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I’m wearing a long, white mask watching a simulated orgy in a rave atmosphere — music thumps, lights strobe, topless women and a naked man gyrate feet away from me. I watch, impassively, with a few dozen other voyeurs. Suddenly there’s blood, but it doesn’t faze me. As if I watch a blood orgy every day.
Earlier in the night, I stood nearby while a couple danced with frenzied passion then climbed up the walls in a wild, effortless yet completely inhuman display. So the blood stuff doesn’t strike me as weird. Nothing is weird when everything is weird.
The orgy ends and a few of the participants rush off. Several people in masks sprint after them, so quickly that a gust of air rushes past me as they go. I hesitate, realize that I won’t catch them, and wander off to another part of the hotel, sure that wherever I go something interesting awaits. This is the experience of seeing Punchdrunk’s play, Sleep No More, housed in a repurposed warehouse in Chelsea, New York.
Sleep No More is a reimagining of Macbeth inside of a truly enormous five-story building. It’s full-on immersive theater — the action moves around you, actors push past you to get to their marks, and you wander the space with no earthly idea of where you should be headed. It’s a departure from the typical Broadway show, but it’s also uniquely New York. After all, how many cities can manage such a spectacle at this scale?
If you’re going to New York City and only going to see one show, this just might be the trip to skip Broadway and check out Sleep No More. Here’s how to make it happen.
Sleep No More is located at McKittrick Hotel, which isn’t a real hotel at all but a converted warehouse. After arriving, you explore at your leisure. As the characters move through the rooms performing their arcs, you can follow certain actors or you can let yourself happen upon the action. You might end up digging through a drawer in an office or walking through a dark graveyard when a character will rush into the room — to fight, to kiss, to kill, to dance. Whatever happens, it’s always captivating. There’s almost no talking. The production is mostly movement-based — unless you’re one of the people who gets pulled into a tree house by a witch and kept there, being whispered to for 20 minutes.
You’ll find the McKittrick hotel at 530 W 27th St, New York, NY 10001. It’s right near The High Line — a beautiful park built on old elevated subway tracks. It’s absolutely worth arriving to the area early — maybe in the late afternoon — and taking a stroll. Tickets retail from $99.50.
What to expect:
The first time I attended Sleep No More I was with two friends. After checking our coats and bags, we found ourselves in a dim, 1930s-style bar, complete with a jazz band and actors in vintage full costumes. As we grabbed pre-show cocktails, we were told we could leave the performance space at any time to have another drink or chat. We smiled, thinking, “Well, of course, we’ll be back!”
We never returned. We spent the entire three hours inside, too mesmerized to break the illusion for even a moment.
The space itself is massive. Each of the five stories has been transformed completely. Stepping off the elevator made me gasp at the detailing and how real it all felt. There are hotel rooms and ballrooms, bars, a cemetery, shops, a hospital, and they’re all uncanny — as if you’ve stepped into a dream.
A few important rules: There’s no talking and NO touching the performers. They can touch you. That does not mean you can touch them or be creepy. Don’t do it, because while it feels like you’re lost in a dream, they are real people doing a job. Otherwise, the sky’s the limit, you can wander anywhere, touch anything else, and you will constantly be moving in and out of scenes.
What to wear:
That first time attending the show, my friends and just kind of wandered — happening upon Lady Macbeth and her bathtub or Duncan being murdered or a strange lip syncing bar performance. Other people seem to prefer chasing one character to track their entire arc (this is hard because it often means running).
Since you won’t know what kind of voyeur you’ll be, wear good, comfortable shoes (either way you’ll be walking a lot and going up and down multiple sets of stairs). Tight skirts or pants will hinder the experience. That said, dress up a little. Do you really want to be in a swanky space watching someone get smothered by a pillow in grungy jeans?
There’s no talking. So beforehand, figure out with your companions if you want to stay together. Some people choose to split up. We had no idea what we were going into and didn’t want to separate. As the night went on, we came up with hand gestures to stay together. Somehow we never lost each other in the sea of masked faces. In case you do, you might want to have a meet-up plan for after (or to meet in the bar if you’re separated and want to reconnect).
Food and drink:
After getting out of the show, there’s nothing better than discussing every batshit crazy thing you saw or experienced with your friends. My friends and I could not stop talking and needed an immediate after-show drink. The McKittrick has expanded over the past few years into an entire experience — even beyond the theater. They’ve added a rooftop restaurant/bar, called Gallow Green. It. Is. Incredible. Gorgeous city views, a lush roof tip garden, twinkling lights, etc.
If you can’t see the show, the rooftop is worth the effort in and of itself. In the winter, they set it up like an old ski lodge, and there’s a mini restaurant inside, The Illusionist’s Table, that combines dinner with a magic show. The first time I went, the rooftop wasn’t operational yet, so we headed to get a drink across the street, masks in hand. Modern Family‘s Jesse Tyler Ferguson and Ty Burrell were next to us at the bar.
“Did you just go to Sleep No More?” they asked, noticing our masks. We basically screamed in their faces. Not from excitement over meeting actors we recognized, but in being invited to spout off on the experience of seeing Sleep No More.
“Oh my god, are you going to the next performance? IT’S SO GOOD AND YOU’RE GOING TO HAVE THE BEST TIME!”
The two celebrities ended the conversation as quickly and politely as they could. It was very fair of them, we were a lot to handle — high on experimental theater. We buzzed on (to one another) all night and, should you see Sleep No More for yourself, I imagine you will too.