Maxine Doyle trained at the Laban Centre and is a recipient of the Bonnie Bird choreography award. She is the Associate Director and choreographer with Punchdrunk co-directing Sleep No More, Firebird’s Ball, Faust, Masque of the Red Death, Tunnel 228 and most recently the Duchess of Malfi, an opera in collaboration with composer Tosten Rasch and the English National Opera.
Adrienne Kapstein: I would be fascinated to hear about Punchdrunk’s creative process. Does it change with each piece or do you have a set way of working?
Maxine Doyle: It’s project driven, so the process shifts depending on the piece of work we are making. The work that I’ve been involved in directing: it’s always pretty much space driven at the beginning. And so we are always looking at ways to explore space and site in relation to the audience and then finding ways to maximize or challenge the ways the audiences experience a building and the performance they encounter within it.
It’s a really collaborative process. And I can talk more particularly about the mask shows I’ve directed with them. Felix tends to work more with the designers and the lighting and the sound, and I tend to work more with the performance development and the choreography and the action and the event and of course, we cross over with those elements. And it’s super collaborative both with the designers and the performers. We’re all trying to look at ways that each element can have a sort of artistic autonomy, so that each element can exist in its own right and be strong, so the lighting is no less important than the choreography, or the sound design or the design of the building. And we spend a lot of time planning the work before we actually go into rehearsals or into the building, and obviously the building itself is often the most magnificent challenge because of the scale on which you’re working and so it takes a lot of time and consideration and in Sleep No More for example, there’s ninety rooms and each one of those rooms has a particular design and spec and brief and it has to function on many levels, so on one level it’s serving the story and driving the narrative and trying to discover ways in which the space can tell the story of the play.
And then also in SNM, for example, there’s a whole wealth of information based on superstition and so we are looking to find ways in which superstition can be explored and hidden within the walls of the building. When we start rehearsals with the cast, we often—we always start—outside of the space, and we have a very intensive studio based process which is really just a time for us to get to grips with the choreographic language and the body as the source of storytelling and as source of expression without any distractions or challenges or complications that the space might offer. And then all elements converge in the making process when everyone arrives on the site and then it develops from there really. Each of the performers creating any responses to tasks that Felix and I might set. And really you have many people creating and devising material happening at the same time all over the space and at the same time the design is evolving. And so it is pretty organic, and then of course the final element, which is actually a huge part of the creative process, is the audience, and the show shifts massively when we get in the test audiences for the first previews. The show shifts massively because obviously there is such a huge… they bring such a huge dynamic and they contribute massively to the aesthetic and to the energy and to the choreography and we start to see how the building and the show come alive when you put an audience into it.
AK: What are the logistics of rehearsing a work in which the audience is so integral? Do you theorize about that up until a certain point and then as you say, try it out at a certain point and see actually what happens?
MD: It’s a combination of theory, trouble-shooting and instinct that come from quite a few years of experience of making this kind of work. There’s lots of rudimentary things we do in the preparation. So when we are first designing the space, we are looking all the time at audience flow, audience pathways, journeys, how we can best use the staircase… I remember when we were making SNM, for example, I did a walk around. And we created each of the character’s journeys through the space and I was just walking—before we had anyone in—and I was just walking those journeys through the building and we realized really quickly that we were going to have… that one particular staircase was going to become completely congested at one point, and that actually we needed to find another transitional space and we needed to put in a new doorway. So we do lots of sort of work like that, to try and anticipate the way the audience will move through the building. And then when we get the audience, when they first come in—the previews for us are a massive part of the creation—and so when we get the audience in the space, then things can shift quite dramatically, you know, in terms of we have to re-orientate direction and we might have to create performance events that offer a distraction so that the focus is pulled. And the performers actually are massively skilled and solve most of these problems. They are very good at an invisible manipulation and guiding and leading the audience without a lot of the audience thinking they are being taken somewhere.
AK: It struck me watching it that your performers are primarily a hybrid, primarily dancers, but dancers who are fantastic actors. Is that the case?
MD: Yeah… that’s not true of all of work, but certainly the shows I’ve directed. Yeah, there’s a critical mass of dancers, especially in New York, the majority are dancers in the cast who do act brilliantly. You know they’re not delivering text, not delivering words but they’re telling stories and we do a lot of work and research and play in emotion and concepts of emotion and we’re always looking to try and find movement that’s visceral or evocative, that you can connect quite immediately with an audience or you can read on your own terms as a kind of story. So yes, I think one of the things we discovered very early on, Felix and I in our working relationship, was that actually dancing and the abstract movement language has a potency and power in a building in a way that words sometimes don’t. There’s a mystery and curiosity to the body that often isn’t there in the spoken word and so yeah, we do, absolutely we look for these hybrid dancers. We do dance auditions and we see them dancing and we so how technically brilliant they are and how choreographically interesting they are, and then we do lots of acting, theatrical based exercises to see how believable they are as characters and as people.
AK: I know your training is Laban training. In the actual choreography, do you create the choreography and put it on them or is it collaborative? How does that process work?
MD: Yes, there are lots of different kinds of processes. I’m not Laban trained as in Laban technique, I did my choreographic MA there and well actually I did English and Dance as my first degree and so I’ve always had an interest in stories and narratives and situations, so that’s where I come from. I don’t ever make any movement on my body and then impose it on dancer’s. We don’t work like that. We do work really collaboratively, so I do a lot of editing really. We give the dancers texts, situations, and they might know that they’re in this space and this character and their spatial boundary is a window ledge and they create material based on that, for example. And then some things I would craft quite finely, a little bit like a sculptor really, looking, cutting and pasting movement language on a body as I see it developing. And some work in the show I have very little to do with, it just emerges as we’re creating and that comes from a character being in transition and meeting another character and then something, a meeting having to happen, and that meeting becoming codified into choreography.
