#611: “Sleep No More” Creative Producer on Blurring the Lines of Reality with Punchdrunk’s Immersive Theater

colin_nightingalePunchdrunk’s immersive theater piece of Sleep No More opened in March 2011, and it’s inspired countless experiential designers of immersive theater, and virtual and augmented reality experiences. It was a paradigm shift that broke the fourth wall, and encouraged audience members to become fully immersed within the experience. Rather than sit in seats watching actors on a stage, audience members could explore an open world of 100 rooms across five floors, and make choices as to which actors to follow through the space or which parts of elaborate set design to inspect. Sleep No More has been a catalyst to other types of experiential entertainment including escape rooms, site specific performances, immersive and interactive art museums, and the digital mediated versions of these experiences through virtual and augmented reality.

I had a chance to catch up with Punchdrunk creative producer Colin Nightingale at the Immersive Design Summit on January 6th where I had a chance to talk to him about his journey into becoming an experiential designer for immersive theater, how immersive theater is being used for education and medical purposes, and the latest Punchdrunk productions which are all focused on blurring the line between what is reality.


This is a listener supported podcast, considering making a donation to the Voices of VR Podcast Patreon

Music: Fatality

Support Voices of VR

Music: Fatality & Summer Trip

Rough Transcript

[00:00:05.452] Kent Bye: The Voices of VR Podcast. Hello, my name is Kent Bye and welcome to The Voices of VR Podcast. So, Sleep No More is an immersive theater production in New York City that's been running since March of 2011, and it really represents this huge paradigm shift of immersive theater. It's the biggest and the longest-running immersive theater production that's out there, and it's inspired countless numbers of experiential designers and people who are from the theater world that want to try to deconstruct theater, but also virtual and augmented reality creators who see what's possible when you have a huge space with a hundred rooms and you create this completely immersive environment that is transported to another place in time. And there's 21 actors that are roaming around the space and each and every one of the actors have their own storyline that unfolds over the course of the evening and it's looping like two and a half times. And so As an audience member, you have a lot of agency and free will to be able to make decisions and choices as to where you're going to go and what you're going to pay attention to. You can look at the environment, you can chase actors, you can camp out and see what action unfolds in any given place. But it's the story of Macbeth that's told through interpretive dance. There's no dialogue. You have to interpret the story and the plot by seeing the physical interactions and movements of the actors as they're related to each other. So I saw Sleep No More back in October of 2011 and it completely blew my mind. It was unlike anything I had ever experienced before. And as I got into virtual reality in 2014, there was a level of immersion that I had experienced with Sleep No More that still to this day has not been able to reach that same level and degree of both open world exploration and seeing a story and plot that's unfolding in front of me. So like I said, Slipknot More has inspired countless numbers of experiential designers and represents this larger paradigm shift as we move from the information age to the experiential age. So I had a chance to talk to one of the creative producers of Punch Drunk, Colin Nightingale, at the Immersive Design Summit, where we talk about his own personal journey into immersive theater, but also some of the other applications of immersive theater in education and medicine, as well as some of the other productions that they're working on, moving from these huge, big-scale, masked productions into the small-scale experiences that is really starting to blur the line of what is reality. So that's what we're covering on today's episode of the Voices of VR podcast. So this interview with Colin happened on Saturday, January 6th, 2018 at the Immersive Design Summit in San Francisco. So with that, let's go ahead and dive right in.

