Saturday 2 November 2013

The Drowned Man - What Happens On The Inside

So this post is going to be a little different.

For my 21st birthday just passed, Florentine took me on one of the most insane and borderline indescribable adventures I have EVER been on.

It was called Punchdrunk's 'The Drowned Man.' 

For reasons in which will make themselves apparent, we're both going to tell the story, each from our different perspectives.

Disclaimer: This DOES contain SPOILER ALERTS. So if you don't want to know before you go, do not read on unless you're willing to find out what happens there.

Florentine's side of the story will be told in BOLD.

My side of the story will be told in ITALICS.

So, without further ado...


F: When my theatre-loving parents came back from seeing The Drowned Man and said it was one of the best shows they'd ever seen, that was all I needed to know.

It was going to be Katie/Scarphelia's birthday soon, and I knew no-one who would enjoy it more than her. I was planning on it being this big surprise - I'd take her to right outside the building and have her not know where she was going until the second it began. 

All I needed from her was a date. 

... However:

 Me: I know what I'm going to do for your birthday
 Her: Is it... an immersive theatre experience?
 Me:, maaaybe
 Her: Is it PunchDrunk's The Drowned Man?
 Me: ...

... How the hell did you know that?!


K: A few months ago I'd been on a train when I'd struck up a conversation with a random stranger. After a while, we asked where each other were travelling too. She told me she was going to an 'immersive theatre experience' called 'The Drowned Man'. I'd never heard of it, so I urged her to explain further, and after that I was captivated. 

I knew then that I had to find a way to go.

Months later, having swiftly forgotten about it completely, Florentine told me she had a surprise for my birthday. "Is it PunchDrunk's The Drowned Man?" I said, completely off the cuff and semi-joking, surprised that I was even able to remember it. I never expected, however, for this to be followed by an incredulous "...How the hell did you know that?!" 

A few weeks later we arrived at the gigantic, seemingly-derelict warehouse in London, bristling with excitement.


F: The show takes place in this huge warehouse by Paddington station, over 4 floors I believe. 

You are advised to go at it alone, completely split from your group and do your own thing. I'd been to shows like this before, where I had stuck with my family the whole time, but this was different. 

I'd told Katie previously that this was the advised method, but once getting in there and entering the complete unknown, being alone felt terrifying. 

She turned to me, lowered her voice and said (something dramatic like): 

"Should it be, that the opportunity comes that our paths should leave us in different directions, should we split?"


K: Completely and utterly clueless as to what was about to happen to us, we were led in a small group through a series of dark winding corridors which opened out into a tiny room. We were told to stand against the wall in silence, facing a freight elevator. 

We were promptly handed these horrifying-looking alien/grim reaper masks and told we were FORBIDDEN to take them off until it was over. We were also told, repeatedly, that what was about to happen to us was solely down to our choices. "Be brave... let your curiosity take you." They said.

I could feel the sense of theatrical tension and excitement building up inside me, and I turned to Florentine, whispering to her if we should split up if the opportunity arose. 

She quite simply just laughed at me, then agreed.

F: We got given our freaky masks, and were ushered into the lift with an actor, giving us a back story on the characters. He again highlighted the importance of doing it alone and said the words "be brave", which made me go "yeah! I'm gonna be!" 

And, oh. How I was. 

He then opened the doors of the lift, and let people out. 

We were right at the back and had just began to move, when he suddenly slammed the doors shut again, and we began climbing again. Me and Katie spun our heads round to look at each other, and all I could see were her eyes through the mask widen with fear and excitement. 

We got told a different story of characters and were let out on a higher floor.


K: I was at the very front of the lift by the door, after the people in front of us had been shockingly turfed out with terrifying ease, and as the door opened before me, I saw nothing but trees and dim glowing lights.


F: This floor was decorated as a forest, with caravans everywhere. 

At a play I'd seen once before, there was a floor set out to look like Ikea, and I'd looked in one of the wardrobes and found a bedroom where an actor was sitting. I was really hoping for something like that to happen to me again, so I went up to one of the caravans and climbed inside. 


K: My mind was working furiously trying to process what I was seeing. Clearly I knew we were inside a building, but it seemed so real. As you looked up, the treetops disappeared into darkness and the grass under our feet was real, as were the caravans that surrounded us. I saw Florentine entering a caravan and froze momentarily, before noticing in the distance a full-size rodeo bar nestled between the trees. 


F: This time Katie's eyes looked as if they were saying "Are you sure? Can we just do this?". There wasn't much to see in the caravan, but the attention to detail was ridiculous. 

Suddenly there was a  hubbub in a rodeo-type bar nearby, and we walked over to see our first bit of action. 

