My Last-Ditch Effort To Become An “Experiences” Person

We are living through peak “immersive” experiences. To understand the phenomenon, I went to the play that started it all.

by Erin Somers
Artistic collage of a couple embracing, a man in a hat holding a briefcase, and a large floating mas...
Ariela Basson/Bustle; Getty Images, Shutterstock

On West 27th Street in Manhattan, in a five-floor warehouse of 100,000 square feet, a naked man wearing a goat’s head cavorts in strobe-lit fog. Another man in black tie sprints up a flight of stairs chased by two dozen people in plague masks. A couple simulate sex — or a fight? — in a room strewn with hand-written letters. This is Sleep No More, the mega-popular immersive retelling of Macbeth that debuted in 2011 and will close… well, sometime.

The show was initially scheduled to end in January, which a producer for Emursive — the organization that took the show over from U.K. theater company Punchdrunk — told the New York Times was due to rising production costs. It has also had landlord trouble, with suits and countersuits over permits, rent (the warehouse is an astronomical $438,000 per month), and breach of contract. But demand remains high, and the run keeps getting extended. The current closing date is July 7; who knows if it’ll stick.

Emursive is meanwhile preparing a new experience, Life and Trust, in a building in the Financial District, which fans theorize will be based on Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Faust. The effect has been of a prolonged goodbye, with Sleep No More diehards scrambling to see it one more time and critics puzzling to make sense of the phenomenon. What did the show represent? Why did it endure for a decade-plus, when most shows close much faster? What did it tap into that opened the floodgates to the countless imitators, from the Van Gogh exhibit, to the family-friendly Meow Wolf artscapes, to the failed Wonka experience in Glasgow that recently delighted the world?

In a piece for The Guardian about the show’s closing, Steven Phillips-Horst suggests that the show’s popularity, and the rise of immersive experiences generally, can be attributed to “the Marvelfication of culture,” meaning the modern fan’s hunger for Easter eggs. This could explain why people see Sleep No More over and over.

But when I talk to one such superfan at a recent performance, he expresses a desire for critics to dig deeper. He tells me he does not even feel he saw the entire show until his 20th viewing. He calls The Guardian piece “the worst article he has ever read,” and when I ask why, he says the writer didn’t even try. He didn’t even try to understand.

The Meow Wolf location in Santa Fe, New Mexico, in 2017.MARK RALSTON/AFP via Getty Images
Bethenny Frankel attends the Museum of Ice Cream opening party in New York in 2019.Cindy Ord/Getty Images for Museum of Ice Cream
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Sleep No More was created by choreographer Maxine Doyle and Punchdrunk artistic director Felix Barrett. Doyle tells me, “[Barrett] said: ‘I want to do Macbeth in the style of a Hitchcock thriller but without any words or dialogue and in a nontheatrical, epic space.’ I said: ‘Cool. Let’s do it.’” Originally, it ran 10 nights in South London with a cast of 10 performers, before moving to Boston, New York, and eventually Shanghai. The New York iteration now takes place in adjoining warehouses fashioned into “the McKittrick Hotel,” and the choreography has been adjusted to keep pace with the times. For instance, she says, “In the light of the #MeToo campaign, we worked with an intimacy coordinator to refresh and codify our approach to intimate content.”

Thirteen years in, more than 2 million people have seen the show. My friend Caro went to see it immediately after Hurricane Sandy. My friend Tim has been twice. I saw him at a child’s backyard birthday party in the Hudson Valley recently, and he told me to “look for the secret orgy.” He added that the first time he’d gone, one of the actors “handed him a woman.” When I asked what this meant, he mimed receiving an inert woman into his arms, Pietà-style.

I have not gone myself until now because, in general, I am not drawn to immersive experiences. I think this is partly due to taste but mostly due to skepticism. Is being “immersed” necessary to the experience of art? Also, the ticket price always seemed like too much to pay for a sexy haunted house. Today, it costs $160.50 on the low end. I pay a little more, $202 for the “Oz’s Guest” tier, which gets you priority entry, free coat check (a $4 value), and a reserved table at the Manderley Bar, where the audience convenes before admission. There is a higher tier, “Maximillian’s Guest” ($366.44), which gets you everything on the previous tier plus “375ml of our finest champagne.” Maximillian is the husband in Rebecca, but in advance of the show, I am not able to figure out who Oz is. Oz as in the Wizard of Oz? Oz as in the abbreviation for Australia? It never becomes clear to me.

