2017 Barlow Travel Grant Report
By John Bechtold ’99
I’ve been teaching at Amherst Regional High School (Mass.) since 1999, the year of my graduation from Bates (to which I owe a shoutout to former professors Peter Corcoran and Anne Dodd in the Education Department). I now run the Theater program at ARHS, am the Performing Arts Department Chair, and the district-wide coordinator for the Amherst Integrated Arts Initiative. I also head a large summer arts program nearby, the Deerfield Academy Summer Arts Program (DASAC), and direct and design theater productions around Western Massachusetts.
One of my particular areas of interest is immersive theater, a style of theater that places the audience inside the world of the show itself. My background in immersive theater began upon meeting a London-based company in 2009 called Punchdrunk, the progenitors of this relatively new brand of work. After working with them in 2009–2010 (I was on leave from Amherst and was attending grad school at the time) through the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, Mass., I became completely enamored by their methods and have stayed in touch with them since, attending other shows and helping with the transfer of their award-winning American debut, Sleep No More, from Boston to New York City, where it has continued to sell out performances since 2011.
I pursued a Barlow Travel Grant to reunite with Punchdrunk in their hometown just as they were completing work on Fallow Cross — a full-scale village center built as a functional theatrical landscape in a North London warehouse. My goal was to reconnect with them to learn more about their Enrichment Department (their education and outreach arm), whose projects involve full-scale works entirely for children, often developed to focus around specific national academic standards.
By doing so, I hoped to bring some of their practices and approaches back to the Amherst Schools upon my return in January 2018 from a semester-long fall sabbatical in London. The grant would enable me to afford lodging over the long term in this notoriously expensive city while giving me the freedom to explore opportunities in theater with Punchdrunk and beyond.
Summary of Results
I’m happy to share that I’ve exceeded what I hoped to accomplish, both with Punchdrunk and some additional opportunities that have presented themselves to me while here.
In my time with Punchdrunk in the fall, I’ve attended their trainings and workshops, ranging from company design work and physical actor training, to primary- and secondary-education practices and projects. I worked on lighting and sound for their fall show, Kabeiroi, and interviewed their Enrichment staff about their work and its applicability beyond London. Importantly, I got to spend enough regular time with the company to gain a deeper sense of their ethos and the values embedded in their work. That less-quantifiable, but equally vital experience, was a particular gift in my time here.
Punchdrunk and Immersive Theater
Immersive theater is a style of theater that puts the audience in the world of the show. While it takes many shapes and forms beyond that definition, the work is universally committed to treating the audience as a non-passive element. Depending on the work, audiences might explore a building that contains the world of the show, be sent through a series of scenes in which they are an agent one at a time, or be broken into small groups in order to be guided into intimate corners of the show. In some cases, audience actions (or inactions) can determine the outcome of a scene — even the entire piece.
Due to the prioritization and proximity of the audience experience, design and construction of these worlds often is closer to a film set than a stage set. In a Punchdrunk show, if you enter an office and find a desk, you can bet that you will be able to rifle through its drawers and discover a completed diary or personal letter. All of your senses are engaged, from the smell of an old bric-a-brac shop to walking through the uneven terrain of a hazy forest. Everything is, as Punchdrunk designers say, “touch-real.” The attention to making theater a full-body experience that emphasizes audience agency repudiates the passive obedience (Punchdrunk’s words again) of an audience member in a traditional seated show.
This means that audiences are not likely to have identical experiences to one another across the night. Depending on the design of the show, character and story may be fractured or experienced out of traditional order. In Punchdrunk’s “Sleep No More,” based largely on “Macbeth,” audiences are free to wander where they wish all night; many of them elect to follow particular characters they identify, allowing them to explore that character’s full arc.
Finally, it’s worth noting that this is a wide-open and vast genre, with the word “immersive” becoming increasingly muddy. Technology such as augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) has garnered much interest, and corporate sponsorship for immersive experiences are on the rise. Indeed, some of my time with Punchdrunk helped me see where their interests lie on this end. Immersive theater as such has only started to arrive on larger stages in the past two to three years (Broadway’s recent staging of the immersive musical “Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812” is a good example). But, the strongest work remains deeply rooted in the values of traditional theater: a powerful story in a transporting, non-passive form.
Many, if not most, professional theater companies in the U.S. and the U.K. have an education and outreach arm. Across the profession, the question of where the next generation of audience members will come from is a topic of discussion, which makes the desire to connect with audiences while they’re young quite understandable. The strongest of those programs, however, have invested relationships with schools and other NPOs, have developed projects through the prism of national and/or state learning standards, and regularly program work specifically designed to encourage these audiences into their spaces.
