Come with me. I've got something to show you. A dark-haired woman clad in a long beaded dress said this to me as she whisked me away into the strange underworld of "Sleep No More."
A Living Performance
The unorthodox show — which is put on by a production company called Punchdrunk and has run about a year past its original limited engagement run — is synonymous with intrigue. It's an adaptation of MacBeth, though Shakespeare probably wouldn't recognise it. It's a living, dynamic show where audience members are invited to participate.
If there's a door, try to open it. If there's a character passing by you, follow her. You go into it unsure what to expect. You pass through dark hallways, find yourself in the middle of a lover's quarrel, wander into hidden rooms, encounter a visibly disturbed naked woman shivering in a bathtub. It's so believable — and the line between what is real and what is theatre is so blurred — it's like an intricate acid trip, forcing you to suspend all disbelief without even realising it. Throughout the course of three hours, you begin to morph into an actor. Sleep No More in its purest form has a reputation for being something truly special, inexplicable even. Now Punchdrunk is trying to take that to a completely different level.
Recently, the group summoned the MIT Media Lab to find a way to bury you even deeper inside its fictional world. Together, they cooked up something fantastical, something that I got to be a guinea pig for in a week-long experiment. All I knew going in? The project centered around a supercharged prototype of the hallmark mask each Sleep No More audience member wears. That's it.
I passed through narrow, dark hallways to meet Punchdrunk's Pete Higgin in the lobby of the McKittrick Hotel, the Chelsea warehouse turned sultry set. As has been standard operating procedure throughout Sleep No More's run, I was first given a white, beaklike mask and a speech about the rules of the engagement. However, this all happened back in a control room with the aid of Akito van Troyer, an MIT engineer. And my assigned outfit had some added bells and whistles; some visible, some not. On its face, the mask looked the same as the standard issue version, save for the thick bungee cord that wrapped around the back of my head, as well as the small fanny pack worn around my front right hip. Everyone else in the show just wore the basic analogue mask. They really, truly missed out.
As Pete set me up, he gave me a warning: "If you're waiting for something to happen, it probably won't." I took those words to mean nothing would.
I was nervous, though; on edge, even, as I began exploring an eerie enchanted forest, wandering through a hospital ward, rifling through desk drawers in dimly-lit rooms. It's an impressive set, and totally immersive. If it weren't for the sweat beading on my forehead causing the mask to periodically slip down the bridge of my nose, I would have forgotten about the odd getup altogether.
Just as I began to relax, a cackling actress led me into a deranged dinner party down in a ballroom set. As the scene devolved into an some kind of soft-core orgy, I felt pressure in the back of my head. I thought I imagined it. But it was the mask beginning to wake up. I was shocked with a violently loud vibrating "BWAAAAAAAA", similar to the hallmark horn from Inception, ringing into my head. It was followed by silence. The actors dispersed. I moved on. I heard radio feedback. More moving. More silence. A voice abruptly telling me that "there are wonderful things to discover here." You know: general weirdness.
The warehouse is unsettling enough without the added bells and whistles. Dark rooms are connected by darker winding halls, and you feel almost like you're in the middle of a horror movie, with the kind of music that plays builds up right before the stabbing starts pervading each room. At times you have to navigate by feeling the walls, worrying with every step that you might trip or that some ghostly character might jump out and grab you. On pins and needles I recoiled into a Heisman pose each time the mask set off some kind of sound. Instead of carrying a football, though, my hands instinctively flew to my head, as if to protect myself from whatever menacing spirit might be speaking to me.
Time Out — Sort Of
Overheated and worked up, I took a break. Pete told me — through the mask — to meet him in the lobby after about an hour so we could discuss the experience. Problem was, it took me forever to actually find the bar. Once I finally did, I sat down and had a drink. My hair damp with sweat, I cooled down as I relayed what I had just experienced to Pete and his colleague, Felix Barrett, Punchdrunk's artistic director. I described what had happened, which Felix wou;d punctuate a slow nod with a drawn out "iiiiinteresting" as he shot Pete a knowing glance. Everything remained cloaked in mystery.
I wrapped up by explaining to the show-runners that before I had paused, a female voice frantically pleaded with me: "find the lawyer's office. You have to find the lawyer's office!" It sounded urgent. More importantly, it sounded real. Of course, they already knew.
Felix and Pete departed, and for a moment, I was alone in the lounge, listening to jazz music, downing another drink. I was greeted once again by the same woman in the beaded dress. She clasped my hand and led me up several flights of stairs. I was taken into an office with frames and accolades mounted on the wall. The woman left, and I was alone. It was the lawyer's office.
I sat at the desk and began rifling through drawers, scrutinising the law degrees on the wall. I jumped at the sudden noise of a typewriter on the desk springing to life. It tapped out a message: The code to the briefcase is 527. A briefcase, what briefcase? I scanned the room frantically, found it, and tried to enter the numbers. Clearly, I had never operated a briefcase because I couldn't open it. In frustration, I spat out curses. "Fuck-ing brief-CASE!" I exclaimed to no one in particular. Or so I thought. After several tries, the phantom typewriter told me I had to go. I was running out of time. I'd forgotten it was just a story enough that I didn't even realise I was being manipulated the whole time, like a little pawn.