AK: And when the actor’s get recast, how does that process work? Does one dancer convey that choreography? It eventually becomes formalized?
MD: Yeah, When we get new people in, they learn the show because the show’s very… it’s there. They learn the structure, they learn all the language, the choreographic language doesn’t change; that stays in the same way that often the words of a play stay the same. And then they of course have to interpret that and they have to make it their own and they have to make it make sense for them as people. It’s huge shifts, we’ve had several Macbeths actually so far. We’ve had our fourth new Macbeth in the production and each of those interpretations are massively different. The second Macbeth, Eric Bradley, he’s 46 and his co-Macbeth is 25 and already that’s a massive difference there just in terms of experience and the kind of history that those men bring to that role. We love that actually because each new person that comes in, they bring with them a different energy, a new energy and excitement about the work and also lots of questions about it so you try and solve things each time someone comes in—little oddities, little inconsistencies—and you answer some questions. It’s a constantly evolving process.
AK: It sounds fascinating, still very organic despite the show being set and existing. So, obviously it’s been this crazy success in New York and doesn’t seem to be slowing down anytime soon. Why do you think it’s struck such a chord with New York audiences?
MD: Well, we sort of knew. We’ve been doing this work for quite a long time in the UK and we felt quite confident because of people’s responses in the UK that there was something exciting there for people. I think the concept is strong actually and it’s an original idea and there’s something very exciting about an audience being allowed to discover for themselves, and an audience feeling empowered to make their own decisions, an audience being allowed to wander freely around a space and the way that proxemics works where there’s no fourth wall anymore, and performers and characters become real, tangible things for the audience to engage with and to fall in love with or be terrified of. We have people… some people have been to the show many, many times. One woman, one person, in particular has been sixty times. That raises it’s own questions really, but lots of people have been twenty times. It just unleashes something in audiences. There’s also a massive cultural shift a few years ago—a sense of audiences wanting an event, a sense of event. Theater, conventional theater—of course the work itself can be great—but often the context in which you discover it is often not so great, in terms of atmosphere and engagement. With us, we are always interested in the whole package—the moment when the audience begins their journey and they commit to us: going to a strange location, finding that location, being disorientated and finding themselves in a strange bar and having that space to discuss and to chat and to share stories of your night. It’s quite special. Of course, we work really hard with the cast and the cast are amazing and they commit themselves hugely every night to each audience member as if it’s the first time this event has happened and I think when you put all those factors together—and also the scale and the ambition of it is ridiculous really, I mean not very many companies would—that’s all credited to Felix really. He’s really a brilliant, brilliant visionary and his ambition is never-ending and the rest of us jump on board of that. So yes, we’re kind of a crazy company really.
AK: It feels like this “immersive” bug has started to spread over here. Your thoughts on that or your advice to younger companies trying that out?
MD: I spoke on a symposium Leeds University last week on what is immersive on, immersive with an ‘I’ and not with an ‘e.’ Yeah, in England it’s huge as well. Site specific—there’s a massive reemergence of it. Of course, Punchdrunk didn’t start that, it goes back centuries really and as well as back to the sixties. The difficult thing is, I mean everyone copies everyone, nothing is truly original. We all know that. I think we feel honored when people feel inspired to take the work and take it out of theater and find ways because we know how challenging it is.
AK: You said in an interview in the Telegraph, that for you the work is “all about… shaking people’s perceptions.” I am curious to know what the next perceptions are that you and Felix are interested in shaking.
MD: Its always about audience and for [Felix] particularly its always about how theater can be re-imagined and reinvestigated from the point of view of the audience and how to maximize an audience’s sense of experience and almost a sense of self within a work. It’s about sites and spaces and trying to conceive of concepts where audiences can become a central player within the work.
AK: Are there plans for more Sleep No Mores? In the US or abroad?
MD: There are lots of plans and lots of talks of things. It took us a long time, it took us years to get to this place of Sleep No More in New York. It took 3 years of being in NY and scouting around buildings and trying to get producers and get buildings, and then it didn’t work and basically we created the show in Boston because of the vision and support of ART. So, maybe. I think we feel confident. There’re audiences for this work. It would be great to try it out in different cities and different cultures. So, yeah, it’s an ongoing mission.
AK: Where do you personally find inspiration? Is it theater, music, dance, fine art? What was the last thing that sparked you?
MD: I am very inspired by film. Robert Altman’s Shortcuts was a massive inspiration for me many years ago, when I first saw that and I first became interested in non-linear, fragmented bits of narrative. And we cite David Lynch regularly in terms of mood and atmosphere and general strangeness. I think dance will always be my first love. Pioneers like Pina Bausch and I’m really inspired by most of the work that comes out of Belgium actually. Particularly companies like Les Ballets C de la B. Dance Theater. I think in some ways Dance Theater is way ahead of theater. Of course music, I like Stravinsky. I like Reich. I can be inspired by anything. The last thing I was really inspired by was a piece by Alias called “Sideways Rain.” A piece that was very abstract, very pure. For me, it’s often about the people I’m seeing or I’m engaged with.
Adrienne Kapstein is a director specializing in the creation of original work. She is currently the Associate Director of Movement and Horse Choreography of the 1st National Tour of War Horse. She is also founder and co-director of Movement Theater Studio, the first studio in NYC to focus on the teachings of Jacques Lecoq. She teaches Movement for Actors in the BFA Performing Arts program at PACE University and Acting in the BA Theater Department at Brooklyn College. She holds an MFA in directing from Brooklyn College, and is a graduate of the University of Edinburgh Ecole Jacques Lecoq.