An Ephemeral Village in London

by Howard Sherman

A Visit into Punchdrunk’s Fallow Cross

Exiting the London tube at the Tottenham Hale station, it is not at all apparent that there’s a tiny throwback village in the vicinity. Indeed, without being given the specific address, one would have to be very focused to discover, like the protagonist of a fantasy novel, the tiny label over a door buzzer on a side street that says “Punchdrunk,” the name of the famed immersive theatre company best known in the U.S. for its long-running New York hit, Sleep No More. But with proper direction, a visitor can find the teeny company logo in a short list of firms on an entirely unremarkable looking, low slung commercial building, with attached warehouses.

Greeted by Peter Higgin, Punchdrunk’s director of engagement, a slightly wild-haired and bearded fellow who might have stepped from a magical young adult novel or perhaps the road crew of a band at Woodstock in 1969, a visitor is escorted from the funky offices at the front to a door in one of the warehouses at the rear. Suddenly from a sunshiny London morning in an industrial setting one passes into … a tiny one room school house, dimly lit.

Seated in front of a small screen that provides an (animated) aerial view of a flight toward the village of Fallow Cross, music swells louder and louder as you approach and then the screen dissolves into a window revealing that only a dozen feet away at most is the village itself, entirely corporeal, just beyond another of the schoolhouse’s doors, through the looking glass. Unprepared for the effect, it is literally jaw-dropping.

So what is Fallow Cross? “It is “a response to a problem,” explains Higgin. “How do we make work? How do we break new ground?” He comments, “The word ‘fallow’ is interesting for us, the idea of rebooting, regenerating a piece of land. Creative thinking by having a space where we’re not doing anything overtly for the public. A space to grow our new ideas. A space to recharge the soil.”

Touring the small buildings of the village, a shop here, a cafe there, Higgin explains that each building represents a different Punchdrunk project, some completed, some nascent. The village church, he reveals, represents Kabeiroi, Punchdrunk’s newest project, which opened in September. Designed as a journey to multiple locations across London, Kabeiroi could only be seen by a total of 864 people during its entire run. Some might find the idea of a theatre company building its own tiny hidden village as a tool for research and development a bit precious, but Fallow Cross is not only reserved for the company’s flights of innovation. It doubles as an educational site for London’s primary schoolchildren, for whom the site is the manifestation of an educational journey that begins in their classrooms.

A Herculean Task
“What was interesting for us was also, alongside the fact that this is a really fun thing to do for young people, we were playing around with some technology, with Google Creative Lab in Australia and a company called Grumpy Sailor, a tech firm in Australia,” said Higgin. We were looking at how do you make the game world talk to the physical space, and vice versa. Just beginning to try to scratch the surface of what it means to almost create a game-logic world in a real physical space.” That merging of the worlds explains the transitional entry that people experience upon first entering the warehouse, the introductory video providing the link. 

The game in which a visit to Punchdrunk Village is embedded is an adventure which particularly focuses on math, and Higgin says there is a puzzle embedded in the space. But it’s rooted in the story of the mythical Hercules, cast as the mayor of the village who has disappeared, and the students must solve puzzles ensconced in the village fountain, corresponding to Hercules’s twelve labors. When students depart from the village, back into the real world, they can continue their adventures back on the virtual video plane.

Walking through the village, Higgin points out stops along the way. “This is the candlestick maker’s,” he says, adopting the casual tone of a relaxed tour guide, “This is a space where we’re exploring scent and the storytelling potential of scent within our work. This is the optician, where we’re actually exploring the lack of sight, so we’ve got a few bits of wearable tech, which we’re beginning to experiment with.” Continuing to wind his way through the village, he indicates the cloth merchant’s shop, which serves as a development space for experiments in sound, noting a hidden waterbed for use in exploring how sound travels through water. 

Settling into the Fallow Cross pub after completing a journey through the space, Higgin explains the origin of the village. “As a company, we have a show in New York, a show in Shanghai,” he points out. “There’s sort of an international scope for the work. We batted around very, very big ideas about what would a home space look like for us. If we were in a building permanently, what would we have?” Initially called the lab, Punchdrunk’s R&D space became the village as a collaboration between Higgin and the company’s artistic director Felix Barrett, and the company’s designers. He is quick to describe it as a team effort, noting that while the parameters and layout were decided collectively, the designers were the ones who fully fleshed out the space.

A Modern Brigadoon
Punchdrunk acquired the Tottenham Hale facility at the beginning of 2016, but he professes that even though the company had been seeking a site, having it was still a bit of a surprise. “Five years ago, if you told us, you’d have a home space and you’d be running a building, I think we’d probably go, ‘No, no, no. That’s too much to be thinking about.’ I think what would probably surprise our former selves is that it’s nice to be rooted, and it’s nice to have a home space. Although we have got long-running pieces of work like Sleep No More, the work is about the ephemeral. It pops up and it disappears.”

Shockingly, Higgins goes on to explain that though the Fallow Cross space has only been fully operational since September 2016, it will close in the near future. “We’re at the whim of developers, essentially, which is often the way with the work we create. We’re sort of ‘meanwhile’ usage.” 

Referring specifically to the village and not the building, Higgin observes, “I think, clearly, in a blue-sky world, where money was no issue, we’d knock this down and rebuild it again, and reiterate. A lot of the decision about how things look has been driven by the cost of materials and what we’re able to easily achieve. How can we make sense of a series of sheds, essentially. Which is kind of a true expression of how we approach any work anyway. What are our parameters? What are our limitations? How do we make something with those that we can make sense of?”

Higgin says that in all likelihood, the company will move and Fallow Cross will be taken down by the summer of 2018, possibly even in the spring. It is a peculiar, real-world corollary to Brigadoon, appearing and then disappearing, known to relatively few outsiders. But he is strikingly sanguine about the loss.

“It’s moved a lot of stuff forward,” he reflects, “What we’ve basically done here is, what are the ideas for the company for the next 15, 20 years, scattered them across the space.” He notes, that they basically attacked a lot of projects at once. “What we’re now finding is that we’re going, ‘OK, we can only move everything forward so much.’ Now it’s about prioritizing, and thinking, and shaping. So, it’s genuinely informed our practice and helped shape our vision and strategy for the company.”

Escorted out of Fallow Cross, it is possible to rapidly begin to wonder if what can be in those warehouses is in fact real, as the bustle of London reasserts itself. But there are hundreds, perhaps thousands, of London schoolchildren who have been there as well. Find one of them and ask them. They will tell you that they too once visited Fallow Cross, and though they may never be able to find it again, they can confirm that it was not a dream.