Over the Christmas holiday, my lovely and talented wife and I went down to New York City for a few days to see friends and go to the theatre. I had been meaning to see Punchdrunk’s Sleep No More, an immersive, participatory theatre experience that had run in Boston for months without us going, and had almost completed its New York run. Seb Chan had written a longish piece about his experience months ago, and several friends who opinions I value had raved about it. I’ve been thinking and writing a lot lately on alternate models for developing exhibitions and it sounded like a model worth exploring to see how it might inform what I do.
So, with high hopes for an “aha” moment, Jennifer, a friend and I walked up to the McKittrick Hotel on West 27th and got in line. Three hours later, we were discharged onto the street; tired, conflicted and unsure of what we’d seen and done. Weeks later, I’m still not sure whether I liked it or not, but I’d still probably go back and see it again. That is a first for me as a theatregoer. And I still recommend it to museum people. I’m hoping to convene an online discussion amongst a group of folks who’ve seen it to help me process what the experience was like. There might even be a conference session in there… We’ll see.
So, what happened when we went to Sleep No More and how might it apply to museums?
What is it?
For those of you who are coming at this fresh, Sleep No More is a theatrical experience (not a play, per se) that combines elements of Macbeth, film noir, and uses an abandoned hotel as the setting. The audience are all given white masks and instructed to remain completely silent throughout the performance. Actors move about the hotel, up and down stairs, and scenes take place throughout the building over the course of a night. The performances build to a climax, but aside from that, you don’t really get any guidance on how to experience the night. Some people follow actors, some camp out in a space, all of which are extensively decorated and full of objects that reflect something about the plot. You can rummage around in desk drawers, open doors and wander as the events play out around you. Parties are encouraged to split up, and while I was there, I saw a couple actively separated by ushers and deposited on different floors as we rode the elevator up. Definitely not your typical night at the theatre.
Our night started with us handing in our tickets and getting playing cards in return; two kings and a queen. We were ushered into a nightclub with a 1930s vibe and waited for the event to begin. We also got masks. Before long, everyone in the club with a queen card was called and ushered out of the room. After a few more minutes, they called the kings and off we went. Jen had been in the bathroom when the queens were called, so she managed to stay with us as we crowded around an actor in evening wear who gave us an orientation.
Getting lost in a play
I’m a big fan of Jasper Fforde’s Thursday Next series of novels, which imagines an alternate Britain where it’s possible to enter the storyworlds of books. Being in Sleep No More is very much like the theatrical equivalent, only you’re a ghost. We wandered through a series of rooms dressed as offices, taxidermy shop, a 1920s witch’s lab (?) and a creepy bedroom full of dismembered dolls. I looked under curtains, inside desks, and around corners. It was fascinating to feel the freedom to go wherever I wanted. And I wanted everything to tell me the story. I picked up every phone I saw on the off chance there might be somebody else on the line. Along with all the other ghosts, I flitted around, looking for signs of life. As we got deeper into the hotel, we started to encounter actors silently moving about, casting meaningful glances at one another, and interacting, sometimes violently. I knew enough to want to know who I was seeing. Is that guy Macbeth? Who’ s the pregnant woman? Are those two lovers? It was a bit maddening to have the actors standing right in front of you and not know who they were and what they were doing. The actors don’t speak, all the action is done through gesture and dance. The only sounds are a powerful ambient soundtrack piped throughout the hotel and the sounds of people moving.
We watched several quick scenes happen and were immediately faced with a decision point. When the actors left at the end of a scene, you as an audience member had to choose how to react. Do I follow Actor A? B? Stay here? Or wander? Nothing about the scenes gave me a sense of how to make an informed decision. It seems like the creators wanted to keep the audience off-guard and on their toes throughout the whole event. This became a theme of the evening for me; feeling like I was having to make decisions based on no information. I didn’t like it. It made wandering around a high-stakes affair. Was I leaving someplace where something was going to happen in a moment? What if this actor I was following was a bit player and not one of the main characters? I did manage to find a couple of of pivotal scenes; Macbeth murdering the king and Lady Macbeth’s “out, out damned spot” bit. But by the time the finale rolled around, I still had no sense who most of the characters were, or what their relationships to each other were.
