Methought I was immersed in a cataleptic trance of more than usual duration and profundity.

I know the feeling.

The #pink #blossoms surround me like a folktale. #spring #sprung #bloom #twisted

The #pink #blossoms surround me like a folktale. #spring #sprung #bloom #twisted

#chocolate #alien #rabbit in #plastic thinks it’s safe in there.

#chocolate #alien #rabbit in #plastic thinks it’s safe in there.

That guy over at Stark Curiosa is putting out some nifty work. Check it out!

We all have at least one fan.

We all have at least one fan.

#cactiporn #cactus #red #nature

#cactiporn #cactus #red #nature

Just about makes up for my body’s allergic response. #blossoms #pink #Washington #dc #capitalhill #tree #nature #spring

Just about makes up for my body’s allergic response. #blossoms #pink #Washington #dc #capitalhill #tree #nature #spring

Ways To Explain a Punchdrunk Show

Although I use some specific references to The Drowned Man for this, the list below could just as well apply to Sleep No More. From all the thoughtful responses (here and elsewhere) I received from last week’s post about Badlands Jack, I’ve come to realize the extent to which we are all approaching the show a little differently. Maybe it’s time we took a moment to step back and look at what it is we are doing when we talk about a Punchdrunk show.
[Enhanced still from trailer for The Drowned Man]

For those of you in a full-blown existential crisis, and especially for those of you who feel a little too comfortable with themselves, I’ve made the following List of Ways To Explain a Punchdrunk Show. It’s one thing to declare what you are not, but at some point you need to stand up for what you are. Odds are, you are one of these below, and more likely some combination of two or more. Let me know if you think of others.

And remember: We are all on our own path and that’s a good thing. I have been many of these myself at one time or another.

The Lover
The sets are beautiful, the music is beautiful, the performers are beautiful, especially X who is the most beautiful and Y who is also the most beautiful. They dance so beautifully. My experience was beautiful except for when white mask X stepped on my foot and Y shot me a look that I’m pretty sure was hostile. I hope I did not humiliate myself to Performer X in the 1:1, must find them in bar and apologize.

The Experientialist
I first ran upstairs to the desert and waited for a long while because it was empty. Initially I thought that Dust Witch lady is evil, but then I saw her do something nice and then Miguel looked into my eyes and I felt for a moment I understood everything. If only I got his 1:1. Next time I go I’ll follow Lila because I’m sure that will tie everything together, but first maybe I should get an exec pass and check out the files in the drawing room. I’ll be doing a double next Friday.

The Grand Theorist
There is Grand Unifying Theory of Everything—an ultimate meaning to which all details can be connected. All acquisition of facts, no matter who or where they come from, are in service of the one true meaning. Punchdrunk has a plan and a meaning in mind and it is up to us to find it even if we have to make half of it up. Let’s drink whiskey and pour over a spreadsheet.

The Agnostic
Who knows what Punchdrunk wants us to think? The author is dead…probably. The show has all kinds of potential meanings and there are a number of different ways to think about it. So just calm down and listen to my own theory. And then another completely unrelated theory. And then a brilliant idea that undermines everything else I’ve said. Thank God (if there is a God) that nobody on the internet ever compares one blog post to another.

The Postmodern Postcolonial Psychoanalytical Queer Theory New Historian Deconstructionist
Maybe there are many ways to understand the show, but here is my way and I’m sticking to it. My theories are open to all challengers so long as you know I will respond in jargon that you will not likely understand let alone relate to. You will then disengage and I will win.

The Situationist
It’s just theater and all decisions are just showbiz. It is what it is. They had to do X that way because that’s how the lights work, or a performer just decided to do it that way, or that’s just Maxine’s style, or because I happen to know that Felix likes Tarot cards. Emursive made them do it. I talked to X in the bar and they told me Y. End of story.

The Minutiae Treasure Hunter
In the middle of the secret desert tunnel I took a right turn and it led to a hallway and at the end was a pile of loose debris with a small crumpled piece of paper under it. I won’t tell you what the paper said because spoilers, but it has changed everything I have ever thought about the show. Have you found it? You must find it!

The Complainer / Denier
It’s not really worth thinking about whatever it is you’re saying. I tried to move some things around on the set and the performer just ignored me. I don’t know why we can’t alter the narrative. You shouldn’t have to go so many times to “get it.” There is no resolution, it’s basically meaningless. I couldn’t see, it’s too dark, and the sound gave me a headache. I’ll probably go again, but I know I won’t like it.

The Secretist
I am full of secret knowledge that would rock your world. I would tell you but then I would have to kill you. Okay, I’ll tell you, but if you tell anyone else I will kill you and then find them and kill them. If you notice next week that audience attendance is low it is because I have killed them all.

