Sleep No More and the Immersive Theater Phenomenon

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The “Man in Bar” (here played by Nick Atkinson) is one of the first characters audience members encounter upon entering the McKittrick.

“Good evening and welcome to the McKittrick Hotel, my darlings,” says a smooth-voiced man in a tuxedo as guests walk into an early 1930s-style speakeasy. There, the guests have an opportunity to sip some absinthe and flirt with the immaculately dressed hosts at the bar before they are ushered into a journey that takes them through all five floors of the mysterious hotel they have entered.

No, this is not a party or a scene from an old black-and-white film. This is a theatrical performance entitled Sleep No More, perhaps one of the first productions to pioneer the groundbreaking technique of immersive theater, which has been making waves in cities such as London and is finally taking New York by storm.

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The audience watches a scene between Hecate and one of the three witches.

    In an immersive theater production, the audience is directly involved in the action of the play, taking on a dynamic role in the show they are seeing. Don’t expect to sit back, relax, and watch the action unfold onstage when attending an immersive show. Instead, expect to run up and down stairs, chase after characters, and explore the set, looking for clues to help you piece the story together. Immersive theater productions completely throw the audience into the story, even allowing them to interact with the actors, as though they too, are characters in the show.

Needless to say, immersive theater is a relatively new concept that has been developing since the early 2000s. Sleep No More, the brainchild of Felix Barrett and Maxine Doyle, owners of the British production company Punchdrunk, first premiered at the Beaufoy Building in London. The show then opened in 2009 at the Old Lincoln School in Boston, and finally premiered in NYC in March 2011 after undergoing a massive expansion, both in its storyline and in the amount of detail that went into its set. It has been going strong since, playing shows that are constantly sold out to audiences that are upwards of 400 people. Sleep No More has even expanded beyond an immersive theater production. Now, the show has a rooftop bar that is open during the spring and summer and is gearing up to open its own restaurant on the sixth floor of the hotel, which will be called The Heath.

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The graveyard set in the hotel. The McKittrick is a large, labyrinthine five-floor space with over one hundred richly detailed and decorated rooms, ranging from this graveyard, a mental institution, a ballroom, a hotel lobby, a padded cell, a tree maze, and a street lined with stores, amongst many others.

So, what is Sleep No More about exactly? The storyline of the play is just as revolutionary and as intricate as the format in which it is presented. Sleep No More tells the story of Shakespeare’s classic tragedy Macbeth but with a twist, combining the story of Daphne duMaurier’s mystery novel Rebecca along with some legends from the Paisley Witch Trials, which took place in Scotland during the 1600s. It was an easy leap from film noir to Macbeth,” says Felix Barrett in an interview given in the show’s program. “Shakespeare’s play has all the classic noir motifs: passion, a femme fatale, and a paranoid, power-obsessed man who’ll do anything to get what he desires. After all, you know what they say–Shakespeare’s written every story there is to tell.”

 One of the most appealing aspects of immersive theater is that it gives audience members the freedom to follow whatever characters they choose. One could follow Macbeth if they want to, or they could follow Lady Macduff or Banquo or Malcolm. Maybe one would rather follow one of the eerie nurses that wander about the fifth floor, or race down flights of stairs trying to follow a high-energy character, like the Boy Witch. If one gets bored with a character, they can leave that character and choose to follow the story of another. Or, if the show becomes too overwhelming, one could just make their way to the Manderley Bar (the speakeasy from which they entered the show) and unwind with a drink and have a chat with one of the witty barfly characters that lounge around there.

Music plays a pivotal role in the production of an immersive theater show. This holds especially true for Sleep No More, in which barely any of the characters speak and the entire story is told through dance and through the soundtrack that is blaring out of the speakers. Because the story takes place in the 1930s, the soundtrack for Sleep No More is predominantly jazz and big band, featuring many songs by famous bands of yesteryear, such as the Ink Spots and Glenn Miller and His Orchestra. The music very strongly lends to the immersive experience, really getting the audience into the time and place of the story.

