I have become captivated by a piece of theatre. I’m rather surprised by my enjoyment of visiting Temple Pictures, Hollywood or more prosaically, attending PunchDrunk’s production of ‘The Drowned Man’, playing in an old post office in Paddington.
This is because if I had make a list of what I’d pay to avoid in an evening’s entertainment, it would include the words interpretive dance, cast interaction, and masquerade. Ever been to one of those cinema screenings where people dressed up as the characters pootle about before the film mangling accents and molesting punters? I hate those. I really hate them.
Giving me a comfortable seat, leaving me alone, and telling me what the hell is going on seem simple enough demands to make of a theatre company, and I was not wildly enthusiastic about having none of these needs met on my first visit to Temple Studios.1
Why did I go? My partner had been, because a friend had loved it. She wanted us to go. I tried not to roll my eyes too much when I was told it would last three hours. I forbore generally. I was assured there was a bar that I could sit in and nurse a drink. I didn’t think much more about it than that. I knew it was about a love story gone wrong, I think, and set in sixties Hollywood, and had some absurdly pretentious link to some play I’d never heard of. Fine. Whatever.
To ease my path, My girlfriend got some special ticket that meant we would get a free drink and an explanation of the plot. I remember thinking that a play that needed the plot explaining first was probably a really bad play.
It’s fair to say that my mood on my first visit was one of bemused disdain. Yeah. Sure. I’ll put on a Scream mask. I’ll putter about for a bit, check out the scenery. Then go for a drink and wait for it to be over. The one thing I liked the sound of was examining the set. I didn’t want actors being all actory up in my face, but checking out the props might keep me reasonably entertained.
About ten of us gather in wood panelled room. There’s an unnerving introduction, which thankfully contains no interpretive dance.
Moments later I’m propelled into what seems to be a trailer park. I wander past this into a backyard, someone’s bedroom and then what looks like a rough part of town. The set is huge. There seems to be no-one around. I wander into a shop, and look at various broken electrical devices. After a few minutes of randomly picking things up and putting them back, I amble out.
There’s a sound, I look right, and about fifty people in blank white masks are rushing directly at me. I dive back into the shop to avoid being the first recorded death by audience participation. Where the hell did they come from? What the fuck were they doing? Was that the play?
The whole of my first show was like that. After a bit I realised that various characters moved around, and so the scream-masked audience trampled after them like a herd of serial killing sheep on a rampage. I didn’t care about any of the characters, and following them looked like hard work and a little terrifying.
So I just pottered about. I found a little tunnel in a desert and found a room full of potions, and a basement room full of dead flowers. I found a glass of real whisky and had a surreptitious sip. A couple of times I was looking at files, or trying to read a letter when actors came in and acted to a group of white masks.
I stayed out of the way when that happened, but one time a woman who looked like a possessed Mary Poppins told me she needed the room I was pottering about in. She had another audience member with her, but after I left she locked the door with him inside. What was that about?
Then it was the end and the final scene. My main reaction was the same as the first: Where the hell did all these people come from? There were dozens of actors, and the scene was in a huge place I’d not even registered. Maybe it was the fact I didn’t recognise more than three of the cast2
Alright, I thought. I have to go back, just to work out what the hell was going on. I’m not going to tell you how many times I’ve been since. It’s too many and not enough at the same time. I got it wrong sometimes: After I learned that the characters sometimes take off an audience member for a little private acting, I faced my hatred of such intimacy and tried to see if they’d pick me3.
Of course, they didn’t choose me, and I was disappointed, because I wasn’t finding out the secrets to what the hell was going on. Until a woman dragged me into a darkened room and.. well, let’s just say I’ve never had a member of a paying audience take to facebook to compliment me on my interpretive dance before.
Plus, I’m a bit clumsy at the best of times. I’ve trod on feet, walked into walls, and in every other way imaginable been an accidental audience berk. I have perfected a ‘Sorry I just de-immersed you by beaking you in the shoulder‘ eye-shrug.4
Last night was a bit of a revelation though, which is why I’m writing this today. I managed to actually pay attention to some characters stories properly.5 Not through snatches, or random encounters alone, but by doing what that crowd was doing the very first time. Following a character, listening and watching.
Because it turns out the characters were trying, desperately, to tell me what the hell was going on, as best they knew. So was the set. So were the props and the music and even the bar staff. But I hadn’t been interested in the characters, or in the people. At least, not enough to really take in what was going on. I’d been too distracted by the show, by the scale and the detail. I had been interested in the drink, though.6
Now I’m finally listening, and realising that the story is as detailed as the set, that the characters can be as twisted and confused as the mazes. I’m almost irritated at myself. For not paying attention properly. For missing so much. For getting there so late, and in the wrong frame of mind. For all the stories I haven’t bothered to listen to.
Of course, I have to go back. Trouble is, there’s only four more weeks.
So don’t go, eh? You might take my ticket.
Trust me, you wouldn’t get it.
- A parenthetical detour: There may be someone reading this who is a hardened veteran of Punchdrunk productions, who has been going to The Drowned Man and its predecessor and parallel shows for years before I stumbled across them. For you, my naively ignorant delight might be annoying and amusing in equal measure. I’m rather like someone who arrives late to a sixties music convention saying “Have you heard this amazing new band? They’re called the Beat-els, and they’ve just made this album “Corporal Pepper”. You should totally check it out!” I understand, honestly. Just remember how jealous I am of you. I didn’t get to see Badlands Jack, never mind Red Death. I’m like that Beatles guy, EXCEPT I”M NEVER GOING TO GET TO HEAR REVOLVER. You lucky, smart, early adopting sods [↩]
- The possessed Mary Poppins, a crazed doctor and a little bantamweight of movie-star. [↩]
- No, imaginary regular attendee, I wasn’t pushy, or at least I hope not. I just was too focussed on getting the experience to have the experience, if you know what I mean [↩]
- One moment for you, Imaginary mask person. I am wandering around the basement. Alice comes down, in a rush and alone. She enters a room. Oh-ho, think I, a SECRET THING, and follow her in. She’s getting changed out of her dress. I stand there, her only audience, really not sure if I’m supposed to be there or not. It seems rather unseemly, just the two of us. I affect a deep interest in drapery. She seems to catch my eye in the mirror. I scuttle out, a shamefaced voyeur, and wait outside. A while later, she emerges, in her new outfit, and gives me a look that says ‘You waited outside? What kind of freak are you, anyway?‘ [↩]
- Faye and Romola, Imaginary fellow maskwearer. And yes, I stayed in the car [↩]
- Regular imaginary mask wearer: OK, I like getting free whisky. It’s a weakness. But I’m not the only one who has that weakness, right, Harry? [↩]