When Sleep No More opened in 2011 it presented New Yorkers with a new kind of theater experience, one in which we were expected to interact with the characters and the set, to build our own story, to choose our own adventure. I remember when I first visited the McKittrick Hotel I was baffled by the lack of dialogue and confused by the labyrinthian set. I felt like the piece failed to truly tell the story of Macbeth and I missed the familiarity of the dialogue. At the same time I was fascinated by the layers of detail evident in all aspects of the sets. I remember riffling through file cabinets in the psychiatrist’s office and finding hundreds of detailed case files. At times some of the rooms felt crowded and towards the end I wished we could sit down to watch the final dramatic death scene. Perhaps the most brilliant innovation by the theater company Punchdrunk were the masks. All audience members wear masks and this somehow makes the audience into part of the set; looking around you stop seeing the other audience members, they blend into the scenery. This gives each audience member the strange feeling that they are alone, that they are the only person watching this drama unfold. I loved that feeling. I remember it made me feel much more part of the play, and though this could be a frightening feeling it was also very exciting.
In the years since the opening I have heard many of my friends relate their experiences at the McKittrick Hotel. There has been a proliferation of guides to the show, which give you details on which characters to follow to witness certain key scenes. Some of my friends have gone multiple times so as to see the whole play from each possible perspective. I think the impossibility of doing this in a single visit is a real weakness for this sort of immersive theater. I think we are all burdened as audience members with a deep fear of missing out, something we do not usually cope with when it comes to theater. The fact that each member of the audience will have their own unique experience can also be positive- your experience is special. As immersive/interactive/exploratory theater goes I think Sleep No More remains the gold standard. The sets are exquisitely detailed and fun to play with; the acting is professional and the choreography beautiful. All this comes with a price tag- $120 per person, including no food or drink, but you can see where your money is going.
I have recently attended two other theater pieces that fit into the immersive/interactive category. Both had some of the same problems as Sleep No More and some of the same successes. Queen of the Night aims to be a very sexy sort of interactive theater. The actors flirt and touch and place audience members at the center of sexy dances. Plot is almost nonexistent in this piece but all of the circus performances are stunning. Their promo video gives you only a brief glimpse of the amazing tricks being performed on stage, and sometimes even on your table, but it does give you a taste for the atmosphere.
In this case individual experiences can be extremely different. My closest interaction with a performer was when one of them performed a sexy dance behind me while I watched, as instructed, via a fragment of mirror. On the other hand one of my friends was taken under the stage for a blind date with another audience member, moderated by several performers. Another friend was passionately kissed at the table just before dinner. The strangest experience I’ve heard of was that of an acquaintance who was taken back stage and directed to take a milk bath in a giant claw foot tub (she complied of course). This range of possible adventures is tantalizing but can also lead to the aforementioned fear of missing out. Your individual adventure, with or without milk bath, will cost you $150 per person, including decadent but somewhat DIY food and drink. In contrast I have seen similarly amazing acrobatics performed by Company XIV for lesser sums, but the performers stayed onstage and I stayed in my seat.
The second interactive/immersive piece I saw recently was Cynthia Von Buhler’s latest creation, Ziegfeld’s Midnight Frolic. This lavish bit of performance tells the story of the death of Olive Thomas in Paris in 1920. The audience follows the cast from one set to another, witnessing (if you manage to follow along) the death scene performed in three different ways, leaving you to wonder which was the true version. The actors stay in character throughout the evening and you are encouraged to talk with them and try to glean more information about the mystery of Olive’s death. The sets are very lovely but less immersive than those of Sleep No More. There are wires and stage lights that break the spell a bit. The dance numbers are fun and the amazing aerial performance hanging from the chandelier is spectacular, but there are no acrobatics equal to those performed at Queen of the Night.
In this case the audience was encouraged but not required to dress up for the occasion. My friends and I were there in full flapper regalia but many of the audience members were not, which I found a bit distracting. In fact I found myself wishing we had masks or that costumes were required, so that I would feel more immersed in the world of the 1920s. This is a real problem for this sort of show; how do you make the audience feel like they are part of the show if they’re not willing to dress the part? If you require costumes how much of your audience will you lose? The ticket price here was a bit lower, $75 per person, but included no food or drink. Would it be impossible to sell tickets at that price if it was necessary to dress up? Queen of the Night requires ‘festive clothing’ and that seems to be no deterrent. Perhaps the creator wanted this to be more casual fun?
The idea that theater can be immersive and interactive is exciting and I’m looking forward to seeing more shows of this variety. I am hopeful that future productions will learn more from their predecessors and make conscious decisions about how to handle the fear of missing out and the need for the audience to look the part. What experiences have you had with this form of theater? How do you believe it can be improved?