[00:02:47.683] Colin Nightingale: So I'm Colin Nightingale, I'm creative producer at Punchdrunk. Punchdrunk started in 2000. My journey with the company started in 2002, where I basically stumbled through the door into the first little Punchdrunk project that was in London. Prior to that, the work had been being done outside London. And at the time I was actively seeking out something new and exciting that I could get lost in. My main creative output at that time was tied up with music and DJing, but I didn't really want to go down that route. It wasn't something that I felt I was really going to ever really be able to connect and make a real impact with audiences. but I was playing with it as much as I could, I was quite uncompromising in the way I wanted to play music and so I was trying to carve out my own space to play music and some of that involved trying to send audiences on journeys prior to turning up to the places we were holding parties. because there was this sense of getting people lost. We used to make hand-drawn maps trying to get them confused and then once they finally turned up whether we could harness that energy that they had and the relief that they had to actually create something quite unique in the way that the music was being presented. Yeah, it was definitely an experiment. I wasn't sure where to take it all and then I wandered into this Punchdrunk project and it was just, it was one of those lightbulb moments where I went into something totally blind, didn't have any preconceived idea what it was I was about to see, other than it was part of an arts festival. and just came out the other end of it and just realised that this piece was playing around with really similar ideas that I was doing but it was in a controlled environment and also it was a lot more developed and a lot slicker in the approach that was there even though what I initially saw was very kind of crude and embryonic of the work that we're kind of now known for. Something like Sleep No More, the version of Sleep No More that went into New York had 11 years worth of kind of work behind it and thinking and you know this was just two years into that kind of journey and coming through that experience I met Felix who's the artistic director of Punch Drunk and we just slowly became kind of friends and would just talk about lots of ideas and he kind of invited me into the fold of the organization and my initial kind of reaction to the work was I didn't even really see it as a piece of theatre. It was just an experience and it was something fresh and different but it felt like it could be taken in lots of different directions and this was just kind of the beginning and the idea that I have ended up working within a theatre company is if you told maybe the 16 year old Colin that that was going to happen I would have just said no way because I had, I was actually put on a stage when I was four years old and I was around a lot of amateur theatre. My parents were involved in stuff but by the time I reached my kind of mid-teens it was like theatre was just not something that I found exciting and Yeah, I just went down other routes and was more fascinated by initially kind of music, but then more as I discovered stuff, installation art and things like that. But I was frustrated. I wasn't from any kind of formal arts background. I hadn't gone to art college. Everything I was learning, I was very much learning myself. Lucky, growing up in London, I was able to be exposed to a lot of art and culture, but I still felt a lot of the things that I found. I was always confused why everything seemed to sit in very defined pigeonholes. It was either an art project or a music project. I was fascinated by kind of art centers whereby there was a space where art was allowed to happen and then there was a lot of just very functional space and they just didn't seem particularly in creative environments and like stumbling into the kind of punch-drunk world and then getting involved in it it was like it made a lot of sense to me it was blurring the boundaries between a lot of different art forms. and it was taking these individual components and actually creating something that was much bigger and that seemed so powerful and kind of potentially transformative to audiences that experienced the work and yeah I just jumped in with two feet and we worked tirelessly for many years just trying to create opportunities to make work happen and we had very limited resources but there was a huge amount of energy and we just tried to harness that and slowly Things just grew quite organically, projects, we managed to work out how to run them longer and longer and the initial time we were making work, it's obviously always been a history of kind of experimental theatre and especially site-based work but We were just part of that journey and the whole sense of this whole immersive landscape that we're now in, it was like we never used the word immersive to describe the work that we were making. I can't even really pinpoint the moment in time where it suddenly like appeared but I know that I always remember early reviews of our work when journalists started to come and actually see things and It used to make me laugh that so much of their review was just their inability to actually describe what it was they'd experienced and it seemed a bit of a joke to even be trying to write about it because surely the only thing that needed to be said of like was that you should just go and experience this. This can't be easily broken down into words in a way that someone's actually going to be able to make sense of what it is they were trying to describe. I think these days it's exciting that things have grown and there is so much work and as much as I don't try to use the word immersive, it is potentially helpful in helping people understand potentially what it is they might be about to experience. But I think there's so much scope for this work to be taken in so many different directions and For me, any kind of work should just have some kind of visceral impact on an audience member and they should feel it. When we're trying to create work, we always talk about whether we feel something and we try and trust our gut instincts about what feels right. and it's because we're trying to think about the audience and if we're feeling something then we're imagining that they're going to feel it as well and just within this whole kind of scope of work it's like there's so many more potential ways to evoke emotion in people whether people could spend their whole lifetime just creating work where you're removing a sense whether it be sight or sound and exploring that whole realm of things We've obviously, a lot of the work we're known for are creating these highly detailed sets and kind of worlds for people to kind of explore that are multi-sensory and kind of just like steeped in emotion and physicality in the performance. And we've been refining our art form in these big building-based shows, these kind of mass shows where we put our audiences in masks, At the same time, that work's been developing since 2008. We've had an enrichment department within the organization that's headed up by a guy called Pete Higgin, who's one of the original members of Punchdrunk. Pete's motivation is all based around education. In the early Punchdrunk work that we were doing, he was bringing some school groups. At the time he was a drama teacher and he would bring some of his school groups to come and see the work and he kind of saw how, I don't know, just how animated they were after experiencing a show. knew that there was something in trying to use this to help stimulate students and maybe particularly students who maybe weren't responding well to traditional kind of methods of teaching and I don't know what the situation is in the States but in the UK there is a very tight curriculum that has to be followed and it's a lot of the teaching becomes, you know, you talk to teachers and they get frustrated with it and not really able to teach in a way that they maybe more naturally want to explore because there's so many assessments that they have to go through and they have to get the kids through things that there's not space to really tailor experiences to some students who are not engaging with the teaching style that's being prescribed by the kind of authorities. And anyway, Pete pushed things and an opportunity happened to work with some primary schools in the UK and create a project for seven to eight year olds and it involved, the initial project involved them, they were reading a book and it was set in a bric-a-brac store. And what the children didn't really know was that there was a session that was done where they were told to imagine what might be in this bric-a-brac store. And they all threw out crazy ideas of things that they might find there, be it a grandfather clock, or a toy airplane, or it might be a rubber snake, it could be anything. And listening into those workshop sessions were designers who unbeknown to the school kids, were about to transform a room in their school into this bric-a-brac store. And they then worked very fast to try and find the objects that the children were talking about to make sure that these objects were in this space. And then the children would turn up to school on the Monday morning and there'd be an invitation coming from Mr. Weevil who ran the Bricker Brack store that they'd been reading about in this book. And they would have this invitation and then they would go and discover that the Bricker Brack store actually existed in their school. And then when they went inside this space, some of them would start to realise that the objects that were in their imaginations were actually within this. But the whole thing was just being set up. There was a performer in the space who was just using it as a storytelling device and would then get the children to pick objects and would tell stories based on those objects. And then the children would kind of sort of leave the space. There's normally in a lot of the projects we do with the school kids, there's always some magical way out of it. So probably like disappear down a slide or through a tunnel and leave the space. and these initial projects that happened, the school teachers were kind of responding about how responsive some of the children were straight after this and so quickly creative writing classes or art classes started to be programmed off the back of these experiences. We started to sort of just very quickly see the impact that it had on some of these children and this work has then been evolved since that time and there's various different projects that have been prototyped in the schools. There's one that's rolled out a lot now called the Lost Lending Library whereby a magical library that has a thousand floors suddenly appears in the school and the way into it is where there's a bookcase that has magically appeared. Normally these projects, they really try to disrupt the sort of day-to-day routine of the school and the whole school kind of gets involved in it and so there might be an emergency assembly which is called by the head teacher and there's this whole discussion about the fact that this bookcase has suddenly appeared and where's it come from and the school children, you know, go in small groups to see this bookcase and then they work out that if you pull a particular book off the shelf then the door opens and then they find that they're inside this library and they meet the librarian Mrs Peabody who is then chatting to them about this magical library and within this whole conversation and this experience in the space she suddenly realizes that there's a shelf in her section of the library that it doesn't have any books on it and she's in a bit of panic about where she's going to find stories to fill the bookshelf and then she suddenly realizes that these children are there and that children have all the best stories and so the children very hurriedly leave the space and are then quickly writing stories which are getting submitted into the library. Yeah, this works powerful. There's been projects that have been done with the kind of older children, sort of like 14, 15 year olds. Some of that stuff has been exploring some kind of like game mechanics to kind of engage those children. or young adults. You have to use different kind of techniques. With all of this enrichment work is, you know, it's been exploring other avenues. There's been projects that have been done with adults with learning disabilities. We've actually created shows with other theatre companies that have performers, you know, with a range of disabilities from maybe being Down syndrome or just we've managed to create magical worlds that have been populated by a mixture of disabled and non-disabled performers and there's that stuff and it's like when we build our shows there's an impact for the audience but the whole journey of the creation of the work and actually the power of the work that that is experienced by everyone that's actually either performing or running the shows is a whole other experience. And so it can be hugely empowering for some of those performers in those opportunities. We've experimented with taking kind of immersive experiences into care homes, working with people with dementia. I mean that is just a potentially a huge area. It's probably an area that I don't know as a company whether we're really going to be able to explore particularly ourselves but there's such fascinating work that is going on by people taking immersive techniques into care homes. I was recently told of a project that's going on in a UK-based care home where A lot of dementia sufferers may experience moments of frustration and anxiousness around the fact that they want to go home when obviously they're in the environment which is now their home and yeah this particular care home that I've heard about I unfortunately don't know the name of it because I'd love to actually share it because I think it's something that people should look into but from my understanding of what they've done is that they've created a space within their care home which essentially is a waiting room for like a train station or a bus stop and so it's very important with a lot of dementia sufferers that you don't challenge the reality that they're living in and so if someone's telling you that they want to go home the worst thing you can do is actually tell them they are home because clearly in their head they're not. And, you know, in this very forward way of thinking about dealing this problem, they've created this space that these people can be taken to, and if they want to go home, then there's a need for them to take a mode of transport to get home. And they are taken to this waiting room, and they are there, therefore, still in this reality of, like, they're on their way home, and then they can be left in that environment. until that need for them to leave has passed and you know unfortunately with you know a lot of dementia sufferers their reality is that things shift and change quite quickly and so like 10 minutes later you know this driving emotion they had that was leading them to need to leave this space has maybe passed and they have been able to of their own free will get up and actually leave that space and carry on with their day. and they haven't been taken to a place of anguish by being challenged that their reality is not the reality that everybody else around them thinks that they should be in. So there is so much potential. People are just kind of scratching the surface of to how creating these real tactile experiences, it doesn't have to be confined to just entertainment. I mean, some of our original motivation for making this work, you know, that we started on this journey 17, 18 years ago, was about waking people up. And we used to talk about trying to get adults to reconnect with their childlike curiosity. And that's what was motivating us initially. It was like, can you just shake people a little bit and then maybe help them in their kind of day-to-day of looking at things in a slightly different way and not being so blinkered about things? Obviously, it took quite long lengths to kind of create these reactions out of people, but yeah, it doesn't need to just stay in the realm of pure entertainment. There is so much more that can be doing. As I say, you know, we've been making our steps into that over the last nine years or so. And at the same time, it's so exciting to see all the other steps that so many other people are making and constantly hear about things.