A whole bunch of people were performing an incredible piece of choreography and once they finished, all the actors rushed off, in two or three completely different directions. 

Who were you supposed to follow? 

Were you supposed to follow any of them? 

What the hell were you meant to do? 


K: Despite there being already about 50 people inside this bar, you instantly knew who the actors were because they were the only ones unmasked. Clever. 

We watched them dance for a while, loud thumping line-dancing music blaring almost deafeningly, then almost as quickly as it had started, it stopped, and I watched in dismay as all the actors scattered in different directions.

That's when you truly realised that your choices would completely alter how your experience was going to go, and no two experiences inside this thing were going to be the same. 


F: We stuck with the crowd, and watched another scene together, but it was at this point I decided to stray. 

A little like what I do in a new nightclub when I want to explore what the building has to offer. I let my drunken bravery side overpower my sober nervous one. 

And that was the last time I saw Katie for the next three hours. 


K: I exited the back door of the bar, which opened out into an entire full-size town set, and saw Florentine strolling alone toward the fountain. My instinct was to naturally follow her but then I stopped. 

As I saw her watching a scene between two actors by the fountain, I backed away slowly, as if not wanting to be seen running away, and I turned and jogged toward the milkshake parlor where another scene was happening. I knew from then on Florentine and I were now going about this alone. 


F: The show was incredible. 

I can't even begin to work out how they timed everything so perfectly. 

Absolutely blew my mind. 

Anyway, during my experience, I had a few freak out moments.

1. I found a hidden pathway I'd have to crawl under. This was so exciting, cause I'd walked past it about 3 times before noticing it was there. I ended up in a sort of study room, secretly hoping I would have found an actor in there. 

There was nobody, but there was another door.

I opened it, and it was just a pitch black room. I thought "I've been brave so far. Don't stop now." and let the door shut behind me. I walked through with my outstretched arms, and walked to where I saw a glimpse of light through a crack in a door. 

I went to open it, but there was no handle there. 

All of a sudden I got so scared, because no one would ever find me here. I ran back to the other side, to get the hell out, but there was no handle on that door either. 

What if you could only get in by pushing the door and it couldn't be pulled open? If I wouldn't be able to get out, who could I call? Not Katie, cause she didn't have a phone! I avoided looking at my phone the whole time in there, as I didn't want to ruin the 'ambience'. I quickly shone a light at the door, to discover a little hole I could poke my finger through, I managed to pull it open, and I shot straight back out of there. Didn't know I could crawl on my hands and knees so fast! 

A girl saw me crawl out of there, and she passed me to go in. I wanted to tell her not to do it, but she'd have to figure it out herself.


K: Coming out of the experience at the end was almost painfully frustrating. 

You had just spent 3 mind-blowing hours seeing stuff that you didn't even think was humanly possible, yet coming out of it was like waking from a dream, in which every moment ticked past, the memories of what just happened to you become hazier and harder to recall. 

I genuinely couldn't tell you exactly what I did in chronological order, because I have no idea. Time did not exist inside The Drowned Man.

I felt like a character in a video game, wondering aimlessly in a vast alternate universe, sometimes stumbling across a hidden gem by chance, as if I was being guided by a player, and my supposed 'free will' was actually a complete myth. 

It wasn't complete madness though. There was a plot, characters and a definite structure. 

Whether you chose to acknowledge that, however, was completely up to you. 

You could follow one character the entire time and fully understand their story and their role, you could flit from character to character having a glimpse of their different worlds, or you could quite simply wonder the acres and acres of intricately designed set by yourself, strolling for hours across the 4 gargantuan floors of corridors, towns, houses, hotel rooms, beaches, offices, libraries, film studios, shops, cafes, movie theaters and churches. 

I'm not even kidding. 

ALL of those things existed in this world, and in full size

Do not underestimate when we say that this place was HUGE, and you could go ANYWHERE.

There were certain strange things that I saw which really stuck in my mind.

At one point I wondered into a church and saw a bride in a jet black wedding dress and veil lead a naked man up to the altar, and proceed to exorcise a demon from him whilst baptising him in a bath full of water. She then ran off before I could follow and the naked man ran outside and danced away into the blackness of the forest. 

Another time I climbed the endless staircases to the top floor, which turned out to be a huge desert. I walked into the endless oblivion, feeling the real sand falling away beneath my feet. Eventually I came to several chairs laid out by a coffin, as if a funeral were taking place. The coffin was woven out of wicker, and in each of the seats sat a scarecrow. Except for one empty seat. 

