Three Lessons on Historical Storytelling from Punchdrunk

As historians we are told to interrogate our sources, trained to see connections, and build a historical argument based on primary, secondary, archeological, and physical documentation. As distant observers of past events, we look for detail and nuance—and for new ways to glean what lives within the silences.

In a lot of ways, this is not far from being an audience member at a Punchdrunk theatrical experience.

Nearly a decade ago as part of a piece on breaking the fourth wall, I described a play called Sleep No Morea co-production between Emursive and Punchdrunk. In this retelling of Shakespeare’s Macbeth the companies adapted three warehouses in New York City to create a massive theatrical experience. As the story unwound the audience meandered through five floors of sets in a fictional McKittrick hotel, stumbling upon scenes and story elements that included more than just the actors performing before us.

Sleep No More Act II, Scene II Macbeth. From an edition with an inscription that states “To Mary from Sidney. 17th June 1924.” | Credit Priya Chhaya

Since that production, I have been fascinated with the storytelling methodology of immersive theater, and in June of 2021, as part of Punchdrunk’s online educational offerings, I took a course on Introduction to Design. I hoped that the course would give me some insight into how immersive theatre layers on different elements of sound, visual spectacle, movement, and narrative cues to build a story that demands the active use of observation by their audience.

I was particularly interested in adding to my ever-growing toolbox for multidisciplinary storytelling, acknowledging as I always do, that these strategies are not unfamiliar for those actively involved in historical theatre and interpretation.  In the course of three hours, a group of attendees from all corners of the globe (Moscow, San Francisco, Washington D.C., Bristol, England to name a few) gathered to learn by doing. Using strategies outlined by our instructors ,we were taught how to build an experience in a way that leverages emotion with narrative.

So, with that in mind, here are my three key takeaways from the course:

Consider the source material. There are two things that are critical to every single one of Punchdrunk’s experiences. The first is a single primary source or document. This is where our work as historians may sound familiar. At the start of the process the designers read the text, over, and over to identify elements to include in the project. They ask questions such as—what can you see, what is explicitly described? What can you not see? What can you infer and why? What is the intention behind this document, and what role if at all does it play in the story being told? In short, they interrogate the source.

A tilted tea cup and a turned over teapot, the lid lying on a a piece of floral stationary on a glass table.
An image snapped as part of an exercise for the Introduction to Design Course. We were given a series of letters to use as grounding for the design project. My team pulled together a series of images and a description that reflected the tension and emotion those letters conveyed. While many of the images were from the internet—think Norman Bates level of creepy, it ended up the source material for the letters was a Shirley Jackson story—I used some objects from home to add to the tableau. Credit: Priya Chhaya

Spatial Details. The second element is the space. Punchdrunk is known for staging their experiences in underused, sometimes abandoned places. During the training they talked about how if a place required to tell the story is unavailable, they will move on to a different story. They also use the document they have to build out the necessary details for the production. Making deliberate choices about what is needed in terms of objects, sound, color, smell. And to use those pieces to guide audience members through their vision without overtly directing them through. For public historians this will sound familiar—it is the art of interpretation at historic sites. Educating without being too prescriptive. Designing experiences in a way that visitors can understand the history and importance of a place, even when a guide is not available as a guiding hand.

It’s not just what you see, its what you feel. Finally, what makes Punchdrunk (and perhaps other immersive theater) so effective is the way the leverage emotion and feeling. During the training we started with an immersive audio experience and were talked through the different elements that made that production effective. We were asked to consider our emotions at different parts of the piece. What made us curious, what drew us in to learn more? What scared us? The discussion talked about how we were made to feel comforted or uncomfortable, and how the process of design-built tension and uncertainty at different levels.  How did breaking social conventions (number orders, a bowl of hot soup in an empty reception hall) create a mood?

A view of a bent and gnarled three that has curved and twisted with time, yet is still alive with green branches spreading out from the ground. The photograph is taken from the perspective up the trunk.
A photograph of a tree in Spring Lake, New Jersey. Like the stories we tell it is rooted in place, yet looks nothing like the way a tree is expected to look. It’s twisted limbs are at once ominous, but also ethereal making you wonder about it’s life and story. For the work we do as historians, our storytelling can also be unexpected, but how do we convey the information with integrity while also building in the essential connections between humans? | Credit: Priya Chhaya

Grounded in Reality

One of the things that the course explained is how important it is to ground all these different elements in reality. That in order to understand the fantastical elements of the production, we have to create familiar touch points for audience members top build from.

For historians, this grounding is especially important. Not only in terms of ethics, but also in our role as purveyors of a meaningful and honest past. The three takeaways above bring up some critical questions for multidisciplinary historical storytelling. That is, how do you balance the theatrical with the reality of the past? If we are leveraging art and storytelling as one method of building relevance and connection between then and now, what are the mechanisms to acknowledge the subjectivity and ephemerality of this type of storytelling?

A collection of shells laid out on a white paper along with one white rock. The shells are white with ridges or white with blue edging, some broken pieces.
In a lot of ways the art of historical storytelling is like putting together a broken shell from the beach. We don’t know if we have all the pieces, but we can only lay out the setting, emotion, and story based on the pieces we do have, making adjustments as new information comes to light.

Also how do we consider these tools alongside memory, myth, and family lore, or oral traditions and music that have passed on from generation to generation? There is a moment in Clint Smith’s new book How the Word is Passed where an interpreter at Monticello says “there is a difference between history and nostalgia, and somewhere in between the two is memory…”  It is that memory that I think is best conveyed through productions such as this, where the weight of those recollections can be supported through a non-traditional vehicle of sharing.

With this in mind, I want to be clear that I am not necessarily advocating for first person immersive experiences for historical sites, especially if it does not make sense to do so. Rather I look to this course and the methodologies above as part of a bigger conversation of interpretation, i.e. about the role arts and other disciplines play in building connection between history that is so often excluded and those that need to hear those stories, and more importantly, supporting healing for those whose pasts still continues to bring forth trauma in the here and now.

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