The recent collaboration between immersive theatre company Punchdrunk and inclusive theatre company Hijnx for Beneath the Streets was an artistic success-as its sell-out run indicates. Beyond the success of the piece, a part of the annual Cardiff Unity Festival, this collaboration with Punchdrunk is a real milestone for Unity, Hijinx, inclusive theatre and Welsh Theatre.
Punchdrunk, it is fair to say, are at the top of their game. Immersive theatre has proliferated in recent years, reaching beyond the fringe theatre to more commercial endeavours like ‘Secret Cinema’ and moving beyond London-centric shows to regional and touring productions, immersive theatre is becoming more and more present. However, Punchdrunk, among the early pioneers of the genre, remain the masters. Their most recent London show, The Drowned Man, a co-production with The National Theatre, was their most successful to date, selling out and allowing the production to extend beyond the original run. The piece also attracted rave reviews and a loyal fan following as well as many celebrity attendees including Aaron Paul, Florence Welch and even a cameo appearance from Andrew Garfield.
The productions also continue to be of a standard far above their nearest competitors. The world of The Drowned Man taking place over four floors of an old sorting office, taking on over 30 characters each with a complex, detailed and interlinked stories. The sets, which audience members are encouraged to touch, engage with and generally rummage through, are embodied with meaning, and detailed to the last piece of paper or jewellery. One could feasibly spend an entire show simply exploring the space. And that is the ethos of Punchdrunk, to explore, to engage with both the surroundings and the actors. To be invited to work with Punchdrunk therefore adds an element of kudos to any company or performance. That Punchdrunk chose to collaborate with Hijinx, the small inclusive theatre company in Cardiff is a great compliment to the work of both companies.
Working as part of Punchdrunk’s enrichment programme, director Pete Higgin and producer Alexandra Rowse, created a production that was essentially a smaller scale Punchdrunk show in the sense that it took place in a smaller space and was shorter in running time. Otherwise Beneath the Streets had the artistic aesthetic of a full-scale show. Audience members were taken to a secret location (as the show has now closed it’s safe to reveal it was a building next to Jacob’s Antiques in the city centre) and presented with masks to wear at all times (not the usual Punchdrunk full face masks, but a dust mask of the kinds worn by painters and decorators, which was fitting with the medical/industrial theme of the piece). Once inside, guided by one of the employees of Found Corporation, we were led to the main offices, and as is par for the course in a Punchdrunk show instructed to leave our companions behind and go exploring. The show, in line with the Hijinx company ethos, was an inclusive theatre piece featuring actors with a range of disabilities or learning difficulties. Combined with local actors these performers under the direction of Punchdrunk
Over two floors, the Found Corporation and its employees inhabit their world of loss and confusion, and often bring the audience into it. Some ask the audience to help them write a story, or give them a gift, or take them into corners to tell them something important. The very lucky audiences get the famous Punchdrunk ‘one to one’ experience where they are taken aside, mask removed, and given a private part of the story just for them, interacting with the actors. Across this production the lines between the audience and actors become blurred, but what is also significant in a production that uses its disabled actors indistinguishably from the other actors, everybody is used equally in the production, everybody has an important part to play. Hijinx is unique in offering performance training to actors with physical disabilities and/or learning disabilities in Wales, and what this co-production with Punchdrunk has enabled them to show is that in performance there needn’t be a difference. What Punchdrunk’s contribution shows, (along with bringing their own performance ethos and imagination to the piece) is that inclusive theatre does not have to solely focus on issues of inclusivity or disability.
The break from more ‘traditional’ theatre that Punchdrunk offers, also provides a great opportunity for inclusive theatre; particularly in the performance format, which allows actors to tailor their performances to their own personality, for an inclusive performance allows everyone a level playing field. In the world of a Punchdrunk show, where ‘normal’ rules rarely apply, there is a freedom for actors to bring more of themselves to a performance than traditional performance requires. This was a real strength for Hjinx actors, and the enjoyment from the freedom of performance, the interaction with each other and their audience was apparent from the start. What this performance also showed is that inclusive performance can be at its most inclusive when instead of being about inclusivity or disability, it just simply is inclusive. In this case, allowing everyone to fully embrace and engage with their role whatever their background. The audience interaction with the performance is a real booster to this kind of performance, because actors receive immediate feedback and encouragement that drives the performance on.
Year after year the Unity Festival proves that inclusive theatre can be as wide ranging as any other sort of theatre, but there was something particularly significant about this collaboration. In producing an immersive piece that was of equal calibre with Punchdrunk’s main shows, while working inclusively shows two things. Firstly, it indicates to anyone not familiar with inclusive theatre that actually there are very few limitations on who can participate in performance making. It is through inclusive theatre that the collaborative nature of the medium really shines; in working as a company any personal limitations individuals may have due to disability never limit the performance or their part in it, because the company works collaboratively. Secondly, Punchdrunk coming to Cardiff and not only staging a show of their own but collaborating equally with a native company also helps to put Cardiff even more on the theatrical map.
Punchdrunk have an loyal fan following, and anecdotally from experience at the show and online feedback, many made the journey to Cardiff to see the show. Cardiff may only be a 2 hour journey from London but sometimes this can feel like a huge leap for London-centric companies. It is one thing to have traditional tours visiting the main venues, quite another for an experimental theatre company – particularly one like Punchdrunk who can have their pick of not only the UK to work in, but the world – to choose Cardiff. It shows Cardiff has both the talent and the audiences that companies want to work with. That audiences responded both through ticket sales and embracing the ethos of Punchdrunk shows, can only say good things about Welsh audiences and encourage both the company and others like it to one day return. What it also shows is the ongoing willingness of Welsh audiences, and those who travel to see theatre here to push their own boundaries and embrace innovation in theatre that may be outside of their comfort zone. National Theatre Wales, among others, have been pushing audiences to experience new kinds of theatre more and more in recent years, the excitement around Beneath the Streets, and Punchdrunk’s collaboration, shows that a local audience, as well as a travelling one, are hungry for this sort of exciting innovative work.
Most importantly, however, Punchdrunk, with this high-calibre collaboration, is helping the hugely important Unity Festival prove once again that inclusive theatre is in no way inferior to any other theatre. Ultimately, good theatre is good theatre, and what Beneath the Streets offered was more than just a performance, it was an experience, one which is linked to the particular kind of magic Punchdrunk as a company bring to their work, but one that was realised by a company of actors who showed diversity is about bringing a range of things to a performance, not limiting a performance. It was a great compliment to the Unity Festival and Hijinx that a company of Punchdrunk’s reputation chose to collaborate; but it’s really a testament to the work of Hijinx, their actors for its overall success. The audiences who came out and embraced the production also showed that Welsh theatre audiences continue to embrace inclusive theatre, but also continue to enjoy the challenge of innovative, and in this case immersive, theatre. And if we’re lucky, this won’t be the last Wales sees of such work.
(Image credit: Simon Gough)