THE CALL OF THE WILD
That’s Stella again, my great grandmother riding a motorbike. The photo reminded me that it’s important, if not vital, to get out of the house and do something wild, weird, or bizarre.
For the past two years I’ve been running on the fumes of Punchdrunk, the production company that created The Masque of the Red Death in 2007, an immersive theatre experience based on the short stories of Edgar Allen Poe. At that time I was in dire need of refuelling. While in the middle of re-structuring my memoir, I was losing steam rather quickly; a leaky gas tank, if you will.
Punchdrunk transformed the entire premises of the Battersea Arts Centre, a five story Victorian building, formerly a Town Hall. Imagine roaming one of the largest buildings in your town or city after dark and recognizing nothing about it. Imagine being given a big white plastic mask, which you must wear at all times except in the Palais Royale, a music hall somewhere in the building that you must remember to find.
The hook-nosed masks that seventeenth-century medics thought would protect them from the Red Death inspired the creation of the masks.
Bloggers warned us to wear sturdy shoes and have an even sturdier heart because some experiences were genuinely frightening. And lastly, it was suggested that if you were prepared to investigate on your own, ditching those who went with you, it was then that the most interesting things happen to you. I ditched.
With all the advice I was still ill prepared for the evening. The white mask was surprisingly comfortable and offered anonymity. And I soon learned it distinguished the actors from the audience, helpful when one is immersed in a promenade production.
For three and a half hours I walked room-by-room, floor-by-floor. The mask made it slow going in the dark. I was forced to move my head in a different way and had little to no peripheral vision. The sound effects throughout the building were enveloping, my heart thumped to a world-weary sound I found impossible to describe. I felt I had walked into a nightmare in the mid nineteenth century.
I came upon a room where an unusually tall man dressed in a black cape and top hat dressed others in black capes. I stood in line to receive mine; he tied it just under my chin without a word. It was a strange, silent dance. For the rest of the evening, our capes rustled through rooms; we looked like blackbirds with white beaks.
I saw a man being buried alive in a wall. I walked though a fireplace. I climbed countless stairs to the attic in which a wooden platform crossed the eaves and led to a murderer’s bedroom and hideout. Hanging in the washroom were bloodstained clothes. I was the only person in the attic. I got out of there.
Four floors down in the basement was a well-stocked wine cellar and a coffin.
I picked up my pace and followed the stories of several different characters by running after them room to room. The opium den was very nice as opium dens go, a man smoked, and after which, fell into that deep sleep. A black cat, a real one, and I sat in a deserted parlour; I rested, fully expecting something to jump out at me. The fact that nothing did was probably the point. I witnessed the purchase of Victorian potions in a small apothecary; the characters stood so close to me that our arms touched. A man with a doctor’s bag rushed past, I ran after him to the bedside of the sickly and deranged Madeline, Usher’s beloved sister, as the doctor attended to her.
A character grabbed my arm in the crypt and looked straight into my eyes with an unspoken plea and anguish. I stumbled upon a dressing room of the characters that were playing actors in the performance at the Palais Royal, which I still had not found. A fight broke out. The closet in the room revealed a secret door to another room into which the quarrelling male characters disappeared, shutting the door in my face.
I found the Palais Royale, a music hall, complete with a stage, a bar, chairs and tables littered with white masks. I removed my mask, too. Several other faces were as astonished as mine, most of us were thirsty and ready to throw back much-needed drinks.
Our emcee appeared in his gender bending glory and a fetching tutu.
The emcee hopped off the stage, something he was wont to do, and sat on my lap. He stayed in character and told me I had the strongest thighs he’d ever known. I don’t blush easily, but blush I did.
We drank and watched the show in which one of the performers hanged himself. A group of characters burst in and told us we must put on our masks and leave the Palais Royale immediately. We were ushered out into a dining hall where a raucous dance scene around a dining table made us fear for our safety. A dancer landed on my foot.
Again we were pushed out with alarm and taken through halls and doors and finally into a grand ballroom. It was then and only then that we saw there were hundreds of audience members. We had passed through so many rooms and so many floors that it was impossible to calculate how many people were in the building until that moment. Frankly, I was so thoroughly absorbed that the thought of large numbers never entered my mind.
The grand finale unfolded in the ballroom where dancers commandeered the floor in dreamlike, yet frantic choreography. Just in case Punchdrunk takes to the road, crosses oceans, or somehow transports this incredible event to you, I will not spoil the ending.
After we sucked in the night air and found an open restaurant, my husband and our friend exchanged stories. Our three accounts were different. They experienced things I had not even seen. Two months later I went again with another friend before the show closed. I found rooms I’d not entered before, storylines I hadn’t followed the first time. I learned that other theatre groups were embedded in the main production, like the macabre puppet show into which my husband had been dragged. The dragger made a point of locking the door.
When I was very young an eccentric old woman befriended me. She introduced me to her favorite writer, Edgar Allen Poe. I’ve written about her in my memoir and I’m certain that my view of her became clearer after Punchdrunk brought Poe back to life.
It’s time again. I’ve received the call of the wild. A train ride to Dover, a walk along the white cliffs, one named after Shakespeare… if it’s good enough for him. Then I’ll enter the stomach of the cliffs, and descend into their bowels where secret tunnels have been carved out of the chalk. I’m expecting claustrophobia to be sure, crypt-like tunnels full of rooms. I’ll go in January when it’s cold and bleak, when I’m sure to be blown around by high winds at the edge of the cliffs where it’s wild and woolly, the Channel angry and brutal.
Inspiration. It comes in the strangest forms at the most opportune times. But only if you…
Get out of the house. Do something that scares you.