WARNING: The following post contains a whole MESS of spoilers, not just of the much talked about “secrets” of the show, but of the grumpy, ruining it for everyone else variety. Click after the jump at your own risk.
For those who have been hiding under a rock for the last 8 or 9 months, the biggest sleeper (couldn’t resist) hit in theater right now is the off-Broadway immersive theatrical experience, Sleep No More, presented by constantly boundary pushing and extraordinarily admirable UK company Punchdrunk. The handful of people I knew who had been to the Boston run at ART had said a lot of hushed and reverent but cryptic things about it, so my partner, Kevin, got us tickets to the industry dress rehearsal at the beginning of March. That evening was not one of but THE most extraordinary art experience I had ever had, and I stayed up half the night doing research on the symbols I found scattered around the place and on the show itself (this was before there were programs listing the characters names or the book that they now try to sling at you at the end of the show). I went back almost immediately, and going back the second time by myself I had a completely different experience, saw many, many more rooms and an entirely new story, but even then, things were beginning to change at the McKittrick Hotel, and not necessarily for the better for the audience. Last night was my third and final time going to Manderley, and, in many ways, perhaps the most inspiring, but not, as the first and second time, because of what was so right but rather what was so very, very wrong.
First of all, before I go on with this, please understand that I have absolutely nothing but the utmost admiration for Punchdrunk’s immense undertaking and incredible work, and from a producer’s standpoint, they are straight up geniuses at business and marketing — an unusual quality in an experimental theater company to say the least. Featured on the CW’s Gossip Girl this week, the description on Hulu says “Attending a performance of Punchdrunk’s provocative theatre experience Sleep No More…” Do you see that? A THEATER COMPANY is getting name checked as if they were a recognizable brand (and I guess, now, they are) in a national network television setting. But after last night, I believe that the brilliance of their business accumen, specifically the ability to make money on this show by packing the place out, is undermining what made it breathtaking in the first place.
And now the spoilers. You have been warned.
That first night at Sleep No More, Kevin and I didn’t know what we were getting into. We walked through that dark, flocked-wall hallway into a drawing room with a dresser, a lady’s desk, a couch or two. Immediately, we started opening drawers, finding yellowed black and white photos of spooky, dour looking people and hand written letters. We were then led into the plush, red Manderley Bar by Maximillian, the host of the night, and waited impatiently and full of wonder among a handful of other theater and press people. The mood was electric, anticipatory, and very, very curious. The ability to touch and explore everything satisfied a long standing desire of mine to be able to go and live in and on theater sets or the beautifully art directed holiday windows of Bergdorf Goodman. Before we even made it to the elevator, I was hooked.
Once we got off on the fourth floor, we meticulously opened every drawer and cupboard, every suitcase, rifled through papers and books (always returning things, respectfully, to the state in which we’d found them). There were little bundles of rock salt, wrapped with sheet music and scripture and tied with red string. There were things carved in Latin in the bottom of drawers, and I ran to the library to find a Latin dictionary. There was a game afoot, and I was determined to find out and solve the riddle. In Hecate’s apothecary, Kevin breathlessly picked up a book that was, according to his education and experience in rare books, worth hundreds if not thousands of dollars. We gorged ourselves in the candy shop and one of the witches came in and performed just for us. Not a one-on-one, but a little vignette that took place, where anyone could see, but where no one else was. We walked in on someone performing those much publicized one-on-one experiences and interrupted it, our hands were taken along with some fellow audience members, and we were led by the hand through a cupboard that opened back into the mortuary freezer through which we had come. We suspected that others in masks were planted performers. Everything was worth exploring and challenging and poking and prodding and reading until we’d gathered clues. Often, we found ourselves separated, alone in a room, and the eerie and thrilling sound design made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up, certain that, at any minute, something terrifying or dangerous would happen. As the night drew to a close, we were gently corralled into the ballroom by Hecate, where many of us stood, semi-circle, and watched spellbound as the last supper and hanging happened. The depth of our experience meant that we missed an entire floor, and much of the Macbeth narrative, but the detail and the freedom to explore that detail in the sets was so exhilarating that we still left breathless, changed, driven to learn more and to go back.
The second time I went by myself, just a couple of weeks later, I was anxious and not a little bit scared. But as I entered the space, I could already tell a difference. First of all, the once comfortable, if a little shoulder to shoulder at the end of the night, bar was already packed. I determined to find the rooms I’d missed before, and fortified by one of the expensive but delicious gin cocktails I had before entering the hotel, I ended up stalking a nurse through the forest maze. When I was the only one who wouldn’t walk away as she draped herself over a taxidermied goat, she took my hand, led me into the little hut in the corner, and performed my first one-on-one for me. As deep and researching as my first experience had been, my second was all about breadth— I wanted to see everything and everyone, and I did, indeed, get a completely new experience the second time, just as exciting as the first. But I was rarely alone that night, and the gingerly cautiousness that everyone had exhibited in exploring the place in my first go round was gone— there were many more audience members and they were rifling through things with abandon. I even found a freshly downed fifth of Jack Daniel’s someone had hidden in the drawer of a doctor’s office… And it wasn’t a prop. After the show, I wanted to get my coat and leave, it being nearly 3:00 am, but I was pushed back into the bar, ostensibly for my “safety,” but clearly to try to get me to stand in the incredibly long line and buy one more drink. I still left energized and a little dazed, but that one moment foreshadowed everything that I’d see in my third visit.
