Shakespeare in the '20s
Sleep No More
A couple of weekends ago I went with my good friend, Dave, to an immersive theater experience called Sleep No More. It is basically the play of Macbeth as if it were set in the 1920s. Only, instead of watching the show from seats, you follow the characters around each setting as they move through the story.
Now, I'll give more details below my spoiler line just in case someone wants to go and doesn't want to hear too many tidbits. But I'm going to assume that a lot of you are mildly curious and wouldn't mind just hearing about my experience with it. Though, I do highly recommend going yourself if you find yourself able to!
So, as I said before, it was an immersive experience. Actors could bump into you as they run from scene to scene. You could be just a couple of feet away as you watched characters fight, dance, or meet their demise. And to tell the actors from the attendees apart, they provide you with a creepy mask to wear. I thought this would be the creepiest part, but it really wasn't so bad. Also, there was no talking allowed. The only sounds you heard throughout the night were the actors and the scuffling of the feet from the other attendees.
It lasted about three hours and was spread throughout five stories of the building. The areas felt so real, no details were spared! You were welcome to just explore the areas, open drawers, riffle through files, read letters and notes... the effort the design team put in for this production was amazing!
The other really neat thing about this is that you can get a chance to have a one-on-one scene with one of the characters! You just have to stay on their tail long enough, keep in front of the pack of attendees, and make good eye contact. It also helps if you travel alone and not with a group of friends. That's generally a good idea for this, anyway, since you can cover more ground alone and aren't as distracted. You can really get a feel for everything that's going on if you just jump in.
Fortunately enough, Dave and I each got one of those special interactions! And these moments are amazing (and he has had three of these in total - they all sound great!). These moments are intimate and intense. It's really what made the whole night for me. I would have been happy without it, probably, but it was the sweet icing on the cake!
And now, the details.
Here There Be Spoilers:
We were the first few allowed inside, going into a swanky area for coat checks before we were guided to a dark hallway. The light was so low you could barely see anything as it twisted around, only a small glow put at each bend. It pretty much forces you to feel the walls as you move along so you don't bump into anything. While I would be annoyed at this, it really did set the mood for the night.
It dropped us out into The Lounge - a small, high-class of the 1920s venue with pretty ladies and a stage for some musical entertainment. There was a bar to the right and a hostess station directly ahead. Behind her was the stage and restricted area where we had reserved seats. We checked in and she brought us to our table. Another pretty lady came by and gave us drinks. Barely anyone was inside yet, but Dave being the brave one that he is, suggested we go and mingle.
There was a beautiful lady that didn't seem to mind our attention. Evelyn. She had short, wavy blonde hair and a looooow cut number which glittered with gold, and with a personality to match! She was very welcoming, had a quick wit, and a great sense of humor. We talked with her for a few minutes before she slipped away to tend to other guests. (As a quick aside, she remembered my name at the end of the evening! A real class act right there. She was amazing). But we didn't have long before Maximillion, the guy putting this on, addressed everyone from the stage and had us all filter out to get our masks.
Once masked, we were put onto a large elevator. I was the last one off on... what may have been the 4th floor. I probably should have paused before leaving with that last group. I probably could have gotten to the 5th floor. Maybe? I'm not sure. A lot of this experience could bring about a lot of "what if?" moments that it's really important to just push them away for the sake of enjoyment. But that's life, right?
From here on out things are a bit more jumbled for me. I'll remember moments instead of my complete linear experience. But as the way this production is set up... there are three phases of it throughout the night, meaning that it is essentially played over three times. Which is nice, because they advise that you follow a character around to try to get their story, but it is easy to lose track of them or wander off to some other area as crowds of people rush through. So something you may have missed the first time around, you have a chance of seeing the second or third time around.
It's kind of like a very Quentin Tarantino way of watching it. Which I dig. It's how my brain likes to operate.
So, the minute I exited the elevator, it was exploring time! I believe I came out at a graveyard area. It was dark and smoky, creepy statues in various states of ruin along with broken down walls. I was already trying to look for clues, information that could help me along throughout the night. But this place was fairly barren from what I could see. But it lead to a huge bed chamber - a bed in the corner with a bathtub right in the center. Crumpled letters were scattered around the tub so I picked one up and tried to read it. It was difficult given the script and the lighting, and I had to remind myself to not get caught up reading when I needed to find a character to follow! I did notice that each letter was different, or at least there were three different ones. (At the end of the night, I would come to find this room completely reset for the next show that was after ours, which was really neat.)