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Sleep No More’s rendition of the famous banquet scene from Macbeth.

Since what each audience member sees is completely up to them, it is impossible to see everything that goes on in the play’s space at one moment. Because there are so many characters that are performing throughout the hotel, many things are happening at the same time that one person cannot humanly see at once. “The more conventionally ‘minor’ characters are developed so that they exist in the same time

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Taxidermy in the McKittrick Hotel.

frame as Shakespeare’s protagonists,” says Maxine Doyle in the show’s program. For example, there is a scene in the show in which many of the Macbeth characters are dancing in a ballroom located in the basement of the hotel. At the exact same time on the second floor, the porter performs a “happy dance” while removing furniture covers from the tables and sofas in the hotel lobby. Because so many things happen at once, it is a great factor that brings lovers of the show back again and again. Multiple visits are the only way to piece together a full story of all the events that occur in the show. The immersive format of Sleep No More makes it so much more compelling for audience members; they care enough to return multiple times and learn more about these characters and their stories.

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The audience (in the white masks) watch a dance between Macbeth and Lady Macbeth.

Another integral part of the performance is the white mask that all audience members are required to wear at all times during the performance. Although the idea of wearing a mask seems unusual and uncomfortable, Sleep No More would not be able to function without it. Firstly, the mask helps to differentiate the audience (white masks) from the crew/security (black masks), and the performers (maskless). The mask also gives those in the audience anonymity. Like in Hitchcock’s Rear Window, the audience is put in the place of James Stewart and they become voyeurs behind the mask. Like Jimmy Stewart’s camera and binoculars in Rear Window, the mask is what symbolically allows the audience to become privy to the actions going on in the hotel.

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The audience spends some time with Lady Macbeth.

All of these elements combine to create a fully interactive experience that brings people back to the show again and again. There is something incredibly unique and enjoyable about leaving behind all the little mundane cares and worries of everyday life and instead completely losing yourself in another place.  Sleep No More is the closest you can get to traveling back in time to an alternate world.

Perhaps Felix Barrett himself said it best: “Sleep No More is a visceral experience for both the mind and the body. Some people choose to explore the space methodically, while others follow actors. Some people treat it as theatre, others as an art installation. There’s no one right way to do it. Just trust your instincts–everyone’s response is different.”

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Twitter Appeals to Teens

There was a time in which not having a Facebook profile seemed like something that was unheard of. Facebook appealed to almost everyone, from high school students to grandparents. It helped keep people around the world connected. Facebook, it seemed, was the leading social networking site, and it looked as though nothing would ever tear it down from that place.

But now, studies show that Twitter has become popular with young people, unlike Facebook, which is on the wane. Financial firm Piper Jaffray’s teen market research report shows that 26% of teens now prefer using Twitter, with Facebook taking a backseat at 23%. Surprisingly, Facebook was in the lead by a landslide 42% earlier in the year. With the competition from both Twitter and Instagram, appeal for the social network has fallen fast.

There are many reasons why teens find Twitter to be more accessible than Facebook. Twitter allows their users to directly follow high-profile companies and celebrities that interest them. This can be anyone and anything, from the New York Times to the rapper Macklemore. It also gives them the opportunity to directly communicate with celebrities they admire, and if they are lucky, sometimes a celebrity can “re-tweet” them. Unlike Facebook, Twitter is more open, allowing users to follow without waiting for a friend request confirmation and making them more privy to the updates of those who might not necessarily be just in their everyday circle of friends.

Twitter is also appealing because it delivers news updates instantaneously. It is a very rich source for learning and receiving news from all over the Internet. Who wouldn’t want to learn about world events as they happen?

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New Developments in Sleep No More

I’m doing my showcase project on the new phenomenon known as immersive theater, with a special focus on Sleep No More, which is the most popular immersive theater production in New York City. Things at Sleep No More are always changing, so listen to hear all about the exciting new developments:

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Hurricane Sandy Memories

Daniel Scarpati did not think Hurricane Sandy would affect him that badly until it was too late.

