sleep no more: what you see is what you get

This weekend, my wife and I went to Sleep No More, a theatrical production in New York City produced by Punchdrunk and EMURSIVE. It would be incorrect to call it a play, or to say that I went to “see” it, because it isn’t a traditional sort of play, nor is it something you watch passively; however, there is definitely a strong element of real play in it, for both the audience and the actors.

The Wikipedia page calls Sleep No More an “immersive theatre installation,” which is an accurate, if not necessarily accessible description. Some reviews have likened it to video games like BioShock or Choose Your Own Adventure books, and one of my friends compared it to a holonovel on Star Trek, an interactive book that plays out on a holodeck and makes the “reader” part of the story. I would go one step further and compare Sleep No More to novels, period.

The production received so many rave reviews from media and friends, we decided we had to pony up the hefty admission fee to try it for ourselves. I’m very glad I went, because I’ve never had an experience quite like this—and that’s where it succeeds for me, as an experience—but it didn’t quite deliver all that I wanted and expected, which was mainly in the story department. The production is partially, loosely based on the events in Macbeth transplanted to a noirish setting, and without some knowledge of the Scottish Play, I would have had no idea at all what was happening. I was so curious about the story after leaving the hotel that I actually bought the book about the production on my way out, which I never do. Yet I was hesitant to look through it in detail until I could unpack my thoughts about it. Those fears were unfounded; I have flipped through it a little and it doesn’t have all the answers I want, though it does help to illuminate more of what’s going on. And it’s also a beautiful artifact of the production, in itself.

If you do intend to go, I would actually recommend not reading too many reviews, because I enjoyed it much more than I would have if I had encountered more “spoilers” than I did; fortunately I have a terrible memory, so I forgot most of them anyway. But here’s a very brief overview of how the production works, in case you’re interested in knowing more or just won’t be able to go (you can skip all the text in blue if you want to avoid being spoiled):

The production is staged in the “McKittrick Hotel,” which is really several connected warehouse buildings in Chelsea, with more than 100 rooms on five floors meticulously decorated down to the tiniest detail, filled with furniture and props that audience members are free to explore and handle. Every one in the audience is given a white face mask, a la Eyes Wide Shut, which must be worn at all times, and cautioned against speaking while in the hotel. An elevator divides the audience by dumping small groups onto various floors, and you are left to wander around freely.

As you explore the hotel, you encounter the actors, who are always in character and playing out scenes in various locations. One of the things I was disappointed with is the fact that the actors primarily pantomime their roles, frequently acting silently through interpretive dance. The dancing was choreographed and performed beautifully, but I wanted more dialogue, which would have helped me follow the many parallel plotlines. Instead, I was confused most of the time, especially because I couldn’t quite figure out who everyone was, and the nature of the production means you will see scenes out of order, probably more than once. It was engaging and immersive, but it was also slightly frustrating; maybe that’s part of the experience, but one of the things that drove my exploration of the hotel was the search for story fragments. 

And there are many such fragments. Many rooms have scraps of paper–clippings, letters, notes–that flesh out the narrative and world building. Many more of the rooms effectively develop an eerie or disturbing tone, such as a hall of bathtubs filled with drying clothing; a nursery with dozens of sets of baby clothes hanging from the ceiling, as if filled with ghostly bodies; a room with a scary-looking dentist’s chair; a forest maze with a lone hut in the corner; and plenty of rooms with scraps of paper stuck to the walls with Bible passages on them, or messages scribbled in chalk. Much of the set is dimly lit and filled with fog, and music plays constantly, giving you something to follow if you’re looking for something interesting that is happening. 

You can also choose to follow the actors, or try to. I happened to be one step ahead of the principals on several occasions, so I managed to stumble across the scene where Macbeth murders Duncan fairly early on (covering him carefully in pillows before strangling him), then watched Macbeth wash his hands, find them covered in blood, and followed him through a creepy garden to his bedchamber, where Lady Macbeth bathed him. However, I also somehow “missed” both the beginning of the story and the grand finale.

I moved around constantly through the floors, at first trying to find more scenes playing out, and then to discover more of the incredible set. People have described this as a real-life video game, an open-world “sandbox” where you can go anywhere and do anything, but the impressive amount of freedom was hampered by the fact that some doors are locked. Some paths are closed. There are people stationed throughout the sets in black masks, there to keep an eye on the audience, direct people as necessary, and prevent you from going into unauthorized areas. It’s fairly disturbing when you run across one of them, barely discernible in the darkness, and they silently shake their heads at you. No. You can’t do that. It was especially disconcerting when I made my way downstairs and turned to see Black Masks silently barring my way so I could not turn back; unknown to me at the time, the three hours were up and the story was ending without me.