It was all very seamless, and I didn't know why until the next day when the geek gurus from MIT revealed the Disneyland magic they had camouflaged throughout the giant set. Masks were just one part of the equation.
There were actually three parts to this crazy experiment: the mask, a remote player, and the Media Lab team somewhere backstage monitoring the flow of the plot and to ensure the tech was working the way it was supposed to.
For the remote actor — a role taken on by Media Lab professor Joe Paradiso — Sleep No More is like playing a video game that they can't lose. They can see where you're going, what you're doing, where you are, and how you're reacting, all from a computer anywhere in the world. And their role is to influence you diabolically.
The remote player was another component to the challenge Punchdrunk presented; how do you experience a play without actually being there? From an apartment in Brooklyn, Paradiso was with me every step of the way, experiencing Sleep No More as an evocative text-based game where he was free to fill in the details. Similar to the darkness from which I started in the physical part, he was first presented with a black screen.
"The interface at first is just a blanking cursor," Peter Torpey, one of the MIT researcher assistants explained. "You are led into the darkness and you have to type something and you have to create this system to get a response. And then it starts walking you through the set up of the real scenario — allusions to who you are and how to interact with the system. There's a period of guiding, much like the speech participants are given at the beginning of the show that sets up the rules."
Paradiso spent a period of time in the blackness, then periodically, he would get images of what was going on in real-time. The first image he saw was me, back with the woman at the beginning of my journey (unbeknownst to me, there had been a camera installed there the entire time). He saw the two of us sitting in front of a Ouija board. At the time, I was taken aback when we asked the board a question and the wooden cursor moved over several letters in response. Little did I know that response, which seemed to come from the spirit world, was actually Joe's taps on a keyboard, miles away.
"We have a system that can generate and stream this content based on the interaction and its all scripted using a model of the story. so theres a script thats not necessarily based on time although it can poke into time that represents the virtual space and that script is always reconfiguring itself based on the actions of the two participants and that drives the generation of the content," Peter told me.
His keystrokes were fed through the program built by the MIT wizards, and then brought to life through an Intel Atom computer set up underneath the table where the Ouija board sat.
But that was just one of several portals installed throughout the set. Another was the typewriter that I had encountered that I thought was speaking to me. I also learned later that the MIT team could hear me cursing at the briefcase I was unable to crack through a microphone installed inside a phone, and they were just begging for me to be able to open it.
The day after I saw the play, Gershon Dublon and Eyal Shahar, two other research assistants led me through the set to reveal the magic they had so carefully concealed throughout. The had scattered little vignettes in the building that they called portals. If a mask wearer got close enough to one of the portals, the Android device would find the Bluetooth connection or the hidden RFID monitors in the portal, triggering some kind of action.
For example, down in a graveyard, a gathering of beautiful butterflies were sprinkled along a stone gate. They were actually real butterflies, though they were no longer alive. But they weren't just decoration. When you approached, there delicate little wings would flit gracefully, as if they were still living. Really, they were wired to a handmade lilypad ardino with a carefully crafted sequence placed inside an envelope and hidden underneath the stones of the fence.
On another floor, they revealed a mirror to me, one I had passed right by the night before. The mask triggered a message to appear on the glass, as if a ghostly finger were writing in the dust. Inside a closet, they revealed another Atom computer, another RFID, and a TV screen pasted inside where the letters would show up. This was another spot where Joe could send me a message.
I was shown various other portals — a phone where the player could talk to you, and a book that flew off the shelf, among other little pieces that transformed the set into a place where you believed spirits were really stalking you, trying to send you message. Each spot was powered by a combination of an Atom computer, Bluetooth, and RFID. And just because you didn't encounter a portal, didn't mean you wouldn't come into the vicinity of another Bluetooth, and get sounds and voices send to your mask. Sounds and vibrations could also be sent to your mask over wifi connections installed throughout the building.
It's difficult to separate the pure experience of Sleep No More from the added illusions I saw because I was wearing a mask. Ideally, I'd like to see the show in its pure form, to have a sort of control. But regardless of that, what Punchdrunk and the Media Lab are trying to do is truly amazing, and it has larger implications beyond just their partnership.
They're not entirely sure how, and if, they'll even deploy this system to a wider audience. Theoretically, the masks could be incorporated into the show, but they want them to be more discreet first. The fanny pack wasn't actually part of the original plan. But just imagine the possibilities — you could be in Singapore, and you could buy a ticket to play along with a show play along with a show running in New York, all through a computer program. And it wouldn't just be a game, it would be a show that was actually happening in real time.
But Pete kept his cards close to his chest. He's unsure how it's all going to pan out. When I asked him how he'd like to see this work into Punchdrunk productions in the future, he gave me vague, hypothetical responses. Enclosed in those, was a broader explanation, and perhaps a nod to how Sleep No More has been so successful.
"Expectation is the key to our work. The moment you give too much away it really changes the way people experience it — we found this out on the first night of the test. We know that firsthand. And we know that the biggest advocates of our work spread it by word of mouth. And you can only get that if nobody knows about it. The reason we keep the expectation is the moment I tell you about something, you have an idea of what it's going to be in your head, and you form it, and it turns out to be better or worse or different. The less you tell, the more you experience."