[00:19:50.272] Kent Bye: Yeah, I guess one of the common themes that I see in the work that you're doing both in the immersive theater as well as immersive education as well as some of these examples of potentially medical applications is that there's been this spectrum between authored stories and then dialing it into giving the audience more and more agency to take actions and make decisions. I first saw Sleep No More back in October of 2011 and before I went I was reading a lot about it and I wanted to get enough to be prepared to get the most out of it without spoiling it. So it was a tricky balance to do the due diligence of doing the research into Macbeth and all these other various things that I did to prepare. but yet to leave something yet to be discovered. But I did see a lot of people say, this is an experience I can't describe. And so what happened for me is that when I went there and saw Sleep No More, I was transported into another realm. It was like walking into a dream state where there was no language, no expression of words and so it was like getting into this non-linear right brain state that felt like a waking dream where there would be an intuition or a hunch and I would take actions and then there would be an internal state that I was feeling inside of me and then there would be suddenly an external representation of what I was feeling inside and you'd have these wild moments of synchronicity. And so it was like this place of wonder and awe and curiosity that I had never quite experienced anything like it. And I ended up going home and trying to piece together the story. And I ended up staying up all night to write a blog post about it, just because I had this desire to make sense of what I had just experienced. And I have to say that coming into virtual reality and bought the VR headset on January 1, 2014, Everything was colored by the immersive experience that I had with Sleep No More, and everything that I've experienced in virtual reality has been kind of at that bar of the extent of being immersed to that degree and that level. But there was that sense of bewilderment, or a sense of awe or wonder, or to give me a direct experience that actually forced a completely new worldview. I didn't have the category schemas to be able to really describe what I had experience in and so it like forced me to you know I had the experience so I couldn't like get rid of it but it was like that process of trying to make sense of it and yeah I'm just curious like how you think about that I guess in some ways it's embedded within the language of Punchdrunk but How do you describe the feelings of either bewilderment or confusion or synchronicity or magic or what are the language that you use internally to kind of make sense of this feeling that you're going after?

