A few weeks ago we talked about The Seed, a British transmedia experience that involved theater productions to tell its story. This week, we are hopping back across the pond to visit an American production of what has proven to be one of the most enduring and successful immersive theater experiences of the new millennium, Sleep No More.
The short description is this—you are given three hours to walk among 100 very dark rooms throughout 5 floors of a heavily set-decorated warehouse in Manhattan. During this time performers throughout the building will be interacting with each other (and, at times, the audience) in a pre-scripted series of events and scenes. You, the audience member, are allowed to go wherever you want, explore whatever you want, and follow whoever you want during this time, creating what is effectively a unique experience for every audience member on every visit. Oh, and if that’s not wacked-out enough, all audience members are required to wear plain, white masks and are not allowed to speak.
The initial conceit of the experience is the you are entering the McKittrick Hotel on a night in 1939. All of the costumes, sets, and props are set in this time period. It becomes rapidly apparent, however, that the story extends well beyond the walls of the McKittrick. You'll visit a graveyard, a forest labyrinth, a hospital, and a street of storefronts as you proceed. Because the performers themselves almost never speak, most of them are trained dancers who convey their scenes through dramatic and often startling physical performances. The entire multistory space is wired with pervasive sound and theatrical lighting which allows for subtle (or shocking) adjustments in mood throughout the experience.
The story is very loosely based on William Shakespeare’s Macbeth, with setting and design elements lifted from early Alfred Hitchcock films like Rebecca. The entire project is the brainmeld of British theater company Punchdrunk (who put a version of the show on in London a few years ago) and the American production group EMURSIVE. The idea of immersion isn’t just part of the name, either. When you experience Sleep No More you walk among the actors, you get to pick up the props, and explore the sets—opening drawers and reading journals and correspondence as it suits you. It is frankly impossible to piece together the plot of Sleep No More from a single visit, because for every scene you see unfold, you are missing at least a half dozen others taking place elsewhere in the building. The more you actively try to see specific things, the more peripheral moments you tend to miss along the way.
Admittedly, Sleep No More is not a transmedia story in the most familiar sense. It doesn't involve your computer or require you to follow along with a video or book series, but it does demolish the traditional audiovisual theater experience and replace it with something that introduces powerful elements of space, tactile experience, and profound audience immersion. All of the factors described above conspire to create an environment that is very otherworldly, and it should come as no surprise that many fans of the show return week after week to explore new aspects of the experience (despite a relatively healthy price tag per visit).
It's a regrettable reality that there are very few communities throughout the world that could support a show like Sleep No More for an extended run. Fortunately, New York City is one of them, so if you ever find yourself in The City That Never Sleeps, you may want to consider spending some of that excess wakefulness on Sleep No More.
What other classic tales would you like to see get the avant-garde theater treatment?