Punchdrunk – Small Wonders  

Creating innovative theatre experiences and education workshops, Susan Elkin visits Punchdrunk in North London in advance of Small Wonders, their next production.

Founded by Felix Barrett 19 years ago, Punchdrunk has long had an admirable track record of cutting edge, immersive shows which reach audiences and use spaces innovatively. The work has evolved beyond “promenade performance” and frees the audience to decide what to watch and where to go. It is now funded by Arts Council England and Barrett has been honoured with an MBE.

Peter Higgin met Barrett at Exeter University and the two men initially worked together. Then Peter followed his life long interest in applied theatre and young audiences and trained as a secondary school drama teacher. In 2008 he re-joined Punchdrunk and founded the company’s Enrichment programme which works with children, young people and the wider community. “It’s the best possible job” he says. “It brings my two worlds – theatre and education together.”

When I caught up with Peter he was looking forward to starting rehearsals for Small Wonders, an immersive two-hander for children aged 5 to 11 to be staged at Bernie Grant Arts Centre in Tottenham as part of LIFT18. The piece moves the audience from place to place during the performance – a Punchdrunk trademark. “We had the first read-though yesterday and rehearsals start in earnest in a couple of weeks” he said, telling me that he, as director, is working with an ensemble of four actors because although the show runs only an hour, sometimes there are five performances of it in a day so it’s pretty intensive”.

“We look for performers who really enjoy working with children and can do so selflessly” he says. “They have to be able to be close to, and immediate, with the audience. It can never be a case of ‘press play and go’. It has to feel as if they, and we, are in a real live environment”.

That environment in this case is Nanny Lacey’s flat in Tottenham. Written by Nessah Muthy in celebration of the relationship between the very young and the elderly, Small Wonders offers the audience a series of miniatures created by Nanny Lacey inside her flat to share with others, like 3D photographs, as she thinks back over her memories.

“When we talk to children and young people we find that many of them turn to their grandparents and it’s that intergenerational connection which Nessah’s play explores,” explains Peter, adding that much of the material is inspired by the stories and dreams of the Tottenham UpLIFTers, a five year artistic partnership between Punchdrunk and two Tottenham schools; Duke’s Aldridge Academy and The Vale School.

Nanny Lacey is becoming forgetful and probably won’t be able to live in her flat much longer. I ask Peter how much Small Wonders focuses on Alzheimer’s. “Very much so” he says. “We have worked in care homes – with a show Magic Me two years ago, for example –  and Nessah’s own grandmother was a point of reference for her. Alzheimer’s is in almost every family so it will resonate with most audience members although we have tried to treat it sensitively as well as presenting it accurately”.

Peter is also conscious of intergenerational relationships within his own family. “It’s fascinating to watch and listen to my father with my children” he says. “It will be there in the professional dynamic when we start rehearsing too as an older actor works with a younger one.”

In the ten years since Peter started it, Punchdrunk Enrichment has worked with over 240 schools creating ground-breaking education projects which place pupils and teachers at the heart of the experience and provides a catalyst for learning.

The company is hoping to see lots of families as well as school parties at Small Wonders. But don’t try and buy a ticket if you can’t round up some children because unaccompanied adults will not be admitted.

Small Wonders runs at Bernie Grant Arts Centre from 2 June to 13 July There’s an integrated signed performance on Saturday 30 June at 11.30 am. Box office: 020 8365 5450

LIFT produces a biennial London wide festival as well as working continuously with major arts venues, theatres, galleries and less obvious venues to bring global stories to London. Its work includes large scale projects, artist residencies, national touring and LIFT Tottenham which focuses on participatory work.

The Bernie Grant Arts Centre was the vision of Tottenham’s late MP. He wanted a flagship performing arts centre and a home for culturally diverse artists and creative sector entrepreneurs. Designed by Sir David Adjaye OBE it includes a 274-seat theatre, cinema, rehearsal space, café and workspace for designers, makers and small businesses www.berniegrantcentre.co.uk