[00:22:32.667] Colin Nightingale: Oh, um... I don't know, I... Ultimately, we're driven by trying to do things which feel exciting to us as ideas. You've got me there a little bit as to, I mean there's a crazy shorthand that's within the core of the company which is all tied up with lots of ideas that we've played around with over the years that get thrown out. and we're sort of constantly building and iterating some of these ideas. They're not everyday words that would make any sense to anybody else without understanding the backstories of what those things relate to. I mean we're lucky that one of the strengths of the organisation is that there is a core group of people that have worked together for a long time and we enjoy working together and we want to be together and Over time, we've managed to bring more people on into the core of the company and spent time sharing stories about past experiences and the reasons why we made certain decisions that then means that as we then start discussing new ideas, it's building off existing knowledge that's floating around the organization already. I'm not sure if I'm really answering your question properly in this thing. I think I'm skirting around telling you what words we get excited about.

[00:24:11.173] Kent Bye: I guess for me it felt a little bit like an initiation. Like I had been initiated into an experience that in some ways was beyond words and that you wouldn't really able to really fully understand it unless you also had the experience, but that there's something within the structure of going with friends and wanting to kind of piece together the narrative fragments that you've received. And so there's this process that happens afterwards where people are connecting to each other and trying to, I guess, in their own words, describe the quality of their own experience that they had, but also like the narrative part. So there's this kind of social dimension of sense making that happens after Sleep No More that I guess is tied into this, you know, what I would consider of these feelings of awe or wonder or confusion or sort of having an experience that's beyond words, but that there's this drive and desire that because you had the experience, you have to make sense of it somehow. And so it's sort of like that, the definition of punch drunk of that bewilderment and confusion and invoking those states so that at the end of the day, you're kind of giving people a new view of the world.

