Every once in awhile, a work of theater emerges that suddenly transforms the landscape of contemporary performance art. I recall seeing Michael Counts’ stunning “Tilly Losch” some years ago at the old GAle GAtes space in DUMBO, or even viewing De La Guarda’s “Villa Villa” in Union Square in the mid-90’s. Both were striking examples of contemporary theater work: they were freshly exploring new ideas with a singular voice. They were a departure from the known, and sought a new form which was more expressive and surprising. And, perhaps most importantly, their creators understood how to make something that captured the zeitgeist of the “now”. Their talents extended beyond simply making theater (which is never simple, of course) and into making something that somehow, inexplicably and clearly expressed the current of this cultural moment.
And now we have “Sleep No More”.
This piece has captured the imaginations of contemporary theater audiences, for sure. But it has also drawn and captivated those not exactly driven to see conventional theater, but who crave uniquely different experiences, thrills and the shock of something new. This aspect is particularly compelling, the fact that people are coming to “Sleep” that don’t usually visit the theater. They hear of this fantastical experience and approach it like they would a roller coaster. It’s a thrill to be experienced, a confrontation that will test them in a very real way and a phenomenon that they can share with (and impress) their friends. I ask you, when (and why) did theater STOP being this way?
The power of the theater is on full display in west Chelsea, more prominently than anything I have seen in New York in nearly twenty years. Why is this so?
I would like to spend some minutes here assessing why this work left me so speechless. I feel it is of the most urgent importance to speak about the phenomenon of money and the arts, through the lens of “Sleep No More”. A non-profit excursion this most certainly is not. How can other artists learn from this stunning creation and utilize it to expand their own work and possibly veer away from the non-profit mindset, and why now the cultural landscape can accept that change.
A Convention On Its Head
The typical theater experience begins with an audience filing into the auditorium, being handed a program, and taking a (usually) pre-assigned seat. We then receive the art performed onstage, and clap, sharing our appreciation with the performers at the end of the show. Perhaps there is an intermission in the piece, which is clear to all when the curtain drops and the lights come up. Everyone performs this passive ritual together, at the same time, doing – more or less – the same thing as everyone else.
“Sleep No More” adheres to none of these conventions. Everything is reversed, turned upside-down and inside-out. There is nothing passive about the experience. I found myself inside the show, running to follow actors, pounding up and down stairs to keep up with a performer, opening desk drawers within the set to explore notes, maps and other oddities, and even enjoying a delicious piece of candy from a candy store (floor #4, if I recall). One is immediately pulled into the work as an active participant; we are part of the piece.
The first impression I had upon entering the McKittrick Hotel (the production’s playing space on W 27th St.), was that I was being left completely alone. The first scene one enters is a lounge from an earlier time. This lounge serves as a transitional area from the outside world into the new one which awaits through a velvety curtain in the corner of the room. The look and feel of the lounge was evocative of the 1920’s, with remarkably precise “touches”everywhere in the space (feathers in the candles, for example). The interior was plush red, with cozy cocktail tables and chairs throughout. A working bar exists in the corner, with an additional specialty drink station. In the center of the room lies a stage completely setup for a band who appears at the end of the night. Immediately one feels included and involved in the event.
My fiancee and I had drawn different numbers and she had been escorted away from the lounge and into the playing space first. So, I sat at one of the tables in the corner of the bar area, totally by myself. I relaxed a bit, and realized that I could literally now do anything I wanted. I got up and wandered around, got a Coke, and checked out some of the other “guests”. What surprised me was how completely at home they all seemed. It was as if the situation was totally natural. Who doesn’t know how to enter a bar, grab a drink and take a seat? No one seemed lost or flustered at all. I sat and observed this, and couldn’t help but chuckle and the brilliance of it all. How better to begin an evening of theater than to place us in an environment so familiar that we could ease from the first moment into part of the production. What was so compelling about it was that no one seemed to feel at all that an evening of theater was WRONG to begin in such a way. Nowhere were people looking around for “what to watch” or the “beginning of the story”. No, everyone was relaxed and having a delightful time. We were fully confident that we were being looked after and cared for within this new convention, and we most certainly were…
As I was led from the bar into the hotel playing space, I was given a mask – the exact same mask that everyone else received. We are all the same, no one is preferred over another, and we are asked to become anonymous, hereby REMOVING virtually any way for me to be known as “me” in the space. Most importantly, when I adorn the mask, I am given the unmistakable power that is rarely given anywhere in our theatrical landscape…the power of freedom. I can do what I want, go where I want, explore what I want, sit on what I want, stand next to who I want…and no one cares one bit. The playing space is MINE as well as the actors. I bring my power of choice with me. I am not passive, I am active. I can engage different aspects of the unraveling thread of story in front of me, and then…I can change my mind. These masks create a haunting aura throughout the work. It’s as if I am constantly viewing myself everywhere. The simple act of placing masks on the faces of the audience is the most remarkable choice within the sea of “Sleep No More”. I am given my freedom by being stripped of the most singular aspect of my outer form – my face.
When I entered the playing space, it took me some time to find someone to observe. I was enjoying myself quite a bit fumbling around in drawers, checking out price tags in an abandoned store and appreciating the hides in a taxidermist’s shop, but eventually I hungered for the human exchange. I began to search for the action. And if you seek, you shall find. I assume everyone eventually finds their way into the web of action happening in the hotel. But, there is a definite feeling of pride and confidence felt when you stumble across your first actor, and follow him/her from room to room, observing their carefully crafted actions. “I am in this”, I felt, “I am participating in this”, I thought, “I, as much as them, am responsible for my experience here”, I realized. This shift from passive to active is extraordinarily effective in “Sleep No More”. In order to get the experience of the piece, I must engage. The fact that it happens so effortlessly in the audience tells me that somewhere, within our selves, this seeking is part of our nature. We are all looking for that feeling of being alive, of true autonomy in a difficult and dynamic world, and the thrill and surprise at being a part of something larger than myself. Why should I expect to be doted on by staged performers to hand me an experience of culture? Why should I expect to be passive in the face of something so vital and important as theater? Why shouldn’t I take responsibility for my own experience here in this space?
