a bluffer's guide to The Drowned Man · 14. October 2013, 22:04

On Friday, I spent 6 hours in the 1960s, in Los Angeles. Just outside Paddington Station.
Punchdrunk’s The Drowned Man is the story of a film studio that mysteriously closed overnight.

I’d been once before, but that gives you the merest taste of what’s happening and what happened. There are multitudes of plots, completely intertwined. Huge scenes and small set-pieces. Even after another 2 visits, I only have some idea of what’s going on.

Even as someone who generally likes a good sit down and to be entertained (and hates the idea of being locked in a room with an actor inches from my face), it’s pretty spellbinding, from the intricate sets, to the utterly in-character acting. The hour I spent with the head of the studio was one of the quickest in my life. So I’d generally recommend getting a ticket.

However, I know of many that have been frustrated. It’s more dance than words. It’s possible to take all the wrong turns, see nothing, and leave wondering what on earth everyone was raving about. So I’ve compiled a few tips that might make a visit go with a bit of a bang:

NOT SPOILERS

It is a promenade performance. Unlike others, like Shunt’s, for example, there is action happening all over the set at all times. There is not a single story to follow, and it’s very likely that even after multiple visits, you will see scenes that you haven’t encountered before.

It’s unlikely, but you could get wet. Or sandy. Or even a little bloody (don’t worry, it’s not your blood). And you’ll be moving around, sometimes quite fast. So stout shoes and clothes you can easily move in. All bags have to be checked.

You will be wearing a white mask. It’s plastic and vaguely uncomfortable (and sweaty). If you have glasses, it can push in places and be quite uncomfortable – but I’ve found most masks have a knot or even a toggle at the back, so loosen it a bit and you should be fine.

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NOT REALLY SPOILERS
(or what they really should be telling everyone)

As the precis you are given intimates, there are two versions of the story: one set in Temple Pictures, and another outside the studio featuring local cowboys and the townsfolk. The main characters are replicated in both versions.

The story plays out three times, more or less. This means each loop lasts about an hour. If you enter after the start, you will be missing part of a loop. So far they are not checking ticket times, so you can enter at any time, no matter what is printed on the ticket. When you hear rousing music, that’s normally the character resetting to the start of their loop.

It’s big. There are 4 floors – the studio extends through the basement, and most of the ground floor, and some of the 1st floor. The top floor… you will have to discover for yourself.

About 20 minutes before the end, characters will start leaving for the finale, with all performers and the entire audience in one space. If you do not follow them, black masks will direct you.

There is a bar in Temple Pictures; it’s labelled Studio 3. It opens after everyone is in (after an hour). You don’t have to wear your mask in there, and there are some characters hanging around if you want a chat.

You can easily spend a few hours just exploring the sets, but if you want to follow the action, you need to follow a character. The main characters are pointed out to you in the lift, but note that they attract quite a lot of followers, especially on the 2nd and 3rd loops. You can easily lose a character if they meet up with another in a small room.

If a character starts to stare at you, hold the gaze, if they offer you their hand, take it, if they open a door for you, go through.

But also get out their way! If they’re moving, give them room to move.

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SLIGHT SPOILERS

It’s worth reading a summary of the plot of Woyzeck (which the main plot is based on) but also worth watching/reading The Day of the Locust. Several of the characters are from this.

There are three sets of characters: the studio employees, who stay in the studio, the actors and townsfolk, who move between the two sets and plots, and the cowboys, who stay outside the studio.

If you want to follow characters, most of the studio employees meet up in an orgy in the big room in the basement, and most of the cowboys meet in the Western saloon for a hoedown. These are pivotal scenes for the main plot, but also good places to swap following from one character to another.

If you can’t find anything happening, listen for where there’s noise or music and follow that.

Fun things to find:
The tape recorder room (follow Lila)
The church
The sunflower room and the red string room in the basement
The mirror maze and intimate lounge behind the band in Studio 3
The tunnel to the potion room

You can watch Felix Barrett talk about Punchdrunk’s attitude, which includes a few shots of the set:

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MOST DEFINITELY SPOILERS

A knowledge of the tarot and Freemasonery may keep you alert to items in the set and certain scenes.

Places to hang around, where characters do regular 1-to-1s:
Studio 8 (the caravan separate from the others, obscured by the bright light in the forest)
The toy shop
The grocer’s
The doctor’s office

Scariest 1-to-1s:
The Dust Witch
Badlands Jack in his trailer
Mr Tuttle
The Doctor

If you have been a few times, follow Mr Stanford. You’ll see a lot of scenes with new eyes. Conrad is good to follow, moving from the studio sets, dressing rooms, through to the Western saloon, the actual bar, the motel and… Studio 8.

And for the ultimate spoilers, join the Facebook group. There are maps, character loops, and the unpicking of the motivations and reasons behind The Drowned Man (and thanks to the members of the group, for making The Drowned Man very enjoyable and quite unmissable).

I think I’ve done my time in there, but I may go back before it closes. The building (an old Royal Mail sorting office) may be knocked down soon, so it’s likely to finish in early 2014.

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