Journey along the path of adventure and emotions when the multi-sensory experience Believe Your Eyes, created by Punchdrunk International and Samsung Electronics America, opens at the Phi Centre September 15. To prepare, we met with Hector Harkness, associate director at Punchdrunk, who spoke about how to bring into existence shows that trigger the audience’s feelings.

First things first, can you tell us a bit about Punchdrunk? What is the story behind its creation? What is its motto?
Punchdrunk was created by Felix Barrett in early 2000. At first, the idea was to create adventures for one person, but then we hit upon the form of what we are renowned for, our 'mask shows', where we imagine a world which the audience steps into. The show Sleep No More is an example of that. We invite audiences to big buildings, and design an installation within the space where the audience transitions anonymously wearing masks. We really focus on that transition, and on taking them away from their everyday life into a fictional space that they have to explore. Our guiding principle has always been that that the audience is constantly on our minds as the centre of everything. They are not passive, but what is most important here are their feelings. They are shooting their own movie, or are the hero of the story. When we create our work what we always come back to is the audience’s experience and their feelings at any given moment, what we want to draw their attention to, and how we can surprise them, shock them, and enchant them in different ways. We’re trying to empower the audience by making them feel like they’re the most important person in the space.

We talk a lot about storytelling. What is your conception of storytelling?
What I have always been excited about in our 'mask shows' is that we follow a story [Sleep No More is based on Shakespeare’s Macbeth], but we get to edit it, and there is a certain randomness to the way that the story is experienced. The story that the audience will remember often has much more to do with shifting atmospheres and the sort of emotional or visceral journey that they have been on, not an intellectual story that has a beginning, a middle, and an end. There is a structure indeed, but it is a very particular structure depending on what you have bumped into. This is where it varies so much because in our one-on-one work, like Believe Your Eyes, you are much more active, and much more at the centre of it, because the characters interact with you directly. Also, with storytelling in scenes and shows like that, we often use language and words as a kind of texture, or series of images that are seeded in your imagination. We do not tend to treat words as needed to give you vital information. Often in our work it is just an image within the words that is planted into the audience’s head, or it is the quality of the word that has been whispered in your ears that does the storytelling. The audience learns that the character is terrified because of the way they are touching them, for example. The sweat on their cheek, the grip of his hand on mine – it is all about stripping away the intellectual sense of storytelling. It is trying to get people right into the heart of a story so they can just feel it.

Music and sound is also a really important part of our work. It often gives us our shape and structure. In our larger shows, for example, music is what confers structure to the space: bringing it alive even if there is no performance in it. It could become an important scene in the show just because your imagination is being brought to life by the soundtrack in your head.

Believe Your Eyes is your first VR piece. It took you a while to jump into that world. Can you tell us why? What was the vision behind it?
It was tricky for us to imagine the best way to explore VR. In some ways there is a kind of interesting clash there – it feels like with a lot of VR experiences right now you are very passive, and we really wanted to think about the ways that you could feel important to the storytelling, how you could become a character at the centre of it.

The show Believe Your Eyes came about because we wanted to play with the crossover between 360 films and VR headsets to create a really rich experience. We tried out a lot of existing VR that was spectacular and transportive, the kind where you are floating on a lake or on top of a mountain or flying through the air, but we deliberately wanted to make something quite simple and almost the opposite, something very human and intimate. It definitively came from our experience of doing a lot of one-on-one theatre, with just one performer and one audience member.

It also feels like the length of time you want to be in a VR headset has implications on the length of the scene you can create. We felt that five minutes is the right amount of time to build the experience, and the storytelling. So we developed an experience where the character is almost telling you a bedtime story. And I will leave the rest for the audience to experience it.

Can you tell us a bit about the difference between immersive experience and VR?
The immersive experience tag is definitely is applied to us, but we have never deliberately used it ourselves. To me, immersive suggests being thrown into an environment that you feel you are truly living in. We want our work to go one step further and let the audience influence the story and have agency over what happens. I went to IMAX to see the movie Dunkirk [Ed. Dunkirk is a 2017 war movie written, co-produced, and directed by Christopher Nolan] recently, which was described as being really immersive. This is true to a certain extent because you have big beautiful sound, but I think there is a difference between that and the tangible reality of being able to go through some book shelves in a school or grab a performer’s hand. In my opinion, from a lot of VR that I have seen, it takes that immersion to a certain point because it can do amazing things for your sense of the environment you are in. But what is really important to us is that the audience member’s heart is stomping because they feel implicated in what they are doing and that there are high stakes for them, rather than a sense of relaxation because they have been transported into an environment that they understand. It is this idea of taking things a bit further.

What is coming next for Punchdrunk?
Over the years we have created quite a few 'mask shows', like Sleep No More, that’s currently running in Shanghai and New York. But what is exciting is the experimental work happening in what we call our Enrichment Department where we make amazing work that goes into schools and communities. For example, one of our imaginary worlds will appear in a school overnight like by magic, for children to discover. Then there is this part of our work that is more recent, but definitively a big development, which is about exploring how a digital world can cross over into our live world, and how technology can help us to continue putting audiences right at the centre of experiences, or guiding them through something. With the piece Believe Your Eyes that will be presented on at the Phi Centre, you will see an exploration of these themes, a filmic world that is 360 degrees of VR experience but also has a very tangible reality. With Punchdrunk productions, the richness of the experience comes from the unknown: of not knowing what is happening around the corner, or how you will react. From your own senses, you create an experience unique to each performance.

By Isabelle Benoit
Image courtesy of Samsung Electronics America

If you want to live this one-of-a-kind journey, join us at the Phi Centre from September 15 to 30. Reserve your spot now, places are very limited.

Also note that on September 18, both Felix Barrett and Hector Harkness will be at the Phi Centre as part of the In Conversation series.

À propos du Centre Phi
Le Centre Phi, c’est des salles qui se transforment au gré des activités: lancement, conférence, colloque, projection, exposition, concert, spectacle, installation interactive. C’est des studios de création et de production, avec la technologie la plus sophistiquée, mise au service des besoins artistiques. C’est un centre multifonctionnel où l’art peut s’exprimer dans tous ses états. Et c’est surtout un lieu d’échanges, d’apprentissage, de découverte, de lancement, de tournage, d’enregistrement, etc.

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