“The vastness of what we build, the level of ambition, is just incredible. You can really see that in absolutely every department that’s featured . . . It’s got a very high level of delivery and is unique in that way.”
For the second article in my series on Punchdrunk’s The Burnt City, I had the opportunity to interview Andrea Salazar, the Head of Production for the show as well as for the company itself.
Kat: So what does your role, Head of Production, entail in an immersive experience like The Burnt City?
Andrea: I got involved with the project around seven years ago. My role is to blend in what the creatives would like to do in this space and put it into a reality setting – What can we actually achieve with what we’ve been given? The producers would give me a budget, but also, there are the health and safety considerations that we need to have for this project. It was quite a big undertaking because one of our buildings hadn’t been looked after – It didn’t have fire exits, it didn’t have power, it didn’t have water . . . I mean, it had water, leaking through the ceiling, but not actually running water or toilets! [Laughs] That’s one of the buildings that the council was up for bringing up to spec for us. In order for that to happen, we needed to work out what we wanted to do inside the space. So it was an interesting process to figure out from Felix and Livi what they wanted to create and to work out with our health and safety consultants what we needed to do to make this space safe as well. So there’s that element of things. And then the rest is delivering the whole thing – There was a huge amount of construction work for this one! We build floors, we build stairs, and then we build a set. So yeah, it was big.
Kat: What was it like creating such an immersive and interactive show with the complications of the pandemic?
Andrea: That was incredibly tough. We were about to start a feed out when the pandemic started – We were already in the buildings.
Kat: Oh, wow!
Andrea: We had onboarded everyone that we wanted to have as part of our team, which is a huge task, because the world of Punchdrunk is so particular. We build absolutely everything in house – All of our lighting technicians, carpenters, props, everyone is in house apart from the proper construction people that are doing the mezzanine. Apart from the commercial electricians, everyone else comes through Punchdrunk. So we went through a huge undertaking of recruiting about 200 people to build a show and then the pandemic happened. We were like, “Bye guys, I hope you will be available whenever the world comes together again!” Then the world started to kind of come together and a huge amount of those people were not available anymore. They had moved out of London, they had changed their mind about doing theater work together . . . So the recruitment process in the middle of a pandemic was hard. I think the industry has moved to a place now where we’re way more conscious about human resources and looking after people properly. When you take into account the amount of anxiety and fear that everyone was kind of carrying with them, it was a huge effort that we had to make to understand people’s needs and embrace them as part of our team – Socially-distanced embrace! So yeah, it was really tough.
Kat: So did things change once the restrictions started lifting? Were you involved with how that worked with parts of the shows like interactions?
Andrea: We’re still keeping quite the strict policy at Punchdrunk in terms of COVID – It’s actually not even finished yet for us! One of the big roles of the Head of Production is to act as a health and safety director and pull everything together. We had our COVID committee in the company that was constantly reviewing how we could make things safe, how we could get to keep things ticking along. But it is still an issue. It’s still an issue to have people off for COVID in a way that we hadn’t quite done in the past. People would just have flu, and we’d be like, “I feel a bit rough, but I’m still gonna perform!” We are still testing the staff – If they have COVID, they can’t come into work until the test is negative. So it has had an impact on how we work.
Kat: How are you able to ensure that everything runs smoothly with such a complicated show?
Andrea: I think that close-knit team was incredibly important – Communication, communication, communication! Our onboarding process was huge. We really were considering people like my heads of departments that needed to lead their teams and deliver the visions in their own sort of strands. They need to be involved in a project for a month before they become an active part of it, so we more or less trained them for a month on Punchdrunk and the creative vision. That was a beautiful process because that means that absolutely every person is on board – It’s really gearing towards what we’re doing.
Kat: So that included front of house staff members and people in similar roles?
Andrea: Eventually, yes. When they join, everybody’s got an induction, everyone’s got training, everyone understands what we’re trying to deliver. We’ve been able to prove that it can only benefit us if people really understand the reasoning, the world, the intention that we’re trying to set here.
Kat: What’s drawn you to work with Punchdrunk instead of an average theatre company?
Andrea: For me, even before working with Punchdrunk, I was working with Shunt. We were converting abandoned spaces into art spaces or theatrical spaces. So even though I studied traditional theatre, I already knew the fact that having an abandoned space and being able to convert it was my thing. It allows me to have a relationship with the world that we’re creating and the creative in a way that I don’t get in a traditional theatre. In a theatre, I get given a model box and then I just created with some collaboration, but usually quite limited. In this case, you are an active piece of the puzzle. I think there’s something incredible about these spaces, like abandoned warehouses that had been built to create weapons in the First World War and are now art spaces. It’s just so romantic – Who is not going to love that job? I think more than anything is being able to grab a creative idea and go, “I think I can make these happen for you.” It might not be exactly how you see it, because of the consideration of abandoned space, but that is incredible.
Kat: So you’ve always been interested in the concept of abandoned spaces?
Andrea: Yes, and creating spaces where the audience are inside the story. The work that I believe in is that level of immersion. That’s exciting in itself – How these spaces are catching up with modern life. It’s brilliant because you interact with the space differently, you interact with the people that come to the space differently, you usually push people out of their comfort zone. I always see that end goal of being part of these experimental projects where you go, “I love the creative vision, I really believe in Punchdrunk and in Felix and in Livi, I’m gonna make it happen.” Along the way, there’s a lot of creative satisfaction that I get as a project manager. At the same time, I then see the audience minds being blown away and changed.And that’s the reason why you do it.
Kat: What makes The Burnt City such a special show?
Andrea: From from my point of view as Production Manager, it’s just such an incredible achievement in terms of the delivery of the set, the quality of the design, the quality of the lighting, the quality of the sound . . . I still explore the show even though it’s been running since March and I’m totally impressed by the quality of everything, the attention to detail. I think it’s just beautiful. The vastness of what we build, the level of ambition, is just incredible. You can really see that in absolutely every department that’s featured – The dancers are incredible, the choreography is incredible, the design is incredible. It’s got a very high level of delivery and is unique in that way. I love the fact that you can enjoy the narrative without following the narrative. You can enjoy the narrative with your senses, or with one sense, or with two senses! And sometimes you follow the dancers and you get a narrative, but I think there’s also a way you’re following the narrative with the sound or the lighting or the smells, and there’s always something there for everyone.