Privacy and Voyeurism: @SleepNoMoreNYC – (A Sort of Review of the Play)

Venetian Mask

Gazing through my mask

Last night I went with @totheralistair and @ghennipher to see Sleep No More.  Interestingly, in an odd synchronization with my piece on privacy just published yesterday, Sleep No More plays with voyeurism, privacy, audience/observer, exploration and curiosity.  When you arrive you are given a Venetian mask and told “You will find yourself experiencing the hotel alone,” “Curiosity is rewarded,” “Please do not speak,” and “Please do not take off your mask; this is for us.” You soon find yourself playing the ghost, the ultimate “Other” of Jean-Paul Sartre, rifling through files and drawers, the extended beak on the mask emphasizing your nosy-ness, a wordless observer of wordless dance and action, chasing other ghosts, ghosts of the thirties, through the three warehouses dressed as part-hotel, part insane asylum, part small town. Part village.


It may be better for someone to go into the Sleep No More experience without pre-conceived notions.  If you think you might have the opportunity to go to Sleep No More, maybe don’t read this post.

Describing Sleep No More, defining it, is not so easy. If you read the review in New York Magazine, reviewer Scott Brown calls it a “dance-theater horror show,” a “wordless, nonlinear mash-up of Macbeth and the darker psychosexual corners of Hitchcock,” a “six-story Jazz Age haunted house for grown-ups and anyone who’s ever entertained sick cineast-y fantasies of living inside a Kubrick movie.” Finally he settles on a description of “these sorts of immersive, site-specific experiments.”

This is exactly what I really liked about it; I kind of thought of it as a three-dimensional play, a performance piece including dance and theater integrated with space and (to borrow from Tron) with the users, with us, the attendees, part of creating the emotional landscape of the place, playing the ghostly watchers. To draw the parallel, it is almost a physical expression of the user at the keyboard on the internet, watching posts on Facebook, blogs, the news….

As we wandered around, we inevitably did get separated from each other in the dim lighting and begin to experience the play alone.  Yet sitting in a theater, how different is this?  You can glance over and catch a half-smile, boredom, or misty eyes when you sit together at a play.  Or you can lose yourself in the display before you, as if dreaming, watching the story unfold before you.  In a play, too, there is no talking. No cell phones allowed.  The difference here in the world of Sleep No More is that you bump into other theater-goers, anonymous behind their masks, in your attempt to, literally, follow the story when you follow the dancer-actors from room to room.

In Sleep No More, we still watch the story unfold before us, but the unfolding is non-linear.  You can miss portions of the story either just by not being in the right place at the right time or intentionally by breaking out of the story line and joining “reality,” albeit a ghostly one, in the Thirties Jazz Bar at the entrance.  In the bar the performers are the ghosts, not the users.  Late in my adventure I inadvertently wandered back to the entrance to the bar as I explored.  I didn’t go in because it felt like waking up from the dream, in an odd way.  You can remove your mask in the bar.  You can leave behind anonymity.  You can put your picture and name on your post.

Other reviewers have commented on the sense of sex in the play. Here is what I discovered. I ran across a scene in a tailor’s shop.  I and other viewers crammed into the shop to see what was going on.  A man was at work when a woman came to visit.  They danced intimately.  Then they played with bolts of old, dusty fabric.  He wrapped her in different fabric to… try on for a dress?  There is very little dialogue so hard to be sure.  In any case, the tailor went out to get something; she followed him to the door, walking into me as if I was invisible and she could walk through me.  Some of the voyeurs chased after him; some, me included, stayed with her. In the shop, she rifled through the tailor’s belongings, found a key to unlock his safe, stole his money, slipping it into her handbag.

Interesting that this is the scene I found because first we voyeurs are spying on something very personal.  The sex, then, seemed more of the sort that is porn on the internet: watching, alone, at the keyboard.  In that, I found a dark-feeling sense heightened by the Catholic symbols present everywhere.  We see the relationship; next we are spying on what she does when *she* thinks she is not watched, as she steals the tailor’s money.  Again and again I found scenes in the performance in which people behave in ways they might if they think they are not watched.  When they are not watched, the characters may behave very darkly, may teeter on madness.

Scene from Sleep No More

Stolen money discovered in hotel bar.

There is also this sense of a private world we are spying in upon in the ballroom scenes. Disconnected from context, as if we users were not present, the revelers are completely immersed in their feast.  The feeling is dark and immoral, lost in a dark dream that yet from which they or we could awaken, even just by turning on the lights and taking off the masks.

At the end, I was on an upper floor, finally reunited with Alistair and Ghennipher, and we found ourselves at the intersection of two pieces of story.  One we could chase down a hallway, which we started to do.  But then another scene approached.  This was… Hecate?  followed by a crowd of ghosts, other users, clumped together in an observing pack.

Signaling each other to watch, Alistair, Ghennipher and I together focused on Hecate as she approached our small group of stragglers.  She spoke, acknowledged seeing the users following her, calling them ghosts, piercing their anonymity and silence.  But not our small group.  We were not part of that scene.  Rather than causing us to drop our ghostly selves, we remained therefore in-character, ghosts watching a ghost watched by ghosts.

While all of this is interesting and leads to all kinds of musing, at dinner later Alistair observed that we don’t feel emotionally connected and involved with any of the story.  I agree with this.  These are more a collection of creepy scenes as if we were running across snapshots similar to the ballroom of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining.  While one dancer incorporated a deep gaze into my eyes before he leaped into a phone booth dance, it was just an intimidating gaze. I never had a sense of anyone I could really empathize with, someone for whom I could care and wish well.

You’ll find Catholic statues of saints throughout the space.  One large statue, in particular, was of the Virgin Mary whose realistic eyes gazed after us within maze that was inhabited from time-to-time by a virginal young nurse.  The statue’s gaze felt discomforting.  The nurse plucked audience members into a hut in the corner and silently offered them tea.  We could peer through cracks in the shingles to watch.  Neither the nurse nor the statues offered any real saintly side, a side that we could root for.

This finally gets me to the point. That is, when you do not allow the openness of an identified connection, take the risk of showing who you are, then you completely miss empathy, the opportunity to emotionally connect with someone else.  The extreme of too much privacy and too much individualism is exactly this.  You become anonymous, disconnected, capable of allowing the darker spirits within to blossom, capable of horrific acts, part of a grotesque dinner party.

Is that feedback for Sleep No More? Not really.  The experience seems to me exactly as it should be.  No, this is more an observation about the networked world we live in.  We teeter between masked an unmasked all the time, but with our electronic connections, we may find ourselves at the dinner party, watched by ghosts.  Somehow, we just have to figure out how to pull off the masks and turn on the lights.

At the risk of blathering on far too long here, I also want to mention that I read about the return of Steve Jobs to Apple in the Walter Isaacson biography on the subway home last night.  Connected to this play, it reminds me of the Atlantic article “Can We be Good Without God?”  If Big Brother is not watching you, if you do not feel and sense the ghosts and their eyes, or if the ghosts are not unmasked and you feel your connection to the people behind, can you be good? Ironically, without Steve Jobs, their Big Brother, Apple could not be good.

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