The Search and the Tail: Approaches to Experiencing Immersive Theatre

(Originally published anonymously on Tumblr.)

Sleep No More, the immersive, wordless, dance-driven play, with elements of both Macbeth and Hitchcock, has audience members and actors moving around five floors simultaneously, over the course of during a single show. The McKittrick Hotel, the space in which Sleep No More is performed, occupies 100,000 square feet and contains about a hundred rooms. Formerly three empty nightclubs, the massive space has been transformed into something of a film noir wonderland. It is impossible to see everything in one three-hour viewing; given these constraints, audience members must choose how to experience the show and creative their own narrative as they explore the space.

After the initial acceptance of this show’s unique restrictions (patrons must wear masks, there is no speaking nor photography nor cell phone usage), how does an audience member tackle such a unique production? When given the choice to choose their own path, where do they go? Is there a “best” way to experience Sleep No More?

For most people, there seem to be two primary approaches (credit to Dan Dickinson for naming):

  • The “Search”: spend time methodically absorbing the atmosphere, props, and incredible set design; or
  • The “Tail”: to try to find the actors, follow them for as long as possible, and attempt to make some sort of sense of the action (as it relates possibly to the show’s inspirations, such as the Paisley Witches, Macbeth, or Hitchcock’s Rebecca)

All audience members are dropped off on one of the hotel’s many floors*:

  • First floor/basement: ballroom and mezzanine, containing also King Duncan’s quarters, and a crypt
  • Second floor: the hotel lobby (including a check-in counter, lost luggage room, lost property area, dining room, and the Porter’s office), as well as the Manderley Bar
  • Third floor: the Macbeth residence, the Macduff residence, the orangery and walled garden, and graveyard
  • Fourth floor: the town of Gallow Green, including Mac Crinain and Reid private detective agency, M. Fulton Tailors, Paisley Sweets, Bargarran Taxidermy, Robertson Funeral Home, a speakeasy, Hecate’s bar, and Hecate’s apothecary
  • Fifth floor: King James Sanitorium (including sleeping quarters, offices, and a padded room), a forest maze with the Matron’s pagoda

* Technically there is a sixth floor, but very few audience members are invited to see it per showing.

From their initial starting point, audience members are free to move about the space as they wish.

For those who are brand new to Sleep No More, the thrill of the “Search” can be most compelling. Sleep No More is one of the few art installations that viewers are invited to touch as part of the experience. Guests are encouraged to open drawers and doors. Guests are also invited to sample pieces of candy from Paisley or perhaps leave behind their own hair samples, to join the collection at the sanitorium.

Says Maxine Doyle:

“We all remember the things that we shouldn’t touch but do and then the excitement when we have. I think this work is about that — inviting the sort of forbidden touch.”

Indeed, there is a certain thrill in stepping behind the hotel clerk’s counter, sitting at someone else’s desk, opening a character’s closet, or peeking at medical records of psychiatric patients.

The “Search”-driven approach to Sleep No More is typically methodical, linear, and fairly straightforward, excluding a few rooms that can only be unlocked by a character. For someone exploring every room in the space, the process goes something like: for each floor of the hotel, attempt to discover all the rooms in that floor. (Although some rooms are accessible through multiple entrances or only unlocked during certain periods of the show.) For each room, open the drawers, read the books, and touch the objects within. Try to open every door. Let go of any inhibitions about going through “other people’s” things and read the notebooks, letters, and case files. Some rooms are not entirely obvious, either, at first glance, such as the witches’ dressing room or the first floor crypt. But unlike the always-moving actors, the rooms of the McKittrick Hotel are much easier to grab onto. They are stationary, whereas the actors are constantly on the move, and viewers may begin to notice repeated motifs, such as the usage of trees or taxidermy inside the space. The highly detailed environment was created by over two hundred volunteers over the course of four months; the rooms are so detailed that guests can and do spend hours absorbed, reading books and looking at letters and opening drawers and rifling through desks, noticing tiny details.

Part of Sleep No More is about the journey through the space. The more time an audience member invests in exploring, the more details come to light. There are said to be snippets of the entire text of Macbeth woven throughout the vast space. And the creators of the show hope that audience members pick up on the subtext woven into each room; in fact, each of the many rooms inside of Sleep No More is designed to embody a specific superstition. The rooms are full of Easter eggs, and Punchdrunk’s philosophy is that even if only one audience member, ever, discovers a certain hidden detail, be it a note hidden behind a picture frame or words scribbled on a wall, it’s still worth the effort to include it in the design of the show.

I chose a “Search”-heavy approach for my first visit to Sleep No More. I began in the town of Gallow Green on the fourth floor. Disoriented, and separated from my husband, I gave in to the compulsion to map out the set. This need drove me to try to find every room in the production. I felt as if I needed to familiarize myself with the whole space, perhaps after I’d done this, then I could relax, much like visitors to a museum or amusement park wish do a loop for a cursory overview and then return to whatever piqued their interest later. Guests are warned of “intense psychological situations” upon a visit to the McKittrick Hotel. Fear of being lost and not being able to reunite with one’s party sans cellphone surely are some of them. I caught snippets of interesting scenes but left early or during lulls, because I felt as if I hadn’t yet completed my mission. And when I did finish looking at all of the rooms in the set, I didn’t know what to do next. I’d spent nearly the entire time wandering the sets, often in empty rooms. Is that all there is? I wondered.

