As a self-identified nut for participatory and immersive work, I am floored it took me this long to see Punchdrunk’s Sleep No More. Set in the sprawling McKittrick Hotel in NYC, Sleep No More is an immersive movement-based funhouse adaptation of Macbeth and in fall 2019, this research project finally afforded me the opportunity to catch one of the most commercially successful immersive performance in the world.
After dinner and drinks with a friend, I headed to Sleep No More alone. My friend refused to give me anything besides a reassurance that knowing me, I’d love it. I wasn’t afraid of going alone, I was told this was the way I should consume this piece anyways.
When I enter the McKittrick Hotel, I am given a white mask and a playing card. While I wait for my number to be called, I am invited to purchase a cocktail. Once my number is called, I enter an elevator with twenty or so other players and I meet my first and only explicit guide.
He lays out the rules:
He then encourages players to “be bold,” and kicks us off the elevator, free to independently roam the sprawling 6 floor hotel.
I’m giddy at this point, ready to explore and happen upon a secret. I wander around some rooms, poking through drawers, dipping my hands in tepid bathtubs and daring myself to open every door I find. About fifteen minutes in, I still haven’t seen any actors.
I wander all the way to the top floor and find myself in a room that looks like a hospital ward with 12 or so beds in two rows. I notice that under one bed, there is a man doing a stylized movement sequence. I’m joined by another curious woman and because we can’t see his face or his mask, we wait and watch. He emerges from under the bed with his white audience mask on backwards revealing his face. Then he gestures for me and the woman to follow him and he slides his mask back on, concealing his face.
The adventurer in me is ecstatic. Not only have I found an actor to follow, but he’s incognito. He’s an actor, posing as an audience member. I boldly follow him around the hotel.
Myself, the incognito actor, and the other woman enter a small study. He closes the door behind us. He takes a lab coat off the wall, puts it on the shoulders of the woman I am with, and sits her in a chair. He touches the middle of her back, doubling her over her knees. This happens three more times. Then, he bolts and I run after him. For the rest of the night, I lose him and then find him again, staring at me from across the room under his audience mask. He waves at me as I chase him through crowds, up and down stairs, and into closed rooms.
Then, he blows through a door that was clearly a backstage door and because of the reaction of the folks in black, who promptly eject him back out again, it dawns on me.
This man wasn’t an actor.
Suddenly embarrassed, uncomfortable, and unsafe, I leave Sleep No More 45 minutes early. My experience was spoiled in a particularly sinister way because this audience member preyed on me when I was told to follow my nose and explore dark corners. In her book Performing Ground, Laura Levin says at her first time at Sleep No More, she was “less disconcerted by the eerie music, taxidermied animals, and bloody bodies than finding myself in a room alone with a bunch of masked men given license to do whatever they wanted” (Levin, 84). Yup. “Be bold,” the man in the elevator tells players.
I wrote to Sleep No More detailing this experience but no one got back to me. On the subreddit r/sleepnomore, there are fanatics who detail potential tracks to guarantee a one-on-one with an actor. On Gawker one can learn “How to Find All the Nudity in Sleep No More” In a Buzzfeed expose about Sleep No More, actors detail abuse they experienced from audience members during the show. It is disturbing.
Some artists we have studied categorize their work as “ambient performance,” work that exists inside a worldA that is visible and continues to turn outside of the narrative. Zuppa Theatre Co’s This is Nowhere functions this way, as an audience roams around downtown Halifax constructing a blueprint for the future. The excitement of wondering “is this part of the show” reframes and animates the regular world inside and outside of the frame, This is an exciting kind of work for a participatory audience. The audience can control how they explore, what they look for, and what trail they are following. There is an additional energy behind discovering what is intentionally constructed and what is happening IRL. However, my experience at Sleep No More also tells me that this feeling can be anxiety inducing.
When Laura Levin recounts her own experience in Sleep No More, making reference to these blurred lines between “reality and illusion” and the “explicitly sexualized” kind of “voyeurism” that the show encourages, she quotes Director Felix Barrett saying that Sleep No More tries to “‘make the audience the epicentre of the work...so they can control it’” (Levin, 83). But in this case, I was controlled by someone else.
This audience member co-opted and hacked Sleep No More to play his own game, using the free environment to craft an experience in parallel with the intentional experience of the creators. Many of the case studies that encourage ambient exploration invite this kind of choose-your-own adventure reception. Think mirror mazes, ball pits, and parks. Children often play like this by using the given circumstance of a space and inventing their own game. Grounders works exactly this way. In Sleep No More, this freedom to play means “be bold” and many aspects of the show’s design encourage, perhaps dangerously, this kind of play - masks, darkness, being alone, vast space, non-linear plots, and alcohol. Freedom fosters innovation.
This person in Sleep No More played an alternate game. This is different than opting out. “Hacks” like these are layered on top of circumstances provided by the artist. In Landline, some folks hack the performance to text their scene partner for the entirety of the experience, rather than listen to the audio prompts provided. Both Archive of Missing Things and This Is Nowhere encourage free exploration that is not limited to the explicit goals of the work.
The difference between those hacks and what I experienced in Sleep No More was interference. This man took advantage of my curiosity. He put me at risk and affected my experience. Where some work invites a kind of choose-your-own alternative adventure, this person chose my adventure for me.
Levin, Laura. Performing Ground: Space, Camouflage and the Art of Blending In. Palgrave Macmillan. 2014.