I go on a Wednesday evening in late May. When I get there, I wait in the designated Oz line, which is much shorter than the general admission line. The people waiting with me are a mix of diehards (a guy who says he has attended 122 times) and novices (a woman who has never been before). The diehards are extremely forthcoming. The show has an enthusiastic fandom that includes a Reddit forum of 4,500 members and a Discord — communities that grew exponentially during COVID, when people missed the show and wanted to talk about it. The fans I meet in line tell me that I must eat the candy at Paisley’s sweet shop. They scoff at my Birkenstocks. They tell me to just feel it.

Our hands are stamped, and we’re admitted into the building. There is a no-cellphone policy — they don’t want photos or videos — and so you either check it along with your bag or place it in a locking pouch to be worn around your neck. Unlike a lot of other immersive experiences, Sleep No More is not designed to be posted on Instagram (perhaps because the show’s formulation predates the app’s ubiquity). I check my phone and then I am directed through the darkest hallway I have ever been in, which disorients me immediately. On the other side is the Manderley Bar, where you can get a cocktail or a shot of absinthe. I order the latter — why not? — and talk to two other fans, one who has attended 12 shows and another who has attended 60. I record parts of our conversation with a small digital recorder, which I assume is fine as the show is purely visual.

We are taken into an antechamber and handed beaked plague masks, which serve the purpose of distinguishing the performers from the audience. A cast member lays out ground rules — we are not to talk; we are not to touch the performers; we are to keep our masks on at all times — before letting people in. When it’s my turn, instead of being permitted to enter, I am pulled aside, reprimanded for having a digital recorder, and sent back to bag check to put it away. To do this, I have to walk past the line of people who have not yet been admitted. In my embarrassment, I have forgotten that I’m still wearing the plague mask.

“You can take the mask off,” whispers an exasperated stage hand behind me.

Shakespeare’s Scottish play tells the story of a thane, Macbeth, who receives a prophecy that he will one day be king and is convinced by his wife to commit several murders to make this happen. One of his victims is the king himself, and another is his friend Banquo, who returns as a ghost. Lady Macbeth (spoiler to a play from the 1600s) eventually kills herself. This is the basic plot of Sleep No More. The show is performed three times on an hourlong loop, so audience members have multiple opportunities to catch scenes they might have missed.

If you get in trouble at Sleep No More, perhaps for simply possessing an audio recording device, and find yourself all the way back at bag check and having to blunder down the dark hallway again, this actually sets you up to arrive in the ballroom just as Lady Macbeth is doing a pivotal interpretive dance to begin the show. But then, ah, nope, that’s not Lady Macbeth. Because I find the real Lady Macbeth moments later, on a higher floor arguing with her husband. Macbeth runs out of the room, presumably to murder someone, and a bunch of us follow him, but he’s super fast.

I am trying to immerse, but mostly what I am doing is booking ass. (The fans were right about the Birkenstocks.) The actors move at a sprint. They seem to be trying to make it difficult to follow them. Upstairs, downstairs, into the ballroom, upstairs again, down a hallway made to look like an old timey city, through a maze of barren hedges. I am often in a pack — the crowd thickens as more people are admitted — and can’t see much. But I do glimpse Macbeth killing Banquo with a brick and then later, Banquo’s ghost appearing to him at dinner.

For a few minutes, I stare at what I think is an actor gazing off into the distance on the mezzanine level before realizing (I am very nearsighted) that it’s a plaster bust. Later, I see someone being handed a woman, just as Tim described. At Paisley’s sweet shop, I help myself to a mint. I offer the jar to two other people in the room and they back away shaking their heads. I’m not supposed to talk so I try to communicate nonverbally that someone who has been to the experience upward of 10 times told me it’s OK. When this fails, I whisper, “I promise it’s fine,” but they still don’t take one. Maybe I should have told them to just feel it.

I am trying to immerse, but mostly what I am doing is booking ass.

What are people after when they attend Sleep No More? The sex is part of it. Actors simulate sex with almost comic gravitas, and there’s full-frontal at close range. On the Internet, there are guides to finding all the nudity in the show. A coveted part of the experience is a “one-on-one,” which is when an actor pulls an audience member into a hidden room, sexily, to deliver a scene. (Don’t try too hard to seek this out, a fan tells me; they can sniff out desperation.)

