During my trip to New York City for Izgon 2, I attended a performance of Sleep No More.
Sleep No More is an interpretative work that sets the tale of Shakespeare’s Macbeth in a hotel in the 1920s. The title, of course, refers to a line in Macbeth, “Methought I heard a voice cry, “Sleep no more! Macbeth does murder sleep”. The producers converted an entire building into the various rooms and scenes of the set, and the performers act out silent scenes, much of it in the form of interpretative dance, throughout. The audience is free to come and go throughout the set as they please, following actors and watching scenes, or just exploring. There is also a 1920s style bar, complete with absinthe and fantastic jazz band, for the audience to wait in until they can enter the set, and hang out in after they exit.
The reason I was so keen to see Sleep No More is that it has often come up in conversations about LARP, the definition of LARP, the boundaries of LARP, and where it does and doesn’t overlap with other art forms. Unlike most forms of theater but similar to LARP, there’s no stage and seating, but rather the audience and actors freely move among one another. (The actors will even lightly push audience members out of the way if they are in the way of a scene.) Also unlike traditional theater but common in LARP, the audience is encouraged to interact with the scenery, whether it’s by searching through drawers or suitcases, or literally digging something up out of a graveyard. I was very curious to see it for myself.
My experience with it was probably not as good as it could have been. Prior to leaving the bar, performers delivered instructions, during which they strongly encouraged us to explore the sets (“remember, fortune favors the bold,” one said). Additionally, I had heard descriptions from friends detailing the surprising ways in which they interacted with the sets, so I was particularly keen to explore that aspect of the show. This resulted in me spending so much time interacting with the set that I saw very little of the actual performances of the actors. I searched many of the room thoroughly, and read a lot of the various bits of writing: ledgers, letters, pages torn from bibles, autopsy reports… It ate up time. On top of that, some of the actors were performing repetitive tasks very slowly, so I often found myself wondering how long I should watch before concluding there was nothing else to see. For example, I saw a taxidermist take out a box of his tools and go through them one by one, inspecting each one as he took them out and arranging them carefully. I wasn’t sure whether or not something more substantial would happen if I waited long enough.
In the end, the only scene I conclusively identified was Lady Macbeth compulsively and anxiously washing herself in a tub, clearly the famous “out, damn spot!” moment. The rest of what I saw was much less clear. A woman went through her own suitcase and mimed cradling a baby, I saw one woman mix some kind of drink for another woman, I saw two actors sit down to dinner together, one actor seemed to be pacing and burning off spare energy in a cemetery… I wonder if I had reread Macbeth more recently, it would have been clearer. I think the last time I read it, I was performing in my high school’s production as Donalbain.
Disappointingly, the excessive time I spent going through various bits of the scenery didn’t reveal any information or seem to inform any part of the story. I’d been hoping to pick up on threads, or clever hidden things, but if they were there, I missed them.
But on the upside, the experience of the set dressing was fascinating by itself. The sets were quite detailed, and it very much conveyed a surreal, dream-like atmosphere. Things often felt distinctly off. Sometimes something was blatantly wrong; other times, it would take a moment or two to realize just what was creating a sense of unease. For example, after visiting the first several rooms, I realized there were an excessive number of eggs, without any clear reason as to why they were there. One floor was set up as an asylum, and in a room full of tubs for the patients to bathe in, there was an empty baby carriage, with no obvious reason for being there. The tubs, too, seemed off. Some had an inch or two of water, some were empty, and one or two had stains that looked not unlike blood.
They made liberal use of fog machines and eerie sound effects, including 1920s music that sounded like it was being played on a scratchy record. This very much contributed to the atmosphere, though occasionally the fake smog made me cough.
Of course, I think this all makes for great inspiration for LARP set design.
Sleep No More also had a variety of ways outside of the set dressing and acting, to craft a particular experience for the audience. For example, they put in special effort to split up people who came with friends, presumably because having only strangers for company (or being alone) would be creepier than being among friends. When I first got off the elevator to begin wandering the set, one of the performers deliberately got in the way of my companion and let him off on another floor. I didn’t realize what he’d done until I turned around and found no one behind me. It took over half an hour for us to find one another again.
Occasionally, performers would take one specific member of the audience and pull them into a room with the door locked behind them, leaving everyone else to wonder what was going on. And as the audience was forbidden to speak, they would be unable to explain what they’d seen and done until after the performance was over.
One particularly effective method they employed was giving all of the audience eerie looking white masks to wear. (See the image above.) Fortunately, I found they fit fairly comfortably over my glasses. This had the practical effect of making it very easy to distinguish the performer from the audience, but it also made it feel as though we were ghosts moving through the various strange settings. The performers often ignored us, but every now and then would indicate awareness of our presence, which very much felt like people temporarily being able to sense our ghostly presence before deciding we weren’t real and moving on. I rather wonder if GMs and NPCs could mimic this effect somehow.
After the performance ended, my companion bought a copy of a book that explains the set design (among other things) in detail. I’m looking forward to reading it and learning all about the thought process that went into designing Sleep No More. I suspect with a little explanation, LARPers could really learn a lot from Sleep No More.