Dear Felix, Maxine, and the whole Punchdrunk team,
First of all, a thank you
When I was deciding which NYE party to go to, I chose The Burnt City: Remix, because I wanted to end the year in a way that symbolized the best of 2022, and The Burnt City brought more magic into my life than anything else in the past 12 months. The coins in this package are genuine Ancient Greek coins from 300-100 BC – I wanted the cast & creative team to have a tactile connection to the world they’ve brought back to life. (I actually bought enough so that the entire original cast and main creative team could have one as a souvenir of what they’ve created, but they wouldn’t all fit in the horse.)
The last time I went to see the show I was struck by the observation that modern urban life is stripped of ritual, but The Burnt City is deeply ritualistic. Life is painful, and switching off your phone for 3 hours to follow the pain of a character’s journey into the Underworld close-hand is cathartic. So I don’t think of The Burnt City as an evening out, but as serving a healing role in society.
The motivation for the video series
My reasons for wanting to make a series of videos about the show are part selfish and part altruistic:
The selfish part is that, when I observed my own behaviour, I realised that I was always wanting to get closer to the people who created the show. As I learned from The Masque of the Red Death, the treasure hunt was invented by Edgar Allen Poe, and I feel like I’m on a hunt to get to the treasure that’s inside of the heads of Felix, Maxine, and everyone else who conjured up this experience.
The altruistic part is that I’ve brought many friends to see The Burnt City in the past year (and one to see Sleep No More), most of whom had never heard of Punchdrunk and all of whom had never been before, and not only did they all love it, many of them came back and brought others. I brought the founder of the London Institute of Mathematical Sciences (who said it was “soul changing”), I brought the architect who designed One Hyde Park, I brought an LED designer friend who came back and brought Ridley Scott’s production designer, I brought one of the computer scientists who worked on AlphaFold at Deep Mind, who returned with others, etc. I pitched the show so hard to a conductor friend that she and her partner made a visit to The Burnt City part of their engagement party, and thanked me profoundly for the recommendation afterwards. Soon I’m bringing the designers who made the enclosed lamp.
I’m clearly good at communicating what the show is to people who don’t usually go to the theatre, and who wouldn’t have gone if they’d only read a review or visited the website, and I’d now like to do this at scale. I’ve had the experience before of knowing that something I’m doing in person is valuable and then successfully translating it online: when I used to teach music I had a reputation as “the best piano teacher in London” (Lenny Henry), and now that I’ve put a lot of my original teaching methods into video courses I have over 35,000 paying students. I’d like to do the same thing for Punchdrunk.
Furthermore, this is not just about this particular production or even this particular theatre company, this is about the future of culture in general. Felix said, on the No Proscenium Podcast, that we’re in the “horse-and-cart” phase of experiential theatre, and I’d like to play my small part in helping us move towards the Model T. Vroom vroom.
What I’d like to put in the videos
I’d like the videos to be in 2 different categories:
1) interviews with the cast and creative team
2) depictions of aspects of the show
and would like to both a little differently to how they’ve been done before:
1) There have been conversations with members of Punchdrunk before, e.g. at PHI, and Behind the Mask features talking-head soundbites on the set, but I’d like to combine both in a way that goes beyond either: to do conversations on set, but to light the set as if we’re in the show, without revealing too much of the design to the audience.
Topics I’d like to cover are:
• Felix about directions the art form could go in
• Maxine about how you choreograph the dead
• Carl about how you create a Weimar Germany feel in modern London
• Sam about how you set boundaries non-verbally with audience members
The Punchdrunk Encyclopaedia mentions that Felix drew early inspiration from his parents’ attic, so it would be lovely to visit it with Felix and pull out some old objects, with their blessing.
2) I don’t want to film the show, I want to do my best to recreate the feeling of going to see the show. Theatre doesn’t generally translate well to film, and there’s a danger that if you shoot a scene directly, someone watching the video will think “that’s all there is”, and not come and see it live. Instead, I want to shoot everything in a deliberately incomplete and frustrating way, to show things “through a glass, darkly”, so that if people want to see them “face to face” they have to buy a ticket.
Some ideas of how I could do this:
• film a scene on the stone table, but from Iphigenia’s bedroom and with a shallow depth of field, so that a foreground object is in focus and the scene is blurred
• film the shadow cast on the back wall by a scene on the giant staircase
• film a scene in the nightclub but with the dance obscured by bodies of audience members
• shoot a scene in Troy through a window
• make a rapidly-cut montage of exploring parts of the set with a tiny flashlight: going through the wardrobe, pulling out a file, opening a drawer, etc.
