If it hasn’t started happening already, I can foresee a day where theater students could take an entire semester just to dissect Sleep No More and all its intricacies. If you haven’t already, click over to my last article about what is easily the most unique piece of theater I have ever seen. There you will learn about masks, playing cards and full frontal nudity. That’s right, go ahead and click on over to my first article, then come on back and I will tell you why this show is so special.
Sleep No More was created in 2000 by a British theater company called Punchdrunk based out of London. The only types of productions they created were what they called immersive theater. In essence, instead of having the audience sit in a seat and watch a performance from a distance, they could roam around a space and choose where they wanted to go and what they wanted to see along the way. There is no wrong way to experience these shows, but it also means there is no linear story line. Each person gets to try and piece together a story based on what they encounter along the way.
Some of these productions like The Moon Slave only allowed one audience member at a time to go on a guided experience through a house and have a story unfold for them. Others like Tunnel 228 were more like art installations combined with live theater elements that took place in abandoned tunnels underneath London.
Through more than a dozen productions, they learned a lot of lessons about how people will naturally explore a space, how close they will get to actors and how detailed to make one of their environments.
Sleep No More opened in March 2011 in Chelsea and takes place in nearly a block of 3 unused warehouses. There are over 100 rooms to explore over the course of three hours – just taking your time and exploring the building will take you that long. Each room is exquisitely detailed and tells its own story that ties in with the themes of other rooms on the same floor. It truly is like stepping into the scene of a film set in the 1920’s.
I know most of my readers are theme park fans and they rave about how ornate the lobby of the Tower of Terror is and all the details hidden in the window scenes in the village of Hogsmeade at The Wizarding World of Harry Potter. Those are child’s play to the level of detail found within the walls of the McKittrick Hotel.
We have all done it. You find yourself in an amazingly detailed environment like the former Adventurer’s Club at Pleasure Island. The shelves are lined with all these great antiques, knick knacks and artifacts that Imagineers have scattered around the club. After a while, you can’t help yourself, you reach out and try to pick one up for closer examination. What happens? It’s nailed or glued down to the table or cabinet it’s sitting on. For that brief moment, you are taken out of that fantasy world and smacked with a dose of reality. If everyone touched everything at a theme park and got to pick it up and play with it, those details would be gone within a month due to damage or theft. The message is simple: look, but don’t touch.
In the world of Sleep No More, no such rules exist. For example, the third floor is designed to look like a side street in London. Shops line a cobblestone pathway that has windows you can look in to see what’s inside. One of my favorites is the candy store. Shelves of oversized glass jars line the walls of the shop, each filled with real hard candy. Keep in mind, there is no employee or monitor in most rooms to make sure the audience is behaving. You are free to take the jars off the shelf, open one up and help yourself to a piece of candy.
Another shop is modeled after a tea room. A small table with victorian chairs is in the middle complete with real place settings including knives, tea cups, saucers and books. A china cabinet lies against the wall. You can open it up, take the china out and examine it. These are not plastic pieces that look like china, it’s real and it’s breakable and most importantly – authentic to the time period and the mood they are trying to create.
The shop adjacent to the tea room is that of a taxidermist. Stuffed animal heads line the walls and on the shelves are real stuffed animals like foxes and wolves. On my last visit to Sleep No More, I became fascinated with a desk located in the corner of the taxidermy shop. In the desk were bones from real animals that were put in baskets and separated by the shop keeper who didn’t happen to be there during my period of poking around. On the top of the desk were real metal tools one would use to scrape out the guts of an animal in order to have it stuffed.
By far, the most impressive thing in the room is probably overlooked by 99% of the people who roam this particular room. Placed neatly on the desk is a logbook of handwritten notes by the taxidermist. Over 100 pages of notes, diagrams and drawings on animals that the shop owner has had to stuff over the years. It included where to make the incisions, what tools to use and how to sew them back up.
Perhaps you are cringing right now thinking the book is there to just gross people out. It’s not. I chose to take 15 minutes and flip through it. No one forced me to. I became engrossed in the fact that the only reason the book was placed there was for nerds like me to find. Every new page was more detailed than the last. You can’t buy a prop like this and just throw it in a room. Someone lovingly took hours to fill it with hand drawn pictures, notes and diagrams to make the experience seem that much more real. That book is the reason I love Sleep No More. It’s all in the details.
At this point, you’ve got to be wondering what kind of performances take place in the McKitrick Hotel. I won’t tell. It’s not that I don’t love you all, but the fact of the matter is – part of the beauty of this type of show is that it disarms you at every turn. The element of surprise is a driving factor as to why I am obsessed with this show. If you go in and say, “Yea I know about this crazy scene with three naked people from this dork’s website,” you won’t have that visceral reaction that is such an integral part of this experience.
That said, I will give you some hints to guide you should you choose to experience Sleep No More for yourself. In total, there are 26 performers that bring this show to life every night.
Each one has their own unique path and interaction with other actors. If you choose, you may follow one particular actor from room-to-room and floor-to-floor and learn a little bit about their story. Some actors are completely self-aware of their surroundings – meaning they know you as an audience member are there staring at them and they may interact with you.
It’s important to remember that in the McKittrick Hotel, fortune favors the bold. The actors who are aware of the audience being present and watching them will occasionally extend out their hand to mask-wearing audience member. If you choose to take their hand, they will often lead you to a locked room that only that actor has a key to. Once inside, that audience member and the actor have a one-on-one scene that no one else is privy to.
Often times, the audience member is rewarded at the end of the scene with a trinket of some sort – a necklace, a ring or some other memento that serves as a keepsake of their visit.
Other actors do their own thing and move around the building as if no one is watching them. The masks that guests wear give a sense of anonymity. In any other normal situation, if you came across a woman standing in front of a mirror putting on lip stick, you would give her some room and privacy to do so. Here, you can stand one foot away from her. After the show is over, even if you see the actress hanging out in a Starbucks the next day, she will have no idea you were right there watching her every move. It’s voyeuristic, liberating and somewhat creepy.
The performance repeats itself three times in one showing. Meaning if you are there for three hours and you stay in one room the entire time, you will see the exact same actors enter and leave the room and do the exact same interactions three times. However, the building is so massive and the sets so immersive, you can’t help but criss-cross it several times per show. It’s exhausting, but so incredibly fulfilling and worth it.
I could go on and on about how incredible this show is, but if you really want to know what it’s like? You just have to go to Chelsea in New York City and experience it for yourself. Remember, there is no box office and you must buy tickets in advance by visiting SleepNoMoreNYC.com.
Come back to Theme Park University in a few days and I will tell you about another incredible immersive show in New York City that is even more intimate and gives a unique spin on Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland story.