[00:25:18.797] Colin Nightingale: I mean I think that's definitely true, that's definitely, I think I was touching on it before, there's always been a motivation to make people look at the world a little bit differently. I mean some of the work that we do now, there's a project we just, we're running in London called Cabayroy, which played out over six hours and it involved people Travelling across London and so much of the motivations behind that piece of work were essentially trying to re-lens the city for people, for audience members that could kind of truly kind of let go and just, there were elements of the experience that involved, I don't know, a bit of a sense of kind of gameplay or there was elements that were a bit treasure-hunty but they were really a means to an end to be able to keep people moving forward. But people who could kind of just surrender over to the overall experience can kind of go to this place where suddenly this city and these streets that they walk around all the time suddenly take on different meaning. And we did a project a few years back, something called The Burrow, which was a fully audio-led experience that lasted for 55 minutes. It was on the streets of a little seaside town in Suffolk in England and kind of within this 55-minute journey there was definitely a moment in the story we were telling and we were telling a version of Peter Grimes which is a a story about a town turning against an individual. He's not a particularly nice individual. He's been at the town fears that he is a child abuser in the way he's a fisherman and he has child apprentices who keep mysteriously kind of dying in certain instances mainly because he doesn't look after these people properly and they're like falling off fishing boats and things and so this town is very angry with this individual and in this version of that story that we were telling it started off as a very innocuous kind of walking tour during the daytime wandering around this town but at a particular moment we start to introduce the themes of this story of Peter Grimes and we start introduce kind of interactions with characters and then there was definitely a particular moment where we introduced the themes of the kind of small-minded town mentality of kind of twitching curtains and everybody knowing about everybody's business and there's an English term, I don't know whether it translates in American, which is like busybody. I don't know whether Yeah, I hoped it did. Sometimes I get confused. We watch so much American TV that sometimes forget what's English vocabulary and what's purely American vocabulary. But yeah, there was like this whole sense of people kind of knowing other people's business. And at that moment within those themes coming in within the audio, there's a performer planted on the street who's washing their car and they just happen to stare a little bit too long at you and a little bit too menacingly. And then a little bit later on there's somebody who is putting their, and this I'll do the American, putting their garbage out, not putting their rubbish out, and they're like staring at you as well. And all of this was building onto a sense of paranoia and was tying into this moment in this story whereby you were starting to realise that you actually were Peter Grimes and that you were about to be forced out. of this town and you found yourself walking out onto an empty piece of marshland towards a fishing hut. Then you discovered in this fishing hut a young boy and then ultimately you were like pushed out to discover that this empty marsh wasn't actually empty and it was full of a load of villagers that are coming to actually lynch you. And like, again, that whole project, there was so much, there was, at the point that we were kind of introducing these themes of people kind of looking at you, that was the moment where we essentially were trying to theatricalize the whole town and to totally re-lens that experience for this person walking around and just every single person that they walked past after that point was potentially in on this whole thing. and you kind of hope that with projects like that it really makes them kind of question next time they're walking around anywhere. I'm always constantly looking and imagining whether somebody's in some kind of experience or whether they're just... I mean there's so much fascinating stuff that goes on in the real world and there's plenty to entertain ourselves with. In some ways if you could We seem fascinated by the need to provide entertainment for ourselves and maybe actually if everybody could just take a step back slightly and look around, especially if you're fortunate enough to live in a city, there's so much there to experience and and maybe actually through some of this work, you know, I get quite excited about some kind of immersive projects which are maybe making people experience a situation or a cause that they maybe naturally can't align themselves with but by being exposed to a situation I'm thinking of there's a theatre company based in the UK called You Me Bum Bum Train who create one to a cast of 200 people experiences which throws people from one crazy scenario to the next and within one of their projects at the height of Issues with kind of immigration in in Europe, which is you know, we've got all of these like camps that spring up on the the coastal border between the UK and France and in France, there's these people living in something that was called the jungle and these people all they wanted to do was work out how to stow away themselves on a vehicle or a boat or something and get themselves to the UK and And within this You Me Bum Bum train experience, where you're thrown from one ridiculous, unlikely scenario to the next, which can be as weird as you being on the conveyor belt of a sushi restaurant, going around a table, or all these weird things. Within this whole piece, you suddenly found yourself in the back of a lorry and realized you were with other people that were immigrants that were basically trying to, like, stow away to the UK and then of course the officials discovered you and then before you know it you're in a kind of detention centre and you're being interviewed and you know like that kind of experience is not something that you're normally going to find yourself in and then maybe for some people who've maybe not thought about what the reality is for those people and the intensity of that they maybe then suddenly have experienced it and then maybe they start to look at the new stories that they're reading in a slightly different way and it makes things become a little bit more human. And yeah, there's so much potential for this work to actually bring people together and to, you know, in a particularly, feels like a very slightly crazy social and political climate that so much of the Western world or maybe the whole world has found itself in at the moment. Yeah, anything that helps people understand people with perceived differences has got to be powerful. I mean, I know we've just been on a journey over the last couple of years. We now have a version of Sleep No More that we've opened in Shanghai. And, you know, the process we went through as a company, working with a Chinese team and learning about the cultural differences and ultimately the lack of difference between us all. It's just a lack of knowledge sometimes. It's just, you just need to understand that things are done in slightly different ways and there's slightly different ways people behave. But, you know, that's a hugely transformative process for anyone that was involved in the building of that show. and then now we've got a show and you know this show's running in Shanghai and we're seeing audiences interact with this show and you know on the whole they're behaving in exactly the same way that we've seen before there's definitely some behavior patterns which are different you know we found just collectively a Chinese audience is maybe a little bit more in the face of the performers and has less sense of some of the kind of spatial awareness that other people have but you know performers have been working new ways to kind of deal with that and carry on with what we're doing but ultimately we seem to have created a show that has engaged a local audience in China and you know they're excited and we've seen people come back to these shows and bring their friends to it in a way that we've seen everywhere else and all that does for us is just bring us closer to you know at times in the way that the western media can sometimes kind of present China as this really like quite alien culture and it's like it's really not especially the kind of younger generation that's coming through there is yeah is hungry for things and I don't know who ultimately would be listening to this message but If people have opportunities to make work in China and other potentially, I don't know whether scary is the right word, but just challenging environments, you know, are different culturally from what they know at the moment, I'd sort of just say go for it. And especially if you're working in this kind of experiential kind of immersive realm there's an audience that is hungry for this type of work and also maybe needs it desperately because so much of their society that are very much wedded to their phones and if you can do stuff to actually maybe get them off their phones and have some real social engagement that might be quite important to them as well.

