Friday, November 12, 2010

Punchdrunk's Stella Artois Gig

Here's the scoop: England is facing massive, massive budget cuts across the board, including to the arts. In this atmosphere, Punchdrunk (a British theater company) is doing a performance commissioned by Stella Artois to promote a new beer:

Here's the surprise. The project has been put together by none other than Punchdrunk, the theatre company famous for – among much else – 2007's The Masque of the Red Death and this summer's ENOcollaboration, The Duchess of Malfi. The company has done this sort of work before – most recently at the glitzy launch of Louis Vuitton's Bond Street shop earlier this year – but the blatantly commercial nature of this Stella project throws up questions about whether it's right for theatre companies to do such corporate gigs at all.

But, then, The Night Chauffeur isn't claiming to be a Punchdrunkproduction – the company's name isn't on the marketing material for the lager launch and there's no mention of the event on the theatre company's website. In fact it wasn't easy to track down someone from the company to clarify what their contribution to the project actually was – I was initially told they weren't doing any interviews at all – but when I did, executive director Colin Marsh was keen to stress that The Night Chauffeur is not a Punchdrunk show, but a piece of work the company has created in collaboration with Stella and the advertising agency, Mother. This is Stella's event, not Punchdrunk's, he argued – even though the same creative team is involved. It's intriguing if slightly baffling explanation, especially given that they have previously spoken out in favour of doing commercial work.

The sad part is that my first response was jealousy: the British have always had more public funding than we've had -- now they're doing better than us at corporate support?

But really, this is just a symbol of the relationship the arts have today with alcohol. I've joked about it before, but the young theater companies I know are basically in the debt of the alcohol industry. We get people to come to our fundraisers through the lure of alcohol, among other things.

Right now, one of my company's projects is to try and build a relationship with an alcohol distributor, to see if we can get discounts on alcohol for fundraising purposes. And this is not an uncommon thing. One of my favorite art groups, Fresh Ground Pepper, has kept its commitment to not charging tickets largely through its sale of alcohol -- and here I am jealous that they've got the hook-up!

So in a way, it's refreshing to see Punchdrunk dive full in to alcohol patronage. If Stella Artois or Sixpoint Brewery want to patronize the arts, let them! It's nice to hear a company think that art could benefit them. Most companies wouldn't want to be associated with theater if it was dead. Stella Artois might be getting some brand association with Punchdrunk, but Punchdrunk is getting some brand association from Stella Artois as well.

And what has a better brand, theater or alcohol?