It is altogether rare, though, for a theater company to have deeply intertwined its educational programming with its artistic seasons. For Punchdrunk, who have been interested in the power of theater on young imaginations from the beginning, enrichment projects are treated as full-fledged artistic ventures, with staff from all corners of the company supporting the work as they would for a public show. They’ve been doing this since their early years as a company.
This is best illustrated by naming a few of their recent works, all designed for school-age children, for which I got production breakdowns and analyses through casual conversation and formal interviews of Punchdrunk staff:
- “The Lost Lending Library”: A mysterious library, its front door locked, appears in the middle of an elementary school. Over time, students meet a visiting librarian that helps them figure out how to get inside, opening a literal world of stories all around them and solicits them to write their own to be kept in the library.
- “Against Captain’s Orders”: Made in conjunction with England’s National Maritime Museum, the show invited students to the museum’s storerooms under the guise of a special tour before sending them on an urgent mission to recover a missing artifact through the labyrinth of the museum building and its deep history.
- “The Island”: Designed to support the teaching of Shakespeare’s “The Tempest” to early secondary-school students, a “live video game” was installed in the school, with students needing to “unlock” Shakespeare’s text in order to unlock real spaces around the school, all embedded with details from the world of the play.
These projects not only provided concrete examples of their work and its connections to school learning standards, but a template of sorts that Punchdrunk uses to keep all projects at uniformly high standards. Importantly, they also provide a road map for creating this kind of work independent from them — something they hope to encourage in the schools they work with already. Indeed, all of their enrichment productions include advice and instructions for any teacher on how to expand these projects once they’ve been completed. For a theater-trained teacher such as myself, such opportunities are magnified even further.
In April 2017, The Guardian ran an article on Punchdrunk’s new space, also known as Fallow Cross:
Fallow Cross, clearly not from this century, has been built as an act of faith in Punchdrunk’s own future. Peter Higgin, its so-called “director of enrichment” who has delivered some of the company’s most thrilling work in schools and care homes, calls it “a place where we can cook ideas” but it’s also somewhere “we can call home”. Punchdrunk typically spend years scouring cities to find spaces suitable for their expansive, highly detailed worlds. It took three years to find the disused post office building in Paddington where their Hollywood fable The Drowned Man unfolded over four floors (4/25/17).
Fallow Cross, or “The Village”, as it was often referred to, was the home base for trainings, workshops and explorations I did with Punchdrunk across the fall. The work varied based on current projects, scheduled work for the Village and the training priorities for the company. Here’s a sampling of work/training I did with them:
- In-Service training for school projects – I learned about the design process and practices PD Enrichment undertakes with most of their projects, including an approach to immersive storytelling that is the foundation for their work – and very applicable to mine. These practices were broken down into secondary school and primary school models.
- Core principles that we explored included rich criteria for making the work for students, focusing on how to develop in all projects (as identified by PD staff):
- A feeling of reality
- A sense of danger
- The possibility of magic
- Education wrapped up as story
- Books as starting points
- Gift and the importance of show legacy
- Physical training – physical performance is vital to Punchdrunk’s way of developing its actors. I got to spend time in actor trainings with Punchdrunk, as they shared “tool kits” of techniques and forms they use to develop their actors. Much of this work is of double-value to me. As an educator who teaches courses on acting, I have new work to draw upon; as a theater-maker in and outside of my school, I have a new vocabulary for building shows that will work in both conventional and more experimental settings.
- Design workshops – spent quality time participating in and learning about Punchdrunk’s design practices, which I was first introduced to when working on Sleep No More in 2009. As in any art form, a particular language or set of tools help shape the aesthetic of the work. In my time here – exemplified by work all around me in The Village – I was able to develop this vocabulary, help with actual projects, and have time to conduct design “experiments” of my own in The Village.
Current Punchdrunk work: Kabeiroi
It is designed for audiences of two, lasts for six hours and is harder to get tickets for than Tom Hiddleston’s Hamlet. Kabeiroi, the latest creation by experimental theatre company Punchdrunk, is a shapeshifter of a show. Based on fragments of a lost play by Aeschylus, it takes you on a journey across London (you’re advised to top up your Oyster card before arrival) and is by turns tourist experience, treasure hunt and descent into an unsettling world. These shifts keep you on edge, leading you to constantly question what the show is.
Punchdrunk has continued to pioneer immersive theater as a form (they have now eschewed that term, preferring ‘site-sympathetic theatre’ instead) as they try to stay one step ahead of their audiences. Their “mask shows” – shows in which every audience is instructed to wear an anonymous white mask for the evening in part to separate them from the actors – have run successfully for over 10 years. For Punchdrunk, that meant coming up with whole new means of staying ahead of their audiences.
