On immersion, theatre, and museums

Souvenirs of Sleep No More

Souvenirs of Sleep No More

Over the Christmas holiday, my lovely and talented wife and I went down to New York City for a few days to see friends and go to the theatre. I had been meaning to see Punchdrunk’s Sleep No More, an immersive, participatory theatre experience that had run in Boston for months without us going, and had almost completed its New York run. Seb Chan had written a longish piece about his experience months ago, and several friends who opinions I value had raved about it. I’ve been thinking and writing a lot lately on alternate models for developing exhibitions and it sounded like a model worth exploring to see how it might inform what I do.

So, with high hopes for an “aha” moment, Jennifer, a friend and I walked up to the McKittrick Hotel on West 27th and got in line. Three hours later, we were discharged onto the street; tired, conflicted and unsure of what we’d seen and done. Weeks later, I’m still not sure whether I liked it or not, but I’d still probably go back and see it again. That is a first for me as a theatregoer. And I still recommend it to museum people. I’m hoping to convene an online discussion amongst a group of folks who’ve seen it to help me process what the experience was like. There might even be a conference session in there… We’ll see.

So, what happened when we went to Sleep No More and how might it apply to museums?

What is it?

For those of you who are coming at this fresh, Sleep No More is a theatrical experience (not a play, per se) that combines elements of Macbeth, film noir, and uses an abandoned hotel as the setting. The audience are all given white masks and instructed to remain completely silent throughotut the performance. Actors move about the hotel, up and down stairs, and scenes take place throughout the builidng over the course of a night. The performances build to a climax, but aside from that, you don’t really get any guidance on how to experience the night. Some people follow actors, some camp out in a space, all of which are extensively decorated and full of objects that reflect something about the plot. You can rummage around in desk drawers, open doors and wander as the events play out around you. Parties are encouraged to split up, and while I was there, I saw a couple actively separated by ushers and deposited on different floors as we rode the elevator up. Definitely not your typical night at the theatre.

Our night started with us handing in our tickets and getting playing cards in return; two kings and a queen. We were ushered into a nightclub with a 1930s vibe and waited for the event to begin. We also got masks. Before long, everyone in the club with a queen card was called and ushered out of the room. After a few more minutes, they called the kings and off we went. Jen had been in the bathroom when the queens were called, so she managed to stay with us as we crowded around an actor in evening wear who gave us an orientation.

Getting lost in a play

I’m a big fan of Jasper Fforde’s Thursday Next series of novels, which imagines an alternate Britain where it’s possible to enter the storyworlds of books. Being in Sleep No More is very much like the theatrical equivalent, only you’re a ghost. We wandered through a series of rooms dressed as offices, taxidermy shop, a 1920s witch’s lab (?) and a creepy bedroom full of dimembered dolls. I looked under curtains, inside desks, and around corners. It was fascinating to feel the freedom to go wherever I wanted. And I wanted everything to tell me the story. I picked up every phone I saw on the off chance there might be somebody else on the line. Along with all the other ghosts, I flitted around, looking for signs of life. As we got deeper into the hotel, we started to encounter actors silently moving about, casting meaningful glances at one another, and interacting, sometimes violently. I knew enough to want to know who I was seeing. Is that guy Macbeth? Who’ s the pregnant woman? Are those two lovers? It was a bit maddening to have the actors standing right in front of you and not know who they were and what they were doing. The actors don’t speak, all the action is done through gesture and dance. The only sounds are a powerful ambient soundtrack piped throughout the hotel and the sounds of people moving.

We watched several quick scenes happen and were immediately faced with a decision point. When the actors left at the end of a scene, you as an ausience member had to choose how to react. Do I follow Actor A? B? Stay here? Or wander? Nothing about the scenes gave me a sense of how to make an informed decision. It seems like the creators wanted to keep the audience off-guard and on their toes throughout the whole event. This became a theme of the evening for me; feeling like I was having to make decisions based on no information. I didn’t like it. It made wandering around a high-stakes affair. Was I leaving someplace where something was going to happen in a moment? What if this actor I was following was a bit player and not one of the main characters? I did manage to find a couple of of pivotal scenes; Macbeth murdering the king and Lady Macbeth’s “out, out damned spot” bit. But by the time the finale rolled around, I still had no sense who most of the characters were, or what their relationships to each other were.

