Against Captain's Orders: Punchdrunk's Pete Higgin Interview
Creative Director and leader of Punchdrunk Enrichment explains immersive theatre for children, and gives us the inside scoop on their new nautical adventure.
Pete Higgin was a core part of Punchdrunk’s immersive theatre revolution from its beginning in 2000. Back then, working as a schoolteacher by day, he would take his students to see the site-specific shows and was astounded by their engagement: ‘they were so inspired’.
Combining his passions for applied theatre and education, Higgin was in turn inspired to ‘take the idea of giving people an incredible experience, and tweak it slightly to apply in school settings’.
And so Punchdrunk Enrichment was born. The result is ‘transformative experiences with a wider educational focus and the trademark design and imagination that you’d get in bigger Punchdrunk shows’.
This expansion of the Punchdrunk model of largescale immersive theatre for adult audiences wasn’t too much of a departure: ‘we’d always had an engagement ethos and opened the doors to volunteers and students’. And Higgin is infectiously enthusiastic about the benefits and opportunities offered by younger audiences: ‘they are more willing to be swept away’, he explains.
But this initiative to engage children isn’t confined to the classroom, and in the winter of 2012 Punchdrunk Enrichment created a Narnia-esque magic world with The House Where Winter Lives at Stratford’s Discover Story Centre. Any scepticism about immersive theatre for the under sixes dissolved: the show was a triumph.
Against Captain's Orders
Mesmerised by The House Where Winter Lives, the National Martime Museum recognised the capacity for such active theatre to engage children with exhibitions. The creatives have been granted ‘unbridled access behind the scenes at the museum’, to create an adventure that combines exhibition and performance.
Higgin describes Against Captain’s Orders as a ‘journey’. Children will don life jackets and become part of the crew of an imaginary ship called the HMS Adventure. And with typical Punchdrunk elegance four key objects shape the experience. From the drumstick or Sir Francis Drake to a bottle from the Royal George, which capsized in 1782, each artefact is a vessel for a slice of high seas history, which reflects the idea of defying the captain’s orders: ‘whether it’s going against the grain in terms or innovation, mutiny, or an object that embodies an act of rebellion'.
We're promised the experience will involve as much performance and participation as any Punchdrunk masterpiece. ‘History isn’t passive’ says Higgin, and these nautical tales will be brought to life by a ‘skilled team of performers who will be able to navigate their way through the experience and make sure everyone’s on board’.
If you’re worried that the little ones will come out with nightmares, Higgin assures us it’s ‘not frightening, but there’s an element of peril that’s necessary to make it work as a piece of theatre’. The overall aim is ‘an experience that embodies the idea of adventure, which brings objects and stories to life through immersive experiences’.
Will this be the first of many theatre and museum collaborations? ‘I think the idea can travel’ Higgin says, and we’re inclined to agree. ‘The museum sector is ready and ripe for this type of collaboration… It’s challenging for sure, but we’re pushing the boundaries of what you can create for younger audiences.’
Against Captain's Orders is suitable for children ages 6 - 12 . It runs from 28th March - 31st August. Click here to read our preview and to book.