Good theatre captures our imagination via varying combinations of spoken word, song, music, staging and effects. Audiences are induced to invest in characters and plot, often with gratifying emotional payoffs, even with great familiarity of the story beats. For example, most still find Les Miserables affecting after many viewings. We relate to the protagonist’s (and antogonist’s) personal struggle, and internalize it on some level, even if the context is foreign to us. Afterwards we tell others, “it was a great show,” and then talk about the narrative or performance quality.
Punchdrunk’s Sleep No More obliterates the limitations of traditional theatre by burrowing into deeper, richer sensory levels. The result transforms our dramatic perspective in a way that is a difficult to verbalize - profoundly skewing the perceived limits of what is theatrically achievable. But how? It can’t be limited to simply masking the audience - creating a veil for boundless inhibitions. McKittrick guests aren’t flinging off their clothes during the rave or re-enactingThe Red Hour in the replica bar (at least not at the shows I’ve attended). So what is it that grips our subconscious so tightly that makes letting go seem impossible?
Here is a beginner’s look at just a few aspects of the immersive Sleep No Moreexperience that turn the traditional theatrical paradigm on it’s head, with addictive results.
Proximity - In SNM, our heightened reception of emotion comes from activity only few feet away, rather than partially imagined from the balcony. This invites more natural performer interpretation - similar to the nuances between acting on stage vs. on screen. Standing right next to Macbeth in the mezzanine during Duncan’s party, I have found his emotions are expressive but conflicted - internal - yet still captivating. Overacting for those in the nosebleeds isn’t necessary. So our absorption is increasingly inward while the performances are more authentic.
Intimacy - Exploring the stunning sets and close following actors is fresh and stimulating - but the first time making contact with the performers is when the experience really begins to exhilarate. Lots of levels to consider here: the feeling of being selected or rewarded; the ability to interact with the storyline; perhaps even the chance to “perform” with an admired actor. I love the interaction - and find myself attempting an expression or emotion that will make it easiest for my performing partner to remain in character - although they undoubtedly don’t need the help. The experience is euphoria-inducing - “collecting” 1-on-1s is not for checklist purposes, but to regain the sensational awareness transferred during one’s first private tête-à-tête. I wonder how much of the casting process is dedicated to evaluating performer interaction in these settings - as the results are tremendous.
Choice - Control of our location and path is a gift to the audience - especially to those of the Adderall generation. In traditional theatre, the director stands behind our seat and virtually holds our head towards the most prescient storyline. Those restraints disappear in the SNM experience, creating more ownership of what we ultimately decide to witness or touch. This democratic element can frustrate some struggling to find the action - but later can heighten the joy of surprise. Immersive video games like Skyrim, Grand Theft Auto, or Red Dead Redemption have done a good job satisfying our desire to control the environment - but cannot trump the personal experience offered here by Punchdrunk.
Pacing - SNM scene-work cannot be tied together through technological illusion (video editing) as in film, but instead take place in real time, fully in our presence. This creates greater character immersion and unique performer moments as each choice and movement is under scrutiny. It also adds to the demands on the actor to carefully convey their character arc in organic ways. I enjoy catching a performer in a loop transition phase without anyone nearby - and still remaining completely in character without breaks.
Riddle - And then there’s the game of it all. Solve the riddle, win the prize, get a new reaction. Seeking understanding legitimizes our efforts - makes us feel that we are investing in a solution, similar to case studies in school or work. Gamers talk about how many hours to “finish” a game - the longer it takes the greater the value of the investment, and the more we want to return, to finish what we started.
Some say the mark of a good film is if you think or talk about it the next day. That’s too easy a standard for Sleep No More - although it remains bloody hard to explain to others without blowing it for them or sounding batty. So what is actually transpiring in the McKittrick? I contend it is morphing the theatrical medium from “show” into “experience” - a real achievement - and one that is so hard afterwards to stop thinking about.
And yet trying to “solve” Sleep No More like a game (such as completing Hecate’s ring quest) proves ultimately frustrating.
The audience has no true agency within the show. It is immersive theatre, not interactive theatre.
Even those who have found Hecate’s ring say that it merely unlocks another quest — there is no way to “finish” Sleep No More.
It hooks you, draws you in, but you can never truly finish.