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Punchdrunk and Stella Artois: A Match Made in Corporate Heaven?

Night chauffeur_poster This week, Stella Artois is launching its newest brew, "Stella Artois Black," in London -- with the help of the new original theater piece The Night Chauffeur. The 15-minute production drives the audience through in 1960s London in a Citroën DS while telling a story about "the painful relationship between an embittered old man and his daughter."

This interactive, immersive show opened yesterday and runs until Nov. 25; the chance to win free tickets is available to anyone who orders the new Stella in 10 participating bars across London.

The production was created by Punchdrunk, the genius British theater company that has become the masters of Immersion Theatre in the last decade. In their own words, they create a theatrical environment in which the audience is free to choose what they watch and where they go. But now they've stirred up some controversy by sharing a drink with very visible corporate sponsorship.

On the Guardian’s Theatre Blog, Jo Caird asked why Punchdrunk would create this piece which is so blatantly commercial, and yet not claim any ownership over it. Why do the piece at all if you are not going to put your name on it? The question is simply answered by producer Colin Marsh: It was a piece of work created in collaboration with Stella, not solely by Punchdrunk.

I, for one, agree with Marsh’s reasoning completely: Because the idea for the sponsored production did not originate in the Punchdrunk brain trust, but was presented to them from Stella. For them, that is where they lose ownership of the piece itself. We need not assume that they are embarrassed or ashamed of "selling out," though.

Punchdrunk has never shied away from corporate work in the past; in fact, they seem to believe in the idea.  Marsh said in 2006, "There’s no reason why art and commerce shouldn't coexist. In theatre an unnatural division has grown up, but the two can have a mutually beneficial relationship. It happens in the visual arts world all the time, so why can't it happen in theatre? Why are people so nervous about the idea?" Earlier this year, Punchdrunk created a piece for Louis Vuitton’s Bond Street shop opening, and their sister company, Gideon Reeling, has produced pieces for Southern Comfort. Like The Night Chauffeur, none of these pieces are mentioned on Punchdrunk’s website.

James Watson, marketing director of Stella Artois Western Europe, said he hoped that the company would use theatre in its future campaigns, according to The Stage, which also notes that "increased interest in the sector from advertisers could offer useful commercial opportunities for theatre companies, too."

So where is the critical response coming from?

I believe it stems from that fact that many artists believe that art should not be made for corporate gain, but that it should come from an organic place.  While that is all very well and good, the reality is that these corporate opportunities give cutting edge theater companies a chance to get paid handsomely for creating original work.

To make theater, you need money. More times than not, the art you create doesn’t fund you with the money you need to fund your next project with. So how do underfunded theater companies survive long enough to stage their next production?

Sometimes, you have to apply for grants, fundraise, or simply ask for donations. (Even Shakespeare was commissioned by the Queen.) At least this type of work kills two birds with one stone. In the words of Punchdrunk’s director Felix Barrett, "It is still art, whether the state is paying for it or business is paying for it." Plus, Stella Arois is a company that legitimately seems to care about and support artistry: the company has commissioned The Ritual Project, the ARTonTAP event at the Oklahoma City Museum of Art, and the Stella Artois St. Louis International Film Festival, for example.

"This has artfully managed to combine theatre, cinema and people’s passion for performing so couldn’t be more intriguing," Fran Findlater, managing director for brand consultancy Ricochet, told The Stage. "This experiential area is a growing and exciting aspect of branding that has reassuringly few boundaries."

For the most part, The Night Chauffeur is a win-win situation for Punchdrunk: They are being given the chance to create a piece of theater that is their bread and butter, and they are being paid well for it.  What better reason do we need?

-- Elizabeth Espinoza

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for me it's a slippery slope...maybe some can retain their artistic integrity, but dare say many won't be able to...this is the reason newspapers and magazines would keep editorial and advertising separate...when you keep them separate, there will never be a question of artistic integrity...

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