It was pitch dark and I was holding a playing card, wandering through a black maze to a bar to get into “the experience.” That’s how Sleep No More began, an immersive site-specific theater piece open now in New York City, based on Shakespeare’s Macbeth and Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca. I had “checked in” to the McKittrick hotel, a couple of warehouses that had been converted into five floors of rooms the audience was free to wander.
After getting through the dimly lit maze, I arrived at a bar and waited for my playing card number to be called. After a few minutes in the bar, you will be called “darling” by at least one of the gothic bartenders and offered a drink before you go in – according to them, “you’ll need it.”
I’m not convinced you need a drink to enter Sleep No More, but I am convinced that you need an open mind. After giving you a white mask and strict instructions not to talk or remove the mask for the next few hours, the actors finally allow you to enter the experience. You can explore any of the 100 rooms, complete with fully realized props (eat some candy, read a letter, or open a cabinet!) and incredible attention to detail, or follow characters around. I’d suggest the latter – that way, you get to [attempt to] follow the plot. A dance- and music- based piece with very few words, it isn’t always easy to know what’s going on. I wouldn’t suggest trying – think of it as an immersive dance piece, not a theatrical story you’re supposed to “get.” If you saw the Freeks’ production of Titus last year at Stanford, think about that, but without text: their production was heavily inspired by Sleep No More.
Instead, soak in the experience. Keep an open mind and stick with characters, even if it means you have to chase them up four flights of stairs. You’ll be rewarded when you see Lady Macbeth dancing with her husband and washing his blood off in the bathtub, or watch two men fistfight on a pool table. The movement work is amazing: at one point, one character supports another as he walks upside down on the wall. But don’t give up on a character just because she hasn’t done anything cool yet – keep following her. My persistence paid off when I had a one-on-one experience with the nurse character.
I followed her around Birnam Forest and stood outside her hut when she entered. She came out, extended her hand, and led me inside, closing the doors and window. She removed my mask and whispered something about time to me, preparing tea as she spoke. Our faces were only a couple of inches away from each other as she spoon-fed me tea and told me a story:
Once upon a time there was a poor child
with no father and no mother
and everything was dead
and no one was left in the whole world
everything was dead
The rest of the story (from Georg Büchner’s Woyzeck) is available here; it should have been terrifying, but I was strangely enthralled the entire time. Eerie music played in the background, and as it swelled to a cymbal crash, the nurse suddenly stood up. “Blood will have blood, they say,” she murmured into my ear, quickly taking away my tea and pushing me out of her hut to explore again.
It’s the interactive nature of the show that makes Sleep No More such a heightened sensory experience, a dimly lit dance, a puzzle with only the pieces you find. Without a plot, it becomes a series of moments culminating in one final powerful scene that everyone sees. I recall fragmented images – a bloodstained letter, Hecate lip-syncing to “Is That All There Is?”, three men carrying a corpse, a card game in the speakeasy, and a woman coughing up a ring. During it, all you can do is follow your instincts and keep your eyes open.
It isn’t until afterwards that you get a chance to digest all of these things you were just a part of. What was the point of the witches’ rave? Was it really colder in the insane asylum? Where did that blood come from and why is she naked? By presenting many questions without answers, Sleep No More pushes its audience members to feel anxious as we compete with each other to see the most interesting thing— instead of just watching other people emote, as in proscenium theater, we become part of the emotional landscape ourselves.
If you’re in New York, go see it. Go with friends, but ditch them once you get inside, so you can compare notes afterwards – the chances are really high that you’ll have wildly different experiences. Brush up on Macbeth before, and say yes (not literally) to everyone and everything in the space. You never know what you’ll find if you do.
photo credit: Sara Krulwich/The New York Times