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.

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Fly Me to the Moon: Lessons from the Crowd

When I started this piece many months ago I intended to write about the ways in which technology and multi-disciplinary storytelling has changed the way we engage with our senses. The plan was to look at two, equally compelling, modes of storytelling about a single event in history, and tease apart the ways in which each were constructed to build meaning and connection. 

The first of the two experiences was Earthrise, a musical, presented at the Kennedy Center from July 18-August 4, 2019. The second was the National Air and Space Museum’s Apollo 11: Go For the Moon, July 19-21, 2019, which used projection mapping to create a one of a kind experience on the National Mall

In both cases, the audience was central to the experience. The crowds, the people we stood and sat next to, built tension and enhanced the production in unexpected ways. 

But we are now in mid-November, almost a year and half past, and the world is a very different place. 

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Podcasting, Podracing, and Celebrating Star Wars

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L-R Fangirls Going Rogue hosts Sarah Woloski, Teresa Delgado,  and Tricia Barr,  and myself at the Podcast Stage for Star Wars Celebration. | Credit: Brian Sims

I am not at all impulsive, but one day last year I gave in and purchased, without really thinking, tickets to Star Wars Celebration 2019. The event, which took place last month was what I had always expected it to be — a party with 65,000 of my fellow fans. Before attending I had been apprehensive about my diminishing levels of fandom for the GFFA, and this convention was the moment to see how I really felt.  As I wandered amidst the crowds I realized that:  Continue reading “Podcasting, Podracing, and Celebrating Star Wars”

Parting is Such Sweet Sorrow: A Farewell to Michael Kahn

This is an extension of a hand written letter I sent Michael Kahn on the eve of his final production as artistic director of the Shakespeare Theatre Company. You might call this an ode to my love of storytelling on the stage, or more specifically a personal reflection on the importance of having access to theatre as a young adult.

Dear Michael Kahn,

I would like to start this message simply by saying thank you. For over a decade my experience with the Shakespeare Theatre Company (STC) included joy, wonder, terror, and awe — mostly in part due to your deft handling of the company’s artistic vision.

I don’t know when I began to truly love Shakespeare. It might have been when I was in middle school watching Franco Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet or even later when I joined a college troupe of players known as Shakespeare in the Dark and ran props. But for a few years after that, subsumed beneath the weight of graduate work, I stepped away. Continue reading “Parting is Such Sweet Sorrow: A Farewell to Michael Kahn”

MuseumNext: Ten Things I Learned About Storytelling and Collaborative Projects

Last November I received a grant to attend a conference I’d had my eye on for a while. A two-day speaker driven event, MuseumNext  is a space where individuals from across the museum world (and I do mean world) gather to share the best examples in museum production and practice. For this particular Museum Next, the focus was “designing the future of museums,” and the talks presented dealt with topics ranging from using augmented and virtual reality, to creating unique experiences for visitor engagement.

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While not all of the talks were useful to me, I did end up with some key takeaways. These lessons ranged from the philosophical or motivational to practical tips for planning big (and small) innovative projects. Continue reading “MuseumNext: Ten Things I Learned About Storytelling and Collaborative Projects”

[Presentation] Multidisciplinary Storytelling in a Digital World

How do you tell the history of a place throughout time that seamlessly integrates other forms of expression?

We can tell the basic story of the past — the who, what, when, where, and why, but how can we account for a story where human expression and connections to those events become as important as the events being described. Equally critical —  are the digital tools, and methods we can use to communicate these ideas in our work to tell the full American story.

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Exterior of the Colosseum | Credit: Priya Chhaya

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2018. Just Be.

Today is February 20, 2018. Hello world.

I wish I had a great excuse. A reason why this post (that no one is really looking for but me) is only going up today.

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A piece from Adrian Villar Rojas The Theatre of the Disappearance at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. Taken on a hot summer day in the middle of 2017, the roof was filled with energy, but the sculpture brought a sense of peace and in some ways defeat. | Credit: Priya Chhaya

There are a lot of good reasons to put the blame on. On being too busy. On the state of the world. On the unexpected. On letting fear of change effect the way I feel, think, act. On a surprising lack of will power. On procrastination. On having nothing to say.

That’s all a lie.
But also all true.

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Unexpected: The Last Jedi

Spoilers ahead.

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Credit: StarWars.com

I wasn’t sure how I felt about The Last Jedi until fifteen minutes in the middle of the film.

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The Revolution Will Not Be Televised: Soul of a Nation at the Tate Modern

There will be no pictures of pigs shooting down
Brothers in the instant replay
There will be no pictures of young being
Run out of Harlem on a rail with a brand new process
There will be no slow motion or still life of
Roy Wilkens strolling through Watts in a red, black and
Green liberation jumpsuit that he had been saving
For just the right occasion
Green Acres, The Beverly Hillbillies, and
Hooterville Junction will no longer be so damned relevant
and Women will not care if Dick finally gets down with
Jane on Search for Tomorrow because Black people
will be in the street looking for a brighter day

The revolution will not be televised

—from The Revolution will not be Televised by Gil Scott-Heron

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Black Unity, Elizabeth Catlett. This wooden sculpture shaped into the hand gesture of the Black Power movement, can be found in Soul of a Nation, an exhibition I attended at the Tate Modern in London. The back of the sculpture is a relief of two faces. You can find it in the section entitled “Figuring Black Power.”

During my travels abroad this summer I tried to keep an eye out for examples of multidisciplinary storytelling. Near the end of my trip I visited the Tate Modern in London and attended an exhibition about art during the Black Power movement. A short review would simply say that Soul of a Nation is stunning, not only because of the way in which the exhibition mixes print, sculpture, and photography to show the visual culture of the movement’s history, but also how artists illustrated emotion and meaning through their work.

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The Layered Past, Italian Style

It’s difficult to describe the way Italy inspires. Perhaps it is the unchecked eating of pasta and gelato, or the way we learned to appreciate beautiful vistas amidst ungodly heat (heat wave code name: Lucifer).

Whatever it is, my feet hate me, but my heart is soaring. There is a lot to tell from this trip so far, but I’ll start with one pertinent to my storytelling project.

From the outset of this project my first lesson about studying the past sketched out the rough edge of my frame of reference. More specifically, that in addition to written chronicles, one of our primary sources of evidence comes from the stratigraphic layers written in the earth.

I grew up comparing the work of archaeologists to time traveling, where each layer took us further back through the ages, revealing how each era built and settled upon the times before.

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