‘Always change the rules as you go’

Felix Barratt is the artistic director of Punchdrunk, the pioneering theater company that has truly launched immersive theater mainstream with a series of acclaimed shows over more than two decades. Here he is talking about the company’s flagship shows…

Mask of the Red Death

Battersea Arts Center (2007)

    (Stephen Dobbie)

(Stephen Dobbie)

We had done a few big shows in big abandoned spaces. Faust was in an old sorting office in Wapping and we appreciated the support of the National. I think his old friend Tom Morris introduced us at Battersea Arts Centre, and he said that the next radical thing to do, rather than taking a disused space, would be to reinvent a workspace.

So we had the different challenge of creating a place that many of the audience were completely familiar with, filling it with ghosts rather than activating it with the ghosts of the past.

It was an incredible space. David Jubb, the artistic director of the BAC at the time, gave us carte blanche to reimagine the space and open up pieces behind the stage, old disused rooms. We were able to recreate it, knowing that it would stay that way and be part of his complete restoration. Having that carte blanche was very powerful and significant.

We asked for all kinds of things. Because it was an Edgar Allen Poe story we said we needed a real fire, so they brought in the chimney sweep. And then we said if we needed a fire a cat. So they let us get a black cat, Pluto, who lived there for another 15 years. It was great doing something that we knew would have a legacy.

People would inquire about the space but we realized they needed something to tie it together. BAC had this great hall that held us back, so we had a lot of fun in the last 20 minutes. I’m a sucker for a proper crescendo and that’s what really crystallized that idea.

The Borough

Aldeburgh (2013)

    (Rob Morrison)    (Rob Morrison)

(Rob Morrison)

We do large-scale work with shows. We always try to make the hair stand on the back of your neck no matter what we do, whether it’s for an audience of 600 or just one. This was for audience only. Rather than transforming a building, we transformed a town and had a secret cat of 40 hidden amongst the real Aldeburgh legend.

The one on the other shows has always been the distilled form, the raw impact, the emotional sucker punch that we strive for. With The Borough we got to do that for one audience member at a time using a soundtrack. We have done many headphone projects over the years, which have raised the scale and impact. It was great to have a whole cityscape where the audience didn’t know if it was just a man walking his dog or a performer. So suddenly there was a team of hundreds but most were obscure.

There would be one audience member every five or 10 minutes. For the last 20 years we have made these experiences for small audiences and they are true gems. They don’t have the scale but they are real gems. That’s the descent to the Viola Room, to enhance one of these experiences.

The Drowned Man: A Hollywood Fable

31 London Street (2013)

    (Julian Abrams)    (Julian Abrams)

(Julian Abrams)

It was in an old sorting office. I remember seeing that building for the first time on January 5th and then it opened six months later. From not thinking, walking around it with open eyes to planning, building and practicing it, it was done very quickly and by the skin of our teeth. But it was properly responsive to the site. It was a glorious rollercoaster.

If the audience knows what will happen next, why do they dare to do it? My philosophy is always to change the rules as you go, so they are always on the back foot and have to obey it. That’s the best way to experience art, when you’re drawn next to it.

We were so dependent on construction. We lost that space to Crossrail so there was always a ticking clock on that one. Every building we used was now demolished. It was a beautiful moment that we found that space in such a central place. It gave us a lovely drive but it took us a long time to find such a large space in London. It pushed us to great things internationally, but in our hometown it took us a long time to find a follow-up.

The Third Day

Sky Arts (2020)

The original plan was to try to create an immersive TV show. You would watch a TV program and the story is followed in real time and the main character, Jude Law, comes across a festival that will take place on the coast of Essex, the audience would be able to get into the car and go to it. It would happen in real time and you could be a part of it. It was many years of planning and HBO and Sky were up for it. But we succumbed to the Covid.

So we had to pivot in a few weeks from an audience of 6,000 on an island to one audience, which was the camera, tracking the 12 hours of action. It was a complete experiment, because it’s a kind of slow footage. Jude was in character on screen for a sold-out nine hours.

We didn’t know what was going to happen. Once we started it we knew we couldn’t stop. It was 12 hours of rolling action. Working with Dennis Kelly, the playwright, there were three hours of television, the live broadcast, then three more hours of television.

