Working as an art director/designer in the entertainment industry, I have seen more than my fair share of musicals and stage shows but by no means can I be considered a theatre snob. Case and point: I really enjoyed Legally Blonde The Musical, ESPECIALLY the song where the protagonist questions whether a key witness in a trial is gay or just European. SO relevant. But it is hard for a show to impress or shock me anymore but Sleep No More in New York achieved both of those things.
Always game for the unique and unusual, I took a much needed break from eating myself into a coma to experience this site-specific show. The story is heavily based on Shakespeare’s Macbeth but stripped of all dialogue and presented like a suspenseful film noir.
I headed over to the 5-storey McKittrick Hotel situated in Manhattan’s Chelsea Neighbourhood that the website claims was designed to be a luxury hotel but due to the outbreak of World War II, was condemned and permanently sealed, only to be restored in recent years. The truth is less fantastical – an ordinary block of warehouses that were transformed into a sprawling hotel-like performance space – but the false history lends an appropriately spooky atmosphere for this immersive theatre show.
What is Immersive Theatre?
When you think of attending a theatre show, you picture assigned seats with actors performing on stage before you. Sleep No More is considered immersive theatre as the audience can move through the settings at their own pace, interact with props, and observe (but not interfere) with the performers as they act out the story. This type of theatre breaks down what is known as the “fourth wall” that traditionally separates the performer from the audience.
THINGS TO NOTE:
As you ascend from the ground floor through the upper levels of the warehouse in a darkened elevator, the attendant will separate you from your companion. As talking is prohibited from the minute you enter the elevator, staff will gesture for you to exit on different floors leaving you to explore solo.
Leave your glasses at home because as an audience member, you’re required to wear the emblematic white, long-nosed masks, representative of the show. This is so you can be distinguished from the black-masked McKittrick staff.
Speaking of staff, they blend into the dark walls, emerging only to wordlessly gesture if you’re “breaking the rules” or towards the end of the show where they herd you towards the finale in the ballroom. The only time you’re required to be anywhere is for the finale in the ballroom where all the performers converge for a tableau scene.
They don’t generally acknowledge your presence as they are focused on acting out their scene but occasionally they may interact by whispering in your ear or kissing your hand. If you’re not comfortable with this, stay away from prime spots at the front.
Throughout the 5-storey performance space, the performers act out scenes concurrently so dedicated and curious audience members will often return to the show multiple times to follow specific actors individually to understand the entire tale. When a couple of actors are in the same scene, without warning they will rush away, exiting in opposite directions to force spectators to make a split second decision as to who’s storyline they find more compelling to follow.
To say I’m not a fan of horror movies, gore, or violence in general is a massive understatement so Sleep No More was really out of my comfort zone. It’s really a miracle that I didn’t punch anyone in the throat in fright! I was prepared for my adrenaline to spike from the creepy nature of the show but what I didn’t expect was a surprise peep show. Price of said impromptu peep show? One sweater.
From the moment I stepped off of the elevator, I edged along the hall with my back against the wall, breathing heavily from behind the plastic mask and cursing how my pristine white knit sweater made me glow like a beacon in the suffocating darkness.
I hesitantly explored the ominous surroundings – areas that appeared as though I was outside in a foggy cemetery, claustrophobic rooms with hidden compartments and flickering lights that were impressively decorated down to the most minute detail with aged parchment, dusty beakers, and drawers spilling over with crumpled receipts with dates printed in faded ink.
My skin crawled with every room, reaching a fever pitch when I entered what look liked a little girl’s room with a prim floral bedspread, rocker, and dollhouse. Picture perfect…..except the mirror dominating one of the walls reflected the room as a bloody, macabre mess instead of the idyllic scene I saw before me!!
Eager to escape the mirage of horror, I rushed into a narrow hallway that opened into a grand space framed by pillars with a claw-foot tub at it’s centre. A male performer broodingly sat in the tub while his back was being scrubbed by a willowy female counterpart, in the midst of an intense (albeit wordless) scene.
The throng of observers was so thick that I couldn’t move far beyond the mouth of the hallway, preventing me from getting too close to the intimate scene that was silently unfolding. With a somber expression on his sharply featured face and his muscled limbs held taut, abruptly stood up. It was then that I realized he was completely …bare.
I. Saw. Everything! The full enchilada. The entire eggplant emoji.
There he proudly* stood on the raised plateau where the tub was perched under the scrutiny of the tittering crowd, his birthday suit in flagrante delicto! I wouldn’t say that I was horrified (it was a nice-looking eggplant) but my eyebrows shot up, disappearing into my hairline in shock. Oh boy.
Without warning, he rushed into the crowd directly towards the hallway that I was currently blocking. With people on every side preventing me from moving an inch, I stood directly in his path to the hallway and before I had time to register the inevitable, the very wet and very naked actor brushed right by me with his very wet and very naked eggplant against my very dry and very white knit sweater.
And that is the story of why I had to throw out my white knit sweater after my first immersive theatre experience at Sleep No More.
*I originally used the word “erectly” but it felt it was too obvious…
Sleep No More
The MicKittrick Hotel
530 W 27th Street
New York City, NY 10001