Another time, (I think this was on the basement floor but I can't be entirely sure) I came out of the stairwell to find myself completely alone in a giant hall lined with black and white check tiles. It looked like fairytale palace, and there are no words to describe how big it was. Bigger than a cathedral. Most of the time when you are wandering, there are constantly other masked people milling about and investigating. Here, for the first time, I was totally alone. About halfway down the room there were two archways. My feet clattered and echoed with every step as I approached the archways, which both lead to the same room. I stepped through and gasped. There in the middle of the room, under a spotlight, lay two bloodied corpses that had been stabbed to death. I turned and I ran until I found people again. 

I had countless of these bizarre, unexplainable experiences, to list them all would nearly be impossible. 

Let's just say there's some weird ass shit in that place, and some fucking cool as fuck stuff too. 


2. It was about an hour and a half in, it felt like even more people around, and I had no idea where Katie could be. Ushers were around and dressed all in black with black masks to offer help if you needed it. Thank god.

Me: How am I supposed to find my friend at the end?

She was all ominous. She probably wasn't allowed to give too much away.

Usher: You'll see her after the finale.

Me: ...When's the finale?

Usher: 8.

Me: How will I know when that is? Where is it?

Usher: You will be lead there.

I hadn't really been following the actors, or the story line before this point. After she told me that, I decided I'd choose one and follow them. Unfortunately, some of them move really fast and I was forced to keep changing.


K: After a while it became apparent that scenes were being repeated. 

As it was just over three hours long, I guessed that perhaps the full story was about an hour and a half long and they did it twice, to allow people to see it if they'd missed it beforehand. (I can imagine it wouldn't be much fun if after all that you actually missed the entire plot because you'd been lost wondering the eternal realms of this Tardis-building the whole time.)

Another thing I noticed, was that sometimes when you were in a massive group, jogging after the actor, trying to keep up, the actor would suddenly stop, turn around, look you all dead in the eye (whereas they normally ignored you entirely) step forward to one person, take them by the hand and run away with them. 

You'd end up sprinting so hard to try and catch up, but they'd both dodge in a door, slam it shut and locked behind them, leaving the rest of the group totally lost and having to find another character to latch onto, whilst desperately trying to get over their jealousy and curiosity as to what could possibly be going on behind that door. 

Suffice it to say, I was DESPERATE to get taken. 

3. I saw the start scene again and was worried I had missed the finale and I was now at the start of the second showing of the day. I asked an usher, and he told me I was near the end and that the finale was in half an hour. I managed to relax again.

Since there were two-intersecting storylines, one set in a Hollywood Film Studio, one set in the town outside the Hollywood Film Studio, it all got really confusing to stay on track. 

I'd mixed in with the Hollywood story for a bit, and was watching a fake filming on this big 1950's sitcom set. The director was just this booming God-like voice, controlling everyone. I watched an actor leave the sitcom set, and he stood near me. 

The director's voice said "Good job today, Conrad". The actor beside me smiled proudly... he was obviously Conrad then. 

"One more thing before you go, Conrad. Could you just go to studio 8 for me? Thanks." 

With this, Conrad did a little movement to signify he was pretty pissed off. 

I was so excited though. Signs on the walls pointed to Studios 1,2,3,4 and 5. 

There was no 8. 

And if there was, it must have been really hidden. 

As he ran off, I ran right after him. He sprinted down some stairs, into one of the main rooms, but didn't create much of an audience. It was just me and about 4 others. 

He then looks me right in the eyes, and offers me his hand to take. I was so excited. This was exactly what I wanted to happen. We'd all seen actors taking people's hands and shutting them and only them in rooms, and I so desperately wanted to be one. 

He took me to a trailer, the others following, and shone a torch at the window. 

In dusty finger-writing it said, "Studio 8". 


He got keys out of his pockets, unlocked the door, led me in first, then shut himself in, locking out everyone else. Ha, gutted. 

Then he took my mask off. 

Now, almost everyone who has seen the show has gasped when I say this, because for some strange reason, you really feel like you need that mask there. Like it's protecting you. I felt so vulnerable without it!

In a serious, sexy, American accent he said "What's your name?"

And in an uncool, nervous English accent I replied "Florentine."

He shook my hand and said "I'm Conrad". 

In my head I said "I know!". Instead I said "Nice to meet you", or something equally lame, but I didn't want to spoil whatever it was he was about to do. 

He opened a curtain door and we walked through the adjoining room. He beckoned me to sit on the (very high) bed, took my hands, stared into my eyes and began to tell me a story. 

I remember the jist of it, but I don't think it was wholly relevant. I just absorbed it completely, and tried to work out what to do with my excited face. Be cool girl, be cool. 