So off I went to the next area! I believe I took some stairs down (it was easy to get lost, but never in that scary sense, just in that frustrating, "Where the heck are the stairs and what level am I on?" sort of way). The next area I remember was a room that was an office, three old desks were there with files and papers about. I set to snooping around, but then a couple of actors came in, so I shuffled over and out of the way. I wasn't sure who they were, but they started to make out! They danced around, sliding across high cabinets and entwined in an embrace. It was a little mesmerizing to witness. And as the crowd grew around me, I pushed myself back and exited the room. I didn't feel a connection to the two, so I wasn't about to dawdle. I put the tidbit of what I saw in my memory and moved on.
The next area was made out to be a bit like a town. Cobblestone ‘road' with shops lining the way. Mostly empty of people but filled with various things. I went into one room that had a few people inside with an actor doing some sort of alchemy, or spell, around some dead crow. He poured out designs with salt and laid the bird in the middle, but then he heard something behind him - there was a curtain, and he quickly covered his space while.... I think it was the couple from before, who moved into the room. But they were quickly gone and the man got back to work again. After a small while he looked up, chose someone from the gathered crowd (a gal who had been hovering over his desk just about the entire time), and he whisked her off and out of sight!
That gave me a clue as to how these one-on-one things went! Not that I wasn't coached beforehand, but it was neat to see it in action. And it made me just that more determined to find one of my own. I would have been interested in what that character would have had to say, but for me, it was time to move on!
Which is another thing I should note. The actors, when out and about, fighting and dancing with each other... they scream, yell, and do a sort of talking... but it's unintelligible. It's made only for the point of evoking emotions without having specific words come out. I REALLY loved it. Vocal words are generally hard for me to understand anyway, they get jumbled up in my brain so half the time I'm trying to untwist in my head what was said and I often miss a lot of what was even being said. So to be able to watch a play when you rely solely on body language and the tones from their voices... they were completely speaking my language.
But, during the one-on-one encounters, THAT is when they actually speak. It would be a tad more weird otherwise.
Moving on... see, this is where things get more jumbled. I remember some guy in a darkroom, horrific pictures hung up to finish developing, and it looked like he was about to garrote himself when a lady came in and stopped him. Actually, this might have happened during my first experience with the office. Either way! I saw it, it was weird, I moved on.
I think this is where I went up two flights of stairs... where I encountered the psychiatric ward. THAT was the one thing that REALLY unnerved me. I still explored the rooms lines with beds and bathtubs. I didn't go into the room that had an examination chair in the middle, one with leather straps for the writs. Visions of having a one-on-one in THAT room came to mind and I didn't want any part of it.
Outside the ward was a forest maze. It was all made of long, thin trees, so you could see through it and not feel claustrophobic, but it was still eerie and somewhat challenging to get through. That is, if you were trying to get to a certain area, but kept finding yourself going somewhere else. I didn't stay there long because I felt a pull to go somewhere else. So I did.
A few times I'd see some actor running across the way, so I'd follow and watch them do a scene or two. Each time I only half wanted to get a scene with them (the first one I encountered, I was really hoping for, but alas) and even then, the crowd would quickly grow and I'd naturally lose my front-row spot. People didn't shove or anything rude like that, but I just let myself fall back. Really, the drive wasn't there.
So, I just kept moving, kept wandering around and catching bits and pieces of scenes where I could. Usually staying until the end of it and the actors went off to their next area. That's when I'd try to follow one, or follow until I'd break off to another area I hadn't seen yet.
During one of these times I broke off from the crowd, I happened upon an actor who was dancing in what seemed to be a small storage room. There was luggage stacked up and metal bars which lined the walls behind a high bar-top. This guy was amazing. He swung from bar to bar, almost levitating near the ceiling, holding himself up in odd positions and just moving in ways only a professional could. There was only one other person in the area that was watching him besides me, a fellow guest. I felt like if I was going to have any chance to get a one-on-one, this would be it.
Once he finished his dance, he gathered his coat and exited out from the side of the bar-top. Immediately, I was on his heels as he hurriedly walked to another area. He met someone there, and I hate to admit but I completely forgot what happened. I was just so focused on making sure I stayed close to him I lost track of the interactions. But he was off again! At a run! So, off I went at full speed to keep up with him. He climbed some stairs and went down a hallway to a door.
He looked behind him... right at me. His eyes locked with mine and after an almost awkward amount of time without breaking eye contact he stretched out his hand to me.
This was it!
I took it, probably a bit more fervently than intended, and then we were off! I don't remember how far we went, but in almost no time he lead me to a small room and shut the door behind us, locking it.
My heart pounded even more than it had before.
