Our Laura meets Punchdrunk’s artistic director Felix Barrett and photographer Julian Abrams to talk about the theatre company’s first ever book, a collection of extraordinary images by renowned interiors photographer Julian Abrams capturing Punchdrunk’s The Drowned Man.
The Drowned Man, Punchdrunk’s biggest show to date, was seen by over 200,000 people during its year long run. Inspired by Büchner’s fractured masterpiece Woyzeck, the production took place in a vast building in Paddington transformed into a seedy Hollywood underworld filled with dreamers from the fringes of the movie industry.
What inspired the collaboration?
Felix: Well Julian sort of approached us. We have historically been quite cautious about allowing people to take photographs of our shows, for two reasons: firstly because it is important that Punchdrunk shows hold on to a sense of mystery and surprise and putting too many images out there in the public domain can diminish that effect. Secondly, because the shows are hard to photograph. Often the spaces are dark and detailed, to capture them well seems to require bringing in a whole load of additional lighting which of course then changes the atmosphere of the space and the design. Julian confounded us by saying that he didn’t need to do that. His photographs of other spaces were beautiful, so we thought we would give it a go. He came for a test run, and the results were so extraordinary we ended up deciding on a much bigger collaboration with him.
Punchdrunk’s productions are famed for both their large scale and intricate details and ‘The Drowned Man’ was no exception. How did you choose which moments and features to focus on?
Julian: For the set shots it was a case of systematically working through the set and documenting what caught my eye. I work on a lot of very high end interior design projects and I came to the conclusion that I should approach this aspect of the shoot in the same way that I would for an interior designer.
The performance shots were totally different… I had seen the show twice as an audience member prior to shooting it and discussed with Punchdrunk the elements that I thought would make good images. However it became apparent very quickly that I had barely scratched the surface and there was so much more to do. I was therefore led by Maxine Doyle (Co-director & Choreographer of The Drowned Man) on what she felt were the key scenes to capture in terms of performance and narrative.
We captured an enormous amount of imagery so the editing process was also crucial to what made the final cut for the book. In many ways this was more difficult that the actual shooting!
As is often the case with immersive theatre, each audience member’s experience of ‘The Drowned Man’ was slightly different. How does the book go about assimilating all these possible experiences?
Felix: It can’t really. The Drowned Man was the biggest thing we had ever done. Huge in every way. And in that sense the possibilities for images were pretty much endless. So the whole team, Maxine Doyle (co-director), Livi Vaughan and Beatrice Minns (designers), Stephen Dobbie (sound designer), Colin Nightingale and the producing team, Julian and I have poured over thousands of images and we hope to have come up with a selection that fairly reflects the show.
It is funny, I was talking to someone the other day who has seen the pictures and who saw the show several times and who was over-joyed that finally they got to see the horse… they told me that they tried in vain to find it in the show itself…!
‘Voyeuristic’ is often used to describe the experience of a Punchdrunk production. The audience members are required to wear masks and stumble upon different character and narratives. It’s also a word often associated with the medium of photography. Do you think that’s a fair association?
Julian: Photography is a very broad church so it would be difficult to state that it is all voyeuristic. There is however a strong element of voyeurism in certain styles of photography and in those cases it would definitely be a fair association.
As an audience member I certainly felt the thrill of voyeurism, and it was something I wanted to emphasise while I was shooting as it seemed so integral to the show. In our pre-production meetings we had discussed various influences and we cited the work of American photographer Gregory Crewdson whose work is both voyeuristic and cinematic, and there is certainly a nod to his work in both the show and the photography.
Julian, you’re well known for your exceptional skill in nocturnal and landscape photography. How do you think your interest in light and architecture impacted your documentation of ‘The Drowned Man?’
Julian: It sounds like stating the obvious but light is so crucial to everything I do and is what drives me as a photographer and artist. The challenge in my commercial projects is to cope with many different types of lighting and to maximize the potential of it while accurately representing the intentions of the designers and architectsm, so it is something I have a lot of experience in dealing with.The Drowned Man presented a slightly more complex test of my skills as the lighting for the show is deliberately very low. This was less of a problem for the set shots as I could use a tripod, but for anything moving it became a lot more limiting. There were lots of occasions when there simply wasn’t the requisite amount of light required to take the shot we wanted which was frustrating, but in many ways the parameters of what was and what wasn’t viable technically defined the overall style of the imagery.
Action is a fundamental part of any theatre production. What’s it like to see The Drowned the Man in a static medium? Has it changed the way you view the production?
Felix: It is funny, because many of Julian’s photographs are simply of the spaces, the set, the props, the tiny details, which are all, of course, static anyway – the weird thing is that Julian’s photographs bring them to life, they take on a vitality and energy which is what is inherent in a good piece of art. Julian has elevated the photographing of a show to art in and of itself. The photos of the live action are like memories – they are freeze frames / lightbulb moments of the show. It is like he has caught them and preserved them for all time. I don’t think Julian’s photos have changed the way I view the production as much as enhanced it.
What do you hope readers take away from the book?
Felix: Both pleasure from owning a beautiful work of art in its own right, and if they saw the show a kind of physical memory of the time they spent in Temple Studios.
What’s your next project?
Julian: I have already shot another book which is currently being edited. I have an ongoing partnership with Haberdashery (a multiple disciplinary design studio) with whom I create light sculptures and associated imagery which is exhibited in galleries. I am also setting up Couture Editions, a luxury online image library, and I am in the early stages of developing a virtual reality project, so I am very busy!
Felix: People can go to see our show for children aged 6-12 Against Captains Orders at the National Maritime Museum right now. We are also working away on lots of other projects, nothing is quite ready to talk about yet, so watch out for more news.
The ‘The Drowned Man: A Hollywood Fable’ costs £49.00 and can be purchased here: http://tdmbook.bigcartel.com/
Image Credit: Julian Abrams.