You've probably heard breathless accounts of Sleep No More, the immersive, interactive theater experience that's been the sleeper (pun intended) off-Broadway hit of the summer. And with the spectacle approaching the end of its extended run this October 8th, we wanted to reiterate once more: GO. Believe the hype. Forget the ticket price. Because the experience that awaits you there is unlike anything you've ever encountered. Even if you hate theater, loathe Shakespeare, and are allergic to fun, this is not something you want to miss.
On a balmy Monday evening this August, I entered a non-descript brick building in the Chelsea warehouse district with a black awning and a single gold plate outside declaring it the 'McKittrick Hotel'. The box office line plunges you into pitch-black darkness, lit by a single low-hanging ceiling lamp, evoking a film noir interrogation room. After surrendering my phone and possessions, I found myself downing a glass of period-appropriate absinthe and embarking on a journey through the deconstructed narrative that is Sleep No More Punchdrunk Theatre company's bizarro mashup of Shakespeare's Macbeth and Hitchock's Rebecca. A few of the highlights of my thrilling adventure: being bathed in the warm glow of cinematic blue light in the cabaret, reading disturbing chalkings on an observational medical table, and a padded cell with occult symbols ripped into wall with a straitjacket limp on the floor at my feet (which I promptly put on and spooked fellow theatergoers with).
The experience of Sleep No More is indescribable not in the sense that it is beyond understanding, but simply above retelling.
London-based experimental theater company Punchdrunk are pushing forth the medium of theater through their performance-installations, works that envelop the audience in emotion, art and unpredictability, literally transporting theater goers to another time and place. Patrons chase actors between scenes to piece together the unfolding narrative and rifle through immaculately detailed desks and papers to immerse themselves in the unique environmental storytelling. Audiences are left feeling at once vulnerable and liberated, entrusted with the autonomy to explore Punchdrunk's world as it is unveiled before them, but left somewhat disoriented and off-kilter by its unpredictability, never quite sure what's going on and what's coming next.
We spoke with Felix Barrett, Artistic Director of Punchdrunk on the power of immersive theater, their inspirations behind Sleep No More, and Punchdrunk's future projects, including Punchdrunk Travel.
Greg Finch: I felt an incredible sense of purpose and autonomy making my way through the world of Sleep No More—rifling through papers, examining objects, scaring other audience members. What are some of the most memorable audience behaviors or reactions you've encountered?
Felix Barrett: There are some people who retreat within themselves and become complete voyeurs. The one-on-ones are where we get the most bizarre responses, the more emotional responses. Some have cried with the performance, so within the room they share that form of purest intimacy. The line between performer and audience—the reality blurs. Theatrically it's very dangerous, but it's a very interesting place.
Usually in the arts there's some semblance of an antagonistic relationship between performer and audience, but I've never felt more respected as an audience member.
That's the starting point. For years I wanted to put audiences at the heart of the experience, where literally you are the epicenter. So for the majority of the process, we devote time to thinking about the audience. What would I feel now if I were an audience member? What would I want to happen? It's a rejection of self-indulgent stage work, of the European scene where at the end of the performance the director gets a round of applause at the end. The audience should applaud themselves if they've managed to crack apart the show—you've discovered your own show and take ownership of it.
I understand that the first iteration of Sleep No More was in 2003. What was the first kernel of inspiration to bring together Shakespeare and Hitchcock? What attracted you to either the character or the film Rebecca?
There are so many parallels. With Hitchcock, the evocative sound-world in the film had such a texture to it, so that was what first initiated my interest, was the depth and density of that soundtrack. And then realizing that the narrative construct of film noir—femme fatales, paranoia, the balance of light and dark—are all core motifs of Macbeth as well. Power and obsession, the spiral descent into the maelstrom, those are all totally Shakespearean.
The soundtrack and lighting design were another element I wanted to ask you about. When I walked into the cabaret, I crossed the doorway threshold to a horn blast as if I was on cue, and was immediately flooded with the blue light being fractured through the stacked chairs. Throughout Sleep No More I'd have these moments which reinforced in my head that I was the protagonist of my own film. Does the installation use any digital technology?
The technology is primarily for the light and sound. There's sixteen different soundtracks cued up on one system because it has to be completely in sync. It's pretty complicated.
Is one of the goals of the soundtrack in Sleep No More to disorient? It reminded me of the first twenty minutes of Irréversible by Gaspar Noe—a lot of low-end reverb, drones with heavy bass elements.
We used that audio from Irréversible as a reference for an earlier project actually. It's so visceral. It's when you can feel a sound instead of just hear it, with your whole body.
In regards to Punchdrunk Travel—I understand you're trying to keep the experience as intimate and under-wraps as possible, but it seems to be such a natural extension of Punchdrunk that it's the next logical step.
It is—it's kind of difficult to talk about because it's in development and we're in the opening stage. It's the idea that the real world becomes cinematic, and your everyday life is made theatrical, and suddenly anybody you walk past on the street could be a performer—you don't know. The action in the theater will follow you home and live inside your house with you.
When I first heard the premise of Punchdrunk Travel it reminded me of an experience I had with Gaspar Noe's Enter The Void. The entire film is shot in the first person, and when I left the theater my brain had a very difficult time adjusting to real life. For a solid half-hour the experience of leaving the theater and entering the subway felt like part of the film—it took that long for the confusion to wash off. That's what reminded me of Punchdrunk, that feeling of never being sure when the performance starts and ends.
That's completely the feeling I've had that great artworks, like with Matthew Barney, have this hypnotic, mild delicious brainwashing that enables you to see the real world through a different lens. Cinema does that to a certain extent, but we hope to literally make that happen.
Yes, completely. Weirdly, I picked up Bioshock a few days ago and haven't been able to put it down. I don't play many videogames but read about them. Both are iconic games that I need to understand. The world in Bioshock is incredible, and as a system for delivering a narrative, it's very interesting. L.A. Noire—I find that a bit more frustrating, I kept getting stuck.
My final question is if you had an unlimited budget, what would be your dream project to do for Punchdrunk?
Punchdrunk Travel—that's it. It's scalable, but I would do something for one audience member at a time, to create something unique that they're thrown into.
Interview by Greg Finch
Originally posted on our sister blog, The Creators Project.