Interviews: Punchdrunk Theatre's Artistic Director Pete Higgin and comedian Robin Ince explore the transformative power of books and imagination

feature (edinburgh) | Read in About 4 minutes
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The Lost Lending Library
Photo by Paul Cochrane
Published 10 Aug 2023

Pete Higgin: The inspiration was a book by an author called Robert Thompson – How To Live Forever. The story is great, but it's not one that we followed. This library comes to life and characters come out of the books at night. You can see little windows in the books. We took that as a kind of an aesthetic inspiration for something that became known as The Lost Lending Library

The idea is trying to make the children the heroes in a kind of picture book adventure that happens to them. It gets them very excited and it gets them excited about books.

Robin Ince: If we were all reading the same book and there were 40 of us in the room, we would all have a different film playing in our heads. We would all be seeing a different lead actor, and we'd all be seeing different front rooms and carriages and wild dogs or whatever. And that's one of the things that I love about reading. The fact that once you get into a book you are very much part of it. I do think reading is about empathy. A book I bang on about a lot is Welcome to St. Hell, a comic book by Lewis Hancox, a trans man who grew up in St. Helens. It's a powerful book and it makes you go: 'Oh, I'm now armed with a little bit of someone else's mind, someone's experience, an experience nothing like my experience. Now I can begin to respond to other minds.'

Pete: We're trying to get children excited about the potential of books, but also getting them to understand the power of their imagination. We've heard from schools and parents over and over again about children who are quiet, or difficult to get writing out of, bringing in pages of writing. It might not be grammatically correct. It might not be the perfectly structured story, but the children have this reason to write and they've got excited about writing. If we can infuse anybody about anything, whether it's through immersive theatre or through something more traditional, the moment you capture a child's imagination you can unlock their potential. 

Robin Ince, photo by Trent Burton

Robin: When you mentioned the grammatical thing I think that's important, to try and cut down on the number of rules that people think they have to obey. I was thinking about some of the people in prisons who've not ever had the chance to learn about reading. A friend of mine, Alistair Fruish, found the two things that put off a lot of people in prison were long words and punctuation. So he wrote a book where people could just get into the reading and not worry about it. It's a monosyllabic book that's all one sentence, about a prison sentence, called The Sentence. We did a live event reading it out – it was like a shamanic spell. 

Reading aloud is another thing. I have some friends who, even now their kids are teenagers, still sit together at bedtime and they read books. The rule of saying there's a certain age where you shouldn't be reading to your child at bedtime – none of these rules matter.

Pete: Our project, overnight, jumps into a school. Where there was once a door, there's now a bookshelf. During lockdown, one school found themselves with a spare classroom. They built something called The Museum of Everything, which connected to our library. It's an immersive space in their school where they continue to do lessons and learning. When I saw that, I was like, OK, I'm gonna retire now cause my work here is done!  

I think it begins to invert the hierarchy and gets teachers and children standing shoulder-to-shoulder.It's a gift actually. I think the more that you gift people great experiences means they feel valued. Then it's much easier for them to get pen to paper. They suddenly want to do drama and their need to create is amplified. And it's a fun thing watching that unfold.

Robin: It might have been Neil Gaiman who first pointed out that the library is one of the only places where you can walk in and they're not expecting you to give over your money. It's a space which is welcoming. There's so much unnecessary suffering about just how narrow it's felt that the world wants us to be. Erratic thoughts and strange imaginations, all of these things which in the rest of the world are seen as being, kind of, 'Oh dear. You said a bit of a weird thing.'  

Well, imagination is all the books on our shelves, isn't it?