Sam Booth – interview by Ine Jareid

Translated (by Google translate) from the original Norwegian

Original article “Kunsten å la seg omslutte” (“The art of being enveloped”) published in Tidssgrift for Kognitivterapy

Sam Booth opens the door in his bare socks, wrinkled cotton shirt, looking more, uh, human in real life than on stage. Not only in the sense that he plays the role of the god Hades, king of the underworld, but also because the theater company he is a central part of, Punchdrunk, periodically organizes parties in the huge theater hall where both guests and actors are encouraged to dress up a specific topic. Then dance the night away in narrow alleys in Troja’s dystopian downtown to heavy techno, chat with the other visitors over a cocktail in the Weimar-era inspired bar Peep. A parade led by a minotaur is hailed by cheering guests. In other words, an evening too good to turn down.

Last night was the closing party night for the performance The Burnt City. It turned out to be a tribute to Hades, or perhaps the actor Sam Booth, who from his balcony waved goodbye to hundreds of moved partygoers while artificial snow fell from the sky vault of the huge theater hall. In Punchdrunk’s universe, there is a smooth transition between fantasy and reality. Sam Booth, who himself denies that he has an actual lead role in the play, has spent half his life in Punchdrunk’s ensemble and writing team, and has spent the last few years perfecting the intense, disillusioned character of Hades. Now he stands here and invites you into a penthouse apartment with a view of the Thames.

“I’m a cat sitter” he almost says to explain the overwhelming apartment and elaborates: “The owners are fans of the company and are often away”. Punchdrunk have a fan base that follows them closely, and a large online community posts details about everything from the evening’s acting performances to personal journeys through the evening’s scenes.

I stumbled upon the theater group a year ago, and have previously written about the encounter with so-called immersive theater here in the journal. As a psychologist who both works with patients and develops therapeutic solutions using VR, I am fascinated by the phenomenon of immersion, which can be translated as something being all-encompassing. I clearly see a trend in theatre, art exhibitions, museums, education and games; we would love to be embraced! One of the trademarks of Punchdrunk’s productions is that the audience dons a white mask and can then move freely around the huge set and choose their own story by following the characters’ destinies through love and friendship, brutally beautiful human sacrifices and grotesque acts of revenge, gluttony in raw meat or simply daily tasks. Most of it is told through modern dance, with the exception of Hades and Persephone’s cryptic lines.

As a psychologist who both works with patients and develops therapeutic solutions using VR, I am fascinated by the phenomenon of immersion, which can be translated as something being all-encompassing.

The performance is therefore never the same, which explains why the hard core of followers has made it a way of life to catch as many performances as possible.

Captivating tragedy

“One cannot descend twice into the same river,” quotes Hades in the play, referring to Heraclitus. And no, neither the river nor the man is the same from one moment to the next, and having been subjected to what one theater reviewer called “a ballet at Berghain”, the infamous nightclub in Berlin, I would argue that one is not the same . The Burnt City takes the Greek tragedy’s mission seriously, pulling us through the entire range of emotions with the help of a huge machinery of light, sound, dance and world-class acting. But where a performance of this caliber would in itself be impressive, Punchdrunk takes it a notch further: Their specialty is namely the mythical so-called 1:1 scenes you may be lucky enough to experience, where the actor brings a single member of the audience into in a closed room and performs a monologue or act.

The most dedicated fans seem to collect these, sharing tips and strategies as well as touching testimonies of their special moments. On my previous visit to the show in London, I was privileged enough to experience several 1:1 moments, one where I was guided into a hidden passage and seated in a small shelter decorated with postcards where I was served a grape with a magical gold leaf inside, another where Hades held a monologue consisting of partly incoherent narratives about the falsity of the world and considerations of the unsuspecting existence of humans as marionettes in an eternal round dance. Sam Booth’s Hades is a broken-down god, wandering the world in his worn tweed suit, sitting in his Great Gatsby-style office, distanced from everyone but his wife Persephone, whose unhappy fate again and again leads her away and into the river Styx which robs her of her memory. Alternating between aloof, cynical, manipulative and tormented, Hades is also a surprisingly paternal god, who with deep love for humans allows them to live their little lives.

From head to body

The effect of being seen, and the powerful presence, creates a magical moment between actor and audience, and I find certain similarities between the theater stage and the therapy room. Both are an artificial, constructed situation with an asymmetric power relationship and defined roles, yet the interaction can be experienced as more authentic and deeper than what we experience in the “real world”. I wonder if the 1:1 scenes have some special elements, a therapeutic power that creates lasting change in the chosen audiences? My associations go in the direction of Marina Abramovic’s “The Artist Is Present”, where the intensity of the artist’s presence made people wait in line for days and stood crying in front of the woman who sat silently on her chair. I therefore approached Sam Booth, who immediately agreed to a conversation on the subject. For someone who absolutely hates the idea of being called up on stage unprepared, I was surprised at how strong yet comfortable the experience of a 1:1 was. You enter a closed room with different rules than out in the world, and come out with a new experience, a kind of catharsis.

