'Sleep No More' awakens after a long hibernation

The First Art Newspaper on the Net    Established in 1996 Tuesday, February 27, 2024

'Sleep No More' awakens after a long hibernation
Ashley Robicheaux, left, and and Kristen Stuart during a performance of “Sleep No More,” in New York, Jan. 27, 2022. The pandemic has reshaped aspects of the show, which reopens Feb. 14, but its once and future influence on the theatrical life of the city remains undeniable. Vincent Tullo/The New York Times.

by Alexis Soloski

NEW YORK, NY.- The taxidermy birds have been waiting.

So have the lamps, the cards, the dolls, the crucifixes, the trees, the mounded salt. “Sleep No More,” the dark and dreamlike show that reshaped the landscape of participatory theater, left its performance space intact when it closed the doors on its dozens of rooms in March 2020. Months passed, then a year. The March 2021 date that would have marked its 10th anniversary came and went. Performances were to resume last October; the delta variant changed those plans.

Finally, on Feb. 14, for those who prefer their Valentine hearts still bloodied, “Sleep No More,” will reopen, with new masks, new protocols and a fresh commitment to total immersion.

On an evening in late January, I arrived at the McKittrick Hotel in Manhattan for a rehearsal visit and a tour. “Sleep No More” is a Hitchcock-inflected version of “Macbeth” and walking through its Highland noir rooms, uninhabited for nearly two years, I thought of Sleeping Beauty’s castle, then, ridiculously, of Pompeii.

“We joked that the ghouls looked out for us,” Carrie Boyd, the director of performance and production, told me. But beginning in the fall, the space had been thoroughly rehabbed and redecorated. The ventilation system received an update, too.

“Literally every inch of this space has been touched in one way or the other,” said Jonathan Hochwald, one of the show’s producers.

I had been scheduled to come a week earlier, but a pipe had burst. (Guess the ghouls were off the clock?) In several rooms, industrial dehumidifiers added to the ambient sound.

Boyd began the formal tour downstairs, in the ballroom scene, as the cast, masked and half-costumed — gowns, sweats — danced the night away. We walked for an hour, downstairs and upstairs and down again, looking in on card games and interrogations, spying on an erotic pas de deux. Dampness aside, “Sleep No More” looked ready. I never saw an actor miss an eight-count.

Still, the show had changed. The most visible difference? The white mask. Masked audiences — and unmasked performers — are a defining feature of Punchdrunk, the company that created “Sleep No More.” The previous Punchdrunk mask was leering, avian, a variation of those worn by medieval plague doctors. The new one is smoother, more streamlined. Cut above the nose and across the cheekbones, it is intended to be worn with a white KN95 mask, which will be distributed at the door.

As audience members enter, they will now be instructed to “please give your fellow patrons and the residents a bit of breathing room and keep a respectful distance.”

Distance can be difficult when you are one of dozens of attendees chasing Lady Macbeth down a dim hallway. Even at that sparsely populated rehearsal, there were rooms that didn’t permit standing 6 feet apart. And after two years of a pandemic, will New Yorkers really want to come back to something this macabre? Knowing New Yorkers: probably.

Immersive Theater Model

“Nothing’s going to wake you from the dream,” Felix Barrett, a co-creator of “Sleep No More,” told me during a recent video call. It sounded mostly like a promise and a little like a threat.

As Barrett tells it, “Sleep No More” first arrived in New York almost by accident. Barrett had founded Punchdrunk in 2000, pioneering a type of environmental theater that transformed deserted buildings and disused factories into strange new worlds. A typical Punchdrunk show plunges masked audiences into sumptuous spaces and lets them choose where to go and what to see. Spectators can chase after the actors, enjoying wordless, dance-heavy scenes, or linger alone in luxuriant rooms — reading letters, sniffing herbs. If you came with friends, each of you might piece together an entirely different experience, then meet at the bar to debrief afterward.

This form, which came to be called immersive theater, has its origins in the Happenings of the ’60s art world (or even further back, in participatory rituals and street theater).

But the intimacy of Punchdrunk’s work, the freedom and eroticism and sensuous style, made it feel sui generis. “It’s about really indulging the senses,” Maxine Doyle, a choreographer and a co-creator of “Sleep No More,” said on that same video call with Barrett.

Josephine Machon, the author of “The Punchdrunk Encyclopaedia,” argues that Punchdrunk’s command of the art form is unsurpassed. It “absolutely creates a quality of encounter that is unforgettable,” she said.

I first ran across the company in 2007, in a former town hall in the Lavender Hill neighborhood of London. That show, “The Masque of the Red Death,” repurposed the stories of Edgar Allan Poe. At one point, I wandered away from “The Fall of the House of Usher” and into a room with a wardrobe. The wardrobe hid a secret passage that let out into a fireplace (unlit!) and as I crawled out, I remember feeling that I had wandered into my own dream.

Randy Weiner, a co-owner of the nightclub The Box, first saw Punchdrunk’s work around the same time. He wanted to bring their extravagant adaptation of Goethe’s “Faust” to New York. After failing to secure a space in Manhattan, they moved their search to Boston, where Weiner’s wife, Diane Paulus, had recently taken over the American Repertory Theater.

Together they found a deserted cinema. It wouldn’t work for “Faust,” Barrett thought. But it was a perfect spot for “Sleep No More,” which the company had first staged — briefly and minimally — in 2003. The cinema fell through, but Barrett eventually found an empty parochial school in a Boston suburb. That was perfect, too.