Immersion, immersion, immersion

The set design was incredible. Whole rooms full of intrguing, evocative objects, a nightime forest, a graveyard. And all in a black-box theatre! I loved being able to really get into each space, root around, and interact with the environment. And for the scenes I did stumble into, it was very powerful to have actors performing a scene all around you as if you weren’t there. And on the occasions when an actor would suddenly lock eyes onto an audience member and stare them down? Powerful, powerful stuff. The one time it happened to me I kept saying to myself, “Please don’t let her drag me off through some unmarked door!” Not the relationship I usually have with actors in the midst of a performance. Being able to be that close made it a very different experience, more like modern dance or performance art.

Losing the story, or not finding it

After it was over, we spent a long time talking about theatre, and inevitably comparing Sleep No More to other shows. One of my favorite theatre experiences of the past decade was seeing Elevator Repair Service‘s Gatz, which is a verbatim recitation of “The Great Gatsby” done as a play within a play. Though it’s a slender book, when you read every word, it still takes seven hours, or in our case, two stints of 3.5 hours with dinner in the middle. Going into it, I thought I might be making a terrible mistake. But at the end of seven hours when the narrator finally said, “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”, the house erupted into deafening applause. As the cast were taking their bows, Jennifer leaned over and said she wished they’d lower a picture of F. Scott Fitzgerald, because we were really applauding him. And she was right. His prose, so easy to read, turned out to be as easy to speak. The story was so compelling that seven hours flew by, in a way they didn’t at Sleep No More, though I worked much harder to try to put a story together.

At the time I wondered if knowing as much as I did about Sleep No More had interfered with my ability to suspend my disbelief. If I was coming at it fresher, would it have made more sense to me, been more moving? My friend, who knew nothing, felt the opposite. As we sat over drinks, recapping the night, it seemed clear that none of the three of us had a clear grip on the plot. Jennifer and I argued over which bits might be from scenes we rembmered from Macbeth and Peggy just felt lost.

…and the museum connection?

In some of my more recent posts, I’ve started trying to work out a different model of exhibition development than the one I learned of objects in cases and texts and graphics. Sleep No More seemed like a potential example of how to make the kind of exhibit experiences I’d proposed as part of the Making a Museum from Scratch series. It’s opaque, it’s participatory, it offers its users tremendous freedom to construct their own experience. But I left it profoundly conflicted over whether I’d had a meaningful experience or not. I’m still not really sure. But I have come to some preliminary conclusions about the night and what it mean mean for how I might conceive of exhibitions in the future.

The solo thing isn’t for me

The masks and enforced silence really rubbed me the wrong way. I didn’t go to the theatre to be alone. Going to a museum is a social event by and large, and I don’t think making it a solitary experience would engender much goodwill from our public. In some ways, the whole faceless silent ghost thing reminded me of watching live streams on my computer, where there was something happening in the real world that I was spying on though the Internet.

Nothing immerses like complete immersion

Duh. But it’s something we do very rarely. It’s expensive. It’s hard. It takes a lot of work to make it “real”. But when it works, wow!

Interactions with people are more satisfying

Strangely enough, the one museum-like experience I could think of to compare Sleep No More to was visitng a living history site, like Plimoth Plantation. The difference, of course, is that the interpreters at Plimoth interact with you, and are brilliant at immersing you in their world.  Someday, I’ll write up the story of the strange afternoon I spent at Plimoth with a bunch of Soviet rocket scientists…

Being able to find a way in, out and about is key

Getting lost can be fun when the stakes are low, but when your enjoyment relies on being able to get around, it’s not nice to feel lost. I felt that too often in Sleep No More. I tend not to like exhibitions that channel you down one path from room to room, but I also don’t like feeling abandoned in a space. Unlike a storyworld game like Myst, where my action drove the narrative, in Sleep No More it was happening on its own timetable and I’d better keep up. Sink or swim doesn’t seem like a workable mindset for an enjoyable exhibition experience.

Story is king

Sure its a hoary old chestnut, but it’s truth is undimished by how it often its been repeated. Why did plain old Gatz keep me glued to my seat for seven hours while Sleep No More couldn’t hold me for half that time? The story. My main takeaway from the night might be that no amount of innovation and technical proficiency can overcome a weak story. The museum implications of this are obvious, I think. It doesn’t matter how cool your interface is if the content in your CMS is rotten, or incomplete, or just boring. Same for your exhibition, program, or event.

•••••

I’m sure there are others that will continue to bubble up to the surface. I’m looking forward to talking to others who’ve seen it. After that happens, I’ll add a postscript with whatever interesting thoughts come out of the discussion. If you’ve been, I’d love to hear what you thought of Sleep No More.