Sam confirms that the theater group receives a lot of feedback from audience members who have experienced this 1:1 element as therapeutic.

– There are people who may struggle with psychological challenges and trauma or strong introversion who particularly find this valuable. So I have thought a lot about what makes it work, and have come to the conclusion that the common denominator is that these are experiences that get you back in your body. After all, the entire work is created in our bodies and given to the bodies of the audience.

He pauses as he thinks about it, his hands pointing towards his body. He continues as he gets up and wanders over to the kitchen nook where he dishes up two heaping cups of tea and elaborates:

– Many people live large parts of their time in their heads, in an abstract reflection of reality through screens and via language, cut off from nature and the physical aspect of the world. We then place them in a universe that is 100% fabricated, but still physically real, where you move around, touch objects and smell the surroundings. Because everything is constructed, everything becomes significant, in the artistic context everything ordinary becomes extraordinary. It reminds you of your own physical reality and the opportunity to influence the world around you”.

Sam interrupts himself, apologizes and asks if I actually want tea. I had actually already agreed to coffee, but I won’t say no to tea. He continues about the power of the constructed situation:

– In the 1:1 scene, we intentionally create an intimacy with the audience where we even touch them, which would not normally be acceptable with a stranger. The fact that they know it’s not real creates a sense of security and confidence to stay in situations that they would normally find frightening.

Impactful experiences

He goes on to tell about a testimony on the social network Tumblr written by a woman who had been exposed to repeated sexual trauma. She describes how a 1:1 with Sam was a turning point in her life: She suddenly experienced it as a real choice not to be intimidated by the man she was standing in front of, despite his frightening behaviour. When she came out of the cubicle after the stage, she noticed how, for the first time in 15 years, her body was not tense as she moved through the crowd.

It’s like being pointed at and told “you exist!”

“I have a feeling that a part of the audience feels it’s safer to move in this constructed universe with some clear rules than out in real life,” I say to Sam, “and not only fearlessly lose yourself in its magic, but also indulge their own feelings. When you also wear a mask and don’t talk, you release the pressure and self-focus that normal social interaction entails. When you then walk around for hours like a ghost, seemingly invisible to the characters, and one of them suddenly looks you in the eye and reaches out a hand and thus breaks the so-called fourth wall, this becomes a very powerful and not least personal event. It’s like being pointed at and told ‘you exist!'”

As I speak, Sam nods in agreement along the way. He gets up to close the window and searches for the words:

– In fact, what we do is reminiscent of a visit to a fortune teller at a funfair, confession in church, or even to a sex worker, because it creates a physical response. The text’s content is actually subordinate, we want to provoke palpitations, fear, sensuality, that the hairs stand on the back of the viewer’s neck.

The magic of presence

Sam goes on to say that tiny gestures such as touching, giving the audience a cold object to touch, tasting a piece of fruit or whispering something in their ear have a huge effect given the intensity of the situation. I think that an obvious parallel here is the well-known raisin exercise in mindfulness, where attentive presence is demonstrated through sharpened sensory focus, but that the theater experience is mindfulness on steroids.

The people in The Burnt City are condemned to live their destinies again and again in different physical forms, illustrated by the fact that the actors alternate their roles. But Hades is different: without Persephone he does not exist, and everything around him is false, dead. This is illustrated by the fact that he literally stops the world when he lifts the needle from the record player he has left in his office.

– The parts of the manuscript where Hades is in a tormented state, banned from time, I based on transcriptions from patients with schizophrenia with a disturbed perception of time. Both paranoid notions that everyone else around you are actors, and on the contrary grandiose thoughts about being able to control other people’s behavior are aspects of Hades that are inspired by schizophrenia. Persephone forces him back to reality by putting a piece of a pomegranate in Hades’ mouth. And it is in a sense the same thing we do with the audience, with a sensory experience we force them back to consciousness.

I too must return to consciousness and rush off to St. Pancras to catch the train to Paris. Safely placed in the compartment, the landscape passes by in the twilight and finally disappears when we drive into the rumbling darkness of the tunnel under the English Channel. I think about whether I envy Sam and the other actors’ clear separation between themselves and the role they play, that they should not relate to the framework of therapy. I think of the testimonies from audience members who experienced what we know about exposure, that staying in the situation even if the nervous system signals danger, given that the situation is controlled, provides an opportunity to form new experiences and responses.

If therapists cannot or should not have the role of magician, we can perhaps sometimes put the forms and manuals aside, and dare to let the magic of the therapy room, in the form of focused presence, be sufficient. We all long to be listened to, mirrored and validated. We all long to be validated. When it happens, whether it’s in the theatre, in the therapy room, or in the meeting with another human being, it can help lift us up, make us look up and see ourselves and the world around us in a more beautiful light.