One of the most interesting things about the production is the way the audience interacts with it. Drifting silently throughout the rooms, clad in white masks, we were cast in the role of ghosts observing the events playing out—which in turn were repeated, the actors like ghosts themselves, doomed to reenact the events over and over again. (The production runs for three hours, so the earlier you arrive, the more time you have to experience it. They run through the scenes three times.) It was spooky seeing others moving about without talking to them. After a while, you stop paying attention to them, you stop thinking of them as other people. They’re all part of the show. It was strange, watching Duncan reach into a cabinet for a washcloth, while a dark, crouched figure—one of the audience—brazenly rummaged inside it right next to him. The actors are brilliant at ignoring the people constantly mucking about and adapting their performance to the constantly changing, unpredictable conditions around them. 

The actors sometimes responded to the presence of the audience members, as though realizing they were surrounded by spirits, or drew them in more directly to play out a scene or disappear into a private room for a one-on-one performance. I just missed being chosen for this twice—the first time a fellow audience member was beckoned into a room by a woman (I don’t know who she was… Maybe one of the sexy witches?), I was mildly freaked out. That can happen? When I returned later, the door was locked. As I became more comfortable with the space and my role in it, I wanted to participate in one of these scenes. What’s going on in there? 

But the audience also enhanced my engagement with the production. I was startled more than once by running into another White Mask in an unexpected place; I surprised other people too, and began to enjoy having that kind of power a little. I wandered into a room and found one woman in a white mask hunched over at a barely-lit desk, meticulously poring over Lady Macbeth’s and Lady Macduff’s psychiatric records from a drawer. I waited for her to finish, reclined on a couch for a while, and when she was done, I shuffled through the thick sheaf of papers myself—but skimming them quickly, for there was so much more to see elsewhere. I walked into a room and my heart skipped a beat; a man was typing on his cell phone in the corner, his mask eerily illuminated by the glowing screen. Once, as I passed Duncan’s bedchamber, I noticed a man in a white face mask casually reclining among the cushions. A friend of mine actually discovered a couple making out in the forest on one of her previous visits. 

This show is all about voyeurism, and there are some racy things to witness, including plenty of nudity and scenes of a highly sexualized nature. The mask helped to distance me from the production, placing a barrier between me and the scenes, while simultaneously making me even more a part of it; as soon as I put it on, it narrowed my field of vision so that I was very conscious of watching something, and it was almost like it gave me a special ability to see things I wasn’t supposed to. But it’s also liberating, because it let me watch without being judged and without being able to judge others. When I first walked in, one of the actors made eye contact with me and I instinctively looked away—thus missing my chance of being invited into that private room with her. But as I became more comfortable, it became possible to look directly at actors and other audience members openly, even staring, because you’re just another White Mask. Incredible.

I’ve been thinking about the show a lot, and how it relates to my notions of story and my own writing. Writing is often a dialogue with the reader, where they bring as much to the story as you put into it. (Sometimes more, or less.) You can give them the events in a certain order, tell them what they need to know through dialogue and description, and you can even try to manipulate their emotions and sympathies, but you can’t control how each person will experience the narrative, or whether there are external distractions like a noisy room or a crowded train that cause them to notice some details and miss others.

Every reader is a voyeur, observing characters without their knowledge (usually), in complete control of whether she reads the ending first, start on page one, jump ahead a chapter, or go back to reread a page three times. In the hands of a competent author, you are trusted to discover the rules for yourself, by interpreting the clues carefully planted in the text. You can choose to follow just one character, or put the book down entirely. (And indeed, you can leave the hotel and hang out in a swanky period lounge if it gets to be too much for you.) But the more active and engaged you are as a reader, the more you will get from a book. And most books are best enjoyed on your own; C and I split up, so we could see more of the production and compare notes later. If you go, do wander through it on your own.

So as frustrated as I was that I had so little grounding before embarking on the journey, its success partly depends on that ignorance–and part of the fun lies in comparing your path with those others took. I admire Sleep No More for embracing and emphasizing these strengths to craft a truly unique and personal experience. Even if I were to go back, and I’m tempted, it would be nothing like my first visit. Just knowing what to expect in advance would affect how I connect with it, and because of the changing performances (one of the most rewarding aspects of theater) and audience participation, I could never recapture the same experience—just as you could never truly read a favorite book again for the first time. You’re likely a different person between one read and the next.

Even without a cohesive, coherent narrative, Sleep No More is one of those rare fictions that sticks with you long after you experience it, and quite possibly changes you in the process.

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