Photo: Toby Hudson

Felix Barrett: On Pushing the Limits of Curiosity and Comfort Zones

Twitter, Instagram, Foursquare. Increasingly we are narrating and documenting our lives in real-time. But what’s the impact of all this checking in? Does it mean we’re checking out of a truly engaged experience? Artistic Director Felix Barrett wants to pull us back to the “primal space” where our immediate experience is so intense our hearts are in our throats (and our phones stay in our pockets).

To combat this creeping passivity, Barrett founded Punchdrunk, a UK theater troupe with a reputation for immersive, interactive productions that push audiences to the limit. Among their best-known shows is the smash-hit Sleep No More, where masked audience members tour a five-story, 1920s-era hotel, moving from room to room with the actors as they reinterpret Shakespeare’s MacBeth.With dozens of dream-like productions that defy traditional theatrical conventions, Punchdrunk invites audience members to explore the queasy curiosity that’s sparked when we’re at the edge of our comfort zones. I talked with Barrett about how you hook an audience, why you better have a Plan B, and the upside of uncomfortability.

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Sleep No More. Photo: Robin Roemer.

Your productions seem to center around this idea of “mystery.” Why?

I think it’s because mystery instigates a state of tension in the audience and there’s an apprehension and a sort of nervous excitement that comes from not knowing what’s going to happen next. And because that’s the state you’re in when you’re exploring, or adventuring, or maybe doing something that’s illicit, it’s totally charged. That’s why Punchdrunk could never do a comedy, because it’s a totally different state. We’re trying to empower the audience by making them feel like they’re the most important person in the space, and that they’re doing something they shouldn’t be and the more they work the more they’ll discover. You need that tension to be there in order for that to work.punchdrunk-punchdrunks-tu-002.
Punchdrunk’s Tunnel 228.

Why do you think it’s important for audience members step outside their comfort zones?

Because I know that the more dangerous the show feels and the closer we are to that line, then the more the audiences’ hearts are in their mouths. And if you can just touch the line but not step over it, then they will have felt something inside them that’s going to leave with them, and they’ll want to tell this story to their friends and loved ones for weeks to come. It’s a really powerful, primal space to end up in and we so rarely have those moments in life, so it’s great to help people have a bit of adventure.

We’re trying to empower the audience by making them feel like they’re the most important person in the space.

I’ve heard you say that we’re becoming too passive as a culture. Are these interactive productions meant to combat that trend?

Yes, totally! I think that life is very easy for us now because whatever our heart desires is only one click away, and because everything is so accessible, nothing is treasured. So we need to find those little gems that only we own and that are ours and ours alone. We feel proud of those moments that live in our memories and that can only be communicated by talking about them afterwards, instead of going home and watching a little video of our experience.

An active experience is a rare opportunity in this day in age. Social networking also plays a part as so much of our contact with others is through the middle man – our computers – which leaves us missing out on that live experience, the sensation of being real and feeling the effects of our decisions on our own skin. Contact with the real world is increasingly rare and I think people are craving something that they’re actually doing rather than viewing through the lens of a computer screen.

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Sleep No More set design detail.

You once said, “If someone’s done it before, I have no interest in trying it myself.” How do you stay ahead of the curve?

We experiment with levels of audience experience and emotion, so it’s all variations upon a theme and it’s often about going deeper into the forest. Once we’ve tried something and it’s out there and people are talking about it, hypothesizing about it and other people start making work that’s similar, which is great, it means it’s time for us to take it one step further. We’ll ask, “What if suddenly the rest of the audience disappeared and you were alone for three hours? What would that be like?” It’s like old-fashioned stagecraft in a sense – we’re focused on the illusion or the next trick or the bigger scenic reveal.

And we do it for us as well. The one thing I would hate is to be rolling out the same predictable fare just because it’s easy. With creativity and practice – sometimes the more of a battle it is, the more you surprise yourself.

Can mediums outside of interactive theater achieve similar results?

Mystery as a genre results in tension – watching a film can achieve exactly this same sort of tension, but what I’m interested in is taking that tension you might feel in a movie theater where you cover your eyes and your ears because you don’t know what’s going to happen to the hero, and finding out what happens when you transpose that sensation onto the real world. A film will carry on if you hide your eyes, but a show won’t – you have to keep on walking into it and you control the pace at which you do so. That makes it much harder to watch, but also potentially much more exciting.

With creativity and practice – sometimes the more of a battle it is, the more you surprise yourself.

Do audience reactions impact how you evolve your shows over time?

The first month of a show being open, it changes almost daily because we’re just learning. Sometimes you can pre-empt an audience to a certain extent, but there are times when we’ve realized that we’ve made massive mistakes and offended audiences by stepping over that invisible line in the sand, so we’ll make cuts based on that and we always rehearse a plan B. If we’re doing something that’s provocative, the performers always know how to gently get the audience out of that situation without them feeling like the show’s gone wrong.

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Sleep No More. Photo: Yaniv Schulman

Your next project is an interactive travel agency. How did that come about?

Yes, that’s the next phase! Which involves full, full activation. But I should add that the travel component is somewhat stalled because we’re trying to find the right price point. But, it has basically the same principals of a show like Sleep No More, where you go in and explore, but we’re interested in doing that with an entire city instead of a building this time, where your life becomes the show. So it’s not too far from what we’re already doing, but it’s a different state of perception for the audience, where their everyday life can become utterly filmic and you don’t know who is performing and who isn’t. Anybody you see around you – people in shops, restaurants and at your hotel – they could all be performers, which makes it very dangerous.

What are the best words of wisdom you’ve ever received?

“Do it. Don’t talk about it, don’t hypothesize about it – just do it.” And also, “run before you can walk.” We fall over quite a bit at Punchdrunk and we scrape our knees, but we always get up and keep going.

What Do You Think?

Have we become too passive? Do we need more active experiences that push us out of our comfort zones?

More insights on: Failure, Risk-Taking

Jenn Godbout

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Jenn is the Associate Director of Partnerships for Behance, working with clients like Pantone, AOL, RISD and Wacom. Prior to joining Behance, Jenn was the Sr. Marketing Manager for The Drake Hotel in Toronto. Say hello on Twitter
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