UPDATES: Bonus suggestions from alert readers:

The Single-Character Obsessive
Listen to me: It’s all about the Barman. Why doesn’t anyone else understand!? It’s so obvious. I spent three loops with him and it was like the entire show was happening right there. Why is the floor moving?

The Total Goofball / Anarchist
My theory is that you should stop making me think about the show! Let’s play Turkey vs. Manatee instead.

The Eternal and Somewhat Jaded Fan
All current readings are invalid because they fail to incorporate a scene that five of us saw in early rehearsals when all the action took place in Felix’s basement.

That amontillado is down here somewhere. #Poe #cave #basement #underground #amontillado

That amontillado is down here somewhere. #Poe #cave #basement #underground #amontillado

Go West, Old Jack

We have had to say goodbye to many Punchdrunk performers over the past few years, but it is rare for us to mourn the death of a character. Yes, many do die over the course of the show, but then their loop resumes and they are back with us again. So it is a strange new kind of sadness that I feel saying goodbye to The Drowned Man’s (TDM) Badlands Jack (BLJ). It would appear that the character of BLJ has been permanently cut from the show. I consider this an odd creative misstep for Punchdrunk. I have been a big champion of the company and heaped a great deal of praise on these pages for many years now. I have gone as far as to suggest that TDM is the most significant artwork I have experienced so far in my life. Praise gets no higher than that. So I do not come to this conclusion lightly. The decision to sack BLJ has actually had me reevaluate the extent to which I derive meaning from Punchdrunk’s shows.

I am sure there are reasons for BLJ’s demise, but the ones I can imagine do not fully add up. Mind you, he is not even my favorite TDM character by a long shot. But I feel that he holds the show together thematically for me in ways that most other characters do not. Punchdrunk can—and likely will—still rectify things by having other characters shift to carry BLJ’s burdens. The problem is that those burdens are heavy ones. Before he completely fades from our memories, this is a good time to pause and reflect on what we are losing and the reasons why I see BLJ as such a lynchpin character.

I remember the first time I entered Temple Studios, knowing nothing of what I would see, and how I was initially taken aback. I thought it was gutsy for a British company to go all-in with a story set in Hollywood and the American West. It took me time to embrace it. It helped that the sets are so beautiful and some of the performers pull off convincing American accents. The roadhouse and much of the town feels real to me. But I thought that some elements were missing. The Western aspects of the show were lacking some true grit—the thematic elements that make it quintessentially American.

It was when I finally got around to following BLJ that the upper portion of the show all fell together for me. Here was a cowboy cast as a mean-spirited drunkard who, mostly in private, revealed profound remorse for his past deeds. Through him, I thought that Punchdrunk had tapped into something central and tragic about the American identity. And then they brilliantly tied it to the trappings of Hollywood, which built itself largely on the strength of the Western movie genre. Because the American West, cowboy clothing, Marlboro cigarettes, and all things Western have been such a major American export for decades now, I thought it plenty fair for a non-American theater group to wade into that territory.

To explain why this impressed me as being an inspired move by Punchdrunk, I will need to take a very brief detour into film history. (Don’t worry, this will be painless. And fun!)

[Still from the last shot of The Great Train Robbery]

In 1893 an historian named Frederick Jackson Turner presented a paper at the Chicago World’s Fair that became known as the Turner Thesis (or Frontier Thesis). The argument was based on the fact that as of 1890, the American frontier had disappeared. Up to that time, the American identity had been defined by its pioneer spirit and the push towards the West. This had many implications for commerce and foreign policy, but let us stick with the cultural side of the equation. With the end of the western frontier, American would have to search elsewhere for its primary purpose. It is no small irony that it ended up spending so much time looking to the western genre of fiction for its defining characteristics.

The first narrative film, The Great Train Robbery (1903), was also the first to give birth to the icon of the gunslinging cowboy. In 1939, nearly 50 years after the closing of the frontier, John Wayne starred in John Ford’s Stagecoach. One of the most influential movies of all time, it popularized the western, lifted it out of B-movie territory, and bonded Hollywood with the genre in a twisting and tumultuous love affair that would last many decades. The genre has since proven highly durable. It has been used to idealize the taming of the American West as well as process the country’s guilt over having been built on so much destruction, profiteering, killing, and the death of Native American culture.

The western hero brings us a tall, swaggering, gritty portrait of manhood with a stout moral code that trumps any written law. He has also been full of conflict and complications. The Searchers (1956) had John Wayne as more psychotic and racist than heroic. In the sixties and beyond, Clint Eastwood explored some incredibly dark themes in his westerns as an actor and director. (That many of those were “Spaghetti Westerns” produced in Italy goes to show what a durable genre it was even in the era contemporary to TDM.) 1992’s Unforgiven suggests that the romance and the dream of the Old West, as embodied by the gunslinger, was nothing more than drunken violence and nihilism papered over once the story writers got ahold of it. Through the hundreds of western movies made in the past century, along with the many sub-genres they inspired, one can track the conscience of a nation constantly reevaluating its own history and identity.

