“Sleep No More” — my exercise in trust

They dance. It’s meticulously choreographed. One man tosses another into the phone booth and gently moves the weaker down his body. The dynamic aggressor yanks the other to and fro within the compact space. They feed off each other in beautiful aggressive sensual movement. I’m not sure if this is simulating a murder or sex for a second. The less aggressive of the two seems conflicted at times and finally gets thrown to the ground so close to the white masked crowd around me that we all collectively jump back to give him space.

This interactive theater seems to rely on the audience participating in a way that leaves no room for distraction. If a character has to move to a space where you are, they will move there and hopefully you get out of the way in time. The story must go on. The entire crowd wears white masks. We’re told at the beginning that the masks are never to come off in the space. There are also black masked workers who are not there to guide us, only to help us if we need something and direct us to where we can and cannot go. The actors are unmasked and roam this five-floor compound freely performing — maybe Macbeth in some way, shape or form. That’s what I’ve been told. That’s all I know. Oh, and also these white masks make my face sweaty.

I’ve given up on trying to fully understand and simply go where I feel. In front of me now, the dominant mustached gentlemen looks over the body he’s just thrown to the floor and dashes off around the corner. The masked crowd runs after him.

At this point I’ve learned that following a crowd is often futile. I’m choosing the path less crowded at every turn now. Only two others and myself remain at the site of the scene. I look to the man on the ground and wonder how he’s staying so still. How long will this actor have to lay here for? What’s to stop an audience member from accidentally stepping on him or purposefully doing anything annoying to him?

Before I can ask any more questions the man pops up and looks directly into my eyes. He races to me, takes my hand and leads me gently through a small crowd and down what feels like an extremely long and dark hallway. (Later I’ll realize we only went around the corner). My heart is racing. His hand is shaking.

He opens a door and I catch a glimpse of a black mask stopping the other audience members from following us. I enter the room and he slams the door behind me.

I’m not sure who he is but it seems like this space is his and now, mine. It’s just the two of us in this room that is only slightly larger than an average closet. The walls and small desk are covered in old filing cabinets and dusty newspapers.

He’s looking for something until he’s not — until he’s looking at me, looking deeply into me. He’s hurting. He reaches his hands toward my head as tears well up in his eyes.

His hands gently pull off my mask and as he sees my full face he deeply inhales a sigh of relief. It feels like he’s undressing me in the least sexual way possible; like I’m being seen in a way I haven’t been before. We’re breaking all the rules. The masks are mandatory. They separate audience from cast and without it I feel naked and vulnerable. Our eyes stay locked as tears fall down his face. He looks away and I feel as though I may cry.

He pulls out a chair and gently motions for me to sit. I do. He sits next to me, desperately trying to hold himself together. He carefully looks in a small circular vanity mirror, moving it closer and then farther from his face. When he rests it down he strategically shifts it so that he can look into my eyes through it while sitting next to me. When our eyes meet, I feel his story of pain through the carefully crafted reflection.

My breathing feels heavy in eyes. When he looks away again, I’m relieved for a moment. He pulls out a lipstick container and throws the cap down so abruptly that I reach out to help him but pull away. I don’t know what the rules are here but I know I want to be there for him — both the character and actor. I want to comfort him in his performance and the character in his suffering. The lines are so blurred in this moment that I’m not sure if I’m a part of the story I don’t even fully understand.

He turns the red lipstick as if possessed by a force outside of himself. He touches the lipstick to his mouth and makes a circle that doesn’t fit the lines of his lips. I watch through the mirror and his face relaxes for just a moment until his eyes close and his body jerks forward. His hips thrust and mouth opens in a way that I can’t help but think resembles an ejaculation. His eyes meet mine in the mirror. He’s stopped crying and seems to look through me until he moves to open another box nearby. In this box is a short brown wig. He lays it flat on the table. Instead of bringing the wig to his head, he brings his head to the table and into the wig. When he lifts his head his hands lightly adjust it to fit.

I want to see his eyes but the wig blocks them. I turn to meet his reflection in the mirror. I feel this is he at his most vulnerable. My eyes begin to well.

He turns to me directly and puts a gold ring on my ring finger ever so slightly while maintaining eye contact. It feels like we’re intertwined somehow now. I can see and feel him getting more upset and find myself wanting to comfort him deeply.

But before I can he breaks away and while crying locks the wig and lipstick away. A tear falls down my face and before I can formulate another thought I’m standing. He’s gently moving me into a corner until his entire body falls into mine. He sobs desperately. I can feel his heart beating rapidly against my chest and his body heaving. I can feel his tears fall onto my shoulder as he buries his head deeper into it. As he gasps I’m not sure another human has actually cried on me like this — in such a visceral full body on my full body way. I can’t help but hug him. I press my hand against his back and feel him get weaker and hold me tighter.

And I wonder what I’m doing? Am I comforting this character or this actor? They feel one in the same in this moment. This man, the actor, is living this experience. I can feel his heart beating. These aren’t fake tears. This man, the character, is struggling so deeply with something that I don’t fully understand but can relate to in his sense of desperation. And instead of questioning any more I simply hold them both tighter and he gasps. He whispers something short and inaudible into my ear.

And in an instant he pulls away and gets my mask back on my face before I can even blink. He’s fixes his room and composes himself. The door opens and before I can process anything he’s gone. I try to follow him but the crowd runs after him and I know that him and I are finished now.

I cling to the ring on my finger and realize magnitude of this unique human experience on both performer and audience member. It’s both parties meeting each other in their vulnerability and trusting one another. The actor trusted me to step up to meet him where he is, to not pull him out of the scene or myself out of the experience. Him and I are breaking the rules, so to speak, — the rules of the theater, of the masks, of separation between theatergoer and performer. No one else will have that experience, even people pulled into that room because the energy of that situation will change drastically from person to person.

The rest of the show is a blur — extensions of this experience on a less intimate level at every turn. Truthfully I’m not sure I could tell you the full story of the performance, but I would characterize the experience as a truly unique exercise in trust that I wish for everyone.