“Sleep No More” opened there in October 2009. Almost immediately, Weiner, Hochwald and their other partner, Arthur Karpati, founded a new production company, Emursive, and began to strategize how to bring it to New York. Eventually they found adjoining warehouses on 27th Street in the Chelsea neighborhood of Manhattan.

Punchdrunk invented a history for the space. The warehouses became the McKittrick Hotel, condemned in 1939, before it ever opened. After a seven-month build out and a multimillion-dollar capitalization, the show began previews in March 2011. The reviews were largely enthusiastic. Critic Ben Brantley, writing in The New York Times, called it “a voyeur’s delight, with all the creepy, shameful pleasures that entails.” Audience capacity increased and the show, which repurposed experimental art for the nightlife crowd, ran and ran and ran.

A Riddle to Solve

American audiences responded to “Sleep No More” somewhat differently from their respectful English counterparts. Some were content to admire the design — a precise amalgam of set dressing, sound design and crepuscular lighting — and take scenes as they found them.

Sara Gaynes Levy, a freelance writer, described her first experience at the show as complete immersion. “Nothing in my outside life existed when I was in the hotel,” she said.

For others, immersion wasn’t enough. “In America, there was an enthusiasm to ransack the place,” Barrett said. Pilferage became a problem. The show had to hire design maintainers to check the rooms after each performance.

Some spectators, reared perhaps on video games and puzzle hunts, approached “Sleep No More” as a riddle that needed solving. Actor Neil Patrick Harris, so entranced by the show that he has guest starred twice, found himself drawn to those elements. “The puzzler in me loves the machinations,” he said. “I still am very confused as to how it all works.”

These spectators wanted to optimize the show, to hack it, to crack it. Maps began to appear online. Gawker published a guide to all the nudity. On return visits, I found myself being shoved as spectators fought to stand in the best spot to secure a one-on-one, an encounter in which a performer pulls you aside, removes your mask and acts out a scene just for you. When rumors circulated of a secret sixth floor (the rumors are true), fans competed for that experience, too.

“There’s definitely an element of trying to win ‘Sleep No More,’” Kathryn Yu, a virtual reality designer and immersive theater obsessive, told me. “People want to collect all the one-on-ones or get as many as they can.”

After initially resisting this approach, Punchdrunk soon relented. Barrett began to seed the rooms with surprises for dedicated audience members. Every few months or a year, the company would rethink a room, a way to reward repeat visits. Barrett compared it to a video game releasing downloadable content — a new level, a new mission.

“That’s led now to our experiments in technology: How can we actually apply game mechanics to the show world?” he said.

‘Permission to Experiment’

“Sleep No More” changed Punchdrunk. It changed other companies, too. New York already had a thriving immersive theater scene, but after “Sleep No More” arrived, that scene swelled, with companies approaching the show as a challenge and an invitation, even if not every response was successful.

“‘Sleep No More’ has given people permission to experiment,” said Tom Pearson, a co-artistic director of the immersive Third Rail Projects. Pearson first saw “Sleep No More” in Massachusetts, then in New York and again when another version opened in Shanghai. The world-building of “Sleep No More” pushed Third Rail to create “Then She Fell,” a beloved experience based on “Alice in Wonderland.”

“The total immersion was so inspiring to try and figure out,” said Teddy Bergman, artistic director of Woodshed Collective (“The Tenant,” “Empire Travel Agency”). “It pushed anybody who was interested to imagine on a bigger canvas.” The show has even had an influence on virtual reality experiences (“The Under Presents”) and Zoom shows (“Eschaton”).

Samantha Gorman, a theatermaker who created “The Under Presents,” believes that “Sleep No More” changed audiences, whetting an appetite for immersive work. “They managed to get a general audience really involved in experimental art and experimental dance,” she said.

“Sleep No More” had to change, too. In 2018, BuzzFeed News published a report in which several of the show’s performers and staffers detailed experiences of assault and groping. Before the pandemic closure, new protocols had already been put in place. An entrance speech that had once advised, “fortune favors the bold,” now asked that attendees respect the performers. (It has since been replaced with the line about keeping a respectful distance.)

The run up to the reopening has urged further modifications. The production now works with an intimacy director, who supervises the scenes between performers and advises on how to handle the one-on-ones. There is also a half-day workshop in which cast and staffers role play audience handling and drill safety protocols. Several rooms now feature emergency buttons, so that cast members can summon help without breaking character.

Sophie Bortolussi, a longtime “Sleep No More” performer, said that while she had not personally experienced assault, she appreciated these new measures. “This was never taken lightly,” she added. “Now they have doubled down into making sure everyone is extra safe.”

The pandemic has reshaped other aspects of the show. Crowds will be smaller, at least initially, some one-on-ones have been eliminated, their content integrated into the script. For those that remain, performers no longer remove audience members’ masks. Certain choreography, like a moment in which a performer coughs up a feather, has disappeared. And the production now uses less food and drink.

However altered, there’s no denying the show’s once and future influence on the theatrical life of the city. But “Sleep No More” is still only one show, perhaps not even the best show, produced by one company. Which means there are so many other marvels, other fables, other chances, masked or otherwise, to give yourself over to a theatrical world. On the video call, Barrett and Doyle brandished a script for their new show, “The Burnt City,” which will open in London in March. Could it ever come here?

Barrett smiled through the screen. “You never know,” he said.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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