The room looked to be a small bed chamber. There was a bed, a tiny... what I think was a prayer desk, and a chair. There were a lot more things in there, as it felt very lived in, but I didn't have time or the mind to really look around. At that moment, after he locked the door, he looked at me again with that same intense stare and asked if I was someone.
I didn't quite catch the name at first, but I did research afterwards and discovered that he asked if I was Fleance. Either way, I knew I wasn't who he was looking for so I shook my head. There was another awkward amount of pause before he slowly moved forward and lifted my mask up. Once he saw my face he exclaimed "Fleance!" and gave me the BIGGEST hug!
Now, I assumed the rules for this operation is the equivalent to going to see strippers - look but don't touch. They can touch you, but you don't touch them. However, he hugged me with such force that my arms were pretty much forced around him. Plus, okay, I'm a naturally hugger so once he initiated I was in!
The hug lasted a few seconds before he broke off and gestured for me to sit in a small chair. He put my mask up on a high shelf and took out a golden cup, a chalice even. There was liquid inside of it and for a small second I was worried he wanted me to drink it (Red flags! Even with a great production like this I'm still a paranoid person). But, that was not the case, because he said a few things to me as he dipped his thumb in the cup which I discovered held oil. I don't remember the exact words, but it was something about being a guardian, upholding justice, helping the people... that sort of thing. He anointed my forehead and the palms of my hands.
All of this was done... gosh... what seemed like it took so much time with such reverence, yet was also in no time at all. Time in this place seems to operate in a different way.
The next thing he did after replacing the cup, was reach under the bed mattress and pulled out a sword. A long, heavy, solid sword! He knelt and offered the sword to me, saying "My son... my king." I took it and he bowed. Each time seconds pass which felt like minutes. And just as it was about to feel awkward he swiftly moved beside me and pushed/guided me forward to the small desk.
I laid the sword down, there was a tiny book there which I think was a Bible, but I couldn't be for certain. He pulled out a cushion for me to kneel onto, so I did. I think he said a few more things to me during this time, but the details are lost. But once I knelt, he guided me to open up the drawer of the desk. Inside was a small mound of ashes with a card face-down in them. He guided me to take each end, and when they came out of the ashes I saw the card was torn and burnt down the middle.
All the while he was behind me, looming over me! He said something about how the snake had been scorched, but not killed (after I investigated this post-show, I discovered this was a Macbeth line, so I was a little confused as to why Banquo was saying it). He had me flip the card over to discover a king of diamonds (which I got to keep!).
Then the lights went out.
There was silence for a few moments, but then I felt him carefully put my mask back on and press his head to the side of mine. He was breathing somewhat hard, urgently, as if he was nervous about what was going to happen to him next. Which made sense, especially after he whispered "Son, never forget me."
The lights came back on... he was gone and the door was open.
I panicked! I wanted to see what was going to happen to him next so I ran out the door and tried to find him. But there was no sign of him anywhere.
Looking back now I wish I had the mind to look through the room some more. Read the pages the book was open to, just generally look around (since they encouraged that sort of thing). But, my mind was racing and I was acting all on instincts, so my usual thoroughness was taking a backseat to what felt to be immediately necessary.
Which was to keep moving.
I did wind up finding him again, just before Macbeth came to kill him. And I saw him a few more times in the evening during different parts of the story's time line. It was great to fill in the blanks in an out-of-order way.
The rest of the evening was spent wandering around more. Following actors when I could and where I found interest, getting all of the parts of the story I could. Part of me wanted to see if I could get another scene with someone, but another part felt like I had my turn, so I wasn't going to fight for one like I had before. If it would happen, great. But if not, I would not be disappointed.
I didn't get another one-on-one scene, but the rest of the experience was great. I believe I got to see most of the scenes, or at least I got to see enough to feel like the show was worthwhile and I wasn't just seeing the same thing over and over. It was such a fresh take on an old play (one that I have not read, just know the general gist of) and done in such a way that really brings in the audience. It welcomes them to experience everything with the characters instead of just lounging in plush seats at a great distance. The Audience still watches, but it's an entirely different thing when you can feel the heat coming off from someone has they dance mere inches from you.
It was a real whirlwind experience, one that took me at least a week to digest properly. And again, I would highly recommend this place to anyone who is curious about immersive theater. It is the best of the best.
And below is the cast picture of the guy I had the one-on-one scene with. He was so good, so professional, and as I watched him through the night he does NOT stop. Most of his scenes require a high amount of energy and to know he has to do that for almost three solid hours... it's impressive.
So yes! It was great! I'm so thankful to have had the opportunity to go there and experience it for myself.