Lessons in creative storytelling from Punchdrunk's founder

"We are on the cusp of a new boom in storytelling," according to Felix Barrett, founder and artistic director of Punchdrunk. "It will start knocking on our doors and entering our homes -in a not too scary way."

Creativity: Punchdrunk founder Felix Barrett says tech is too invasive
Creativity: Punchdrunk founder Felix Barrett says tech is too invasive

Punchdrunk is an immersive theatre company that creates sensory storytelling experiences for a roaming audience. The performances, which include Sleep No More and The Drowned Man are mysterious, surreal and, at times, plain bonkers.

Speaking at Advertising Week Europe, Barrett talked about the impact of technology on the future of storytelling, creative inspiration and how brands can get on board.

Technology IRL

With technology dominating consumers’ lives, one of the reasons Punchdrunk has been so successful since it launched in 2000 is because it enables people to feel connected to the real world.

"We all live in this digital age, where everything is so accessible, everything you want is two clicks away. The notion of social media and relationships being that way means we distance ourselves from real, human, tactile connections," said Barrett.

"But people want to own something real and we are trying to remind people about what it’s like to live in the moment," he said.

"This will only increase with the advent of VR – it is sterile, and there really is nothing like the heat that comes off another person," he said.

Despite Barrett bemoaning the increasing lack of real life connections resulting from the proliferation of technology, he talked about how Punchdrunk is experimenting on the borders of the physical and virtual worlds.

"Technology needs to be a supporting factor, not a driving feature," he said. A screen should not be seen as a "physical block" but something that encourages you to see the world around you he said. Punchdrunk has a "soft, luddite-y, low-tech touch" when it comes to building technology into its productions.

 "There is nothing more soul destroying than seeing everyone on the Tube on their phones," he said.

Brand partnerships

Punchdrunk is extremely picky about who it works with, turning down about 49 out of 50 approaches from potential brand partners. Barrett said that partnerships often break down in the early stages, when it becomes apparent that a brand wants to recreate something that has already been done, or is not willing to give Punchdrunk the creative independence it needs to come up with new ideas.

 "We only do partnerships when a brand trusts us to do what we do. There is nothing worse than when we have an idea and a room full of executives, and then the idea gets diluted to this insipid pisswater," he said.

Punchdrunk experiences are based on the audience taking a leap of faith into the unexpected. It relies on word of mouth to keep audiences coming; in the five years Punchdrunk has been running Sleep No More in New York, it has not spent a penny on advertising. 

Barrett said that working with clients who are not prepared to take risk, would erode the trust that Punchdrunk has built up with its audience.  "We don’t want [the audience] to know what they are coming into. The more you compromise that, and make it safe and accessible, doubt it and double check and tone it down, then the lesser impact it has," he said.

A year ago, Punchdrunk partnered with Absolut and Somethin’ Else to develop an app called Silverpoint, to promote the launch of the vodka brand’s special Andy Warhol bottle. Users were able to partake in a mystery game to find a character called Chloe. The idea was to make the app user the protagonist, and make them question what was fiction and reality.

"Absolut were fantastic enough to let us try it out. Brand partnerships are so valuable when we can try stuff out that would otherwise be too risky," he said.

Virtual reality and gaming

Increasingly, Punchdrunk is taking its cues from the world of gaming. In immersive theatre, like gaming, the individual is at the heart of an experience. Barrett said Punchdrunk wants to create compelling narrative experiences that, like gaming, compel you to reach the next level. Rather than people using "futile, time-wasting devices" to get to the next level on a game of Candy Crush, "imagine if the story was the thing that was engaging you as much as the pixels," he said.

"We want to create a living story that is so compulsive you have to know what is next," he added.

He said that Punchdrunk is exploring opportunities in virtual reality and augmented reality.

Longform for short attention spans

With technology driving people to distraction, it is increasingly hard for advertisers to capture their attention. This has emerged as a theme over the course of Advertising Week and formed a question from an audience member: how can marketers apply Punchdrunk’s long-form style of narrative within timeslots as short as 30 to 60-seconds?

According to Barrett, less is more. "The less you give them [consumers], the harder you make them work," he said. "The best ad campaigns for films say very little. I think it is strange in advertising they don’t do that." Rather than pushing messages onto consumers, marketers should make them come to the brand, said Barrett. "Make them work hard for your content."

Creative inspiration

Punchdrunk runs productions for children, which helps it experiment and come up with ideas for the adult shows. "In the adult shows, we are trying to help them find a childlike place of curiosity and excitement. Kids haven’t shut that down yet."

Since children are not as cynical as adult audiences, Punchdrunk can tell if one of its experiences works well or not. "Children are the dream audience, because they roll with it," he said. "You can physically see their eyes open and the difference you are making."

From a personal point of view, Barrett said music is a creative starting point for him, because it has the ability to inspire a certain emotion in an audience.

He revealed that Punchdrunk is currently working on its next big production in London, but, in keeping with Punchdrunk’s ethos, he did give away any more than that.