Sleep No More

[Originally posted July 24, 2012. Reposting on account of the 4th of July holiday and because the event I attended last year is happening again for those of you in the NYC area!]

Happy 4th of July! I know I’m three weeks late, but I’ve been super busy and I really want to tell you about this cool thing I did on the eve of the anniversary of my country’s birth.

I pretty much had the quintessential American experience this Independence Day. If by ‘quintessentially American’ you mean replacing the typical Anywhere, USA town square with a bunch of converted warehouses in Chelsea, listening not to your local Sousa-playing community band but to my friend Adam’s awesome 40s-style jazz combo, and rather than barbecuing with your family you spend all night wandering around a creepy hotel where everybody is seemingly British, naked and covered in blood…then yes, my evening was as American as apple pie. Confused? Me too, but keep reading and we’ll get through this together…

This 4th of July I was fortunate enough to be able to spend an evening at the McKittrick Hotel in order to attend Punchdrunk’s award-winning production Sleep No More. Apparently I was the last person in NYC to hear about ‘Sleep No More’ so the whole experience was a marvelous surprise for me. SNM is a sort of interactive theater/performance art/cabaret-style theme bar.

Everyone I’ve spoken with about it has compared SNM to being inside a David Lynch film. Having never seen a David Lynch film, I have no frame of reference to back these claims.  For those of you who have never heard of it, you should probably go here because I guarantee that I will do a terrible job of describing what it’s all about, mostly because I don’t think it’s possible to see everything there is to see in one visit. That said, I shall try to paint as accurate a picture as possible. [FYI – this post contains some spoilers, so if you’re planning to go to ‘Sleep No More’ and you want to be surprised, you might want to skip this post and come back later.]

If I had to describe my experience in one sentence it would go something like this: Imagine that Tim Burton and Neil Gaiman went back in time to 1939, met Alfred Hitchcock and together they designed a hotel/bar that is now haunted by half naked dancers who have a bizarre fondness for Shakespeare’s Macbeth…and absinthe. Cause that’s basically what this place is about. If you know me, you won’t be surprised to learn that after spending only a few minutes in the hotel I wanted to move in.  Or at the very least get a job there.

Here’s a blow-by-blow of my evening:

I arrived around 5:30pm and because I was on the VIP list, I got to jump to the front of the line and go right in. First time I ever got to say ‘I’m with the band’ and have it actually mean something. It was super cool.

The sun was still out when I got there, so when the door man led me into a room that was in near darkness, the effect was immediate and quite jarring. I was directed over to the coat check where you are required to surrender anything that won’t fit in your pockets – including purses, ladies! They said this was for ‘liability purposes’ (I overheard one of the coat check girls explaining it to a lady behind me who was making a fuss about handing over her bag) but I suspect it’s also part of the experience to make you feel as vulnerable as possible.

Since I was wearing a short dress with no pockets, I grabbed my credit card, ID and what little cash I was carrying, stuffed it into my bra and checked my bag. As much as I hated leaving my iphone behind, there was no room for it in my bra. Besides, cell phones and cameras aren’t allowed once you’re inside the hotel anyway, so I got over it.

My next stop was just down the next hall to reception (which is actually the ticket area) to get your room key (which is actually a playing card…)

Room key in hand, I was instructed to walk down yet another hallway. In addition to being considerably darker than the first (I hadn’t thought that possible), this one was all twisty and scary with ominous music playing in the background that gave the distinct impression of being in a haunted house except for not lame. I mention these things so that you might think better of me when I tell you about how, moments later, I walked face-first into a wall. A somewhat inauspicious beginning, I admit, but my eyes still hadn’t adjusted to the dark and I was all alone and the music was creepy so give me a break!

Anyway, if I were the nervous type I probably would’ve jumped out of my skin when shortly thereafter, a large pair of hands grabbed me by the shoulders and a calm, deep voice said, ‘close your eyes for ten seconds.’ [Insert longest ten seconds of my life.] ‘Now open your eyes and just follow the music…’ Then he disappeared. Wicked.

After several more twists and turns, the haunted hallway opened up into a dimly-lit antechamber where two hostesses were waiting, each with a tray of shots containing some sort of mystery beverage which I later learned was absinthe. I had two. I guess the idea is that you’re supposed to wait for Maximilian to arrive (he’s the host) and give a toast before you pass through to the cabaret.

I didn’t know any of that yet and I was still a little freaked out from my encounter with my mystery helper, so as soon as I was offered a drink I downed it (as they were explaining the bit about the toast), then because I was the only one in the room, I said, ‘Well I guess I’m gonna need another one then.’ They seemed happy to oblige. Then Maximilian came in, said his toast (which sounded very Shakespearean and poetic) and we chatted a bit before he escorted me inside.

Once inside the cabaret/bar area things were much more ‘normal,’ said Sarah with a HUGE grain of salt. There were still faux British weirdos wandering around everywhere, but at least the lights were on. I wasn’t sure what was supposed to happen next so I thought I’d get a drink and wait for my friend’s band to start playing. That didn’t happen.