Immersion, immersion, immersion
The set design was incredible. Whole rooms full of intriguing, evocative objects, a nighttime forest, a graveyard. And all in a black-box theatre! I loved being able to really get into each space, root around, and interact with the environment. And for the scenes I did stumble into, it was very powerful to have actors performing a scene all around you as if you weren’t there. And on the occasions when an actor would suddenly lock eyes onto an audience member and stare them down? Powerful, powerful stuff. The one time it happened to me I kept saying to myself, “Please don’t let her drag me off through some unmarked door!” Not the relationship I usually have with actors in the midst of a performance. Being able to be that close made it a very different experience, more like modern dance or performance art.
Losing the story, or not finding it
After it was over, we spent a long time talking about theatre, and inevitably comparing Sleep No More to other shows. One of my favorite theatre experiences of the past decade was seeing Elevator Repair Service‘s Gatz, which is a verbatim recitation of “The Great Gatsby” done as a play within a play. Though it’s a slender book, when you read every word, it still takes seven hours, or in our case, two stints of 3.5 hours with dinner in the middle. Going into it, I thought I might be making a terrible mistake. But at the end of seven hours when the narrator finally said, “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”, the house erupted into deafening applause. As the cast were taking their bows, Jennifer leaned over and said she wished they’d lower a picture of F. Scott Fitzgerald, because we were really applauding him. And she was right. His prose, so easy to read, turned out to be as easy to speak. The story was so compelling that seven hours flew by, in a way they didn’t at Sleep No More, though I worked much harder to try to put a story together.
At the time I wondered if knowing as much as I did about Sleep No More had interfered with my ability to suspend my disbelief. If I was coming at it fresher, would it have made more sense to me, been more moving? My friend, who knew nothing, felt the opposite. As we sat over drinks, recapping the night, it seemed clear that none of the three of us had a clear grip on the plot. Jennifer and I argued over which bits might be from scenes we remembered from Macbeth and Peggy just felt lost.
…and the museum connection?
In some of my more recent posts, I’ve started trying to work out a different model of exhibition development than the one I learned of objects in cases and texts and graphics. Sleep No More seemed like a potential example of how to make the kind of exhibit experiences I’d proposed as part of the Making a Museum from Scratch series. It’s opaque, it’s participatory, it offers its users tremendous freedom to construct their own experience. But I left it profoundly conflicted over whether I’d had a meaningful experience or not. I’m still not really sure. But I have come to some preliminary conclusions about the night and what it mean mean for how I might conceive of exhibitions in the future.
The solo thing isn’t for me
The masks and enforced silence really rubbed me the wrong way. I didn’t go to the theatre to be alone. Going to a museum is a social event by and large, and I don’t think making it a solitary experience would engender much goodwill from our public. In some ways, the whole faceless silent ghost thing reminded me of watching live streams on my computer, where there was something happening in the real world that I was spying on though the Internet.
Nothing immerses like complete immersion
Duh. But it’s something we do very rarely. It’s expensive. It’s hard. It takes a lot of work to make it “real”. But when it works, wow!
Interactions with people are more satisfying
Strangely enough, the one museum-like experience I could think of to compare Sleep No More to was visiting a living history site, like Plimoth Plantation. The difference, of course, is that the interpreters at Plimoth interact with you, and are brilliant at immersing you in their world. Someday, I’ll write up the story of the strange afternoon I spent at Plimoth with a bunch of Soviet rocket scientists…
Being able to find a way in, out and about is key
Getting lost can be fun when the stakes are low, but when your enjoyment relies on being able to get around, it’s not nice to feel lost. I felt that too often in Sleep No More. I tend not to like exhibitions that channel you down one path from room to room, but I also don’t like feeling abandoned in a space. Unlike a storyworld game like Myst, where my action drove the narrative, in Sleep No More it was happening on its own timetable and I’d better keep up. Sink or swim doesn’t seem like a workable mindset for an enjoyable exhibition experience.
Story is king
Sure its a hoary old chestnut, but it’s truth is undiminished by how it often its been repeated. Why did plain old Gatz keep me glued to my seat for seven hours while Sleep No More couldn’t hold me for half that time? The story. My main takeaway from the night might be that no amount of innovation and technical proficiency can overcome a weak story. The museum implications of this are obvious, I think. It doesn’t matter how cool your interface is if the content in your CMS is rotten, or incomplete, or just boring. Same for your exhibition, program, or event.
I’m sure there are others that will continue to bubble up to the surface. I’m looking forward to talking to others who’ve seen it. After that happens, I’ll add a postscript with whatever interesting thoughts come out of the discussion. If you’ve been, I’d love to hear what you thought of Sleep No More.