‘A word-of-mouth phenomenon’: ‘Sleep No More’ producer looks back on show’s 13-year run

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By Dan Sears

“Sleep No More,” the immersive theater experience inspired by Shakespeare’s “Macbeth,” is set to end its 13-year run March 28 after more than 5,000 performances.

The show initially had a six-week run, said producer Jonathan Hochwald, who’s been with the show since before it opened.

“We’ve just continued to extend ever since,” he said.

When “Sleep No More” began, one of the biggest concerns, said Hochwald, was whether or not New Yorkers would understand the idea and want to be a part of it.

Unlike most of the city’s theater offerings, the show doesn’t take place in a black box theater, or in the round, but at the “McKittrick Hotel,” a performance venue in Chelsea comprising six floors, each with a maze of rooms.

Audience members are encouraged to explore the space and to follow actors from room to room as they enact scenes – not with words – but with ballet-like movements.

The result is a surreal, dream-like rendition of Shakespeare’s classic story of power, ambition, and murder – and no experience of the show is the same.

“It’s an organic, living, breathing masterpiece of theatrical art that you’re actually in as an audience member,” said Hochwald. He said that, plus the fact that no two experiences of the show are the same, are reasons why New Yorkers have connected with the show.

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Alison Stewart, the host of WNYC’s “All of It,” caught up with producer Hochwald and the show’s “chief storyteller,” Ilana Gilovich, as they approach the end of the run.

Below is an edited version of their conversation.

Stewart: Jonathan, when this project first got underway, what were some of the challenges?

Jonathan: Thinking about staging this new art form as native New Yorkers and believing that New Yorkers would really embrace this, and figure out what it is.

At the time, we really were committed to the idea that this would be a word-of-mouth phenomenon if it was going to work at all.

We set out with a short run in mind of six weeks. We’ve just continued to extend ever since.

I think the biggest challenge was really believing that this would connect, and then wondering how the word of mouth would spread, and if it would spread, and if people would see it the same way we did, as this very compelling, one-of-a-kind, only-in-New-York type experience.

Two questions, Ilana. Do you say “the Scottish play,” or do you say the name of it when you’re there?

Ilana: It’s funny. I tend to say the name of the play. I know that there’s so much superstition around saying the term “Macbeth,” but one of the things that I love so much about “Sleep No More” specifically as a Shakespeare adaptation is it is this very singular hybrid between all of these different art forms.

Mostly when you’re thinking about the suspicions around the Scottish play, they’re in very traditional proscenium theaters, but we’re talking about the idiom of contemporary dance, we’re talking about this strange tapestry of artists, thinkers, dreamers, musicians, dancers, and so a lot of them don’t come with the knowledge of that particular superstition. We’re very brazen and bold at the McKittrick. We say the title name all the time.

Ilana, I know you’ve worn a number of hats. You’ve been a performer. You’ve been a copywriter. What does chief storyteller mean?

Ilana: It is a very fun, whimsical title that I have been bestowed. I have been with the show since 2012, both as a performer and in a number of different departments. I also earned my master’s degree and my PhD in English literature, specializing in contemporary adaptations of Shakespeare. I’ve thought a lot about this production as a modern retelling of Macbeth.

In coming back to this production company with that wealth of experience, it has felt so wonderful to think about audience experience from the very beginning that they enter our space until they leave the show, and having this lingering sensation.

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As a storyteller, particularly in a production without words, we’re trying to think about how to scaffold information, how to provide a lot of structure, and just enough so that people can have freedom to roam and still retain that sense of mystery.

The way you distinguish between actors and audience members is: the audience is all wearing uniform masquerade masks. Can you tell us about that choice?

Jonathan: The creator and director of the show, Felix Barrett and Maxine Doyle, I’m sure there is a huge origin story of how that came about. I think once it was discovered the power of that because it cuts off a little bit of your peripheral vision. It allows you to be a bit anonymous and gives you agency to explore all the spaces and feel like you can get close to performers and really absorb the story in a different way. It’s really unique, but it came with the original conception of the show.

Ilana : I also think we’ve invoked one aspect of the show, which is Macbeth, but the McKittrick Hotel is a 1930s-era kind of Hitchcockian film noir setting. A lot of it calls upon these filmic and cinematic legacies. Part of the beauty of the mask is it’s letting an audience member be a camera and look out from behind their eyes, but it’s also meant to represent the divide between the proscenium. When you’re in a traditional theater, the audience are in their seats, the performers are on stage, and the mask acts as that fourth wall to distinguish between audience members and performers.

Jonathan, what do performers need to have to be successful inSleep No More?”

Jonathan: Ilana, do you want to answer that one more because you were directly in it? Obviously, there’s some very specific actually and some general skills, but go ahead.

Ilana: One of my favorite aspects of “Sleep No More” is we’re striving for as lifelike an experience as possible. We don’t want people to attend the production and say, “I want to tell you about what I saw last night.” We want to say, “This is what happened to me last night.”

It engenders this very participatory postmortem with friends and family. We’re really thinking about virtuosic dancers and actors who can then pare down to very lifelike pedestrian movements. That’s a strange paradox. That’s a very strange skill set to be able to wield.

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In auditions, you’re thinking about people who both have incredible talent, but also the awareness and the sensibility to really tell a very simplistic story and let this gargantuan, really meticulously designed set also speak for itself. It’s having the humility and the restraint to be really dedicated to your craft, but also tell a very simple, direct archetypal story.

Ilana, what are a few things people should know if they decide to take on an evening atSleep No More?”

Ilana: Trust yourself. We have so few experiences nowadays to be off of our phones, present, really in the moment. This is such a glorious opportunity to check in with yourself and honor your instincts. There are some people who love rifling through the set. Each room has a different temperature, different scent, different soundscape, and so some people really love interfacing with the environment. Other people really want more aspects of the story, and so they will follow a performer. I would say take this wonderful opportunity to sense where you inherently want to go, and follow those instincts as best you can.

Got a great text: “I’ve been toSleep No More’ three times. I wonder if the producers know how inspiring it’s been to my field, museums. I’ve gone with several museum colleagues, and we’ve always left mind blown and inspired about what is possible with immersive design. Even in museums of art and history, its influence will be lasting.” That’s from Michelle in New Jersey.

Jonathan: Oh, how great.

This is a hard question. Why is it closing?

Jonathan: As I was saying before about live entertainment and live theater and this art form in particular, it’s always bittersweet in a way that it has a beginning, a middle, and an end, whether it’s a great book that you’ve read or a great TV series that you’re watching, at some point to finish up at the right time and to finish up strong and to essentially be able to hopefully have it out there long enough for as many people as possible to have experienced it and seen it and have that in their memories.

I think it’s just really important that, unlike a typical theater show, which oftentimes will announce on a Wednesday they’re closing on a Sunday, or even announce that we’re closing that night, to be able to manage this last phase of this chapter of this book, I think, was really important to us, and to end in a place where we were going out on top with the best cast and the best experience and, hopefully, want people to come back someday in the distant future with something else.

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