• run down the corridor that leads into Greece, but pull focus just as we arrive so that the viewer perceives the scale but not the specifics
The main thing is never to show the thing itself. As Felix says, “the reveal is key”, and the reveal needs to happen in the show, not the video.
Crucially, I’d give Punchdrunk final cut, and would not release anything that Punchdrunk did not approve of (and of course would sign a contract to formalize that).
How I’d market the videos
I’ve been working with Jenny May Finn on my YouTube channels, who was the producer of Russell Brand’s Under the Skin podcast and was described by my Instagram manager as “the best YouTube consultant in the country”.
The goal would be to create an ecosystem of linked videos that would vary in length and style, from shorter, more superficial videos, to longer, in-depth ones. You get people’s attention with a thumbnail and title, intrigue them with a short video, and then link to a longer one that leads them further down the rabbit hole. Eventually their curiosity gets the better of them and they buy a ticket to the show.
Titles and thumbnails play a huge role in doing this effectively. To use an example from Punchdrunk’s own channel, the title “Punchdrunk: Behind the Mask trailer” only means something to someone who knows who Punchdrunk are already. If, instead, it were titled “Behind the Scenes of the World’s Most Innovate Theatre Company”, as you’ve been described, that would bring people in who have never heard of you.
I’d also promote the YouTube channel by posting reels on an associated Instagram account.
If you’re anything like me you probably have a knee-jerk aversion to playing the social media game. However the way to think of the video series is as a Trojan horse: you offer people what they want in the short term, namely stimulation and novelty, but ultimately deliver what they need in the long-term, namely meaning, ritual, and connection.
What differentiates this from Punchdrunk: Behind the Mask
It should be fairly clear by now that what I’m proposing is pretty different from the Sky Arts documentary. I think this and Behind the Mask would be complementary, and reach different audiences:
Behind the Mask is the “proscenium arch” version of a feature about Punchdrunk: you start at the beginning, finish at the end, and watch what the editor decides you should watch in a linear way.
What I’m proposing is the “choose your own adventure” version: different people would start with different videos and follow different paths through them. And instead of everyone watching an hour-long documentary, some people might watch 5 minutes of video before buying a ticket, while others might do a deep dive and watch everything.
Plus YouTube and Instagram have a far wider reach than Sky.
I think I was going for a Punchdrunk aesthetic when I made my first video, 9 years ago, without ever having seen a Punchdrunk production at the time.
Most recently, I visited some friends in Kyiv the weekend of 1 Oct 2022, and spontaneously shot some interviews while I was there. Even though they were amateurishly done, due to the improvised nature of the shoots, the first two got 1k views in the first 24 hours (very good for a new channel) and are currently at 7.5k views total, which prompted me to think about shooting more interviews.
I promoted them on an Instagram account I’d set up to showcase a previous project: in the 2nd week of the invasion I organised a series of large-scale projections in London, projecting “иди на хуй” onto HMS Belfast, “Путин хуило” onto the ITV Tower, and messages from friends in Ukraine onto the Southbank. The trailer for the project got over 80,000 views.
Before the pandemic I raised £30,000 to develop a musical and was mentored by Stephen Sondheim, which I wrote about after he passed away. I also wrote a 2nd straight play that was dramaturged by Leo Butler, who was Playwriting Tutor at the Royal Court for a 9 years, so I understand story.
For the Punchdrunk project I’d put together a team made up of a DOP, a videographer, an editor, a colourist, and know several who could do each job, depending on their availability.
In terms of financing, that could be a topic for discussion, but I’d be willing to cover the cost of production if I had the possibility of recouping the investment by getting a percentage of any ticket sales I generated. Obviously all of the videos would link to the One Cartridge Place website, and it should be possible to create a custom affiliate link. Some of those sales should result in those people becoming lifelong Punchdrunk fans. And if any of The Burnt City‘s corporate sponsors were willing to help that could be welcome!
In terms of getting footage of the show, obviously I can’t film during a performance, and I’m aware that performers’ time is valuable and that lighting the show is expensive. However if you’re ever doing rehearsals it would be great to get some shots then, otherwise I could borrow a couple of performers at a time to shoot small scenes. If we need anyone to play audience members I know some people who could volunteer.