On the forums, people claiming to be former employees of the experience say guests often have sex there, which surprised me as there is heavy foot traffic in every inch of the space. In 2018, a Buzzfeed News investigation confirmed 17 incidents of sexual misconduct or groping of performers by audience members. One of the people in the article remarked that the anonymity encourages it: “Once you gave people a mask, it was carte blanche to let them do whatever they wanted.”

In the performance I attend, both Macbeth and Lady Macbeth are often nude. I find the orgy about 20 minutes in, behind a wall with a neon sign that says Hell Here. (A reference to the sign in Cat Woman’s apartment in Batman Returns?) It involves two female witches, one male witch, and Macbeth, who is covered in blood. The male witch is the one in the goat head. It’s difficult to tell what is going on, but at some point, the two women simultaneously breastfeed a purple baby. There is a moderate amount of humping.

So yes, voyeurism is a factor. But many of the people I talk to do not seem interested in that. The fans who return over and over are there to absorb the details, to optimize, to see everything and find all the references. The sets are interactive. You’re allowed to touch things — pick up a discarded letter, sit on the furniture of the hotel lobby. One room holds taxidermy birds, and I happen upon an audience member alone in there stroking a turkey with great focus and tenderness.

The Macbeth of it all might seem to be a smokescreen for the sex stuff, but oddly, I think it’s the other way around. Maybe the sex gets you through the door, but the details are what hook you. There is something unexpectedly pure about the fandom. What it actually most resembles is not the immersive experiences it spawned, but another 2010s theater production, the Broadway show Hamilton. Both rework familiar stories in an accessible way, and both are incredibly earnest, like something a cool English teacher might come up with.

The people I meet at the show are lawyers and programmers and administrators. Every profession. They are from New York, New Jersey, Boston, elsewhere. Most of them have been many times. One explains that when he got the news that his mother had cancer, he started following the threads dealing with motherhood. Another says she likes the set decoration and design. They tell me they find new things in it constantly, new layers. They are keen to have it speak to them personally, to where they are in their lives. I don’t want to read too much into it, but it sounds related to what they call the loneliness epidemic, the increasingly dire isolation of our tech-mediated lives.

The fans who return over and over are there to absorb the details, to optimize, to see everything and find all the references.

The third loop wraps up, but my night is not over. I have a dinner reservation at Gallow Green, the Sleep No More-themed restaurant a few doors down. It is on a rooftop with an elevator operator — there is a lightly Gatsby-era theme here — to escort you up. But the illusion frays: He’s stowed his orange Aquaflask in one corner. Upstairs, the space is decorated like an Epcot Center version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Fairy lights twinkle overhead, vines climb the walls. I order a mezcal cocktail called the Summer Coven that looks like brown milk and tastes of undiluted mezcal. I watch a woman a few tables over receive the same drink, wince at its color, then wince at its taste. I am trying to understand.

If and when Sleep No More closes, it takes its era with it. Its cash-hungry imitators have co-opted the spectacle and jettisoned the richness the fans love. It’s the same creep toward cynicism that we’ve seen in every corner of culture, driven by capital and the Internet. The entertainments are all franchises now, with endless diluted sequels squeezing every idea for maximum profit and little emphasis on art. Social media further incentivizes disingenuity, by rewarding posters’ most vitriolic opinions, and creating the illusion that hate begets clout.

I don’t want to give myself over to it. I don’t want to look at the world and see only things I find stupid, see only things that are not for me.

I don’t want to give myself over to it. I don’t want to look at the world and see only things I find stupid, see only things that are not for me. Sleep No More is not for me. But I can see what people like. They want to escape into a world more vivid than ours, where there are intrigues and clues that reward the viewer’s investment, where you might be handed a woman, or pulled into a secret room, or find yourself at an orgy with two nursing moms.

I exit Gallow Green into the immersive experience of New York City on a beautiful spring evening. It’s amazing how it looks just like a city street. A guy in a tight orange polo has a woman backed up against a building, and they are making out vigorously. The hot wind coming up 10th Avenue feels like a hot wind. There’s honking and talking, passing music. I walk to the train taking it all in. It’s fleeting — it won’t be performed three times for my benefit. The details are perfect.