Have you ever dreamed about becoming a character of your favorite book or movie? Not in your imagination or with the help of VR technology, but for real.  So, the doors to the McKinnon Hotel – home of Sleep No More in Shanghai – are now open.

The plot of the project repeats Shakespeare’s classic tragedy Macbeth through a darkly cinematic lens, offering an audience unforgettable experience. Participants of the show move freely through the epic story, creating their own journeys through a film of eerie world.

Inside The ‘Sleep No More’: Find Your Role In New Punchdrunk’s Project

“[In Sleep No More] the moments you might share only with a loved one, you might share with a stranger,” says Felix Barrett, the director of the project. “To tell a story at that level of intimacy and exposure because you’re so awkward emotionally was our first building block.”

Inspiration

Barrett got inspiration for creating the project from his “hate” traditions like theater in the round, which bring the audience to a more intimate level with the cast.  In his production Barrett brings inherent classism at theater’s core.

Inside The ‘Sleep No More’: Find Your Role In New Punchdrunk’s Project

“In ancient times, you could throw cabbages and heckle if you didn’t like it, and in the modern day, the ticket was expensive, but the experience felt like it was made for the cast and crew,” Barrett says. “I wanted to enable the audience to have agency.”

Plot

In case you haven’t read Macbeth or you need to reveal it, here’s the plot of the tragedy:

“A brave Scottish general named Macbeth receives a prophecy from a trio of witches that one day he will become King of Scotland. Consumed by ambition and spurred to action by his wife, Macbeth murders King Duncan and takes the Scottish throne for himself. He is then wracked with guilt and paranoia. Forced to commit more and more murders to protect himself from enmity and suspicion, he soon becomes a tyrannical ruler. The bloodbath and consequent civil war swiftly take Macbeth and Lady Macbeth into the realms of madness and death”.

Inside The ‘Sleep No More’: Find Your Role In New Punchdrunk’s Project

About the project

Since Punchdrunk was founded in 2000, Sleep No More has made a name for itself for its immersive sense of stagecraft. Visitors are involved in six stories of three adjoining warehouses on West 27th Street in the Chelsea gallery district. Audience members explore some of 100 rooms and environments, including a spooky hospital, mossy garden and bloody bedroom. A mystery soundtrack fills the air, while costumed performers move about all six floors animated scenes from Macbeth.

Inside The ‘Sleep No More’: Find Your Role In New Punchdrunk’s Project

 

Each room has a back story that has been painstakingly detailed and designed with a mid-1930s vibe. More than 200 unpaid volunteer artists spent about 4 months hand-writing letters, coloring wallpaper and building furniture. A spokesman for the show declined to say how much the production cost, other than the budget was “in the millions of dollars.”

 

Hecate’s Apothecary

Woodsy and flowery scents permeate this room, which is filled from top to bottom with vegetation, drying herbs, soils, sands, trinkets and jars.

Inside The ‘Sleep No More’: Find Your Role In New Punchdrunk’s Project

 

“Nature has this huge power within this play, this sense of destiny and nothing you can do to stop it,” Barrett explains.

 

Taxidermy Room

Groups of stuffed animals, a few of them frozen in battles to the death, stare out from dramatic dioramas in this room. “There’s a sense of threat everywhere around this space,” the director says.

Inside The ‘Sleep No More’: Find Your Role In New Punchdrunk’s Project

Most of the animal forms were purchased from the collection of Frank J. Zitz, a taxidermist in Rhinebeck,N.Y. Some of the smaller items, like false teeth, were bought at an antiques fair in Brimfield, Mass.

 

Sweet Shop

Sampling is not out of the question in this room of dramatically backlighted jars stuffed with thousands of wrapped candies, including traditional English sweets like pear drops, striped toffee-center humbugs and aniseed balls. The rroom is coated before every performance with a caramel-scented spray.

“I think there will be an audience pilgrimage to this space,” adds Maxine Doyle, co-director of the project.

The room reminds her of the candy stores she frequented as a child in the north of England.

“My granddad would give me 10 pence after school to buy a bag of sweets,” she says. “I think it triggers those memories, both visually and in terms of the sense of taste.”

Hospital

One of the larger rooms recreates a hospital wing. Eight matching metal-frame beds are lined up against the walls. Small lamps, patients’ charts and crucifixes give the room the feel of a ghost infirmary.

“We got the beds online,” shares Livi Vaughan, an associate designer. “We had to buy them because it’s impossible to get hold of eight matching beds like these.”

Across the hall is an office filled with hundreds of cataloged, multihued hair samples, some donated by volunteers. While not encouraged, a few audience members have left behind their own locks.

“It’s important that the audience feels empowered to break all the rules that they’ve been trained in over their lifetime,” Felix Barrett says.

Detective Agency

A bright light shines through the blinds of this gumshoe-style office, where old metal fans and hundreds of envelopes line the walls. The fans are arranged to look as if they are all looking down at Malcolm’s desk. Cabinets are loaded with files and shredded papers. In the back is a darkroom filled with images of birds. The theme of the room is “auspicey,” referring to a method used to divine the future by reading bird patterns.

“In our world,” the director explaines, “Malcolm, Duncan’s son, is a detective. Over the course of his narrative he’s sensing the portents and omens that are floating around. He’s obsessed with birds. This is where the Shakespearean story line gets infected by the noir.”

 

Macduff’s Children’s Room

A bit of theatrical trickery involving a full-length mirror turns an otherwise serene children’s room — decorated with a blackboard, dolls, alphabet bricks and notebooks obtained from New York area junk shops— into a bloody crime scene. The stage blood comes in three varieties: sugar-based (which actors can ingest), detergent-based (made to be washed off easily from soiled costumes and linens), and paint-based (for coating furniture and rooms in gore).

“The Macduff children’s room is really important to the narrative,” Doyle clarifies. “In the play the killing of the Macduff family is really horrific. We were searching for a way to represent that.”

“This space isn’t about being gratuitously horrific,” she adds. “We’re using the installation to show the horror of this tale.”

Masks and guidance

Wearing mask is one of the requirements for participation in the show. Notwithstanding it’s not very comfortable, the mask allows audience members to edge up to sometimes crying, sometimes bleeding, sometimes naked actors with a shameless confidence.

It’s just about impossible to see the entire Sleep No More story, even if you go repeatedly. But to guide the audience, immersive theater productions employ all sorts of subconscious tricks. Sleep No More uses 35 hours of original audio, playing room to room, that will often draw you down a hall. Choreographed lighting will signal if a room is dead of activity. “We place a light just in the furthest, darkest corner so you have something to journey toward,” says Livi Vaughan, a design associate at Punchdrunk who helped design Sleep No More.

 

VR Future

With all of the VR community’s enthusiasm about Sleep No More, perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising that even the Sleep No More team has tested the idea of building their play in VR. In fact, they actually filmed one of their very intimate, 1:1 experiences, from the first person and tested it inside a headset. Barrett says it worked, and it’s confirmed his suspicion that his own play can scale to other mediums.

“I’d love to do a whole VR project. I’d love to launch a Sleep No More TV show in VR. What would that look like?” he asks. But he’s not really asking, of course, because to some extent, he’s already figured it out. “We might just do that one day.”

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