The Problem With Sleep No More's Audience.

On my recent trip to NYC I had my third visit to the McKittrick Hotel. Punchdrunk's "Sleep No More" is sacred ground to me, ever since my very first life-altering experience of it. I love this show. I love what it opens up about theater and art to everyone and how it has affected the way companies use the audience-performer-stage design interaction.

And I enjoyed my third trip. When I got off the elevator (the first elevator) I was near the ballroom, on the mezzanine level, and found myself standing next to Macbeth. I had planned to make this visit about following the performers and their arcs, because my previous visits has focused more on the design and space itself. I really hate competing with crowds and every time in the past that I've started to get the slightest bit annoyed with those around me, I just left and went to look at something else. This results in me having seen many individual scenes, but never one full character's story, something a lot of people have experienced. I was able to follow Macbeth for a little bit, out of the ballroom, up to his bedroom, and then back down to Duncan - I lost him after he killed him. I made my way to the hotel lobby and hung out with the Porter for a long while, because I'd never seen any part of his story. I was able to see the first prophecy, interactions with Banquo, another audience member bringing him a note from Hecate, and lots of Lady MacDuff's scenes. I headed up to Hecate after this and was alone in the rep bar when she walked in - I think I was touching her peacock feathered fan. People began following her in, and eventually she was eating the piece of raw meat at the table but staring me down the entire time. She coughed up a ring, stuck in the meat, and put it on my finger, at which point she began the haunting lip-synch to "Is That All There Is?" while holding my hand. When the song was over, she whispered "Thank you" into my ear, and led someone else off for a 1:1. I saw several other moments that I hadn't seen before because I was more focused on the performers and less focused on my surroundings this time. I also was able to see the prophecy/orgy/rave sequence again, and some of the Matron's traipsing through the woods. And when I wandered by accident into the ballroom and saw there were already white masks camped out in there, I figured that the ending was near, and was able to get a good view of the final scene.
Your pre-game instructions

A few weeks later, two of my close friends in Austin were at "Sleep No More." One had already been and the other, Will, was seeing it for the first time. I had been thinking about the Audience Problem since my visit - the fact that there are people who see the show repeatedly, and seek out specific moments and interactions within it, in the same way that everyone who had read "A Storm of Swords" started looking at their non-book reading friends as soon as the Red Wedding started - and also the fact that there are so freaking many people in that building, the inevitable result is pushing and stampeding, and this can lessen the experience. I had noticed none of this on my first visit in 2011 - I'm not sure if at the time it wasn't as popular as now, or if I was just blissfully unaware - but I did see some on my 2nd and 3rd visits. I wondered if it was apparent to Will, though, since he had never seen the show before.

Turns out he definitely noticed and it affected his experience of the piece. The audience frustrated him a lot and continually took him out of the moment, which saddens me because the whole reason I fell in love with "Sleep No More" was the three hour experience of being fully in another dream-like world. I've sent a lot of my friends to see the show and I really want them to have the chance to experience that magic. Will said that he could tell when and where things were about to happen, which audience members had seen the show before, and which ones were vying hard for a performer's attention. He still enjoyed the show, but having just seen "Then She Fell" a few days earlier he was missing that level of intimacy.

My other friend, Amanda, got to have the same Hecate experience that I described above - having the ring put on her finger, and going through "Is That All There Is?" When Hecate turned to choose someone else for her 1:1, however, that selected person apparently tried to take the ring off my friend's finger! I really want to know what was going on in that person's head, to make him think that this behavior was ok. And this is not the worst behavior I've heard of on the part of the audience - just the worst that has happened to someone I know. Bad "Sleep No More" audience behavior stories have been going around for years now. It makes me hesitate to send anyone else to see it, especially Travis, knowing that he is likely to be aware of and annoyed by everyone's behavior.

"Sleep No More" has been discussed as part of the "gamification" of theater, a concept I adore and want to explore endlessly but which also might be the problem. When we play games (that are heavy on story, or quests, or interactions with characters) we get to save and try again. We can walk wherever, open whatever doors, shoot whichever people the game will let us. Anything that is within the programmed limits of the game is possible, and acceptable. We like being able to experience all of the different endings, or unlock hidden scenes, or if given a quest (like finding a ring), trying over and over again until it's FOUND and the quest is complete. In a game, it doesn't matter if there is someone standing between you and that ring, because you can simply push them out of the way, or shoot them, or do whatever the game allows you to do to achieve your goal.

Many people by now have had so much experience visiting and revisiting "Sleep No More" that they are becoming like gamers, saving and restoring and attempting something new to experience something they KNOW is there but has so far been hidden from them. They try to find the secret combination of moves that unlocks the 1:1 with Hecate, and get visibly frustrated when they are not the chosen ones. They don't care that someone else next to them might be experiencing the show for the first time - they want their experience/interaction/hidden secret scene, dammit. After all, they paid roughly $90 to play this game (or more, if like me you are not in NYC) and they want to win.

I love the parallels between "Sleep No More" and games, I really do. I love being responsible for my own journey through a story, and having to do some work in order to discover a narrative. I love that there are little errands and quests within the show that are given to different lucky audience members. I don't want the 1:1 experiences to be removed. But how do you let the audience of 400 something people a night know that the experience of the show doesn't have to include any one of these things? That their ticket price does not entitle them to a specific experience? And that the other audience members and the performers are not non-playable characters?

The easy answer seems to be smaller audiences (and, for the record, both Will and I agreed that we would happily pay twice as much to see it with half as many people), but how small - "Then She Fell" small, which only takes 15 people per performance? How much of a rail do you put the audience on in order to control what they are able to do? How do you create art like this without fearing  the audience - not the occasionally wonderful person who gets swept away in the scene but the person who deliberately tries to steal an experience or force something to happen? How do you build a show that really has to be experienced multiple times in order to "get" the story without creating an audience that has been here, would prefer to skip over the lip-synching and just get to the part where she chooses someone for a private moment?

How do you create an open-world piece of art that allows 400 people to freely experience it however they choose, and still have people act like decent human beings?

(Prediction:  Since the above post included the words "Sleep No More," "Hecate," and "ring," this will soon rocket to one of my Top 5 Most Read Blog Entries.)
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