If you’re unfamiliar with Punchdrunk’s immersive NYC theater experience Sleep No More, my real advice is to skip this primer and go straight to the event knowing nothing at all. It’s something you just have to experience for yourself, at least for the first go-around. People say Sleep No More is unlike anything you’ve experienced before, and they’re right. But for those of you who want to get the most bang out of your buck, I’ll give you some pointers for your first visit, as well as what to expect if you spring for dinner and after-party tickets.
If I had to describe Sleep No More in a single sentence, I’d say that it’s like taking the scenes in Macbeth out of the play and running them simultaneously for three hours in a 1930’s Hitchcock hotel that you can walk through. Punchdrunk created the “McKittrick Hotel” out of a bunch of warehouses stitched together in Chelsea. It has five floors of shadowy, immaculately decorated sets, including the beautifully decadent Manderley Bar, a creepy hospital straight out of Silent Hill, a misty graveyard, and a full suite of luxurious bedrooms and offices.
You could spend the entire three hours admiring the set, if you wanted. (Don’t do that.) You’re given one of those Eyes Wide Shut Venetian masks and instructed not to speak during your “stay” at the hotel. You enter the hotel by way of a Tower of Terror-style elevator, and are released into the event divorced of language: all of the actors are also dancers, and so they perform the scenes in the play through movement alone. Each disconnected scene is part of a cycle, so you have to move quickly and choose an actor to follow through his/her cycle. The sense of urgency to see everything you can see in the allotted three hours is palpable, because every exploratory choice you make is at the expense of another opportunity.
Preparing for Sleep No More
Before you arrive at Sleep No More, remember these tips:
- Buy the earliest tickets available. Sleep No More sells tickets that start at different times through the night. The time of the ticket is when you’ll be let into the hotel. If you want to get the most out of the event, buy the earliest ticket time available. Buy your tickets months in advance, because the show still sells out today.
- Concerning attire. Dress formally, but dress light — you’ll be chasing the actors a lot, and if you’re going to the after party, it’s pretty sweaty because of the sheer number of bodies. Also, the environment has been engineered in such a way that you’re supposed to forget that the outside world exists. Don’t wear polo shirts and jeans! They’re not 1930’s formal attire and it breaks the experience for everyone if you don’t fit into the environment.
- When they say wear sensible shoes, they mean it. Wear shoes you can run in. When you’re following the actors, you’re always afraid you’ll miss something. You’re often running up and down many flights of stairs to keep up with them.
- Skip accoutrements. Don’t bring a coat or a bag, unless you’re okay with paying to check it, because you’ll be forced to when you arrive. (If you wear a dress, try wearing one with pockets.) Because you’re wearing a mask the entire time, it’s a good idea to wear contact lenses instead of glasses.
- Turn off your goddamn phone.
Inside Sleep No More
Once you’re inside, you want to use your time wisely, because those three hours go by quickly. Here are some important things to know:
- Keep moving. Everything happens three times, so if you’re watching something you’ve already seen before, go find a different actor to see something new.
- Be the first. Although each cycle repeats, when you first enter the performance with the earliest tickets, certain “triggers” are in place that don’t get reset with each cycle. For example, in the shipping/cargo room, one of the actors is hiding in a cargo container and comes out to interact with you if you open the container. In subsequent cycles he is no longer in the container. Each cycle concludes with the banquet hall on the bottom-most level (although the final cycle has a surprise).
- Go it alone. Don’t try exploring the space with your friends/significant other. You’ll want to follow whatever captures your interest and not have to negotiate with someone else about where to go in a split second.
- Follow the music. When the music reaches a crescendo, that means something is happening wherever it’s playing. If you can’t find an actor, follow the music.
- Look for one-on-one opportunities. The actors each have their own secret interactions that you can “unlock” if you’re in the right place at the right time. These interactions are usually reserved for just you or a small group of spectators, and shut off from the rest of the audience. For example, one of the female witches will entice several people to approach a locked door, and then invite only one person to enter. Within the locked room, the witch has a private interaction with you. Other actors will whisper secrets into your ear if you hang out with them long enough.
- Fortune favors the bold. As the host tells you, Fortune favors the bold, so keep close to the actors. But be careful not to anticipate their behaviors, because they tend to prefer interacting with newbies rather than repeat visitors.
- Follow the witches. If you don’t know who to follow, latch on to any of the witches. Two are female and one is male: they will lead you to the most exciting scenes.
- Try to be the last person to enter the elevator. You may be rewarded for your hesitation.
- Stand your ground. This is New York, after all, and if you’re timid you’ll get shouldered out of being the person closest to an actor.
For my third visit to Sleep No More, I bought the Maximilian’s List tickets during the May Fair weekend, which are about $100 more expensive than the show by itself. I can’t speak for what it’s like to be on Maximilian’s list on a regular, non-themed night, but below are the details of my experience:
- It’s a little confusing… You are let in before everyone else at 6pm for dinner. They take you through a special entrance where coat check is free. The process is very confusing because the staff doesn’t tell you what’s happening or where to go until it’s time to do it. Basically, you drink and mingle until 6:30pm, then you eat, and at 7:00pm you see a pre-show two-Act play before entering Sleep No More at 7:45pm. Though you’re identified as a Maximilian guest with a special ring around your neck, your status has no effect on the performance. The after party begins at 11pm (an hour after Sleep No More ends), so you have to stick around until then.
- …But worth the cost. In terms of cost, you get that $100 in food and drink back during the dinner/after party. My Maximilian’s List tickets came with a buffet dinner and open bar in Gallow Green, a rooftop bar connected to the McKittrick, and then an after party following Sleep No More. They served wine and cocktails, entrees like roasted lamb and octopus legs, passed hors ‘deouvres that included weird stuff like pickled strawberries, and rhubarb pie with melted ice cream for dessert. Considering a drink usually costs $14 in Manhattan and a comparably elaborate dinner is at least $40 a plate, two drinks and the meal is worth $70 already. Order a couple more drinks in the after show and you’ve about made up the cost of the List.
- You get an extra performance. You are treated to a special pre-show mini-play, in our case the Sacrifice of Iphigenia. This is a half-hour seated performance.
- The after party is fun. The after party is basically a big concert with open bars and partitioned off lounges. Getting to the after party is confusing because everyone (regular show attendees and Maximilian List guests) are sardined into the Manderley Bar immediately after Sleep No More ends, but you can’t get into the after party until about an hour later, when they open up the concert hall area. As a Maximilian guest you’re entitled to free drinks, so don’t pay for any while you’re waiting. In my case, the after party also included a photo booth, where my date and I got star treatment and a free Polaroid of our best shot.
Maximilian’s List is definitely for veterans, so I don’t suggest doing it on your first visit. If you do it at all, you definitely should go with friends or a significant other: otherwise it would probably be a pretty lonely experience!
Everyone who attends Sleep No More will have her own stories to tell, because every guest’s experience is unique. I’ve read accounts of people who’ve gone 7+ times, and they’re still discovering new one-on-ones with actors and hidden rooms. Having attended three times over three years, I still found the performance fresh and mysterious. A definite must if you’ve got a night to spare in NYC.