For much of 2011, a plastic beaked mask sat on a shelf in my house–a souvenir from a summer trip to Manhattan with a good friend, during which we had seen Sleep No More, the big ticket “immersive theatre” show that recently landed on year-end top-ten lists for Time, New York, and Entertainment Weekly.
Sleep No More is the most prominent example of bringing interactivity into the theatre. The concept isn’t new (as Michael Coveney of Prospect notes, the Living Theatre of America in the 1960s held shows where the “actors and audience copulated on stage together,” and Toronto in the early 1980s had a show about Naziism called Tamara that was set in a house) but isn’t widely attempted because of its complexity to execute. Often it can come off as gimmicky–think mainstream examples that involve solving murder mysteries or cheering on pretend knights. The success of Sleep No More, no doubt, will encourage more artful immersive experiences to come: in fact, NOW forecasted a 2012 trend of up-close and personal” performances. One example will thrill fans of AMC’s The Walking Dead, as Zed, an immersive take on a zombie apocalypse, is set to open in our city late this year.
I knew very little of Sleep No More before I attended except that it had murder as its central theme: a mash-up of Hitchcock’s Rebecca and Shakespeare’s Macbeth, the action takes place within the McKittrick Hotel (actually three connected warehouses in Chelsea), where over 100 decorated rooms provide the setting for the actors to move about and perform, the audience given a freedom to choose whom, where, and when to follow. The only rules were to wear the mask and become mute for the entirety of the performance–meant to highlight the anonymous voyeuristic nature of theatre–and to not initiate touch with an actor. In effect, we were to be passive ghosts in a haunted house.
(If you plan on seeing it, I’d advise you to bookmark this now and come back afterward. Sleep No More is best experienced with as little knowledge as possible except the advice to continually switch up the actor you follow–the characters tend to loop their actions so there’s no real need to be monogamous with one the entirety of the night.)
Sleep No More is designed so that it is impossible to know the whole of the story with just one visit. Instead, the show hopes the fun continues after the doors close with attendees excitedly sharing with one another what they saw. With over a dozen actors each performing on their own path, unless you stuck with another attendee all the way through–and what is the fun in that?–you’re unlikely to get the same experience as someone else.
The problem, in terms of content, is that while one person can’t see it all there isn’t enough for every experience to feel fulfilling. I quickly realized that the show fell apart whenever I wasn’t following an actor as there isn’t much to unravel in the dressing, populated mostly by props that are odd but don’t contain any back story. Some attendees revelled in a chase to find and follow the actors, but I found it a grating game of hide-and-seek: I felt frustrated running around only to see Lady Macbeth’s bloody bath scene multiple times and yet never bump into MacDuff. It’s not difficult to imagine that with a touch of bad luck someone could spend the whole night in-between sets, never catching any action, like a theatrical game of Poker, where some will draw a straight or a flush, but others may have to contend with lousier hands like a pair or ace high.
Beyond the hit-or-miss experience, Sleep No More at times feels stilted. In 1970, robotics theorist Masahiro Mori coined the phrase “uncanny valley,” a range of almost but not exact likeness to humans that is eerie and can cause revulsion. A similar concept could be applied to theatre: on one end, traditional theatre mandates the audience maintain a fixed distance, and on the other more experimental end, the audience gains a stake in the story and must shape its outcomes (as we do in life). Sleep No More falls into the uncanny valley of interactivity, as attendees have the autonomy to move around and interact with objects but little impact on the their surroundings.
I learned of this one-sided relationship, in which any deviation would not be tolerated, when I received a stern warning in an aborted attempt to transport a character’s luggage from one room to another. What a thrill it would have been if the actors could react to such a development. Instead this is theatre with audience as cipher, a prop like the hanging dolls or a piece of luggage. I became disappointed with left Sleep No More–and, worse, bored. In traditional theatre, the actors exist to play out a story for the audience. Here, the dynamic is flipped: our function is to cater to them, to mirror their cleverness. With this realization, my interest died; we were offered only the illusion of choice, of being able to curate our own experience, yet few opportunities to actually do so.
Sleep No More‘s best moments come when it avoids the uncanny valley. A grand dinner acted in slow-motion hits all the right notes, especially seen from above where the distance allows the grandiosity of the scene to be taken in. Exploring the set and stumbling upon a nursery filled with decapitated dolls hung from the ceiling, like a macabre mobile, was also a thrill. But then the spell breaks when you enthusiastically riffle through a doctor’s office and discover nothing except the superficiality of the random prop records or when stagehands awkwardly clear attendees out from a space so that a scene can take place.
Creators of immersive theatre should remember that interactivity can, but doesn’t necessarily, result in more emotional engagement. I can watch with begrudging helplessness as Marion Crane checks into the Bates Motel and be deeply invested in her survival even though I can’t do a damn thing to save her. I have attended a concert where the energy from the audience greatly affects the performer, even though not a single person is onstage. At the same time, millions of employees go through the same interactive routine at work without ever caring an iota more about what they do.
Sleep No More didn’t work because it took me onstage but managed to make me feel superfluous. As a result, I’ve forgotten much of my time at the McKittrick. I did, however, keep the beaked mask, with the hope that I would someday create stories in which I could play a meaningful part.
Jaime Woo is a Toronto writer, storyteller, and Gamercamp co-creator. Follow him on Twitter at @jaimewoo.