How Sleep No More Changed Theatre For Better

I was 22 the first time I went to the McKittrick Hotel.

I was 22 the second time I went, and the third, too; by the time my 24th birthday rolled around, I had spent almost every spare weekend there.

The McKittrick Hotel is not, of course, a real hotel. Rather, despite its insistent marketing, this New York City converted warehouse is in fact a performance venue: home to the red-velvet, Art Deco–themed Manderley Bar (complete with nightly cabaret shows), a rooftop bar inspired by Scottish witch folklore, and, at one point, a restaurant inspired by 1930s night trains. But at the heart of the McKittrick is Sleep No More, British theater company Punchdrunk’s sprawling, intoxicating dance-based pastiche of Shakespeare’s Macbeth and Hitchcock’s Rebecca.

Sleep No More, inarguably the most famous contemporary immersive theater production in New York, is closing its doors on July 7, bringing an end to 13 years of phantasmagoric dreamscapes. Its most ardent fans have been steeling themselves for months, since Punchdunk announced that the show would wrap up at the end of January, and then February, then March, then April, and so on. (Over the weekend, Punchdrunk extended this “final” extension to July 28.) There are final trips to coordinate, actors to see one last time in our favorite roles, drinks to order at the Manderley—all part of the ritualistic nature of a fandom that has, for better and for worse, become an obsession for many.

In 2012, when I started going, just a year into the show’s run, Sleep No More had not yet spawned its legions of “immersive” interactive successors. The production’s premise—600 or so audience members wear uncanny white plague masks, and are released to silently wander a six-story dreamscape at their leisure, following favored characters, rifling through props, or gaining a coveted one-on-one interaction with an actor in a private room—was relatively novel. Social media had not yet streamlined the show’s secrets, although dedicated Sleep No More superfans (and I soon became one) had already started posting elegiac recaps of their experiences on Tumblr. Some of us went dozens of times. Some hundreds. One or two obsessives got close to 1,000. We made fan playlists, fan costumes. We came up with ritualistic “one on one” encounters of our own, performing them at McKittrick parties with one another and receptive performers alike.

Back then, we thought of, and spoke of, the McKittrick as our home. Most of us superfans, in one way or another, were disillusioned with what seemed like the ordinary lives we lived; I was a restless graduate student, unsure of what I wanted or what I believed. But whenever we entered the Manderley—greeted with extravagant flair by men in tuxedos and women in black sequined dresses—or got taken into a secluded chapel to pray with Lady Macduff, or received a lipstick kiss from the queen witch Hecate, we became strangers to ourselves. The world of the McKittrick, we believed (or let ourselves pretend to believe), was an enchanted one; not just by the witches who herald Macbeth’s downfall, but by a stranger and more widely suffused magic. Every line of Macbeth, Punchdrunk’s leadership was fond of saying, could be found somewhere in the McKittrick: translated into a flock of dead birds in the Macduffs’ apartments, a hidden letter in an antique drawer, a secret room in the asylum where Lady Macbeth performs, wordlessly, a version of “Out, damned spot!” That meant that every moment of our show experience meant something; within the McKittrick’s walls, we could live—for three hours, at least—a life surrounded by significance, even if we were little more than shadows in that world. The times I spent at the McKittrick were among the most formative of my life; a decade later, I based my novel, Here in Avalonthe story of an immersive theater troupe that may or may not be a cult, on the midnights I’d spent at the Manderley Bar.

At its best, Sleep No More—and the legions of immersive and interactive productions it inspired—galvanized us to reimagine theater as a site not of disengaged spectatorship, but of participatory witness. By inviting us to be part of the stories these productions told, challenging us to examine our own complicity—standing silently, say, during the murder of the innocent Lady Macduff, or else seduced by the orgiastic gyrations of the distinctively sultry witches—Sleep No More challenged us to remember the ritualistic origins of theater as a place for audience and performer alike to lose ourselves, to emerge transformed. If there was something even a little bit religious about the encounter, that was the point. In contrast to the heady explorations through the McKittrick’s corridors, “ordinary”—proscenium, that is—theater began to feel pallid and removed. Compared to getting a kiss from a perfumed witch in a boudoir, watching a Broadway musical or reading a piece of new writing felt almost like watching television. And, at a time when smartphone culture was just beginning to proliferate—Sleep No More premiered in March 2011, less than a year after the release of the iPhone 4 and the launch date of Instagram—participatory theater felt like a tantalizing, even subversive, rejoinder to a life already starting to narrow under the algorithmic flattening of content. Not only could you not use your phones in the McKittrick, you couldn’t even show your face.

