By Paige Allen
July 23, 2019
Over the weekend, I experienced (“saw” is much too passive a word) Punchdrunk’s Sleep No More at McKittrick Hotel Emursive. In my circle of friends and colleagues, Sleep No More is legendary. Ignoring plenty of rules about what theater and dance should be, the massively immersive journey is completely self-guided and, therefore, self-selected. What you see is determined by where you go as you navigate winding hallways and dark alleys, so every experience is unique.
Attempting to write a traditional review of Sleep No More would not only be a difficult task but also not exactly in keeping with the spirit of the performance. Instead, I’ll share my three big pieces of advice you should keep in mind heading into Sleep No More.
Know the rules.
The McKittrick Hotel, where Sleep No More is performed, is essentially a big ol’ haunted house. You should expect to be walking through a spooky building in relative darkness, and you’ll probably be scared at several points. If you’re like me and you’re not a fan of haunted houses, don’t worry: there are no real jump scares in Sleep No More, and the atmosphere is more creepy than terrifying. The horror comes from what happens to performers, not what the performers are doing to you.
Unlike in haunted houses, you’re not ushered through with a group on a set path. Instead, the experience is entirely self-guided and you can feel free to explore anywhere. The performers are not going to wait for you or try to get you to react in a certain way; they’re living out a story and it’s up to you to decide how to experience it.
There is also no talking in Sleep No More, so no screaming or laughing or chatting with your friends. The performers won’t talk much either, and if they do, it is in a whisper or another language. You don’t need to catch what they’re saying; you’ll understand what they’re trying to convey without words.
Be warned: the performers will touch you if you’re in their way, and sometimes they pull people away for individual moments. If you don’t want to be touched, just get out of the way; the performers have a good read on who is responsive and who is not. Conversely, keep a respectful distance from the performers. Their movements need to be like clockwork to make the whole experience happen, and they don’t need you trying to get handsy or breathing down their neck the whole time.
Also, be careful. Sleep No More is very dark and some events take place in confined spaces, so watch yourself so you don’t get hurt. The performers move very quickly, and remember that they’ve rehearsed running down the staircase and you have not. You don’t want to skip a step or trip over a loose stone and end up faceplanting (I almost did).
If at any point the experience becomes too much, you can always return to the bar on the second floor. Sleep No More deals with a lot of psychologically intense material, and if you need to leave a room or take a second, you should. Throughout the space, there are stewards in black masks, and if you really need help, you can ask one of them for assistance or guidance to the bar.
Oh, and another thing: there is full nudity. Just putting that out there.
Sleep No More is three hours on your feet navigating a labyrinthine hotel. You want to wear comfortable shoes and clothes you can easily move in. I’d recommend eating, hydrating, and using the bathroom ahead of time; it’s going to be a long one.
Also, bring your reflexes. Performers will move quickly and often trust that the audience will get out of their way, so be ready to.
No bags are allowed into the space, so if you don’t want to spend the required four dollars to check your bag, I recommend not bringing one. If you want to make purchases at the bar, keep a credit card on you. You can also keep your phone with you if you’d like, but turn it off and don’t look at it once you’ve entered the space. The whole point of Sleep No More is to truly step into another world.
I would also highly recommend you do yourself a favor and review Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Sleep No More is a retelling of the Scottish tragedy through a film noir lens, and having a sense of the major plot points and dramatic moments in Macbeth will help you know what to look for and figure out what you’re looking at. It’s really exciting when you recognize the character you run into or the significance of an interaction. That being said, remember point three….
Don’t get stuck.
You’re inevitably going to have moments when you don’t understand what you’re witnessing during Sleep No More. Try not to let yourself get hung up on whether you’re seeing the “right” things or “getting” the storyline. Yes, parts of Sleep No More directly tie to Macbeth, but there are also other characters tangentially related to the main plot and a film noir storyline going on, too. Part of the experience is not being able to connect all the dots. Mystery is a good thing.
I’m not saying to completely avoid seeking out connections. As beautiful and detailed as the set is, I would not recommend getting hung up studying the little details or camping out in one room the whole time. The experience is designed for you to keep moving and exploring, not passively waiting for things to happen, and some scenes are on a loop, so chances are if you stay in one place for three hours, you’ll see something repeat.
The folks at Sleep No More recommend picking something or someone and following it, and I would echo that wholeheartedly. Following a character can be really helpful with taking you to new places and letting you feel like you’re not wandering blind. I would not, however, commit to just one character the whole time. It’s probably impossible actually; the performers often book it out of rooms, and you should not risk your safety running after them every time.
Also, when there are several characters in one room and one of them exits, a swarm of audience members will try to bolt after them. If you really want to follow, go ahead, but don’t feel like you need to stick with the crowd. Exciting moments are happening all over the place. Let your strategy change as your mood and the story changes.
And do not get stuck to a friend you came with either. Sleep No More is meant to be an individual experience. Dragging each other around will not be fun. Part of the thrill of the journey is being on your own, surrounded by strangers in masks, and making your own choices about how to navigate the McKittrick Hotel. Plus, it’s much more fun to compare at the end when you and your friends have witnessed radically different performances.
BCS-friendliness rating: 2 out of 5 stars
A standard ticket for Sleep No More will cost you between $107 and $150 (mine ended up being $126.99). Tickets tend to still be available a few days ahead of time but not for every time slot (they stagger the crowd entering by 15-minute intervals so everyone doesn’t flood the space at once). I recommend you buy a ticket for the earliest check in time. That way, you will be called sooner and get more time to explore.