We had an incredible cast and crew and it was exciting to accidentally do something that felt like we were breaking ground and doing new things. So much so that we are planning things that will go back to that territory.

Jude was a fan of the work, and we chatted about what we could do together. It was amazing. He literally had to dig his own grave, in real time, for an hour. The blisters and welts on his hands are all real. It was almost like a piece of living art.

We were very happy with it. It was such an anomaly. It was broadcast live on Sky Arts over here and on a digital platform in the US. We found out that people put it on and were hooked, and stayed with it all day. Chatter and social media suddenly felt like live theatre. He was in danger because they knew they were watching him in real time. It was just on a screen not in live space.

The Burnt City

Cartridge Only (2022)

Vinicius Salles in the Burning City (Julian Abrams)Vinicius Salles in the Burning City (Julian Abrams)

Vinicius Salles in the Burning City (Julian Abrams)

But many shows have collapsed when we’ve found buildings for whatever reason – asbestos, change of ownership – they disappear. So we planned The Burnt City for another building before The Drowned Man. It was two connected buildings and we knew we wanted to do the Greeks, and do two sides of the same story. The fall of Troy felt perfect, but we lost the building. It should be open in 2010.

Then the Drowned Man post, we did a lot of international work. We realized we were nomads and London was our home and we needed to put down roots and settle down a bit. We had been doing shows in New York and Shanghai for a very long time, and wanted that in London, so we started looking for a home.

The Royal Borough of Greenwich were brilliant and they offered us the Woolwich Arsenal, and by some miracle there were two buildings connected, so we thought we could go back to the show we almost did in Holborn. It was a fortuitous revival of an old idea that suited the space perfectly. He had a height that was greater – his height. But all the ideas were there.

We decided to go to a purely physical place in this show. It was a conscious decision, knowing that the language is coming back in another work. It was a great surprise to endure that for a year and a half. It allowed us to launch the building and finally have our own space in our hometown. It was a real gift.

Viola’s room

Cartridge Only (2024)

    (Muse)    (Muse)


This is the first time we have returned to space. We always did one show and moved on. It’s our 25th anniversary next year – the building is so rich, we thought if we treated it as our version of an arts centre, it has so much. It completely changed our thinking. We thought, what is our version of the Southbank Center with different spaces and environments, and could be different shows at the same time. It wouldn’t have to be one big show, but multiple smaller shows.

The Viola Room is on a more discreet scale so it allows us to do other things at the same time. We have planned nets in the future which will also be full building takeovers. It’s great that the audience will know how to find us, and really connect with the borough.

It is described as an audio-driven journey for a lunar fever dream. It draws on the headphone-based audio shows we’ve done in the past. It’s a relatable bedtime story where you enter the world of dreams. It is linear, has text and narration. It is a deliberately different flavor that brings something new to the building after The Burnt City. But all our atmosphere is there, going back to one-on-ones and pure Punchdrunk moments distilled. One is essentially a larger scale. You can enter alone or with up to six people.

Felix Barrett, art director of Punchdrunk (Stephen Dobbie)Felix Barrett, art director of Punchdrunk (Stephen Dobbie)

Felix Barrett, art director of Punchdrunk (Stephen Dobbie)

No live performers, no need. It’s about the lack of people. It’s an opportunity for the installation, the sound world, the light and the design to step up. When we’re building a show, one discipline doesn’t take precedence over another. Light is character, sound is vital. It’s on a smaller scale but it’s going to be just as epic.

In 2002, when I had just left university and moved back to London. We were trying to get £1000 to do a show and calling every borough to see if there was a building we could find for free, someone said we should look at Woolwich Arsenal, so off we went I down diligently. I saw the scale of these huge warehouses, we only had £1,000 and it was abandoned. But here we are 24 years later to be in that huge huge space as our home, able to plan the next tranche of work, which is incredible. It gives us a chance to be much more productive. Instead of spending half the year finding the buildings and getting the permits, that’s in place. So all our attention is focused on doing work.

What’s really exciting about this next phase is putting a lot more stuff out there, which is great.

The Viola Room at One Cartridge Place opens on June 3; punchdrunk.com

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