 

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25 responses to “On immersion, theatre, and museums

  1. How do we create immersion without treading too far down the theme park path? How do we create authentic immersion while still providing our audiences with the contextual information they need to be able to understand what it is that they’re immersed in? At first I started thinking about AR (because yes, I am a technocrat), but I realized that having all that information to hand interferes with the experience rather than enhances it. But most visitors don’t really have the domain knowledge necessary to process a full immersion. It’s part of why their visitors and curators. I keep feeling drawn to the same two elements from your post.

    1) The actors provided you with a brief orientation before letting you loose in the “performance”.

    2) The people at the living history site interacted with the visitors.

    There has to be some kind of hybrid solution here, some sort of pre-immersion orientation coupled with real people in the middle of the experience who can provide guidance if necessary, more like a safety net though rather than a tour guide. Divide the experience into two parts: the straightforward educational part that sets the scene for the visitor, and the totally immersive part that they get to experience without moderation once they have been given enough context to really immerse themselves in it.

  2. I’ve known quite a lot of people who’ve seen Sleep No More and had similar feelings although not as well articulated. In fact the first time K saw it she said she felt she had ‘missed out’ after hearing of some of the scenes I saw that she hadn’t.

    However almost universally, even amongst the disappointed, there was a sense of ‘I have to go back and see it again’. (That’s a feeling that is far too rarely expressed about museums . . . )

    For me, that is an indication that SNM is very good at what it does. It doesn’t try to ensure everyone has the same or even an equitable experience. It nudges rather than forces – the ‘audience choreography’ is something that exhibition designers could learn from too.

    I wonder about the solo thing. Walking around art museums and seeing visitors with their audioguides on doesn’t seem all that different to me. And, we know from MONA that darkness rather than the white box can create other interesting effects. The masks in SNM have some useful effects other than anonymity – the limiting of peripheral vision is useful for constructing the ‘viewport’ of the player/audience (see also FPS video games).

    • Hence my conflict. I can’t think of another event I’ve been to where I couldn’t say whether I liked it or not, but still felt like I might go again. Very interesting.
      I know solo visitation is more common in art museums, but even there, the social aspect of a visit is important. I felt too much like I was being straightjacketed. Then again, I’m more of a collaborative gamer, even in games that are meant to be played solo.

      • Yeah the straitjacketing is something you either go with or you don’t. I think for some audience members it might feel like a ‘bait and switch’ – as in “I thought I was going to the theatre and all I got was a haunted house”. On the other-hand I get the same with some museum exhibitions too!

        I’d love to run the numbers on the show. The ability for it to be profitable and retain the high level of interest throughout its long run is interesting
        too. My understanding is that they’ve also been able to now buy the building!

  3. I’m thinking the same thing, Matt. The right balance between providing scaffolding versus providing freedom to control the flow of the experience would be interesting to try to strike.

  4. Love this quote — “no amount of innovation and technical proficiency can overcome a weak story.”

  5. “The one time it happened to me I kept saying to myself, “Please don’t let her drag me off through some unmarked door!””
    “Interactions with people are more satisfying”

    My SNM experience felt so different to yours, and I think this is part of the reason why. I sought, nay, chased after human interactions, with actors and “ghosts” alike. My very first decision upon entering a scene that involved someone being dragged through an unmarked door was that I needed to have a similar experience for myself, and so I immediately began to look for how that would be possible. (With success! Remind me to tell you the story of acquiring my locket.)

    I stared down the actors, and I ran after them in scenes, gravitating not to where the story was (once I realised it was lost, I cared little to try to make sense of it), and instead following the people I found compelling. How could I make them see and interact with me? How could I become part of their world as they were in mine? I chose interaction over story, and was highly satisfied with my experience.

    To some extent – and I’d be interested to know whether your experience was similar – I felt that the masks were kind of an essentialising devise, which allowed me to be a version of myself without compromise. I became an anonymous huntress; I followed and chased, I explored and danced. It forced me to be “in” myself; to consider myself within the performance, and the space, and the social context. SNM became more about my internal journey in the world of the play, and less about the play itself.

    The mask also made eye contact all the more compelling, with actors and non-actors alike (and when my mask was removed at one point, that became interesting too).

    I wonder how different your own experience might have been had you abandoned the need for a “story”? I know from talking to Seb that I missed major and significant scenes, but I have no sense that I missed out on anything. I got stories, interactions. I was invited into secret spaces. I hunted (and was hunted in turn by a fellow “ghost”). The discoveries I made in SNM were discoveries of self, not of other.

  6. ‘There might even be a conference session in there…’ Have a look at
    http://www.imtal.org/ if you havent already.

    Love to hear your take on Plimouth one day!