Badlands Jack visibly carries the weight of this history. Darkly clad and easy to anger, his narrative arc goes from drunk and mean to drunker and meaner. Some permutations even portrayed him as suicidal and prone to babbling meaninglessly to himself. He is an old relic, a burned-out icon in which Hollywood once invested so much. He resides in a purgatory of scattered trailers. (As a living arrangement that exists on the fringes of rural lands, trailer parks form a kind of pale shadow of the unsettled landscape of America’s past.) Having no interest in the activity of the studio inside the gates, he likewise has no aspirations that would carry him into the future. Appearing to own most of the town, he is weighted down with material possessions and responsibilities that no self-respecting cowboy would be shackled to. No wonder he is angry. This hero, if he ever was one, has fallen long ago. All that is left is some swagger, some threatening words, and the smell of whiskey.

There is also a Grand Unifying Theory out there (to which I am only a minor contributor) that deeply involves and implicates BLJ. Sometimes referred to as “Cursed Firmament,” the theory is based on his admission that he is responsible for wiping out an entire native village. The town we see was built upon the ruins of the past atrocity—literally cursed ground. Much of the action and odd behavior we see can be explained through this theory. (@honorharger, who spearheaded the theory, will be posting on it soon.) I will not go any deeper into to it here, but I hold it up as another example of how a number of folks have used BLJ as a gateway into the show’s deeper rewards.

Put it all together and you have a character drenched in meaning and ripe for interpretation. For an old cowboy to pull audience members into his trailer and confess one-to-one about the genocidal crimes of his past was a minor revelation. To place him just outside the gates of a Hollywood that appears to no longer need him was quite smart. For that Hollywood to be struggling anew to find an identity—to create a new dream just as the old one is falling apart—was insightful. And to have BLJ represent unrefined and fading cowboy masculinity amidst a story that has a great deal to do with gender roles was a master stroke.

To lose BLJ is to lose all of this beautifully layered meaning. It also makes me question if Punchdrunk ever meant for there to be such meaning to begin with. Maybe they just liked the cowboy costumes and decided to run with it and the rest was a fluke. I have trouble believing that. Considering they collaborated on a sizable production about the death of the American dream, we know Punchdrunk was worked with the theme in an overtly political way. So how to explain this decision? I am not sure. Logistics and economics with a bit of creative uncertainty about the character (he did change quite a bit between performers) could all have played a role. What I do know is that it has caused me to question how much thought I should invest in a Punchdrunk show.

More than many other art forms, Punchdrunk’s style of theater invites the audience into the role of meaning-maker. Our singular journey through space and time pieces together and, in some ways, creates a particular story. We build on that with subsequent visits and through conversations with others, online chats, even charts and spreadsheets for the most obsessed. Our individual experiences overlap and become a shared experience, forming a complex tapestry of facts and ideas about the show. Punchdrunk’s shows make this possible in part because they are so richly detailed and reliably structured. The same characters perform very similar actions, and tell a very similar story, every show. Even BLJ, who’s loop was more varied than most, led many of us to the same reactions and conclusions about his character.

If a character like BLJ can disappear, what happens to the meaning we have built around him? What happens when we need to trade in our spreadsheets for actuary tables predicting who could go next? Can that meaning be archived and frozen in time, or will it simply evaporate in the coming weeks?

And worse: Is what we are seeing on the surface of TDM all that there is? Is the meaning we are bringing to the show completely the result of our own extrapolations? Is it all just pure appropriation without intention—merely a set of interchangeable, postmodern parts meant only to invoke passing emotions? How does this not lead to a total existential crisis for anyone who repeatedly dons a white mask? Why are we here? What gives us meaning? What does anything mean?

I am not going to end this with a rallying cry to “Bring Back BLJ!!” His absence is a creative problem and thus has more than one solution. They could roughen up Andy and/or the Bartender, give them a little more backstory, ply them with liquor, and see if that helps fill the void. It might work. At the present I just think it important to stick a little flag in the cursed soil to mark all that has died there. That being done, hopefully the above questions will be answered in time.

With all the current changeover in the cast, it is as if we are reaching the end of Season Three of TDM. Spoiler: it ends with the death of Badlands Jack. By all accounts of his last show, Jack did not ride quietly off into the sunset. Perhaps one last whiskey-soaked flame-out was a decent way to retire the character and all it represents. It is 2014, after all. We have been anticipating and pondering the death of the American dream for a long while. Drinking our way to either oblivion or obscurity is as good a metaphor as any. Maybe TDM Season Four will help us explore the ultimate question: What next?