Immersive Entertainment: New World Storytelling From Punchdrunk's The Drowned Man

If you're a filmmaker, you may have already noticed that some of the most exciting news about 21st century storytelling isn't coming from Hollywood.  For example, many New World storytellers are closely watching the inspiring work from a London-based theater company, Punchdrunk.

Punchdrunk's best known prior work is Sleep No More, which opened in 2011 and is still running in New York. (A former student of mine, Cesar Hawas, is part of the producing team behind that NYC production.)

On July 18th, 2013 the BBC reported on Punchdrunk's latest and biggest theatrical project, an immersive co-production with the National Theatre, known as The Drowned Man: A Hollywood Fable.

The Drowned Man, like prior Punchdrunk productions, plays with space and the relationship between audience and performer.  In The Drowned Man audience members can roam a 200,000 sq. ft. performance area - with more than 100 rooms recreating a 1960s film studio. As the BBC reports, in The Drowned Man, "[a]udience members - who must wear masks - are free to explore the film sets and the world beyond the studio gates."

The plot of The Drowned Man is built around "[a] tragic love story" - inspired by Georg Buchner's unfinished play Woyzeck. The Drowned Man "is played out by a large cast of actors and dancers [34 performers at each show]. Some scenes take place in tiny spaces, where only one or two people are watching."

Why are the practices and insights of today's immersive theater an important development for New World filmmakers? Just listen to how Punchdrunk's founder and artistic director, Felix Barrett, described the aesthetic goals of The Drowned Man to the BBC:

"We're trying to remove the audience from their comfort zone and lose them in a parallel universe... The audience is the camera floating around this dream... All we are doing is presenting loads of content like the unedited rushes for them to cut together.""

And consider what Theo Bosanquet, editor of, told the BBC:

"There's a computer game-like experience offered by immersive theatre that really appeals to a younger generation... What's interesting is the way immersive theatre can turn small audience numbers to its advantage."

Thanks to transmedia storyteller Ian Ginn, who inspired this post with his suggestion of a trip to London to see The Drowned Man.

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