The school of storytelling

Kate Magee takes part in Punchdrunk's workshop to see what brands can learn from the company's immersive theatre.

  • The Drowned Man: the performance space spans 200,000 square feet and contains 100 rooms that the audience could enter into

    The Drowned Man: the performance space spans 200,000 square feet and contains 100 rooms that the audience could enter into


I’m completely disoriented. For the past half-an-hour, I’ve been exploring the surreal, dream-like basement of an abandoned warehouse and found myself walking down a long, dark corridor. There is no-one else in sight. The music playing from a radio nearby could be straight out of a horror film.

A flickering tea light appears on my right with a piece of paper set in front. Behind it are strange shadows and objects I can’t make out. I crouch down and pick up the paper. It simply reads: "Someone is watching you."

This is the scariest moment of the day-long workshop on the art of storytelling for the creative commercial sector, designed by the pioneering immersive theatre company Punchdrunk and the creativity specialists Now Go Create.

There are 25 of us on the course: a mix of marketing directors and people from experiential, advertising, research and PR agencies. We are all here to learn how to apply Punchdrunk’s storytelling approach to brands.

We are on the set of the company’s latest UK production, The Drowned Man: A Hollywood Fable – a four-storey former Royal Mail sorting office near Paddington station. After playing a series of games and group exercises designed to get us thinking creatively, the pinnacle of the morning session is a 45-minute game of hide-and-seek on the set.

It’s hard to describe the sheer scale of the production. Not only is it spread across 200,000 square feet with 100 rooms, the level of detail is staggering. A rifle through a character’s bedside table reveals copies of her CV, make-up and love letters from a former paramour.

You decide where you go and what you see. You can open any door you want, follow any character you wish, but you never know what is coming next. It’s an exhilarating experience – it is storytelling at its best.

Punchdrunk has worked with several brands in the past, including Sony Play-Station, Stella Artois, Grey Goose and Virgin Media.

In 2010, Mother teamed up with Punchdrunk to create a two-week event to launch Stella Artois Black. It comprised a series of theatrical productions set in the 60s, which took place in a variety of pubs. Those taking part were picked up and driven around by a chauffeur.

This workshop aims to teach the marketing community how to apply the insights themselves. For brands, there are obvious lessons about how to create engaging events.

For example, the show deliberately takes its audience through a maze at the start to disorient them and separate real life from this world.

Participants are not provided with maps of the space, so it is easy to get lost. This feeling of being on edge is crucial to the experience because it makes people pay more attention. In a world of smartphone obsession, that’s some feat.

There are also broader lessons: the importance of personalisation, for example. No audience member will have the same experience, and that gives people stories they can tell their friends and experiences to share afterwards.

It is a brilliant demonstration of the power of live experiences and mystery at a time when almost everything is a click away on the internet.

It is also a timely reminder that, just as the actors are on stage and interacting with their audience for the full three-hour performance, so too are companies, which are now exposed to public scrutiny on social media. There are no longer any hiding places.

"Marketers increasingly need to learn and apply storytelling to their work, as consumers are more discerning about their content, and need to be surprised and delighted," Paul Davies, Microsoft UK’s director of marketing communications and a fellow workshop participant, said. "Marketers who embrace this cultural movement are the ones who will gain brand share and equity from their audiences."

The workshop ended on a quote that, trite though it may seem, is a good summary of Punchdrunk’s approach and one that companies should not forget: people will always remember how you make them feel.

Another workshop will take place on 24 March. More details can be found at

The Punchdrunk story

Felix Barrett, founder and artistic director, Punchdrunk

Talk us through your creative process.
Everything starts with the space – until we get this, we don’t plan. The first time I go into the building, I walk around it and listen to its story. I see where it feels threatening, where it feels safe. You base the set on your core response. You’re always able to apply some narrative. For example, the warehouse felt quite claustrophobic, inducing paranoia and loss of control. It reminded me of Woyzeck. From that point onwards, we’re in show mode.

How do you design the set?
We work with a design team for four or five months. The Drowned Man took six months. Three of us work closely together. I come up with the big picture, the sweeping aesthetic; Livi Vaughan does the furniture and texture; and Beatrice Minns does the detail, what’s hidden inside cupboards. Then we have a vast group of people who put the set together.

Are there creative tensions between the three of you?
There are always creative challenges, but we have worked together for the past ten years. We trust each other. If one person feels particularly strongly about something, then they are probably right.

How do you create the story?
We storyboard the scenes. We put together a character list and then look at how we can tell the arc of the narrative. We’ve found it’s a good discipline to create 12 main scenes. This makes sure it’s not too complex and means the audience will understand the story. It’s almost like building a tree – the key 12 scenes make up the spine or the skeleton. But there are 27 characters in The Drowned Man, and they collide, so we then create the branches, down to the leaves. We end up with a huge table with hundreds of scenes. Each one of the 12 scenes is five minutes long, so each story is one hour long. Rehearsals go on for ten weeks – five weeks of that is in a studio.

Why have you taken this approach to a play?
It’s the opposite of the "don’t touch" approach of museums. We want to empower the audience to explore, touch and be free. We have a "decompression chamber" at the beginning, where we take the audience through a maze to forget the outside world. Real life is whittled away and then you are inside a film. A soundtrack follows your every move. There are more stories than you can see. It’s a parallel universe. We don’t make anything prescriptive. It’s a puzzle that you have to unlock.

How did you first come up with the idea?
I did a drama degree in Exeter and thought most theatre is so predictable, safe and passive. This is a way to make it dangerous and adrenaline-fuelled. It is tactile, and that makes it a much deeper and intoxicating experience. You’re lost in it. Audiences are craving something no-one else can have. There are 600 people attending a Punchdrunk show, but everyone gets an individual experience. You’ve got stories to tell your friends that they don’t have.

What advice do you have for brands trying to use your approach?
It’s easy to be generic. Try to deliberately go against the grain. I always think what’s the least likely thing I would expect to happen now, and then do that. The building dictates our show, so the parameters should be your starting point. Don’t try to create something hypothetically in a white room. Brands need to know what it feels like. I’m the first audience member for one of our shows.