Urban Enchantment: Lost in Sleep No More
October 12, 2021
We didn’t realize we were in trouble until the man trapped Brittany in the elevator behind his arm and gave Sara a tiny, gleeful wave while the doors closed in her face.
Sara stared blankly at the shiny metal doors, thinking “They abduct people here?!” and also “Oh god, I have to find her, but when I do, she’s going to kill me.”
Let’s back up a bit. It was 2018, and the guy was wearing a mask. So were we, for that matter.
No, not KN95 plague masks. Like, creepy, white, expressionless masks.
If you love Shakespeare’s Macbeth (or The Scottish Play, if you’re feeling fancy/superstitious) or weird theater, you might already know about Sleep No More. Basically, it’s an experimental remix of Macbeth, combined with noir/ Hitchcock elements, plus a dash of the Paisley Witch Trials from 1697. Audience members silently wander through five floors of dimly-lit rooms in which the play wordlessly unfolds around them.
The whole thing is the creation of a UK production company called Punchdrunk under the direction of Felix Barrett and Maxine Doyle. It opened in 2011 and has been continually running at the McKittrick Hotel, actually a block of old warehouses, in New York City since. The show is all about theatrical immersion, a “gradual descent into a waking dream” that “merges physical theatre, contemporary dance, environmental theatre, and interactive theatre with cinematic ‘realism; and a choose-your-own-adventure narrative” as Myrto Koumarianos and Cassandra Silver put it in their article “Dashing at a Nightmare: Haunting Macbeth in Sleep No More.”
Also? It’s uncanny, unsettling, and, sometimes, terrifying.
You can wander through the Macbeths’ bedroom and watch Lady M have her handwashing meltdown, tour the near-empty asylum, or watch the world’s creepiest banquet unfold in the grand ballroom. Let’s not even get into what the three witches get up to… suffice to say it’s not for the faint of heart!
Sara had already seen Sleep No More once previously, adored it, and was frantically texting Brittany from the street the second she got her phone back (the theater has a strict no bringing in stuff policy) saying that we had to visit together.
Important context: We’re both surprisingly chicken, especially for Gothic-obsessed, uncanny-loving, scholars of witches and vampires. Brittany in particular just does not do any media that’s demon possession heavy – her Catholic roots get terrorized and shriveled and she runs away screaming.
“It’s not really demon-y!” Sara explained! “It’s just a general aura of pervasive malice! It will be so fun!”
The words “experimental theater” were uttered repeatedly (we’re both suckers for experimental theater) and also “I’ll stay right by your side the entire time! I promise.” And thus Brittany was convinced to try it… as long as Sara NEVER left her.
What neither of us knew was that apparently the theater wranglers – the elevator attendants who take you from the Manderley Bar (#Rebecca) up into the theater proper – love to separate parties who look extra clingy.
And we definitely didn’t know about the secret sixth floor.
Sara strode boldly from the elevator, ready to protect Brittany with all 5’2 of her, just as the elevator wrangler/ plague doctor slammed his arm down behind her, trapping Brittany in the elevator and closing the door before Sara had any idea what was happening.
She waited in the hallway by the elevator for a while, hoping this was part of a one-on-one theatrical encounter and that Brittany would soon be released into the hallway.
So she decided she must have exited on another floor and started racing through the theater, trying to find her.
This was profoundly difficult for a couple of reasons.
- The aforementioned masks. Every audience member who enters the Sleep No More theater space has to wear an identical mask at all times.
- It’s dark in there! Some rooms are brighter than others, but they range from dim to oh-god-I-can’t-see-anything-oh-god-I-just-collided-with-a-gravestone.
- That theater is, remember, a repurposed block of warehouses, and it’s massive. It covers five floors (plus the secret sixth floor!), and we didn’t try to count the number of rooms, but we’ve read that it’s over a hundred. It’s a lot of ground to cover.
So Sara was tearing all over the theater, running up and down stairs, through corn mazes and hotel lobbies and taxidermy shops, dodging actors seducing and killing each other, and audience members behind their identical masks.
Mostly, she was just hoping that she wouldn’t find Brittany sobbing in Lady Macbeth’s bathtub.
Meanwhile? Brittany was completely panicking.
The dude in the elevator was obviously thrilled with how scared she was to be alone, and milked it for all it was worth, staring creepily, unwilling to answer any of her questions. When he finally let her out, he murmured “fortune favors the brave” with a sinister grin, and pushed her out into a large, lonely room with absolutely NO ONE else around. We learned later that this was the illusive 6th floor – the floor you typically can’t get to unless you score an exclusive 1-on-1 event with one of the actors – so we won’t spoil anything about it here, but ultimately Brittany was glad she got to go it alone in the beginning. She got to experience the mystery and glamour of the theater, which made the panic mostly worth it.
We eventually slammed into each other, completely by accident, in the witchy apothecary room (of course.) It’s full of dried flowers and herbs and weird bottles and arcane writing scrawled across the walls. We jumped up and down and did wild charades with our hands, but since we couldn’t see each other’s faces or talk, we couldn’t really explain what had happened until we got out of the theatre.
Sleep No More is, hands down, the craziest, most amazing theatrical experience either one of us has ever had. It’s a bizarre dream that somehow comes together into a fabulous, un-replicable experience. We highly, HIGHLY recommend taking an evening to see it if you’re ever in NYC – it’s a night you’ll never forget.
All this is to say that sometimes incredible art is a little scary. A little outside your comfort zone. And that’s okay. Emily Dickinson once famously said “Nature is a haunted house – but Art – a house that tries to be haunted.” And when a piece of art achieves that ‘haunted’ quality? Well. There’s almost nothing better.
Look for more on this from us in the coming weeks ;).