Kabeiroi was an attempt, in the artistic director’s words, to see if they could take the 90 or so rooms of a building from one of their large mask shows and imagine them spread out instead, across a city. This show, instead of sending an audience through one massive site, turned downtown London into a world where the fiction of the show overlapped with everyday business.
While not having permission to describe specifics, it is worth describing the scale of the show – starting off in one of central London’s great artistic institutions, the show disguises itself to the audience as a “walking tour of London” via the only app on a phone handed to an audience member before beginning the show. It is also worth noting that only two audience members progress through the show at a time.
After a series of encounters, mysterious meetings, and even a staged break-in to a building, audience members started to uncover the story of the Kabeiroi, a cult that was the subject of an Aeschylus play, one of which only a fragment survives. From that fragment, Punchdrunk unhatched a whole show that slowly pulled the audience into its deeper mysteries.
These final mysteries were discovered in a warehouse in North London where I did the bulk of my work for the show. A massive warehouse space (not Fallow Cross) was turned into a building full of Kabeiroi secrets and built towards a tremendous technical finale of light, sound, fog and other effects. My work was as the Production Manager’s jack of all trades in tech work – rigging lighting, sound and set pieces around the space. An added bonus of the job was getting to hang out in the “control room” during the show – where audiences are monitored throughout London from beginning to end to ensure their success.
This experience has helped with both sides of the part-whole understanding needed to make fully-realized theater of this kind. Every time I feel like I’ve gotten to know this company, I find them evolving into something new and enthralling. Getting to focus on elements of Kabeiroi while gaining a sense of its full scope was an education in itself that I look forward to unpacking in the months (and years) to come – and will be of service to me in my work as well as any number of school-based projects in my future.
In addition to getting to participate in many corners of the Punchdrunk universe while in London, I’ve also been able to engage with other exciting corners of the theatrical world. Some of these highlights have included opportunities to see theatrical work that has little/no equivalent in the US. While here, I got to engage with immersive productions about the Roman layers of history under London, one’s relationship to a city in the form of “living novel”, an app-based immersive theater piece designed for a furtive section of East London, and an exploration of nationalism and censorship through the lens of Vaclav Havel, to name a few. These, too, have given me new ways of thinking about form and content for work I could bring back to Amherst and my students – especially with some tech innovations I’ve not seen elsewhere.
I also was able to make time for more traditional endeavors – touring Shakespeare’s Globe, seeing productions by prominent theaters including the National Theatre, Royal Shakespeare Company, Royal Court Theatre and the Almeida Theatre, for instance. I got to see work from a few splendid companies that rarely leave England, such as Cornwall’s Kneehigh Theatre or a traditional British panto. I also have had that rare double-gift of time and access to spend reading plays, especially the new work coming out in these spaces.
One of those pieces belongs to American Anne Washburn, an award-winning NYC playwright whose adaptation of The Twilight Zone recently opened at the Almeida Theatre. Having a prior connection with her, we were able to catch up to talk at length about contemporary theater, London, and the American-British “translation” of work. Such moments, while incidental in my time here, were often as valuable as my more programmed plans here and would not have been possible to put together in my regular working life at home.
At nearly 20 years in, I’ve hit the rough midpoint of my teaching career, so the timing for revitalizing my work and thinking as an educator could not be better on those terms. But equally exceptional is the timing of so much excellent work in the theater world – from compelling new plays and playwrights to the explosion of immersive work and the continual rise of professional theaters engaging with young audiences. On each of those terms, this grant has given me the room and flexibility to explore work in a way that feels very “Bates” to me. I think back to being in the wilderness of writing my senior thesis and that amount of freedom I was given to fly or flop.
In this spirit, my Barlow-funded experience was a wonderful continuation of that approach. With this grant in place, I was freed up to work independently, to make my own plans and find a path into the work that fascinates me professionally and personally. And it has been a wonderful run – the combination of practical experience and personal refueling from exposure to so much great work has left me charged up for my return.
Indeed, I’ve already rewritten the syllabus for my Stagecraft class, am restructuring big elements of my acting classes, and preparing for future theater projects that will no doubt be inflected by my time and knowledge gained here. As an arts administrator in my school district and a summer arts program director, I have new approaches to share and work with colleagues on to explore future projects. And – I have the tantalizing opportunity to stay in touch with Punchdrunk as they explore more ways of getting their Enrichment work out past London – and indeed, towards the US (maybe even Amherst) in the time to come.
It is a joy to have a professional life that centers around the arts and education. More exciting, however, to have a foundation that has prepared me so well for it – and continues to support my growth. Many thanks for this opportunity! I’d be happy to discuss any of it further should you like.Apply for the Barlow Alumni Travel Grant