The Burnt City Part 4 – An Interview with Colin Nightingale

“A big bit of my role is that I cross over between some of the practical constraints and the creative desires. Because I’ve been involved in the process for so long, I understand why we’re trying to do certain things.”

For the fourth article in this series on The Burnt City, I had the opportunity to speak with Colin Nightingale, the Audience Experience Curator for Punchdrunk’s newest show. 

So how do you create an environment for audiences like the one at The Burnt City?

This is probably a fundamental question to the kind of work that we create! I’ve been involved with Punchdrunk for twenty years. I suppose I have a very pure approach to the audience experience because the way I got involved in Punchdrunk is that I stumbled into one of the very first projects that Felix did in London. In comparison to something like The Burnt City, it was tiny, but a lot of the basic principles about these shows and the way that an audience experienced it were already established in it. I really understood the power of the disorientation that’s being used in making people feel slightly out of their comfort zone, which then helps with how they then engage with the performance that’s taking place. And very quickly, me and Felix developed a friendship and a working relationship and I’ve been part of Punchdrunk since that point.

 In terms of how I approach trying to support the creative process, again, a lot of it comes from the history that I have working with Felix and the wider creative team. In the old days, I used to manage the shows – I used to actually build the shows and the environments, and I worked very closely with creating the layout and the design of the space. So everything’s interrelated in the way that we’re approaching the work. What I do more now, especially on something like The Burnt City, is trying to support the creative process and look at the overall experience that the audience end up having. At the core of a lot of the work is this idea that it’s quite an individual experience that we’re trying to create, so it’s therefore supporting a lot of conversations that are going on around the desire and the need for the one on ones, even though they can be quite complicated to get into the shows because of the support that’s needed around them. 

But I understand when Felix is pushing for those things when we’re building the shows – I understand the significance and the importance of them. Because it is how we maintain some of the sense of the power of the experience for audiences and these moments where they do go behind the door. And as much as it’s powerful for the audience that gets taken in there, it’s also very powerful for the wider audience, because they’re like, “What’s going on behind that door?” And it leads to their curiosity and the sense that there are still things to discover and things to find. If we don’t have some of those elements in the show, they don’t work as well. A big bit of my role is that I cross over between some of the practical constraints and the creative desires. Because I’ve been involved in the process for so long, I understand why we’re trying to do certain things. 

How do you work out the audience experiences with moments like one on ones? I went to The Burnt City – It was my first Punchdrunk show and I had a one on one and it was the most insane and unreal experience. I was just thinking after, “How did they choreograph this? How is it created so that it’s unique but still safe for both the audience member and those involved?

In terms of the way we approach making some of those things, because there’s a core group of people who have made this work for a long time, there’s a lot of shorthand – Things are done quite quickly. But in terms of an actual process, to start with, there’s a practical thing about the duration of it, which has to be thought about in terms of the performer in their loop and how much time they physically got to do this. There’s an optimum length of about three minutes, which we know from over the years is a satisfying amount of time and is realistic to fit in with the wider logistics of everything everyone’s dealing with. In terms of the actual content, sometimes there’s a really clear idea from the beginning about something experiential that we want an audience member to go through. Sometimes the starting point is actually the sound design – Quite often the sound is created and then a performance is built to it. Sometimes there’s a space that’s been earmarked for the one on one, and the performers work something out and then a design is created for it. So there’s various different routes as to how we actually settle on what’s being done. Once something has been created, there’s quite a stringent sign-off process. There’s nothing improvised in the one on one from the performance side of things – Anything in it has to be very carefully blocked to try and minimize any sense of creating an uncomfortable environment for an audience member. So all of that is rehearsed and then signed off, and then there’s always either a stage manager or one of the stewarding team that’s positioned very close to where the one on one happens. If something was to go wrong, if there was an incident of any sort, there’s someone who can immediately respond and react to it. And there are, hidden in the one on ones, emergency call points where performers can summon support. So, yeah, kind of all of those little elements have to be in place and forms need to know where it is. 

