Case study: Punchdrunk

One of the UK’s foremost interactive storytelling companies, Punchdrunk has a world-renowned reputation for combining groundbreaking storytelling with innovative approaches to audience engagement. To find out about how the team are using new technologies, we spoke to Jim Bending, Head of Digital Development at Punchdrunk and Sandy McKay, Creative Partnerships Lead at the company’s commercial arm Punchdrunk International.

The Village, Punchdrunk

Exploring the limits of performance

Technologies like VR, near-field communication and augmented reality are a natural fit for a company like Punchdrunk, but Jim says it’s all only one part of the story.

“I think we should start with where we are working which is The Village at Fallow Cross. It has 17 buildings in it and it includes a church, an inn, a pub, a candlestick maker… its a really impressive space. Its amazing and huge and not like anything else we, and likely other companies, had access to.”

Punchdrunk describes the new space as ‘a home in which to nurture new forms of experiential theatre’. Jim is a little more blunt.

“When the Punchdrunk Director, Felix [Barrett], showed me Fallow Cross… it was like being handed the golden ticket, especially as someone with a background in games development.” Each building in the space houses a different research project. While the work they produce is hugely diverse, there are core themes that tie them all together. Mixed reality is a big part of that.

“I’m working on a project called Oracles which is blending the two worlds together for school children around London.” Oracles allows children to explore the world of Fallow Cross through a ‘crack’ in an entertainment game they play in a classroom, before being brought to the site to continue exploring. Throughout, the children’s digital and physical experiences of the Fallow Cross blur and interweave.

“The two are intrinsically linked. If you find something in the digital world its going to be stored… so when the child revisits the actual physical world of Fallow Cross they’ll receive the item they originally found in the game.” These items helps children unlock more parts of the story, both in the game and in the village.

Telling stories about technology, with technology

Punchdrunk International, the commercial arm of Punchdrunk, often has a more direct relationship with the technologies being used. Getting the right client is key.

“They have to be similar partners, in that they have to be just as adventurous as us, and with a history and story to tell.” A recent project with Samsung’s Gear VR team, known as #believeyoureyes, saw the company’s skill with immersive storytelling augmented by virtual reality headsets. Sandy explained how the partnerships allow the team to develop groundbreaking work in mediums they might not otherwise have the chance to explore.

“We did the 1:1 VR experience at Cannes Lions Festival in Maison Samsung… a small space that was very specifically dressed for that occasion.” The next challenge came in adapting it for two more spaces, each presenting different technical and operational challenges. In one of Samsung’s flagship stores, #believeyoureyes was running from open to close. 1:1’s in that context weren’t possible, but the team developed a version of the experience that felt just as intimate and just as powerful. Both of these fed into a version of the work that ran at Miami art week, an event CoolHunting described as “a truly hidden gem in the heart of a burgeoning Miami Beach destination”.

Sandy says they have to be extremely careful as they manage the relationship between audience, client and performance “Being brought in as an artistic team we can enhance the product but have to make sure we don’t overshadow it… what can be done working together. We’ve managed to strike that balance successfully so far.”

Making technology magic

Unique as they are, works like Oracles and #believeyoureyes aren’t created in a vacuum. Jim mentioned Nightwatchers at the Tower of London and virtual reality themepark The Void as two mixed reality experiences that test very different kinds of interaction in extremely different contexts. He also sees how the gaming community is acting as a trailblazer for new interfaces. “Its been really exciting to see the first kind of experiments in this area at big mainstream gaming conventions… games which have really odd controllers.” Still, he’d like to see more cross-pollination between industries as the technology comes into its own.

Jim’s appointment is relatively recent, Jim started in summer 2016, but he says it’s already allowing the company to explore digital technology more directly than they had done until now.

“Before me Punchdrunk has always partnered up with creative techies. Silverpoint was a great example of that. Now that I am here I’m able to bring people on board into the Punchdrunk team can have a much closer involvement in the actual digital production of projects.” This process has helped demystify the technology being used. It’s also helping the company find ways of incorporating technology into performances more fluidly.

“When you are in an immersive theatrical experience, there [often] isn’t a place for a mobile phone or a VR headset. What we are doing is essentially hiding the technology inside objects and props so the audience won’t know they have it with them.”

Jim thinks that when you can blend props, performance and technology effectively, a huge number of creative opportunities are unlocked. Some ideas, like playing back data to audience members to quantifying how much of a particular storyline someone has unlocked, play on the principles employed by games for some years. But there’s also an opportunity for a new vernacular to emerge.

“There is a very delicate balance between involving technology in a Punchdrunk production. There’s no real context for a piece of technology in an old village on the moors in the 18th century. You just wouldn’t have this bright light. We are looking at more subtle ways of hiding the technology… If someone didn’t realise that there was technology involved until they thought about it long after that would be amazing.”