July 6th, 2011
Sleep No More: Crafting Experiences
A few months ago our strategy team took a trip to a set of abandoned warehouses in Chelsea to experience Sleep No More, an immersive theatrical production put on by Punchdrunk, a British site-specific theater company. After donning masquerade masks, we were treated to a production unlike anything wed witnessed before the world of Macbeth spelled out in a six story stage, each of us free to explore it at will, with actors making their way through the set while we all observed like so many ghosts surrounding them.
Curious for more details about Punchdrunk/Emursives process in creating the show and staging it in New York, we contacted Vance Garrett and Alexis Meisel, Supervising Producer and Marketing Director of the production. They talked us through some of the process, and the unique appeal of immersive theatrical experiences.
Why do you think an immersive theatrical experience like Sleep No More has resonated so strongly with its audience?
Vance: Now’s the time the city’s hungry for it and there’s lots of opportunity. It’s cool to be in a real space, in real time, with real people, experiencing something in a non-passive way. And I think that’s what our group is trying to figure out – how to reawaken these experiences.
It amazes us that so much of the audiences experience of Sleep No More is left to chance how does this element play into the production?
Vance: I think what’s most interesting is what the audience chooses to participate in, and what feels like it’s chance – and how these deliberate choices play into chance. The audience puts effort into having a certain experience, whether its following a character or engaging with a scene.
Alexis: What seems like chaos to an audience member, with a million things going on, is actually very well choreographed, organized, and timed from a logistical standpoint. Proving, even more-so, that there’s no one route you can go – and again, to a larger point, there are some things happening on one floor that are speaking to events happening on another floor. So that’s a great way of showing how there’s no way of “doing it right” because you would never know that these two things are connected during any one experience.
How do you research something like Sleep No More, where props tell as much of a story as the actors?
Alexis: There was a ton of research done by our designers Livi Vaughan, Beatrice Minns and Felix Barrett. It was like command central here – we had a bunch of people going book by book to research the material. The thought behind the design was extremely well informed, and that’s part of what takes it beyond imagination. The props do have a story of their own, and everything is very carefully managed by dedicated teams leading up to each show. But once the scene is set, it’s really in the performer’s hands.
Why did you require audience members to wear masks and how do you see it contributing to their experience?
Alexis: There’s a psychology in being behind the mask it’s a very interesting group dynamic. I think, from personal speculation, being behind a mask can do one of two things. It can either make you feel braver and empower you to do more, or it can do the opposite and strip you of some of your identity and make you self-conscious. It takes your inhibitions away and lets you become someone else in this other world, and it’s interesting to see people’s reactions. It is a game-changer and it definitely has an effect.
How do you see digital working within these experiences as they’re evolving?
Vance: Well I have my own ideas and theories about this, but the truth is I’m not sure. And that’s why I’m excited to play around with it and see exactly where the digital and the physical can play around together. I think we’re moving toward a place where they have to coexist. We have to figure out how they can live together. Whether it’s augmented reality or something else, I don’t think we can ignore it anymore.
However, it’s a double-edged sword right now. On one level augmented reality is a good way to feel like anything is possible, but the challenge as an artist is how to loop that back into subjective reality, where you actually have one-on-one experiences. We have a lot of work to do to figure out how these two worlds coexist at the same time. I have more questions than I do answers.
What insights on human behavior have you gleaned from your experience with Sleep No More?
Vance: There’s a phenomenon known as entrainment, which is when the audience members are operating on different frequencies but then give up their differences to work with one another. People start to breathe at the same rhythm, and their hearts beat at the same rhythm and this implies that people subconsciously want to do what everyone else is doing.
It’s not enough to imagine that people are going to be satisfied being at home, by themselves, experiencing some form of reality – they really love to be physically near one another sharing that experience. Across the board, people like to follow one another, they like to talk about what they’re experiencing, they like to commiserate.