By now, of course, things have changed. Today, Sleep No More’s particular brand of vintage nostalgia and interactivity has become a virtual requisite for shows seeking to seduce audience members with the promise of, rather than genuine artistic encounter, a mediated capital-E experience: a chance to dress up, drink, and participate in a highly curated, and often social media–friendly, atmosphere. There are highly eroticized “immersive experiences” like Cocktail Magique, by burlesque troupe Company XIV, which blend striptease with thematically selected cocktails. There are “adventure theatre” walking tours like Accomplice: The Village, which blends storytelling with escape room–style puzzles. There are immersive adaptations of classic IP: a Roaring Twenties immersive Great Gatsby, for example, as well as Shawshankd, an interactive “cocktail experience” which encourages audience members to take on the role of the incarcerated, Shawshank Redemption–style. Some of these productions dispense with the pretense of theater altogether, instead branding themselves as made-for-Instagram “immersive exhibits,” like the recently closed Midtown installation Wonderland Dreams, by artist Alexa Meade, and the ongoing “custom-curated immersive experiences” at the Hall des Lumières in New York’s Financial District.

At their best, immersive productions offer “a magical, intricate, wonderful experience you just get lost in for a few hours,” says Nick Atkinson, a former Sleep No More performer who originated the role of Maximilian Martel, one of the Manderley’s in-show cabaret hosts. But, increasingly, “immersive” has become a catchall branding term, bearing the same relationship to genuine experience as content does to art. At worst, the popularity of productions that bill themselves as “immersive” play to the audience’s potential narcissism: our collective desire, affirmed by a culture driven by social media, to be the main character—not only of our own lives, but also of someone else’s show. In this context, immersive theater can be less an escape from smartphone culture so much as its natural extension: another place for us to narrate, whether through social media or simply our own consciousness, the story of our own lives—less a place to lose ourselves than to reify our selfhood. By becoming part of the show, often in highly aestheticized ways, we pass up the opportunity to experience the sheer otherness of theater: encounters with characters whose stories, for a few hours, become far more important than our own. Contrary to what so many of us once found in Sleep No More, many of today’s shows that bill themselves as “immersive” merely foster the idea that the audience is the star—or, as Atkinson puts it, “gotta get those selfies … to put out there.”

Much of this shift can be felt even at the McKittrick Hotel these days, with Sleep No More less a piece of avant-garde theater than a requisite must-do for out-of-towners or couples on their third or fourth app-facilitated date. Sam Booth, another longtime Punchdrunk collaborator who has performed in the company’s two most recent U.K. shows, The Drowned Man and The Burnt City, reflected on how the social media era had changed the audience dynamics of the shows he’d worked on. Once, Atkinson recalls, he was performing as Maximilian in the Manderley, “pouring my heart out onstage,” and a spectator sat down with their back to him, texting and scrolling through Instagram. And although Punchdrunk performers have traditionally separated audience members from the companions they’d arrived with—encouraging them to explore the space on their own—in recent years, audience members have become more resistant to breaking off from their friends or dates. The promise of a solo transformative experience, however risky, is, for many audience members, less compelling than the social element of attending a now notoriously aesthetically exciting production. Audience participation has given way to harsh entitlement in other ways; among the biggest challenges for Sleep No More cast and crew, former staffers have alleged, is the persistent tendency of audience members to disrupt, and sometimes sexually harass, actors.

The more we become accustomed to living our lives as a source of content, the more we want our relationship to artistic production to be one that centers our own subjectivity.

It would be possible to read Sleep No More’s popularity, and its wider legacy of immersive content, as a harbinger of a wider cultural shift: one in which we have begun to expect artistic experiences to revolve around us—or indeed, to think of encountering art as a specific kind of personal experience. The more we become accustomed to living our lives as a source of content, the more we want our relationship to artistic production to be one that centers our own subjectivity. More and more of us hunger for experiences where we are not asked to pay attention to others, but where others—performers included—interact with, and pay attention, to us. The idea that we should be part of the show, once a transgressive invitation to challenge the boundaries of us and them, has now become an all-too-common excuse for treating theatrical outings as a backdrop boost to our ego.

But to blame immersive theater itself for this shift, Booth warns, would be to ignore the very factors that made Sleep No More such a potent production in the first place. Immersive theater, he points out, has its roots in the kind of all-encompassing religious rituals that were once an ordinary part of human social life. “The churches were the art centers of their day,” Booth notes; they provided a “very rich sensory experience,” from the art to the music to the physicality of being there. The idea that you could experience a transcendent shared reality outside the ordinary has long been not just an aesthetic phenomenon but a spiritual one: one that seems all the more necessary in an era where, as Booth puts it, many of us live in “artificial urban environments, disconnected from nature, from our bodies, from spirit.”

I do not know if I was most or least myself when a witch kissed my cheek in a perfumed, darkened room. But I know that, for those moments, I was part of a story that had nothing to do with my daily life, or who I was in it. Those are the moments that Sleep No More, at its best, offered us. And, in its wake, those are the ones we need most.

Update, June 10, 2024: This article has been updated to include the dates of Sleep No More’s extended run.

Source link

About The Author

Scroll to Top