The Uncommercial Traveller

How might Charles Dickens respond to contemporary cities and communities around the world, from Karachi to Singapore, or from Penang to Melbourne?

As part of the British Council’s Dickens 2012 programme, Arcola Theatre and Punchdrunk Enrichment set out to rediscover the resonance of Dickens’s creative process for the 21st century. They led a unique series of collaborations in cities across Asia and Australia, creating theatrical audio-guided journeys in each location. Each audio journey was then launched at a special event for local audiences as well as being available to download, offering wider audiences a creative encounter – from a distance – with each city.

  • Late night audio editing in Penang, Malaysia - Stephen Dobbie from Punchdrunk and Bryn Jones from Arcola Theatre. Photo by Grey Yeoh
  • Participants in the Uncommercial Traveller in Penang, Malaysia. Photo by Jeremy Khor
  • Owen Calvert-Lyons from Arcola Theatre working with one of the participants in Karachi. Photo by Maaz Khan
  • Theatrical staging of the Uncommercial Traveller at the Karachi Literature Festival. Photo by Maaz Khan

Click here to listen to unique audio-guided tours of Melbourne and Karachi. If you live in another part of the world, just listen to the audio journeys from wherever you are to experience this inspirational collection of stories and memories of global cities. 

One of the great socio-realists of his time, Charles Dickens documented life in a rapidly developing London in The Uncommercial Traveller, wandering through the city and capturing its everyday joys and tragedies. Inspired by this little-known collection of journalistic writings, the education and community teams at Arcola Theatre and Punchdrunk – both of which are known in the UK for their innovative approaches to theatre and community engagement – worked with local artists, communities and sound designers in four fascinating international cities between February and April 2012. They developed a creative and reflective tour in each location, using Dickens's approach to seek out forgotten places and uncover hidden stories. 

The idea originated in Dalston, London, where Arcola and Punchdrunk worked with local performers over the age of sixty, capturing stories from their experiences of living in the area to create an audio journey and an immersive performance in a disused shop. Working closely with the British Council, the UK practitioners re-conceived The Uncommercial Traveller as an international project which took on a new life in each location, with local participants designing their own journeys.

The international Uncommercial Traveller kicked off in Pakistan. Past and present students of Karachi’s National Academy of Performing Arts (NAPA) worked with Owen Calvert-Lyons from Arcola and and Peter Higgin from Punchdrunk to develop an experience which invites audiences to explore the beautiful Hindu Gymkhana building in which they studied. Public theatrical events based around the audio journeys were staged from 10-12 February during the Karachi Literature Festival and the audio files are now available in both Urdu and English here.

Later in February, Owen and Pete travelled on to Melbourne to work with prominent emerging playwrights from St Martins and Courthouse Arts and create a journey through Melbourne’s architecture for the National Play Festival. The festival launched in Melbourne, Australia on 21 February and the stories are available here via Soundcloud.

The Uncommercial Traveller in George Town, Penang, saw the involvement of ten students from University Science Malaysia working with Raquel Meseguer and Stephen Dobbie from Punchdrunk and Bryn Jones from Arcola Theatre to produce four audio journeys across the culturally diverse, historical and UNESCO World Heritage Site, George Town, Penang.

Each audio journey lasts for about ten minutes and takes the listener to a starting point in George Town to discover what the participants felt and experienced - with the exception of a 17 minute track which journeys across several streets and concludes on a Chinese clan jetty. Listen to the audio journeys here.

Bryn Jones highlighted the commitment of the participants and how they took ownership of the process, creating a very personal and unique exploration of George Town. Speaking to the participants at the end of the workshop, he noted that the project seemed to affect the personal growth of the participants.

One of The Uncommercial Traveller participants in Penang, Nik Mohd Hakimi said:

"Reading the works of Dickens never had any impact on me internally. I never thought about what he would have felt on his amazing journeys. However, working on this project has helped me understand the beauty of a city, especially George Town which is a place close to my heart."

The final leg of The Uncommercial Traveller took place in Singapore, and included a group of students from SOTA (School of Arts, Singapore). Watch this space for more information.


  • George Town, Penang, Malaysia

    9th Apr 2012 - 16th Apr 2012
  • Melbourne, Australia

    15th Feb 2012 - 22nd Feb 2012
  • Karachi, Pakistan

    5th Feb 2012 - 12th Feb 2012
  • Singapore

    1st Apr 2012 - 8th Apr 2012
  • Valletta, Malta

    31st Mar 2013 - 16th Jul 2013

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