I told absolutely EVERYONE about that one-on-one experience. Months passed. Very many friends (even ones who care nothing for theater) went. We all exchanged our own one-on-one experiences (and found out that many of us shared them). The show kept getting extended and extended. Friends of friends auditioned for the new cast. It seemed that Sleep No More had become a permanent part of New York Theater, like STOMP! or Blue Man Group— a novelty that will never go away.
I LONGED to go back. I dreamt of it. I wanted to go through every room on my own and look at every thing and take notes and figure it all out.
This week, I was offered an unexpected ticket, and of course jumped at the chance to return. When I got to the McKittrick at 7:23 for my 7:30 check-in time, the line was outrageously long. I didn’t get into the space until nearly 8:00. As I once again walked that dark, fuzzy hallway, I had decided to go without an agenda, to let the night lead me where it may. As I came into the drawing room at the front of the hotel, I immediately noticed that things had changed. Gone was the dresser and the little desk, replaced by a locked glass front cabinet full of interesting but untouchable objects. The room looked strangely bare. The bar was already packed full of people lining up to go in, and the atmosphere was entirely different. The novelty had apparently worn off— already drunk guys spoke loudly and mocked their hosts when hushed; several awkward first dates were clearly happening; the receptive curiosity had been replaced by an expectation of “getting something out of it.”
When I got into the hotel, I decided to head to Duncan’s suite. He was being shaved with a straight razor, and 15 or so audience members were standing around watching. As he moved around the space, I followed him… but so did everyone else. This happened over, and over, and over again, as I struggled to see each scene. Moments in hallways were unbearable, as we all squeezed side-by-side. The respectful audience members of my first time who stepped out of the way to let others see were in short supply— people pushed past each other on staircases, tall people stepped in front of the short, everyone, it seemed, trying to be in the right place at the right time to get a piece of that coveted one-on-one action.
I gave up trying to watch the performances and began to explore the place itself, again. And oh, what a sad, sad disappointment ensued. Many of the tiny details that had littered the space and made it so irresistible were gone. No more little packets of salt or strips of the Lord’s Prayer typed backward. No more lockets with snips of hair or fingernails. The wooden box in the center of Hecate’s apothecary that had held a fascinating and specifically arranged array of herbs, flowers, feathers, and other ephemera now only held dirt and bottles. The rare books had been mostly replaced with photocopies of pages, ragged edged to look as if they’d been ripped out of books, but blank on the other side. Keys hung on hooks that had been bent closed to keep me from taking them off. Items that had begged you to hold them in your hands, like the tagged bird feet in the private detectives office, were now glued down. What had once been a world was now just a set.
And those one-on-ones that had been special, extraordinary experiences for a handful of lucky participants had now become the focus of the whole thing. I tried to go to my favorite room, the little pink bedroom in the secret witch’s house where I had first walked in on a one-on-one, but each of the FOUR times I went, the door was either closed and locked, or opened just long enough for her to select someone, pull them in, and give them the experience that would make them tell everyone what a crazy time they had at Sleep No More… and sell more tickets. The glamour and allure of it was completely gone— there was nothing romantic about the experience knowing that it was happening over and over again like a poor prostitute in a brothel having a rotating string of johns throughout the night, and I didn’t even want it! I just wanted to explore that room again. At one point, rifling through the papers and drawers of a doctor’s room on the hospital floor, I was unceremoniously thrown out by a nurse, followed by a dozen or two audience members, who then took someone else into the room I’d been enjoying and closed and locked the door.
About 30 minutes before the last scene, rather than being gently corralled into the ballroom by sinisterly smiling actors offering their hands, the rooms began to be locked, gated, the stewards in black masks lunging from the wall to the banister when I tried to climb the stairs to different floors. As I made my way to the balcony to watch the final scene, I looked over the ballroom floor and saw why. The space that had, on my first and second visits, seemed both full of people and still vast, with each of us held back by an actor, was packed to capacity like the floor of a rock concert. And then I realized exactly why everything had changed.
There were way too many people there. Too many people to clearly see the performances through out the night. Too many people who might take whatever wasn’t nailed down to fill the space with the little details that made the narrative not of Macbeth or Rebecca, on which it is based, but the narrative of Sleep No More itself. Too many people to ever result in you being alone in a room or to find a silent co-conspirator or two to follow a character, never knowing or completely trusting that one of you isn’t in on the act. Too many people to feel like we were all in on a great mystery and adventure together. Too many people to feel like we were taking care of each other and were well taken care of by the performers and staff.
Finding myself in the bar and, once again, just wanting to leave, I was forced back in to an unpleasantly packed Manderley Bar. There were a few people who were talking animatedly about their experience, but for the most part, everyone just seemed irritated at being jammed in so close together or having to wait in line so long for a drink. The magic was gone.
I understand that Sleep No More has outgrown its underground (if ever it had that) status and I applaud something as unexpected as an immersive movement theater piece becoming a huge, huge hit. I also understand that a show like that had to have cost an absolute fortune to produce, and that the temptation to fill the space to legal capacity in order to recoup or turn a profit is probably an irresistible siren song. But the number of people you can fit into 5 floors of Sleep No More is not necessarily the number of people you should fit into Sleep No More. The clear drive to make money has replaced the drive to offer a perfect and unparalleled experience to the audience— it’s in the stripping down of the set, it’s in the uncomfortable number they’ve chosen to let in for any given performance, it’s in the relentless dispensing of one-on-ones as a word of mouth marketing gimmick.
I’m glad to see Punchdrunk experiencing so much success— what is good for them as the forerunners of commercially viable experimental theater is good for all of us— and I encourage anyone who hasn’t yet been to Sleep No More to go. But I, for one, won’t be going back to Manderley.
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