Almost as soon as I sat down, a tall guy in a tux took me by the hand without a word and led me off to some side room where a bunch of other people were standing around in awkward silence waiting for something to happen. Tall guy asked for my room key. I dug it out of my bra and handed it to him. In exchange, he handed me a white mask reminiscent of the one the serial killer wears in all nineteen of the Scream movies, then gave the key back to me.

When he left, a blonde lady came in and, with lovely dramatic flair, she told us to put on our masks while she explained the rules of the hotel:

– No talking.  It’s a completely silent experience. (I was actually really surprised by how readily everyone seemed to comply with this rule.)

– Keep your mask on at all times and never reveal your identity.  (This one too.)

– If you feel overwhelmed, there are several people in black masks stationed around the hotel who will not guide you, but give you directions back to the bar. (Presumably so that you can get some liquid courage and head back to the hotel.)

Seemed simple enough.

Then we all piled into an elevator where we were welcomed by a Bell Boy in full regalia.  He gave us his own welcome spiel while we went up…or down. Honestly, I had already lost track. He opened the doors and asked a couple at the front to lead everyone off, but as soon as the woman exited he put his arm out to stop her boyfriend from getting through, then closed the doors and took us up another few flights.  He explained that this was to be a solitary experience and he encouraged everyone to separate from their groups so they might be free to explore.

I suddenly wasn’t feeling so bad about being on my own.

When he finally allowed the rest of us off the elevator I nearly gasped. It was very dark and there were already lots of masked strangers wandering in and out of all the rooms. I kind of don’t want to tell you about everything because 1) I could never remember all of the incredible things I saw and 2) I’d hate to ruin the surprise for anyone who might want to go – and I think everyone (21+) should go. But since this is a blog and the whole point is for me to tell you stuff, I’ll just mention a few of the highlights.

– You are allowed encouraged to explore every room, open every door, rifle through every drawer of every desk, file cabinet or coffin…

– Fantastic music plays throughout the whole hotel, the theme of which varies depending on what sort scene you stumble upon. I heard some sweeping classical musical a la epic film score, some thumping dance music and popular tunes from the late 30s/early 40s which predominated most of the scenes that I saw.

– They have a cemetery with lots of creepy statues, a child’s bedroom with a bunch of head-less dolls hanging from the ceiling,  a padded room (the only place where I felt truly uncomfortable and didn’t spend much time), offices, barrooms, libraries, and one room that had nothing but a bunch of old-style metal-frame hospital beds with a large claw foot bathtub in the center of the room…

– Also, there’s a friggin’ hedge maze.

Scenes that are loosely based on Macbeth are acted out silently (except for the occasional laugh, grunt or scream) all over the hotel. At the end of each scene the characters scatter and it’s up to you to follow whichever character you want…or not.

Some characters, like the solitary bartender I encountered, simply go about their business silently interacting with the audience. He was doing card tricks in the ‘pick a card, any card‘ style and rewarding certain patrons with a shot, presumably of absinthe.

Then a bunch of other actors came in and the scene changed.  It started out as a dance, but then a fight broke out, scattering several of the characters. I followed the herd down a long hallway with an uneven floor that reminded me of a fun house, into a much larger room where one of the seminal scenes took place…

I am, of course, referring to the ‘Goat-head-Dead Fetus-Bloody Christmas Orgy.’ At least I think that phallic symbol they kept passing back and forth was a Christmas tree… It was really hard to tell with the all the blood and nakedness and strobe lights.

Since there’s no real structure to the performance aside from a 2 – 2.5 hour time limit, the black-masked helpers stationed throughout the hotel rounded everyone up at the end and herded everyone into the ballroom where the final scene played out. All the characters came together for a surrealist dinner party-cum-public execution. It was pretty epic.

Everything from the bar, the band, the actors, dancers, down to the tiniest details of the hotel itself was highly stylized and I was thoroughly enchanted by all of it. The band was particularly fantastic and really added to the 40s feel.

[Not the most flattering photo perhaps, but I had to get a stranger with the benefit of pants pockets and a cell phone to take a quick pic and email it to me, so beggar’s can’t be choosers.  Besides, this chick was OFF THE HOOK AMAZING. She can sing ANYTHING and she did the whole show in character. I was blown away.]

In sum, SNM and more specifically, the McKittrick Hotel is basically my macabre version of Disney World. I definitely have to go back to see all the scenes I missed. [Update 7/3/13: I did go back again last December and it was just as cool the second time around. I went with a friend this time and (contrary to the rules) we decided to stick together, which was fun, but it did take away some of the creepiness factor. Also, rather than striking out on my own like last time, I spent more time following the herd and consequently, I saw a lot more of the scenes.]

But that’s not all…

Because I was there ‘with the band’ I got to go to the rooftop after party to watch the fireworks. Bet you forgot it was the 4th of July – I totally did.  We had a great view though.

I even ate a hamburger. Happy 4th!…or 27th…or whatever.


2 thoughts on “Sleep No More

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