Before I knew it, I was being ushered down to the ballroom for the final scene, and the show was over. I had experienced a mere fraction of the action. If I’d stopped trying to see every single room, and paid more attention to the actors, maybe I would have caught more elements from Macbeth. I walked past key locations such as the hotel lobby because it was simply unoccupied at the time and the lights had been turned off. I’d missed so much.

As we returned to the real world, out on the sidewalk, I exclaimed to my husband, “We have to go back!” While it is all too easy to become distracted by the gorgeous sets, the wealth of the Sleep No More experience lies in the action, which unfolds some of its secrets only over time.

Some theatergoers might be satisfied by a “Search”-driven experience. They spend some time exploring the set, but also occasionally watch a dance scene that happens to coincidence with their current location. There may be long stretches of time when the patron does not encounter any actors at all. If audience member is lucky, he or she will eventually see enough pieces of the puzzle to form some skeletal version of Macbeth.

However, for many viewers of Sleep No More, any exposure to the actors feels incidental and somewhat haphazard. The “build your own” method of experiencing the show does not lend itself easily to assembling a plot. It’s difficult to connect the Macbeth storyline dots without seeking certain key scenes (the witches’ prophesies, the murder of King Duncan, the murder of Banquo, etc.), or at least stumbling upon them by accident. Punchdrunk intends that audience members can piece together fragments afterwards, whilst discussing with other members of their party or other showgoers; to me, it seems a much more satisfying experience if an individual to follows a character’s entire loop and attempts to discover that character’s backstory and secrets, as a self-contained story.

But that’s not to say that a “Tail”-driven approach is always successful. The actors move swiftly, sometimes falling or leaping down staircases. Others gather a large crowd behind them before wriggling through a locked gate or disappearing behind a closed door. Often, audience members find themselves trapped in a traffic jam, as two characters pass each other on the stairs, headed in separate directions; part of the natural chaos of the show is to lose one’s target on occasion. However, the swift audience member can successfully view entire story loops for more than one character, within a single show (being good at anticipating the actor’s next move is a handy skill to have).

Plus, it is my feeling that the “Tail” approach yields a better emotional connection to the characters that inhabit the space. Visitors successfully following actors for long periods of time will see more of the intricate choreography these talented actors do over the course of three hours, which is itself a valuable goal. Many fans of Sleep No More are perhaps unaccustomed to observing dance productions, and it may take multiple viewings to truly appreciate scenes. The richness of the character’s movements becomes even more interesting in the context of an immersive production, as they will occasionally hold an audience member’s hand or make eye contact. And the richness of the dance scenes only grows over time, as different actors interpret the same scene multiple ways. Many of the actors in the production are also hired for their improvisational skills.

There’s also an inherent tension between the intricate sets and the action that occurs within the set. Both compete for the attention of viewers. Unlike a traditional production, the Sleep No More set surrounds the viewer from all sides, including sight, smell, sound, and temperature. Punchdrunk have created a beautiful space for these characters to inhabit, but the actors playing these roles also need to create something interesting within these spaces to connect with the viewers on a more instinctive level. It’s a problem they create for themselves in a sense; Felix Barrett admits there are many distractions for the audience once they enter the space, and this forces the actors to work much, much harder to capture the audience’s attention.

One interesting aspect the show is the sense of danger that is imbued throughout the production; there is a heightened sense of drama when the audience enters a room and realizes that there’s an perilous, tightly-choreographed dance scene going on. Macduff and Lady Macduff perform a duet high above the crowd, in the small space between the ceiling and some bookshelves. Banquo’s character does an extended solo dance, hanging upside-down from rickety old luggage racks. Lady Macbeth appears to be slowly going insane, locked inside of a glass box. Inches away, with what appear to be ordinary objects and pieces of furniture, the characters perform violent and sometimes death-defying acts.

It’s moments like these where the “Search” and the “Tail” intersect; moments where all of Sleep No More layers — beautiful decor, stunning choreography, a richly detailed immersive environment, a classic story about the struggle for power, and a mindset of “breaking all the theatre rules” — mesh to create something really remarkable. I find the most memorable parts of the production happen at these times.

“There’s no right or wrong way to experience [Sleep No More]. You have to trust your instincts. The more you let yourself go and succumb to it, the more you’ll receive in return.” — Felix Barrett, Broadwayworld.com

Perhaps both the “Search” approach and “Tail” approach are equally valid, but for those with a keen interest in interior design or set design, it’s far too easy to get sucked into the “Search” at the expense of engaging with the human inhabitants of the McKittrick Hotel. A “Search”-driven visit becomes unsatisfactory after one has passed through the entire space, from top to bottom, and missed much of the action, perhaps looking for clues that aren’t there.

Personally, I find that the “Tail” approach lends itself much better to repeated viewings and analysis, as Sleep No More fans continue to dive deeper into the show’s mysteries: the relationship between cause and effect, the impetus behind the actions of characters, and various subplots layered within the show: Where is Agnes Naismith’s sister? Why are all of the townspeople of Gallow Green in Hecate’s thrall, except for Mr. Fulton? What are the signs that Malcolm sees in those photographs? Where is Hecate’s engagement ring, and who was she engaged to? Why is Catherine Campbell trying to poison Lady Macduff? Who are the people who inhabit the bar, and what are their backstories? Are the characters of Sleep No More trapped in some sort of purgatory, or maybe someone else’s forgotten dream, or is the world of the McKittrick Hotel something else entirely?

We may never know the answers to these questions, but I certainly enjoy trying. See you at the Manderley, then? Calloway is waiting….


Originally published at behindawhitemask.tumblr.com.

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