The idea of the interactive theatre experience is nothing new. From “whodunit” dinner parties to whatever it is people get up to at those Rocky Horror screenings, there’s always been a market for those of us who want to feel a part of the action. Even sitting front row at a comedy show brings out the more daring individuals. But few interactive productions have gained the level of talk and acclaim that Sleep No More has in New York City since it was unveiled in 2011. Its unique take on the classic story of Macbeth has redefined the experience as an art form into itself, and set a new bar for the genre to follow. And last month, we got to experience the much talked about show for ourselves.
Firstly, I’d like to preface this article by saying that this piece will contain and possibly spoil some minor elements of the show – though I’m omitting a lot of the specific details. As no two experiences are the same, it’s likely that you won’t see half of – or almost any of – what I saw. However, if you want to go into the show completely blind, then turn away from this article now. Just take my word for it: this is as much a must have New York experience as seeing the Empire State Building or the Statue of Liberty. And for the rest of you, read on to find out why…
Your experience starts, almost unknowingly, from the minute you purchase your ticket. Each performance has a set hotel check in time. This – unbeknownst to us – ends up dictating how long you will be able to spend in the fictional McKittrick Hotel; the hotel in this case referring to the show itself, not just the building. You choose this at your time of booking atmckittrickhotel.com. Then, on the day, emails come through to fill you in on everything you need to know about the show.
A couple of shots of a absinthe cocktail (naturally) in the beautifully designed hotel bar got us in the mood and we headed in, given a white mask to “hide our identities” (and ensure no one mistook us for actors or staff), and were forcibly separated within moments of entering the sets, starting out on different levels of the five story building. I carried only one piece of advice with me for the show: don’t stick with the crowds. And these are the wise words I also impart to you. But it’s a hard rule to stick to. Within minutes of entering the Sleep No More world, I found myself in a packed room, watching two of our main characters fighting it out in bed – often unclothed – and then jumping into a bath, covered in blood. It was a piece of the storyline that came to me, rather me to it.
Having stumbled across the room after I left the elevator you arrive in, I was reading a letter from Macbeth on the bed, covered in blood, when the man I assume was Macbeth walked into the room, covered in blood. He was followed by a sea of people, who likely had witnessed the crime. And suddenly I was a part of it all – and it was a hard thing to pull myself away from. So I stayed – but when the scene ended, and the crowd followed the characters into the next room, I quickly walked in the opposite direction, and it’s here where things started getting really interesting. I tried opening doors, climbed the staircases, moved through rooms and side rooms, finding scenes of action along the way. Some were packed with people, others only saw a few stumbling into them. And it was these sorts if experiences I was looking for. I’d heard rumours of people getting whisked away for special one-on-one parts of the story, and it was something I started to witness; people being grabbed my the hand and taken away into a room, the door locked behind them. With a strict no talking rule – as with any theatre production – we would never know what went on behind those doors. We just knew that we wanted to be a part of it.
Eventually, I was lucky enough to receive a one-on-one experience, pulled into a cabin in the woods. My mask was removed and a story was told to me, intensely. She stared into my eyes – hers laden in shadow – and fed me cold tea with a spoon. She whispered something in my ear and sent me on my way, slamming the door behind me. During the experience, I was treated to my own light show and soundscape, which in itself is pretty impressive. The level of detail in this production is outstanding. The way the lights move, the way the scenery changes – and apparently they change things on their crew nightly. It boggles the mind the logistics behind running this state-of-the-art and thrilling production. And it’s impossible not to get caught up in it.
Ninety minutes in and I made one crucial mistake: I checked the time. Anxiety started hitting me: have I seen everything? What have I missed? Where should I go now? Unlike the Choose Your Own Adventure books, this experience had a certain ending point, and it was our own responsibility to cram it with as much as possible. I started walking faster, finding myself again in rooms previously undiscovered, past more moments of violence, dancing and action and into some truly fascinating soundscapes. Had I been offered another shot of absinthe at this point I may have passed out from a sensory overload.
But as the anxiety fell, I let myself follow a character around through multiple rooms – something I realised I hadn’t embraced too heavily in the past; to now, regularly moving in the opposite direction to the crowds. I had joined up with a very small group at this point – most seemed to have attached themselves to Macbeth or Lady Macbeth. Eventually, and quite masterfully, all the major players in the story led us to the ballroom for a final scene; the helping hands in black masks limiting our movement in the experience’s final minutes. No matter what we saw, what we experienced or who we followed along the way, it all came to the same conclusion. I’m sure Shakespeare himself would have been proud of what this has of say about the concept of fate. Though even he would have been confused-as-hell as to what was going on most of the time.
For everything I saw, there were twenty things I didn’t see. For everything I wrapped my head around, there were twenty things I didn’t. Sleep No More is an incredible journey into an adaptation of one of literatures most well known stories; an adaptation of unequaled originality.
As we exited the venue, we were offered a beautifully designed $20 program that explained what we saw, where we saw it and gave us some insight into the some 14 hours of content that’s crammed into the show. With some of this content only available by chance, this isn’t just impossible to experience in one viewing – this would be near impossible to experience even in multiple viewings. While the product was enticing, something about the show made us what to keep it enveloped in mystery. Maybe to pull us back in again in the future – but more to give us room to discuss what we saw and experienced with our friends and put the pieces together ourselves. And as we walked the streets of Chelsea, buzzing with intrigue an excitement, that’s exactly what we did.
The writer attended the July 21st performance of Sleep No More at his own expense. The production takes place at the fictional McKittrick Hotel (530 W 27th St, http://www.mckittrickhotel.com/) – which also has a fantastic bar on its roof and a restaurant called The Heath which you can enjoy a themed meal before the show on select nights.
While in New York, we stayed as guests of Dream Downtown Hotel. The hotel is located at 355 W 16th St, not far from the McKittrick. You can read our review of the hotel HERE. For more details on the show, visit the official website at:http://www.dreamhotels.com/downtown/default-en.html