Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Sleep No More

Last night, I did what I was told by friends, strangers and many many bemused blog posts—went to see Sleep No More.

Now, this "site specific immersive experience" has been covered by better writers than me. And probably in funnier ways. But I wanted to share my personal experience.

Here's a good description of this whole thing, from the NYT:

“Sleep No More” is, in short, a voyeur’s delight, with all the creepy, shameful pleasures that entails.
The idea is once you’re let loose on one of the floors of the hotel, you pick out a single character and pursue him or her (though you can switch any time you want), as the performer runs, dances and vaults all over the place. Dressed in drop-dead, Deco-era evening clothes, scanty lingerie or nothing at all, these characters include the Macbeths (of course), Macduff and his wife (who is conspicuously pregnant), Duncan (the king) and various witches and hotel employees. (Because the roles are mostly double-cast, I am not mentioning individual performers, but they are all lissome enough to make the audience look slow and dumpy.)

First, a few tips for anyone who's thinking of going:

1. Definitely go. Buy tickets. Stop thinking about it.
2. Experience this alone. I took my boyfriend but as soon as our cards were called, we separated.
3. Take your time. Once I got off on my floor, I immediately started looking for characters. I wish I had explored more, instead.

Okay, spoilers ahead.

The most interesting part of this experience, for me, was how it made me feel. Not what I saw. When you get off the elevator onto your floor, the few other people with you disperse. Then you are suddenly alone. I'm okay with being alone, for the most part. I wandered through rooms, stopping occasionally to touch tea cups or stare into mirrors. The rooms are completely tricked out in the most detailed manner, which is staggering the more you continue through the hotel. The scale of the thing! Each room has a different smell, temperature and sound.


I'm a huuuge fraidy cat, so when I found myself completely alone at the end of a dark graveyard scene, I had a bit of an internal back-and-forth. Go? Don't go? I could have turned around and returned to a relatively safe, if still eery living room. But I pushed myself though, alone, and continued even further. I felt a crushing sensation of something like dread.

A few of the rooms are simply terrifying. You pass through one scene with bloodstained laundry hanging up to dry, then duck into a nursery with headless dolls suspended around an empty crib. There's a padded cell with more bloodstains on the wall. At the time I went through these rooms, I was alone. Occasionally, I'd see a black masked "steward" watching me, but not reacting.

Then, suddenly, I found a character. There was an enormous sense of relief that I had rejoined something.

You end up following characters around until you get bored, or hear the music change in another room, or want to explore. The story supposedly follows Macbeth, but I found it completely disjointed. I did see Lady Macbeth washing her hands of blood once, but for the most part, it was easier to not try and follow any storyline. I just observed and then moved on.

For the first hour or so, I was uncomfortable that I could be missing something going on. Specifically, I'd heard there's an orgy scene. ORGY! NICE! As I watched a man sloooowly walk down a path with an umbrella, my head was going "dude, there's an orgy scene and it's probably happening RIGHT THIS SECOND." It was hard to suppress that feeling of missing out, but you simply cannot follow all the action. It's difficult enough to navigate the actual building. There are 5 floors and multiple dead ends. Plus, if you see a group of masked people staring in one direction, you get an urge to follow and see what they're seeing.

Initially, most people stand away from the action. As you travel around, you get startled by masked people suddenly appearing. Your eyes play tricks on you in dark corners. But then, as more people appear and group together, you get confidence and become bold. There were a few uh, former high school drama-type kids who liked to get extremely close to the actors. Sometimes, you'd walk past a window and look inside to see someone ransacking a trunk or sitting comfortably at a dinner table. It's completely eery how at home some people are.

It's also amazing how the actors are able to shepherd us around. Everyone likes to think they're an individual, free thinking person. Nope. You're human. You hear footsteps upstairs or a woman scream, and you hurry off to see what's happening.


Eventually and all of a sudden, I was exhausted. The sheer scale of the production is a huge weight—physically, I had climbed and descended 5 flights of stairs more times than I could count. Emotionally, my nerves had been stretched to that point where a murderer could have jumped out and I'd been like, "fine bro, end it." My poor heart had skipped and almost stopped so many times.

(Side note: I had, at one point, accidentally wandered behind a bar. When I realized I was there, I felt awkward and turned around and tried to leave. But I couldn't, because there was a solid wall behind me. I probably knew logically that I wasn't trapped, but I panicked for a few seconds and pounded on the wall. Then, I realized it was a trick of the light and the door was actually a few feet to the side. I kind of slithered away, sweaty and shaking.)

The herd mentality takes over once you get tired. I didn't want to be scared anymore, I didn't want to run around and try to figure out what was happening. I just wanted someone to tell me where to go. That's how everyone feels, I think—I started seeing couples holding hands and running into bigger groups of masked people. (By the way: holding hands? Completely ruins the experience. Let yourself be scared, alone and acting on your own instincts. Also, get out of my way.)

With more people around, it was harder to get out of characters' ways when they would suddenly change course. I ended up being pushed and stepped on a lot, or getting caught in the middle of a scene until I could edge away from the actor.

Finally, we reached the finale and it was over. As we exited the hotel, a few familiar characters from the beginning touched us and said, "welcome back." That human touch, and being able to take off my mask, was a huge relief. I found my boyfriend and needed a long hug.

What struck me overall? Exceptional choreography. The dancing itself is primal and violent. Most of the dancers had bruises and were completely undone by the end (crying, sweating, half naked). But the unseen choreography—the paths the characters take—end up intersecting countless times. And it's all perfectly timed to the music.

My emotions had been all over the place. I often found myself next to or even touching a character, trying to control my breathing after running up some stairs or being freaked out by someone suddenly appearing. At the end, I succumbed to the familiarity of the herd and took comfort in other people around me. Throughout, my mask was cumbersome and hot.

I rehashed the whole thing with the boyfriend afterward, and was surprised to find we'd seen a lot of the same things. We had each perhaps seen a murder that the other hadn't, but the major events were covered.

Then, we went home and had sandwiches. Because, no matter how voyeuristic and dirty and exhausted I felt... a girl's gotta eat.

(pictures from here)

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