[00:35:23.658] Kent Bye: Yeah, it seems like that there's a difference of scale of a number of the projects that you've worked on at Punchdrunk in that you have maybe like a big masked show, may have like 600 people a night see it. And then you may do another run that may only have like 600 people total that be able to see that experience. And so what are some of the biggest open questions that you as a company are asking that is really kind of driving the work that you're doing?

[00:35:54.763] Colin Nightingale: Um... I mean, I think some of the things we're most preoccupied at the moment with are exploring these ways of blurring the line between what's real and what isn't. You know, and we've already done a body of work in that way, but there's still a big motivator in a lot of the ideas that are being discussed, you know, that we're sort of pushing forward. In touching on your point about scale, and I mean, we've made some work that only like one or two people have ever experienced. and even within the big shows that we're doing it's very valid for us to potentially put something in one of those shows knowing that maybe in the entire life of that show maybe only one person might ever find that thing or make a connection in a particular way and that's always felt as valid to us as making sure that we're creating something that 400 people that are going through that show that evening are all connecting with I mean other answered questions I mean technology is an active thing that we're pursuing all the time. We've played around with it over the years. We've realized that our creative process probably needs technologists really embedded in the company as opposed to just working on a kind of brief that we kind of give people because the company comes from a devising background and also a big part of the final part of our creation process is an editing process as well, just trying to finesse everything and trying to get to this place where we feel comfortable with where the work should be. technology and the way that technology needs to be built, the process of making that needs a very different, like the lead times for things and the point where key decisions have to be made don't naturally align themselves to our creative process and so more and more as we explore technology are trying to find ways to really embed people into our team and give ourselves plenty of time for them to come on the journey with us rather than it being some kind of bolt-on and then thinking that the initial brief that someone came up with three months beforehand and what someone's then been busy programming and then proudly delivers us to use is actually going to ultimately give us the support that we were hoping it was going to give to the show. We're just always hungry and curious to look at different ways. Personally I'm very very interested in spatial sound design and we've built ourselves a kind of something that we called Fallow Cross. It's a village that is connected to our office in London and It is a village, it has 16 structures in it including a church and a pub and a school and an inn and a mayor's house and these 16 structures actually all represent different ideas that we're trying to explore. Some of them are kind of historic ideas that we've already played around with up till now, sensory things to do with maybe smell or sight, but us pushing ourselves to explore that further. Some of them are new ideas that we want to explore. The space as a whole is a kind of a play space for us that we can experiment in, be it playing around with sort of 360 sound design because we have a space that's not a show space that it's almost like our version of what a studio needs to be for an immersive theatre company because it's not just a black box it's like you need things to respond to because you know, we can play around in that space to push ourselves with kind of, you know, just even exploring new ways of lighting, you know, exploring whether there's any possibilities. Up until now we haven't been big fans of LED lighting because, I don't know, we're just, we're kind of in love with tungsten and we struggle to find ways to really replicate it in the same way with LED, but that technology is developing fast and so maybe within Within the village we can carve out some time to do some experiments with new lighting fixtures that are coming on board and seeing whether we can get the effects that we want. The village also allows us to push further a lot of workshops and professional development courses that we can run with people. and the whole thing is just a giant experiment for us to try and work out what a home for us requires because for so much of our lives we were quite a nomadic company that shifted from building to building and kind of our home was the show that we were creating and the company's shifted into a different place now where we have projects internationally now that are up and running and don't need us to be there all the time and then we come back to a base and what We know we don't want to just be sitting in an office environment. We need to be stimulated in a different way because this work didn't come from sitting in an office. We didn't have an office, so it's like, what do we need? A space for us to sometimes go and just play and experiment and or just have a meeting in.

