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Peter Rogers's Blog
Artist-in-Residence at Chez Firth

Thursday (11/8/12) 2:26am - ... wherein Peter sees Sleep No More.

I went to see Sleep No More tonight.

Executive Summary
I liked it okay.  I suspect I would have had a much better time if I'd gone into it with better preparation.

Longer Version
First, a description: Sleep No More is "immersive theater".  In layman's terms, it's a cross between a haunted house and a play.  This production is based on Macbeth and, to a lesser extent, the Hitchcock film Rebecca.  It takes place in three abandoned warehouses that have been converted to over 100 rooms with intricate set designs.  The actors and the audience (who are in masks and forbidden to speak) roam free throughout.  There is no dialog; scenes are presented in dance and dumbshow.

My experience was kind of doomed from the start.  The first actor led us all into the complex, and people scattered.  I made my way to a random floor.  I wound up in a lunatic asylum.  It was empty.  Empty empty empty.  No other attendees there.  So I wandered as bravely as I could[1] through the creepy, half-lit rooms.  I saw one nurse going about her business.  Aaaand... that was it.

Huh, I thought.  So it's just sort of an "explore the space" experience.  Well, okay.  I get this.  I've played Zork.  So I checked out all the set dressing, wandered into a hedge maze adjacent to the asylum, got good and creeped out.  I got forcibly thrown out of a room by a tech at one point, for which I awarded myself one point.  And I still wasn't seeing any, y'know, *theater*.

Eventually I went to other floors where things were happening.  And the flaw here was, I didn't pick one character and follow him/her around.  Instead, I just saw one scene, wandered off to look at interesting bit of set-design ("Hey, this room looks like the Snake House."[2]), and then happened upon another scene.

Again, note that all these scenes are done in dance or dumbshow.  I didn't hear any dialog, and only occasionally heard speeches that were mostly drowned out by the soundtrack.  Also note that it's been a couple years since I've seen a production of Macbeth (oh god it was so bad), and I have *never* watched Rebecca.  Sooo... I'm watching a bunch of scenes, and I don't know who the characters are, and I don't know the works they're referencing, and I have no frame of reference for anything... hmm.

And there's really nothing *within* the scenes for me to latch on to, because they were modern dance.  I have nothing against modern dance -- it's wonderful for abstract expression, it's wonderfully emotive... but I wouldn't use modern dance to explain to a mechanic what was wrong with my car.  I wouldn't use modern dance to summarize the basic facts about the Riemann hypothesis.  My point here: dance is long on abstract emotional expression, and short on facts -- which is fine.  But I think this is why, when dance tells a story, it's often programmatic, and simple, and often adapted from well-known stories.

So I was watching a scene play out, and thinking... "Well.  Okay.  I guess that guy is... angry at that pregnant lady.  *sigh*  Is there another scene I can wander off to?"

And it's not particularly *easy* to follow characters, physically.  A character leaves a scene and then, say, books it up four flights of stairs.  Now, I can *do* that (I'm not as in-shape as a modern-dance performer, but I'm not as out-of-shape as you might think), but I would generally stand in the back of the crowd (being considerate -- if I'm in front, nobody can see over me), and the crowd would generally follow an actor at the speed of a befuddled, sightseeing zombie.  And -- this is an important bit -- if you don't *know* you're *supposed* to follow characters, why would you suddenly decide to elbow your way through the confused, bovine dullards to follow that person?

I was there for three hours.  By hour three I started seeing how some of the scenes stitched together.  I finally figured out who Duncan was; that helped.  And then -- ta-da! it was over.

Mind you, there were still so many things to love about this production.  The set design is astounding, with over a hundred rooms done up in detailed, lived-in (if crazytown) sets.  You could spend hours and hours just poring over every letter left on a desk, every old artifact from ancient times, every tchotchke and every doodad.  And the concept is brilliant.  I may have screwed the pooch on seeing this show effectively, but I was still fascinated by the basic idea, and wondered constantly how we could steal it and repurpose it for improv-land.

And I know for dead certain that my experience of this show was... oh, let's say "suboptimal".  I got back from the show, and Corey rattled off a dozen "Did you see the <x>?"-style questions, and I had seen none of them.  There are some amazing stage effects in the show, of which I saw none.  There are spots where visitors, or groups of visitors, get cleaved from the main group for special items.  There were whole sections of the building -- an entire floor, and one of the production's main locations -- that I just was never in the right place at the right time to get into.

Granted, this is going to be *everyone's* experience with Sleep No More.  It's an hourlong show across some fifteen characters moving through a hundred rooms, and that's a density that no one viewer can keep up with.  But the slice of the pie I was left with, didn't really add up to much.

Part of the problem is, I *wanted* to go into this show knowing as little as possible about it -- and I think that kind of did me in.  Corey, for his part, was eager to tell me ahead of time about propitious characters to follow, places to check out, nudity to see -- but I kept putting him off.  No spoilers! 

So that kind of bit me in the ass.


Ah well.  Honestly, I didn't go into this expecting to like it as much as my friends did.  Really, any time my friends hype something to the heavens, I resign myself to the knowledge that I'll have a kinda-sorta good time, and find positive things to say when they invariably ask me about it.  Regardless, I'm glad that I went, because even if the story was lost on me, the experience was not.  It was still fascinating, and new, and creeped me the hell out in places.[3]  So: still a good experience.

I just didn't like it as much as you did.

_______
[1] I did balk at walking into a completely-dark section of their graveyard ("Nope!").  I suppose, also, I was too reluctant to draw back some curtains to see if there were more rooms behind them.
[2] An allusion that should only make sense to my siblings -- the Snake House was the storage building next to the big, old, creepy plantation house I grew up in.
[3] I backed into another guest unexpectedly early on in the asylum, which got a yelp, followed by embarrassment, out of me.

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Mood: [mood icon] impressed · Music: none
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