The twenty year-old Brooklyn College junior lives in Howard Beach, Queens, which was designated as a Zone B neighborhood during the storm. Police were more concerned with surrounding Zone A neighborhoods, such as Belle Harbor and Broad Channel, and those in Howard Beach were not expecting to get hit badly by the storm. “I remember that time, I totally didn’t expect it to happen,” he says.

However, Sandy hit Scarpati’s neighborhood a lot harder than anyone ever expected. His basement and garage were flooded with about five feet of water, and he ended up losing everything in his garage, including two cars, books, food, clothes, and gardening tools, amongst many other things. He also lost heating and power in his home for eleven days. Scarpati’s aunt and uncle, who lived in Belle Harbor, Queens, lost their home and everything they owned in a fire that resulted from the storm.

Even though Scarpati and his family lost much during Hurricane Sandy and still have some minor things that they still need to repair (such as some torn roof shingles, a broken garage door, and a faulty heating system), he and his family always remained hopeful and grateful for what they have. Not only did they do their best to recover as quickly as possible, but they went out and assisted in the hurricane recovery efforts that were going on throughout their neighborhood. Scarpati has helped in cleanups, rebuilding efforts, and donations that were being collected by his local church.

Despite the fact that Hurricane Sandy occurred over a year ago, many Howard Beach residents are facing ongoing issues with FEMA and flood insurance. However there is no doubt that the residents of Howard Beach continue to rebuild, stay strong, and exhibit a great sense of community in what still remains a trying time.

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West Side Highway Horror

On September 29th, one of the most bizarre and uncalled-for events occurred on the West Side Highway when helpless father Alexian Lien was attacked and beaten by a horde of bikers as his wife and two year-old daughter watched on in horror.

Bikers chase Alexian Lien's car.

Bikers chase Alexian Lien’s car.

After what was originally a minor traffic altercation (the bikers were allegedly angered because Lien was weaving his car in between them), Lien’s black SUV was chased down by a group of over 20 motorcyclists. In a fit of road rage, the bikers used their helmets to break and dent Lien’s SUV. They also used knives to slash his tires. In an attempt to escape the circle of angry bikers, Lien tried to take off, running over at least three bikers in the process, including Christopher Cruz, Giancarolo Cardenas, and Edwin Mieses. All suffered injuries of varying degrees and needed to be hospitalized, but Mieses’ injuries were the most serious, and he may be paralyzed. This then resulted in a chase that ended with the bikers breaking Lien’s car windows and dragging him out onto the pavement, beating him until he needed to be hospitalized. The entire confrontation could be seen in a video that one of the bikers shot and posted to YouTube.

Over 30 bikers participated in the needless assault against Lien. Police are still trying to figure out what exactly happened and who is really to blame.

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The Controversy Over New York’s Billionaires

On September 20th, during his weekly radio appearance, Mayor Bloomberg made yet another controversial comment, this time on the widening inequality gap in New York.

120515_POL_michaelBloombergSad.jpg.CROP_.rectangle3-large-300x182Bloomberg’s comments echoed the statements that he made earlier in the month to New York Magazine reporter Chris Smith, in which he said it would be “great if all the Russian billionaires could move here.” In his weekly radio interview, Bloomberg was asked about the recently released Census data that showed a substantial rise in New York City’s poverty level and an income gap exceeding that of some third world countries. Despite these unsettling statistics, Bloomberg still argued that the best way to help the poor is to continue attracting more of the ultra-rich.

“If we could get every billionaire around the world to move here, that would be a godsend,” Bloomberg told radio host John Gambling, suggesting that the way to fix poverty in the city is to create an ever bigger income gap. Bloomberg went on to praise his fellow billionaires, saying that they are “the ones that pay a lot of the taxes, they’re the ones that spend a lot of money in the stores and restaurants and create a big chunk of our economy.”