He pointed to the lamp behind me, which had a piece of red string attached. He picked it up, took my hand and we began to follow it. He opened another curtain and the string led us to -I'm guessing- the huge empty bottom floor. It was completely dark, apart from the torch he was holding in his right hand. We followed this trail of string for ages. Now it was dark and I knew I couldn't be seen, I let my grin of excitement go wild. 

The red string eventually stopped, but then he shone the torch to the low ceiling, and it began again from there. We followed it again for a while, and then it went down and was somehow attached to his THROAT. 

Before I had time to fully understand how the hell he managed that, he shone the torch to the right, lighting up this huge, life size, white, dead horse on the ground.

 "OH MY GOD!" I yelled (VERY uncool) 

He then took me to another room, whispered something like "Things are never as they seem...", put my mask back on, pushed me out the door back into the action... Oh my.


K: For the latter half of the performance, I spent alot of the time completely and utterly lost and mostly on my own. I think that's really the only regret I have. I decided to be cocky and go investigate on my own and ended up getting totally lost inside the Hollywood film studio, going from room to room that were full of prosthetic doll faces, camera and lighting equipment and endless bouquets of flowers. 

I didn't feel so cocky after that, and that's when I started to panic for the first time.

...How does this end?

What if I get stuck down here, lost in one of the endless bizarre backrooms and it finishes and they lock up and I'm stuck here forever?

And then, after finding myself by a giant white plastic mountain where a drag queen was throwing herself down it, sliding to the bottom, then clambering back up to the top to do it over and over again, I somehow found myself in a room with a hell of a lot of people. 


F: After that, I decided to stick with the lead male from our original storyline, to ensure I got to the big finale. 

He was fantastic to watch, and took me right to all the important bits of action. As promised by the usher, he lead us all to the finale, which was absolutely huge. Everyone was already there. I am awful at guessing figures... Lets say a couple of hundred people? Half with their masks still on, others had let their faces breathe. The finale was fantastic.


K: I didn't even know there was going to be a finale, I genuinely had lost all sense of time and existence and had almost convinced myself I was going to end up walking this beautiful labyrinthine nightmare forever. 

Now, this must have been some serious mean feat of organisation, but somehow, and god only knows how, the ushers and actors had managed to shepherd every single person across all 4 floors of the play into one room. It was only then that you actually realised just how many people were inside this thing, and just how big this place must've been to have been able to get lost alone so frequently. 

There must've been about 350 people in total, plus the 20 or so actors and 50 odd ushers. 

And they danced. 

They stomped, they cheered, they wooped and they bowed, and everyone suddenly broke out of their trances to realise that, hold on a minute, yes we were still actually in a performance. They were just actors. This was just pretend.

We applauded in a whimsical half-with-it fashion, then all headed toward the much needed daylight and fresh air to help us to process what the hell had just happened to us.


F: Every character from both the stories were on one big stage, dancing together. It was phenomenal. The show finally ended, and then came the biggest challenge of them all. Finding Katie. 

I had been keeping my eyes open for lilac curls and a denim jacket for the entire 3 hours. I couldn't see her at the finale and I couldn't see her as we were being herded out. 

My biggest fear was that she'd given up about 2 hours ago, and completely left. 

What if she got stuck in that black room I had to crawl to get in? Who would have thought to look for her in there? Luckily, as I left the building, I heard her call after me, and we hugged an embrace of relief as she said "...What the hell just happened to us?!"

We rode the tube into the city, and filled each other in on the completely different things we saw and places we went. The people overhearing us, must have thought we were insane. We spoke about it for a good two hours or so, but when meeting up with Oliver afterwards, had to massively refrain on what we said. He had to see it for himself. 


K: After seeing it a little over a month ago, I'm still not okay. 

I have never, EVER experienced anything like that in my entire life, and all I care about now is getting back there as soon as possible, and dragging along with me as many people as I can.

I feel like although I saw a million things I can never comprehend, I still only explored about a third of what was on offer there, and I need to go back, I need to do it again.


F: Hopefully, if you've already seen it, you can contact either of us and we can all talk about it, because we really crave a Drowned Man forum! (Although I've basically said everything that happened to me already.)


K: And if you haven't seen it, I hope we haven't spoiled it for you, and by the mercy of almighty god, PLEASE DO NOT HESITATE ABOUT GOING AND GET TICKETS ASAP.

I feel everyone needs to experience Punchdrunk's unfathomable masterpiece: The Drowned Man.


I would like to give a massive thank you to my darling, dearest friend Florentine for taking me on this unreal adventure, and providing such an amazing account of it.

To hear more from Flossie, find her on Twitter here @FlossJoseph - Having her on your timeline will brighten your day.