This past February, I was fortunate to receive a Downing grant to travel to New York City to conduct research in an atypical environment for an art historian. In determining my final project for Professor Leonard Folgarait’s seminar on Surrealism, I decided to explore a play I had seen the year before in New York that I had described as “unusual” or “peculiar,” whereas a more appropriate word to describe it is “surreal.” No words, no plot, no stage. Sleep No More stands apart from a totalizing, prescribed narrative, materializing a rather surreal vision of theater.
Staged in the McKittrick Hotel, Sleep No More occupies more than 10,000 square feet of playing area that is divided into nearly a hundred richly imagined, decorated rooms spread over six floors. Thematic elements of the play primarily refer to William Shakespeare’s tragedy Macbeth, while recalling sound and architectural elements from Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca and Vertigo. Felix Barret, director of Sleep No More, describes the production as a “non-linear approach to storytelling.” The experience of Sleep No More is often described as witnessing someone else’s dream. The play repeats itself after each hour, allowing guests to witness three different cycles, depending on their choices at each point.
A major element of the play is that it is “experiential,” permitting each audience member to determine the course that they follow. Twenty different actors roam throughout the rooms of the hotel, and the permutations are infinite for each guest who has complete freedom during the three hours they are in the hotel to determine their course during each “cycle” of the play. This relates to Surrealist theory because the outcome of the performance each guest sees is determined by chance rather than a formulaic approach to experiencing the play. Sleep No More defies the rational approach to a theatrical experience by allowing guests to determine their course and to follow the golden rule of “fortune favors the bold.” Much like a dream, each member of the audience leaves the hotel with his or her own version of the story, often disjointed and non-linear.
While I was in the McKittrick Hotel, I had a completely different experience than I had the previous year. I followed different characters, experienced new scenes, explored new rooms, allowing for some gaps of information to be filled, but leaving with even more holes in my story and a stronger desire to return. The entire story line had changed just by chance. I also explored the aspect of the subconscious, as Sleep No More is a dreamlike experience and related to Surrealist theory. What is exposed when we explore our subconscious, what hidden desires are found, and what are our natural feelings? I discovered that I was exploring not only the subconscious of the tragic hero, Macbeth, but also my own subconscious desires through the experience of wearing a mask and as a “morphic” cast member as well.
The play was an immersive, incredibly surreal experience to say the least, and I came away with a greater understanding of myself and my truest self when I am behind a mask. My seminar paper focused on the Surrealist elements that I identified in the play, such as the exploration of the subconscious, focusing on scenes involving Lady Macbeth cleansing the blood of King Duncan from Macbeth’s body, as well as discussing the disturbances in the natural order promoted through the story line, as well as the set and visual design. Because the play is truly a subjective experience, my paper was centered around my own personal experience as an audience member, as well as interviews with the director and actors to uncover overarching themes and characteristics of the play itself.
The weekend in New York City was incredible: From exploring the MoMA and explaining the Surrealist concept of our irrational fear of drinking from Oppenheim’s fur-lined teacup to my friend (I still don’t think hair in tea would be a good mixture!) to traveling down the High Line and stopping in Chelsea Market before our show, we filled our weekend to the brim with a myriad of activities. I am so grateful for this opportunity afforded me by the Downing grant to explore more of the city of New York, resulting in a weekend filled with laughs, great food, and surreal moments that will be cherished for a lifetime.—Hannah Ladendorf, BA’16