Many found Bloomberg’s comments to be offensive, since they belittled concerns about income inequality, but there were some who still defended his argument. Marc LaVorgna, Bloomberg’s press secretary, quickly jumped on Twitter, saying that the mayor should not be attacked for using the money of wealthy taxpayers to help the poor.

Those who vociferated against the mayor’s comments stated that the solution for income inequality is not as simple as he made it seem. According to Greg David, a reporter for crainsnewyork.com, the amount of New Yorkers getting wealthy after the recent fiscal crisis has become smaller than ever.

0304_billionaires-prokhorov-barclays_600The most prominent Russian billionaire that comes to mind is Mikhail Prokhorov, the owner of the Brooklyn Nets. Despite the billions of dollars he and his players spend, not all of it goes to the city, since they are not always in New York and they pay taxes only for the days in which they are in the city. The $82 billion luxury tax that Prokhorov must pay does not go the city; it goes to other NBA teams instead.

It’s no wonder that New Yorkers have become so dissatisfied with Bloomberg’s tenure in office. Instead, many have embraced the views of Democratic mayoral candidate Bill de Blasio, who had called out Bloomberg for turning New York into “A Tale of Two Cities.”

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A Festival for Bookworms

Screen Shot 2013-09-23 at 2.33.50 PMThe eight annual Brooklyn Book Festival was the biggest yet. The event, which took place on September 22nd in Downtown Brooklyn, brought over 45,000 book lovers for a day filled with over 90 panels, 340 author readings, and workshops that took place on 14 different stages. These panels and readings were located in a variety of downtown Brooklyn venues, including Brooklyn Borough Hall Plaza, Columbus Park, Brooklyn Law School, St. Francis College, the Brooklyn Historical Society, and the Holy Trinity Church. Literary journals, booksellers, book publishers, and university presses also reported record-breaking sales at this year’s festival.

18491-1The festival, which is New York City’s largest free literary event and the third largest book festival in the United States, was started in 2006 by Borough President Marty Markowitz. It helped to establish Brooklyn as the literary capital of the country, moving the publishing industry here. Markowitz promised that the festival will continue, regardless of who is borough president.

This year, the Brooklyn Book Festival was full of many notable figures and events. Markowitz presented Newbery Award-winning author Lois Lowry (who wrote The Giver and Number the Stars) with the Best of Brooklyn (“BoBi’) Award. Afterwards, Lowry gave a speech at St. Francis College’s auditorium, in which she discussed how she got her start in writing.

One of the most interesting panels at this year’s festival pertained to the controversy caused by the National Security Agency’s secret surveillance programs. the eight-member panel discussed the dangers that surveillance posed to the freedom of writers. One of the pieces read at this panel described author Ernest Hemingway’s constant fear of being spied on by the government. After a Freedom of Information request that was obtained many decades later, it was discovered that Hemingway’s fears were not unfounded. He was, indeed, under constant surveillance by the FBI during his lifetime.

This year’s festival also expanded the presence of comic book artists, something that has not been done before in any of the previous years’ festivals. A conversation between acclaimed cartoonists Art Spiegelman (Maus) and Jules Feiffer (illustrator of The Phantom Tollbooth) was amongst the most highly anticipated panels.

18495-1In addition to comic book artists, children’s book authors also had a great presence at the festival. Amongst the multitude of children’s writers was Herman Parish, author of the popular Amelia Bedelia series, Peter Brown, author and illustrator of The Curious Garden, and Meg Cabot, who wrote the Princess Diaries series. Lois Lowry was also the first children’s author to be presented with the BoBi.

In short, the Brooklyn Book Festival celebrated the power of the written word. It showed that a love for reading can touch millions in a variety of different written mediums, from novels to comic books. Brooklyn, always a hub for culture and creativity, dedicated the day to the beauty of language.

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