[00:41:20.798] Kent Bye: Yeah, it sounds like you've created a whole immersive playground just as your workspace to experiment and explore. And I'm curious for you personally, what do you want to experience in terms of an immersive experience?

[00:41:35.268] Colin Nightingale: Generally, I just want to feel an emotion inside me. I mean, I'm always looking for somebody to just really kind of surprise me by maybe the approach they've taken in creating a piece of work, but I know that that's The chances of that happening, you know, like I spent years looking for something that got me as excited as Punchdrunk did and allowed me to kind of get involved in that work and I don't actually have the time to explore and see as much stuff as I want so I'm maybe not expecting for something to be truly transformative again so therefore what I really want to do is feel some kind of emotional connection to what the work is. and feel that it's so much immersive work it requires so much effort to actually create and I want for the people that are making it to have created something that the audiences that are then experiencing it feel connected to and like have ended up creating memories to and that they're not going to just kind of just dismiss it. because there's so much in our lives that we can consume and dismiss very quickly because we now live in this world of the internet and connection with our phones and our attention spans are so short and I mean I'm as guilty of anyone it's like my attention span just seems to be mere seconds these days sometimes and so you're like for me I want I want people to be making work that lasts longer than that and that goes back to things we were talking about before that just maybe makes people rethink about their lives or the environment that they're in or just anything. And like I said, it takes a lot of effort to create these types of work and I want to, yeah, I want creators to really thinking about what it is they're actually putting their effort into and just like, Are they excited about what they're making? Because if they are, then they will find an audience that's going to be excited about their work as well. You don't really want to see work that feels like someone's just trying to copy someone else's formula to do something and maybe they were excited about it, but I don't know that they've maybe not gone on their own journey to discover something for themselves that they then want to communicate to other people.

[00:43:57.395] Kent Bye: Great. And finally, what do you think is kind of the ultimate potential of immersive experiences and what they might be able to enable?

[00:44:10.131] Colin Nightingale: That's not a big question, is it? I mean, I don't know. We're immersed in our lives and so if it just makes people connect more with their friends and family and their environments and to be excited by their lives and find beauty in their lives and in the environment. Me being in San Francisco, I took myself to the Redwood Forest the other day and I've never been there and that was an immersive experience. It didn't need to be anything that anyone created for me but again because we live in such a media dominated age there's so much stuff we're being told that we should do and What you kind of want people truly to do is trust their own instincts. And I think that's one of the powers of what immersive work can maybe do. I mean, in the mask shows, some of the use of the masks is all about the shape of the mask we use stops you being able to read other people's facial expressions, which then means that you're more likely to internalize your experience and to make your own choices as to whether you are engaged with something and whether you're enjoying it or not. and not looking for other people's reactions to reassure you of your feelings. Ultimately, if pieces of immersive work can help people find themselves and be truer to themselves, and then within that live their lives in a way that more readily feel like they should be doing rather than be looking for the media to tell them how it should be or just society as a whole to kind of be dictating what should be going on then. Like yeah, if that was an ultimate aim, I think that would be a good one.

[00:46:02.580] Kent Bye: Yeah, that's beautiful. And is there anything else that's left unsaid that you'd like to say?

[00:46:10.225] Colin Nightingale: No, just, yeah, thanks for the opportunity to talk. For me personally, I've been on a crazy journey with my involvement in Punchdrunk and just, yeah, having the opportunity to be in San Francisco this weekend and be part of this event and meet people, you know, is kind of incredible. and so much of it has come from being around a group of people where all of us have been passionate around what we were trying to do and we know we're kind of fortunate to have found each other and also there's definitely been some lucky breaks that we've had that we've been able to kind of ride that's kind of created it but no just happy to be here, happy to meet lots of people, happy to hear loads of exciting things and Yeah, California kind of rocks. It feels exciting. And yeah, anyone listening to this who's based around LA and San Francisco, just, yeah, know that you're living in an exciting place at the moment.

