Theatre as you never seen

Posted by on Jan 27, 2007 in Uncategorized | 6 Comments


Was reading a paper yesterday that the great Bernard Cova has been writing on ethnography and how business is only scratching the surface of it at the moment. Really stimulating but more of that anon.

In this paper, he mentions the need to ponder experiences for a bit. To let them settle down inside before you start to make sense of them. He quotes Umberto Eco, ““I need to sleep on it to tell you what I think – for the moment, I’m only feeling a few scattered emotions”

So…I’ve done two sleeps on my experiences on Thursday night and I’m still not entirely there – just a bit closer to knowing what I think about Punchdrunk‘s Faust in Wapping but no more. It’s not like theatre as you know it, but extraordinary theatre nonetheless…

So how to describe it? A derelict 5 storey warehouse in Docklands has been taken over and dressed as the set for an interwar American version of Goethe’s Faust (the story of the guy who sold his soul to the devil for 25 years of earthly pleasure). You – the audience – “are free to watch what [you} choose to watch and go where [you] choose to go”. At no time are you told what to follow, what to expect, what is where or what it all means. You chance about individual actors, their stories and their settings…and find yourself following the story around in different fragments. Of course, what makes it even more interesting is that the story is told largely through physical theatre rather than verbally-driven dialogue alone – circus skills, dance as well as improv all collide in your experience of the story.

I don’t want to describe it any more because as Sammy puts it, it was “one of the most extraordinary evenings I have ever spent” and a large part of the experience was the discovering and exploration.

To those of us in planning and marketing-land, it prompts a few thoughts:

i. Few brands are ever as interesting as this. Few creative products are ever as interesting or risky as this. Few ‘customer experiences’ are ever anywhere near as stimulating as this. Why?

ii. Why do we still persist in imagining that there is a fixed story – a show – a meaning – access to which is also closed and controlled? Where they are the audience and we the performers? That it somehow starts a point A and goes to B and then on to C (and there’s no other way to do it). The truth is the audience piece it (the meaning?) together themselves in lots of idiosyncratic ways and in ways we cannot control. How can we learn to live with this?

iii. At lots of points in our exploration of individual strands we found ourselves at ‘backwaters’ of thae overall narrative. We could have lost interest were it not for the fact that the performers and the environment were just compelling and inventive beyond words…why don’t we see the little things – the non-strategic parts of customer experience or communications programmes as being important…? the big plot points are easy, giving everything what punchdrunk call “cinematic detail” is much harder. Why don’t we try harder?

iv. We all wore masks (half chimp, half duck – wierd) which made things even stranger. It reduced our peripheral vision but also stopped us looking for facial responses around us. It made the rest of the audience a blank-ish multi-headed physical phenomenon around us. We all wandered around in the semidarkness of the shadowy set in small groups and ones and twos. At first we did so randomly, not sure how to respond to what we found – some of us were more curious, some more cautious just as in the real world. Certainly, Sammy and I both found ourselves reaching for each other’s hand at various points early on. But gradually we all ‘caught on’: we learned to follow the noise, to follow characters, to follow the others following the noise and so on, to watch and watch and feel and listen and respond. In the semi-darkness, I just sensed the power of other people to shape my feelings, my perceptions and my responses. My herd nature was made absolutely and tangibly clear to me; Sammy said the same.

If ever I have to explain what the new world of marketing is all about, I’d like to be able to show this experience. In fact, I’d like to roll it up the whole fabulous set up and keep it with me and go back again and again. I’m going to try to go again but I’m sure even if I don’t, I’ll come back to the experience several times. If Umberto needs one night’s sleep to know what he thinks, I need several…

Do yourself a favour. Book yourself a ticket before the run ends. See what you learn. At least, I’ll have someone else to talk to about it…


  1. Faris
    January 27, 2007

    Weird man – I was there on Thursday too!
    Awesome experience – great post.

  2. Mark Earls
    January 27, 2007

    Wierd. Still thinking about what it teaches me…
    Hope all well.

  3. Charles Edward Frith
    January 29, 2007

    Point iv is written so well I feel like i was there. Bravo.

  4. Mark Earls
    January 29, 2007

    Thanks, Mate.

  5. Tom
    January 29, 2007

    Saw it twice before christmas my friend Sarah plays Gretchen. Incredible stuff.

  6. Robin Grebson
    March 28, 2007

    well of course marketing is the devil’s work so it makes sense that you should look for brand concepts at a production of Faust!