“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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.”