[00:47:12.036] Kent Bye: Awesome. Well, thank you so much for taking the time to talk to me today. Thank you. So that was Colin Nuttingale. He's a creative producer at Punchdrunk. So I have a number of different takeaways about this interview is that first of all, it was really fascinating to hear how immersive theater principles and experiential design was being applied to education where they would create these whole scenes and stories and plots and engage these students into these stories and then you know, have something at the end where they wanted to have them write a creative story so that they could fill a book that was in this library that just appeared. And also the applications for medicine where patients that have dementia and so there's some hospitals that have created this whole pretend waiting station for people to give the feeling that they're waiting for the bus so that they can go home until that emotion and the desire to go home kind of passes. And I love how Punchdrunk, as a word, is trying to encapsulate this feeling of bewilderment and confusion and awe and wonder that all of the productions that Punchdrunk is trying to produce. It's trying to break people out of their normal stasis and give them a bit of an ecstatic experience that gives them a portal into a dimension of reality as well as their own experience that is hard to come by in the normal routine of the daily grind of life. So the Greeks actually had two words for time. One is chronos time, which is very driven by your left brain and schedules and being at a very specific time and place. And the kairos time is more about the quality of the moment in time. It's more about you tuning into what's happening and you being present with your body and you're receiving what's happening, but it's much more of a dialogue. And it's kind of like this altered state of consciousness and being in a waking dream. And that's kind of what it felt like for me to go to the Sleep No More production back in October 14th of 2011. And it was really interesting to hear what Colin said was that the thing that they're ultimately trying to do is to get people more in touch with their intuition. Because you do have to express your agency and make choices. And so you have the choice to go anywhere within this space and to decide who you're going to pay attention to and who to follow. And if you're really attuned to your intuition, then you start to have these moments of synchronicity where your internal decisions and your internal emotional state is then perhaps matched by what's happening externally. At least that was what happened for me. And I hear a lot of people that had a similar experience of kind of like this magic and serendipitous moments that happen when you are in an experience like this. I think it's also key that there is no dialogue within Sleep No More, and so it allows you to come and go within a scene without feeling like you're interrupting anything, but also that it's easier to kind of catch up of what's happening with the scene if there's no dialogue. If you do have dialogue, which I recently went to a speakeasy within San Francisco, you feel like you're kind of missing something that had just coming before that, and then it's more difficult to move in the middle of the scene because you want to kind of see what happens and unfolds there. With Sleep No More, it's a little bit easier to kind of come and go if there's no dialogue. And it was also interesting to hear that the common thread of all of the Punchdrunk productions is trying to blur the line of what is real and what is part of this fictional experiential design world that they're creating. And that when you're embedded within the world, sometimes those two worlds are hard to distinguish the difference between those because you are in the context of these performances, but yet you're experiencing them in real life blended with just normal people that are walking around and it starts to make you question as to whether or not these people that are in your environment, whether or not they're sort of paid to be cultivating this experience for you or if they're just a normal person that you're able to have interactions with. And so at the end of the day, it's kind of like the ultimate potential of these immersive experiences is to allow you to kind of tune into the magic of being fully present and day-to-day living and that you start to tune into those deeper parts of your intuition and start to be filled with wonder and awe as you see life unfold and and finally the thing that Colin said about the masks how it was designed for you to Not be able to discern any other people's like facial expressions such that you're there as an audience member and you're wearing a mask and you're completely anonymous and you can't see what other people are feeling by their facial expressions you can only see what is happening on the actors faces and And so what he said is that that really is focusing you on your own internal subjective experience and that it allows you to tune much deeper into what you're feeling and your feedback loop of paying attention to what you're feeling to make choices and to take action on those choices. And that's this feedback loop of cultivating your intuition that I think is part of what makes productions like Sleep More so much of an experience that is pretty rare in our world today. So if you haven't had a chance to see Sleep No More, I highly recommend it just as a kind of a high watermark of what's possible in open world production that has these looping narratives. And it just is a visceral experience unlike anything else that I've ever seen. So that's all I have for today. And I just wanted to thank you for listening to the Voices of VR podcast. And if you enjoyed the podcast, then please do spread the word, tell your friends and consider becoming a donor. This is a listener supported podcast. And so I do rely upon your gracious donations in order to continue to bring you this coverage. So you can become a member and donate today at patreon.com slash Voices of VR. Thanks for listening.

More from this show