Why children’s theatre is feeling punch-drunk

Date Posted: 17/03/2015

Since 2000, Punchdrunk Enrichment has pioneered a game changing form of theatre in which roaming audiences experience storytelling inside theatrical worlds which the company has created.

Blending classic texts, physical performance, installation and unexpected sites, the company's infectious format rejects the passive obedience usually expected of audiences.

Although many of Punchdrunk’s shows have been installed within schools, its current show Against Captain’s Orders - a collaboration with the National Maritime Museum billed as a theatrical journey into the world of maritime history - opens at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich on 28th March and runs until 31st August.

Against Captain’s Orders, which is suitable for six to 12 year olds, promises to take audience members on the adventure of a lifetime through the museum’s collection of maritime artefacts. You can watch the Against Captain's Order's trailer here.

Pupils will become members of a ‘real life’ crew and will be called on to work together to navigate their way through this adventurous exhibition.

As mentioned above, Punchdrunk also deliver its theatre in schools.

Carrie Martindale spoke with Peter Higgin, the enrichment director at Punchdrunk to find out more about the theatre company’s ethos.

Where did the ideas behind Punchdrunk Enrichment come from?

Peter: Much of the inspiration comes from the worlds we create for our grown-up audiences. The idea is the same; we want to make our audiences feel Punchdrunk.

My experiences of being a teacher and taking pupils to see the company's work also inspired me. The impact was palpable and transformational, I knew at this point there that our practice had the potential for educational benefit.

Often when we start creating work, we ask the question 'what's the most exciting thing that could happen to a child in their school/ a museum/ a gallery etc.’

We try to take our work to some of the most deprived areas in London, to areas that can benefit the most.

What are the challenges that you face with installation-based storytelling?

Peter: Small spaces often dictate small audience numbers, so when working in schools it can take a long time to deliver work to a whole school.

Space can be at a premium, so finding somewhere to build our installations is not easy. We've worked in broom cupboards, head teacher’s offices, mobile classrooms etc.

Often teachers are unfamiliar with this sort of work, it's relatively new and also fiendishly hard to communicate in any other way than actually experiencing it. A challenge is always to skill teachers up and allow them to make the most of these experiences.

How do you educate through Drama?

Peter: We often pick key educational challenges and address them through detailed and sense rich experience.

The characters we create arrive with a problem that they need the pupils to help them solve.

At its very basic level we create an adventure and make the pupils the hero; embedded within this are key educational tasks, but the pupils are so caught up in the adventure they don’t realise they are learning.

This way of removing learning from the traditional hierarchy of school life is key.

I understand that your shows and workshops are completely immersive; do you think that helps children to become more engaged (rather than a traditional audience/stage scenario)?

Peter: Yes absolutely, the children are active in an adventure, we actively want to give them agency.

Can you tell me about Against Captain’s Orders?

Peter: This project is Punchdrunk Enrichment's biggest offering and a first for the museum sector.

I can't tell you too much as wouldn't want to spoil the surprise, but the show centres around four key maritime objects that embody the spirit of going against Captain's orders; Drake's drumsticks, Grace Darling's telescope, Bligh's Sextant and a bottle from the Royal George.

Our audiences will have to use their knowledge of these objects to guide them on their own adventure. They will be split into teams; navigation, midshipmen, ship's watch and salvage. Each of these teams will play their part in this adventure.

If you're familiar with our work, then a good way of thinking about it is as a cross between our shows; The Crash of the Elysium and The House Where Winter Lives.

How do you bring the worlds of theatre and museums together? And why do you think that it is a good idea to do so?

Peter: I think that it's an exciting time for all arts and cultural organisations. There is a spirit and a need for collaboration; museums are looking for ways to engage new audiences and are looking to use their buildings differently, and theatre companies are increasingly looking for new venues and spaces to create work.

There is a synergy that exists here; ultimately we are all in the business of storytelling and both sectors have much to offer each other. Museums have artefacts that often tell the greatest of stories and theatre companies can help bring these to life in new and imaginative ways.

Where do you go from here?

Peter: There is so much potential for this work, there's still a whole host of schools to visit and plenty of unexplored spaces.

We're constantly exploring work with new partners and have lots of schools work in the offing. We're always on the hunt for exciting new collaborations; it's especially exciting if we're breaking new ground, artistically or educationally.

For more information visit http://www.rmg.co.uk/whats-on/events/against-captains-orders and  www.punchdrunk.com

See below for a short video of Punchdrunk Enrichment's flagship Primary school project Under The Eiderdown.

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