And then some evenings, if we were short of a steward or something, then sometimes the one on ones are just not performed that evening. A performer may still go into that space, because it’s part of their loop, but they won’t take anyone in it. There’s quite a lot that we’re juggling in the process of creating them. We always strive, when a show opens, to have some of the one on ones in at the point we start previewing. And then there’s a lot of work that’s done to try and get these things in as quick as possible. But it’s sometimes quite complicated when performer’s loops are still settling and there’s logistics around not just the performer loops, but the stage management and stewarding loops, like a jigsaw puzzle that’s being juggled all the time to try and facilitate them getting in. But we kind of know that we need as many of them in as quick as possible, because it does impact the overall experience that’s going on in the show for everyone, regardless of whether they’re actually in the one on one or not.

What has it been like bringing back such an immersive experience with the pandemic?

There was a lot of conversation as the timing of when the show is going to open. Originally, we were on a path to get the show opened in 2020, and we’d actually just started the beginnings of the build, and then obviously, everything paused. There was then a desire to get on with the show as quick as we can. A lot of conversations happened at the beginning of 2021 to set a timeline, looking at the kind of challenges we were all going to face even creating the show and rehearsing it, let alone getting an audience in! Thankfully, a very sensible decision was made collectively that we would aim to open the show in the spring of 2022. But it did mean that we were building and planning at the height of the pandemic in the bend of 2021, but we were constantly sort of trying to think about where everything was going to be at the beginning of 2022. Obviously, we need the masks for the audience. Sleep No More, which was running through the pandemic in Shanghai – They closed for two or three months at the beginning of the pandemic, but then reopened by the June of 2020 – They were having challenges of audience wearing the audience mask and a face covering because it became uncomfortable, and a lot of people couldn’t wear both. And so in China, the solution we ended up coming up with for them was that a mask was cut down so that it’s half audience mask and then it’s the surgical mask. That was also being driven by the fact that the authorities wanted there to be a clear visual indicator that someone was wearing their face mask correctly. Okay. So even if we could have solved the audience mask being over their faces, it wasn’t really going to work because they needed to be able to visually see whether someone was wearing it correctly. But we did get a solution there. 

And then I was constantly trying to problem solve how we were going to crack the mask for here, knowing that the half mask wasn’t really satisfactory and that we really wanted the full mask. We were experimenting with whether it was going to be more of a gauze that would allow you to breathe between the two things. But for a combination of reasons of factories not being able to produce things fast enough, the pandemic, materials, all these different things . . . We did prototype some of those, but it wasn’t really working. And then I was working with someone who specializes in maskmaking and the two of us suddenly came up with this idea that we could put the foam pads in the mask, which is something we’ve never done before. We sometimes have foam around for glasses wearers, but I suddenly realized that if we lifted the mask away from people’s faces slightly, it would make it work with the face mask. At the point where we were opening the show, we would definitely need audiences in face masks. So putting the foam in the face mask was a key thing for getting the audience into the show. 

And then just lots of stuff like thinking about how we were going to approach hand sanitizing points around the space, which at the beginning, at the time we reopened, was important, and is probably less relevant now. Loads of stuff around how the rehearsals were structured. A lot of complexity around how the build was approached. And normally, all the teams very much work on top of each other and there’s a lot of kind of cross fertilization in ideas by people working very closely together. But things had to become a lot more departmentalized for this show, which definitely was challenging. Early on, we had to consider whether one on ones were going to be appropriate to go in the show. And if the COVID situation had hadn’t have been starting to ease in the UK, we probably would have ended up opening without one on ones, which is what we ended up having to do during some of the pandemic in Shanghai. And even if we did, we were doing them in a slightly different way. Obviously things where people are given something to eat or drink, some of those things were changed, because we’ve got think about all of that. And actually eating and drinking on set for performers! A lot of that has to be very careful. We were always very careful around that stuff anyway, with things being locked up and not easy for people to contaminate in any way by accident. There’s a lot more risk assessment being done around all of that.


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