  7. I have a lot to say, but little time.. so let me say only..Suse-I think my experience was much more like yours and your comment “I became an anonymous huntress; I followed and chased, I explored and danced.” is amazing and beautiful (you never fail to impress). I lost myself and was in a square dance with the different intersecting circles of narrative-without beginning nor end. The smells, the temperature changes and how the music seemed to follow only me.. and so I would chase it to see if the melody would keep up.

    But I understand what you’re saying Ed…I was alone and enjoy losing myself, I wanted to wear the mask all the way back to Brooklyn. I think it would have been different to be with someone.

    My takeaways for museum? Engage the senses. Stories and narratives can be told in a lot of different ways. Find a way to make the experience personalized (ooo.. sensors.. natural interaces..?) :) (I would have like the SNM scenes to be arduino enabled and talk back to me…FYI.)

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  9. Sorry to be an interloping comment-er (is that even a word?) as many of y’all seem to know each other but this post really, really struck me and compelled me to add a response.

    First, I think that museums (history museums most specifically and that which I have the most experience with) benefit greatly from some sort of interaction. But the first person, immersive experience can be really unsettling for adults. (I know that’s not the point of the SNM program but bear with me.)

    I described it as, “I know you’re faking it. You know you’re faking it. And you know I know you’re faking it so let’s just cut it out and talk like adults.” Or as a colleague more succinctly put it, “It’s like I’m walking into a play and everybody knows their lines except for me.”

    But, as you described above, the immersive experience has a lot to offer–even if in this context it was sort of odd (my interpretationm not yours).

    I was particularly struck by Matt’s comment, “How do we create authentic immersion while still providing our audiences with the contextual information they need to be able to understand what it is that they’re immersed in?”

    The best way I’ve seen this done was at the first Indiana Experience at the Indiana Historical Society. It was a photo of a WWII era grocery store that they recreated and before you went in you were given a list and a reproduction ration book. What was great about it was a) you were learning based on a *real* artifact giving visitors the chance to talk about WWII and rationing, etc and b) the list itself gave you a *reason* to interact with the characters because some items weren’t available (a way the interpreters could talk about rationing) and some were on the top shelf and, of course, visitors needed to count their ration stamps.

    This was my a-ha moment for first person interpretation. Provide guests with a way to interact, or, to use my colleague’s analogy, “Give them their initial lines.”

    One last thing I’ll mention is that I often talk to my colleagues in the history field about how envious I am of art because the possibilities are seemingly endless. A blank page can be art, or a program as wide-ranging as SNM can be art. History–particularly historic sites–start with something very *real*: an object, a site, artifact, archival document, or any number of primary sources.

    Both approaches (history, art) are good, if not great, for their audiences/communities, but both audiences and communities usually come to us with different expectations. And we need to be careful not to overpromise an immersive experience like SNM and underdeliver with a more primary source-based program. Please don’t take the latter as in support of the status quo at history org’s–just that we need to keep this in mind.

    Thanks for letting me crash a great discussion.

    Bob Beatty
    http://www.twitter.com/AASLH

    • Great comment, Bob, and welcome to the discussion! Scaffolding seems like the key missing ingredient, doesn’t it? Enough structure to get visitors engaged, which they can then abandon when they feel a sense of mastery.

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  19. Like Bob (post above) I am gatecrashing this conversation (and thanks for letting me do so). But assuming you are all still talking somewhere? . . . I love this line of conversation because it picks up on conversations we’ve been having in our UK office. Some of us have loved the Punchdrunk experience and some haven’t. All of us see its relevance to museum-making (which is what we do) and to a particular aspect of it that has been haunting us lately. The particular aspect is this: in museums, what is the relationship between the over-arching narrative and the smaller stories? In this regard UK museums seem to fall into three categories. Those who say that that museums are about objects, not stories, so what are you talking about? Those who say that of course you need a big narrative, not least to pull you through the experience. And those who take a post-modern view, that all big narratives are contrived and suspect and that only the individual viewpoint counts. Anyone taking this last view is likely to quote Georges Perec’s ‘Life: A user’s manual’ at you; and also any Punchdrunk production. Personally, I love theatre, I love immersive experiences, but I also love story. And somehow I want to have my cake and eat it.

  20. It’s a bit of a haul, but I’ll be convening a session on immersion at the Museum Computer Network conference in Montreal this coming November. You should come!

    I think part of the reason the topic’s been such a fruitful one is for the reasons you listed. It’s an existential question. Do museums exist to showcase objects and tell stories about them, or tell stories using objects, or self-consciously observe how we like to collect objects and tell stories. I also am a cake lover, and hope we’ll figure out ways to be more immersive and tell stories, and use objects. Somebody’s going to figure it out!

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