About the Author:
As the artistic director of Britain's Punchdrunk theater company, Felix Barrett is helping reinvent the way audiences experience theater with off-Broadway's Sleep No More. For the show, Punchdrunk converted a five-story abandoned warehouse space in Chelsea into the fictional 1930s McKittrick Hotel. Upon entering, audiences are required to wear Venetian masks that disguise their identity and, rather than sitting down and watching the action unfold on a stage, theatergoers are free to roam the intriciately designed space as they please, following the actors as they take separate routes throughout the building. Below, Barrett discusses the reasoning for this unique mode of theater and how putting it all together isn't such an unconventional process after all.
I love the theater, but the way we experience it can be so formulaic. We go into the auditorium, hand the usher our ticket, rush down the aisle, take our seat, the house lights drop and the show begins. It’s so completely passive and mechanical, and we’re all used to it. The fact that we know the rules and feel so safe immediately distances us from the process of the show. Punchdrunk wants to put the surprise back into theater, to genuinely invite the audience to come inside the experience. When you step out of your comfort zone, your adrenaline is fueled and your brain has to work that much harder. Punchdrunk likes to pull the rug out from under the audience’s feet so they can truly immerse themselves in a theatrical world. That’s the effect we’ve aimed for in Sleep No More.
I found an album of film noir soundtracks, and my mind got pulled into the world that music creates. Just listening to it felt dangerous. It was so passionate, it transported me to a world of intrigue and I instantly felt compelled to stage the album by turning the music into a show. I love Macbeth, the idea of historical power and how the play fuses the genres of real life and fantasy worlds, and the thought of taking Shakespeare’s play as a launching point just popped into my head. It’s strange how ideas can come about so suddenly. Quite quickly the film noir world of light and dark, shadow and suspense, melded with Macbeth. Some of the motifs are very similar: the paranoid obsessions and the corruption at the core of the story. [Producer] Colin Marsh came up with the title when we staged the show in London back in 2003. Those three words from the text are meant to embody both the essence of our story, the darkness at its heart, and also the effect we aim to have on the audience. We wanted to make something that would literally haunt their dreams, something they would never forget having been inside and a part of.
Building the show in New York was quite a conventional process. A lot of work was done in a studio beforehand, and the performers didn’t even go inside the building until about three months into the build. Everything Punchdrunk does is rehearsed; nothing is improvised, although it may seem as though it is when you experience it. We want an audience to feel that what they are seeing is happening for the first time, just for them in that moment. We devise in a way that if scenes were to be performed on a stage they would still stand up on their own account. That’s crucial, because there are so many distractions for an audience once they come inside the building. When we’ve devised and rehearsed the scenes, we map out the performers’ routes of travel around the space, where they’re going to be at all times, and then it’s a process of going through the building and rehearsing more and more.
What I love about the work of our performers and that of [co-director and choreographer] Maxine Doyle is the tangible sense of the unexpected—the sheer unpredictability. The performers have to be able to dance as well as act so that when the language of dance comes from their bodies, they’re suddenly the ones with the power. It’s almost like a super-hero skill. As an audience member, you need to be thinking, “Where does that come from?” With any element of our shows, if you ever think you can anticipate what’s going to happen and say, “Now I’ve got a grip on how this works,” then we’re not doing our job.
The one element we can’t predict, of course, is the audience. They choose the pace at which they move and where they want to focus. In London, where the show was only able to have a short run originally, audiences did become deeply engaged in the world but they were also quite hesitant sometimes. When we had the chance to remake the show in Boston with the A.R.T. a couple of years ago, the audience there was also quite tentative to begin with. It was fantastic to see their confidence growing as the run went along. We’ve always tried to give audiences as much control as possible, to give every individual as much freedom as they want to explore and discover the show for themselves.
You could say that this show is absolutely made for the New York audience. They are so inquisitive, so intrepid and curious about everything. In Sleep No More, there are secrets in every single room and audiences here seem to make it a mission to solve the riddle of the show, to leave no stone unturned. That’s really exciting for everyone artistically.
Sleep No More is a massively collaborative effort of so many brilliant minds. In New York, the design team alone involved about 200 people. It’s fantastic to see audiences truly appreciating the show, because the production is so much about empowering them to enjoy it. There’s no right or wrong way to experience it. You have to trust your instincts. The more you let yourself go and succumb to it, the more you’ll receive in return.