The elevator doors opened, and the crowd, anonymous in white Venetian masks, sputtered out into a dark hallway. I raced past the uninitiated, who stumbled around getting their bearings and held in place either by their uncertainty or fear. Like the opening of the gates in the morning at an amusement park, I was determined to reach the most popular rides before my peers. In this dimly lit 1930s hotel, my goal was to explore alone, find the candy shop, and see how far my courage would take me.
Sleep No More is difficult to describe, mostly because there is nothing quite like it. Most commonly, I’ve heard “interactive theater,” though that isn’t quite accurate. For the most part, you don’t interact with the actors or the other audience members. It’s interactive in so far as your (mostly) unbridled access to the sets and props. The show is intense, carnal, scary, claustrophobic, voyeuristic, but utmost–gratifying. My impression was the feeling of being inside a video game. I could walk around the rooms, observing the interactions with the characters, getting as close as decency allowed (there is plenty of indecency). The actors act, even when no one is there. I could watch the action or go rifling through the drawers and cabinets. The Punchdrunk theater group converted an old warehouse into a 1930s hotel. I couldn’t confirm whether the McKittrick Hotel actually existed at some point, but besides a lounge and a lobby, very little of the set resembles a hotel. The intricate set dressing allows a whole experience in just going through the props and finding passageways through the five floors. I randomly pulled out books from the shelves and found Sixteenth Century Poems and Greek Tragedies.
The actors engage in reinterpreted scenes from Macbeth on one-hour cycles. They disperse throughout the hotel, going about their business, occasionally coming together for scenes. They’re mostly silent, and much of the action is interpretive dance. You’re welcome to follow the actors, but part of the fun is abandoning the action and exploring the intricate set on your own. Since the scenes repeat every hour, you can choose to follow different actors and see different perspectives for the same events. This is also why you should arrive at buy tickets for the 7:00 check-in for a full three hours to explore. Towards the end of the show, the rooms are so packed with white-faced spectators that much of the chilling magic of exploring an adult haunted house is gone. The mask, which ostensibly keeps the audience from confusing the cast from spectators, also allowed me certain freedom in anonymity. I had no fear going up close to the actors or wandering in between the characters during scenes. The mask was empowering in its dual functionality. Sleep No More is named after scene 2, Act II of Macbeth, but my own experience was not being able to sleep that night as my mind replayed all the events of the night.
I had heard rave reviews of Sleep No More for months before I finally bought tickets. The thing that kept me away for so long was fear. In my mind, I pictured Macbeth meets the Shining, a not altogether inaccurate picture. I had to spur myself forward in the beginning to explore alone, my heart bursting out my chest because of the anxiety and running up and down sets of stairs. But what eventually got me over my fear was the odd sensation of being invisible to the actors. Nothing could hurt me, no one is out to scare me. Also, once I joined up with other audience members, the fear (and most of the thrill) was eliminated through shared experience. But for the first twenty minutes of the night, it was just me, alone in utter silence exploring the fourth floor of the hotel. While going through the empty barbershop, I heard exaggerated coughing. I initially avoided the sound, thinking it was an asthmatic audience member who couldn’t get up the stairs. Instead I ran head on into a young man crashing into the walls. It occurred to me that this was my first actor. I followed him into a photography dark room with hanging pictures of corpses. Outside, a woman had appeared at a desk. They joined together, fought, and embraced. The entire scene happened with just me and these two actors, and it was one of my most cherished memories because of that intimacy. Hence, I highly recommend exploring early on your own in the beginning and getting away from the crowds while getting a lay of the land.
The following contains some spoilers, but is intended for those looking for the fullest experience
Here’s some advice for people attending the show:
- Wear comfortable shoes and contacts if you require glasses. This is stressed to you in emails from the show, but it cannot be more important. You will be standing, walking (and running) for three hours.
- You can leave early, but there’s enough to keep you engaged for the entire time. The last cycle ends differently than the previous two and you’ll be gently guided towards the climax scene.
- You can easily miss scenes so look for crowds and follow actors if you want to be entirely engaged. There are a few scenes I witnessed and would recommend checking out. First, towards the beginning of the cycle, follow the rave music into the bar on the fourth floor. Second, somewhere in the middle of the cycle, find the Macbeths’ bedroom next to the cemetery on the third floor. Third, the ballroom will host several large cast events throughout the cycle so make sure to check back from time to time.
- Come to the event with friends but don’t try to stick together. Everyone will be led by their own curiosity and sticking together is not fruitful or that practical. You’ll have a fuller experience once you reunite later and talk about the differences you all witnessed.
- Don’t look too deeply into the props. They are all highly detailed, but sometimes there is no significance. Also, as much as the experience is similar to being inside a game, it is not a game and there are no quests. Don’t try to take the keys and open locked doors. Don’t search for secret messages to give the actors. That said, the props will help you figure out which characters the actors are playing.
- If you’re hungry, look for the candy shop on the fourth floor. If you’re tired, you can retire to the lounge that exists outside of the hotel events on the second floor. If you need a quick refresher, look for one of the individual stalled restrooms on the fifth floor.
- Most of all, be brave. Although you’re generally a passive observer, the actors do sometimes pull one audience member away for a private scene. Stand close, show interest, and you may be picked. You’ll be the lucky one if you keep an open mind. Specifically, I heard there are private scenes that happen in a) the shack in the woods on the fifth floor, and b) the black tiled bathroom on the third floor. You just have to be there at the right time.
The show runs until November 5th. I urge you to buy tickets and experience this sensation for yourself. A Monday through Wednesday show is $80, while Thursday through Saturday is $100. The weekend shows also offer the late night check-ins, which go from 11pm to 2am, instead of the usual 7-10.
Sleep No More
530 West 27th St.