More” has been selling out in New York for two and a half years, and it’s not the same 400 people who keep going every night.

    I think you’re just hearing defenses of “The Drowned Man” from existing fans because they’re the ones who are motivated enough to talk about it on the internet. 🙂 But you can’t assume that just because you as a first-time visitor didn’t love it, that it means all first-time visitors won’t. Look at the rave reviews on Twitter #TheDrownedMan.

    “Are healthy scepticism and an expectation to be won over counter productive when it comes to Punchdrunk?” Not at all. I walked in to my first show quite skeptical, which magnified when I realized it had no dialog and was told via dance. (I thought I hated dance!) Punchdrunk won me over, not by taking my hand and guiding me to the action, but by creating a situation where I discovered a whole new artistic experience on my own. It wouldn’t have worked if they’d guided me; part of what blew me away was the experience of being an anonymous voyeur, of learning what I’d do if no one knew it was me.

    I came to love the power to direct my own experience – learning to follow my own instincts and id; the adrenaline rush of knowing that choosing one thing meant missing something else. What I wouldn’t give to be able to watch a TV show and turn the camera back to my favorite character instead of being forced to cut away!

    Regarding problems of scale, I’ve been looking back historically and every Punchdrunk production seems to get the complaint that the audience is now too big. Probably a grain of truth, yet all these productions have done well, and there are still plenty of opportunities for “that indie feeling” if you follow a less popular character.

    “If you push the audience’s contribution to its logical conclusion, could you have a production where the audience performs and the actors watch? And in that case, who takes artistic responsibility?”

    I’m not sure how you got from “The Drowned Man” to here. The “audience contribution” aspect of Punchdrunk shows is greatly overhyped. These are shows with meticulously rehearsed performances and intricate choreography – even the “one on one” moments rarely change based on the audience member’s behavior.

    I’ve seen performances in both “The Drowned Man” and “Sleep No More” that are on par with the best of anything I’ve seen in any other medium, a combination of dance and athletic skill, and an ability to convey emotion, that moves me in a way very similar to music.

    So much of the criticism keeps coming back to narrative. Punchdrunk appears to be taking it to heart – they’re now handing out synopses and showing the audience pictures of the main characters before the show – but is narrative really the be-all and end-all of theater as an art form? Compare to visual art where narrative is not necessary (is often looked down upon) – where the value of the work can be found in the emotions and ideas it invokes, or in the pure beauty of it.

  4. I took a group of friends to TDM recently, none of whom had seen a Punchdrunk production before, and they unanimously loved it. I’ve been following Punchdrunk’s work for years, but not had a chance to catch a performance until now. I knew I’d love it though, and my little Theatre Club are all open to new experiences (they have to be, given the sort of experiments I usually drag them along to!) so I had no qualms in recommending it to them.

    Not every theatre production will appeal to everyone though; not every artwork, dance form or piece of music – it’s up to the audience to decide in advance if they like the sound of it. A lot of critics have cited frustration at not seeing enough action as the source of their angst, but this puzzles me. We were let loose in a big, dark, crazy playground, full of weird sets and weird smells, that we were ALLOWED TO PLAY WITH. To me, that sounds like heaven, and was quite enough excitement without the added bonus of being occasionally interrupted by actors. To others though, it sounds dull – if this sounds dull to you then don’t go! I know Punchdrunk encourage an air of mystery, but google has all the ammunition you need to learn if their latest production is likely to be to your taste. Jx

  5. Saw Drowned man in October and it was brilliant, the atmosphere was electric and the whole thing haunted me for a while, overall it was one of my best theatre experiences yet. And I agree! I want to see the cast list.

  6. To answer re fan base – am a first time viewer and enjoyed it a lot. I think this was due to:
    -lots of advance reading of what to expect, including some alleged “spoilers” (but I’d argue that they are not, since one often reads a play before seeing it at the theatre, and quite rightly too, it doesnt spoil the experience);
    -the little leaflets with summaries of the two main plotlines that they now hand out – a real lifesaver; and
    -my persistence in trying to figure out who is who (incl following characters around until it becomes clear or reading the little notes in actors’ hands as they hold them, since they say from whom and to whom, or letters lying around).
    Am still confused on the secondary characters – what they should really hand out is a full cast of characters with photos so you can at least identify who is who.

    Re audience participation – didn’t notice much, nor want it nor need it – seems a bit of a kindergarden concept unless taken to a full and impossible video-game level. We had lots of people crowding around actors straining to actually hear what little dialogue there is (the actors should really speak up), but apart from one or two episodes of people held by the hand or examined by the doctor, nothing.

    To me the main value is in the original idea, ability to freely wander around, explore the sets, and choose what you want to see. Dialogue could be beefed up. But overall is a plus, thinking of going again.

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