The production value is akin to what one might find at Disney World. I recall going to Epcot Center for the first time as a child, and being amazed at the level of detail in the world pavilions in the back. The set for “Sleep No More” is a vast world created for the audience to explore. There are rooms and rooms which, if fully explored, tell their own story, with their own unique characters. Sitting at an old desk, I opened a drawer to find an aging map of the British Isles. On top of an adjacent table is a book with a large magnifying glass on top. Each of these rooms has the distinct feeling that someone was just there, and now I must find them.
This leads me to the actors. All of them quite remarkable in their physical abilities. They are all disciplined in a variety of ways, most notably – movement. There is very little speaking in “Sleep No More”, at least that I would term speaking. There is some mumbling, groaning and gasping but there are very few words to strain to listen to. Instead, there is striking choreography which clearly details the essence of the relationship and the scene unfolding before you. This enables you to stand near the back of the room (if you chose to) and completely “get” what was going on. This choreography is a mixture of modern dance, stage combat and – yes – classical ballroom dancing. Many of the actors do ALL forms throughout the course of one performance.
The action is often very racy. There is a powerfully sexual aura throughout the work. The lushness of the set emphasizes this too. The audience, with their masks, is free to observe this with no shame or embarrassment. The reason pornography is so popular online is because the viewers are anonymous. With the masks in “Sleep No More” this same phenomenon is created. In 2012, we look at sex and nudity online anonymously. With “Sleep No More”, it is precisely the same.
The “contemporary” theater is moving. What truly embodies work of the “now” is less and less about sitting in a theater and passively observing another’s creation. It becomes more and more difficult to justify conventional playwriting as contemporary. Rather, it must stimulate an audience into action. It must compel me to engage and participate in a way that I am not accustomed to. More and more, technology is about engaging, interacting, being “in” a cultural medium – this dynamic is now a driving force in our society. The performing arts must follow or be rendered irrelevant. Often I hear performing artists bemoan the fact that the arts aren’t funded anymore, that they aren’t appreciated, and that they aren’t valued for their art. These are all worthwhile gripes, but maybe the answer lies somewhere within this question – are the traditional theatrical conventions losing their luster and steam, compelling less and less people to need the theater? Writing about contemporary themes is an important thing, staging new plays certainly has value, but works which embody contemporary ideas and technologies are more relevant, powerful and interesting to this, and the next, generation of theater goers.
A New Model
Just as there is a new convention forming around performance, there is also forming a new business model to support these performances. I cannot say with 100% certainty that “Sleep No More” follows a non-profit 501(c)3 model (as I am not privy to their books), but I am confident that Emursive Productions (its presenter) is not producing this extended run and losing money at the same time. They have extended the production a number of times now, and wouldn’t do so if the piece was losing money. This is a for-profit scenario, and guess what – there’s nothing wrong with that. They should make money from this, as should all artists.
Most theater artists follow a similar formula when considering their business structure. The first step is to work with a fiscal sponsor and the next, to file as a 501(c)3 non-profit. This way, they can pursue foundation money and individual donations, which are tax-deductible for the donors. The money being vied for by these organizations has shrunk in recent years, making the competition extremely high. Nevertheless, a majority of young groups work in this direction, hoping one day to have enough funds to pay salaries and create a firm infrastructure underneath them to support their work. This is a valid, well-worn path.
I find it very interesting then that “Sleep No More”, on the cutting-edge of contemporary, is making money in Chelsea (or, at least, not functioning as a not-for-profit). Here we have a work that is completely unconventional yet has amassed a wide appeal, is $85 per ticket, and brings in hundreds of avid customers per night. What makes it so extra-special (and lucrative) is in the full way it INVOLVES the audience. We participate, we engage, we touch, we feel, we wander, and for this we are willing to pay a lot more money. Oh, and we are dazzled at every turn by the production value and performances. But, how often do I go to the theater and see work wherein the acting is dazzling? Often enough. How often do I see work where the production value stands out? Rarer, but sometimes. How often do I see theater which reverses absolutely everything, extends itself to the edge of the avant-garde, and somehow makes it so cool that non-theater lovers are dying to get in? Really, really, really, really…rarely.
The $85 ticket price has garnered some criticism (for example, this rather whiny piece from “The Guardian”). I take the opposing view however and support the high cost. Leaving aside the obvious Broadway parallel, where orchestra seats are often more than $100, lets look at the BAM ticket prices (BAM being a venue that presents mostly contemporary theater work). At the time of this writing, Sam Mendes’ Richard II (starring Kevin Spacey) is bringing $175 per ticket for an orchestra seat. Batsheva Dance Company’s “Hora” is bringing $60 for an orchestra seat. The “Sleep No More” fee is on par with these levels. Richard II can command a high cost given the star power in the production. What “Sleep No More” lacks in star power, it makes up in surprise, production value and form. It’s different, and its scale demands a high price. “Sleep No More”, like Broadway, is looking to make money. For some reason, we have come to associate “theater” with “non-profit”, which, when challenged, ruffles feathers. But, why shouldn’t it make money? I gladly paid the $85. What else costs $85? A fancy new shirt. A nice dinner in Chelsea. An average Broadway ticket (to merely be “entertained”). Clearly, the experience of “Sleep No More” has far greater impact than any of these. So now we see, contemporary work which stands outside the old convention, CAN make money.
Perhaps it is NOW that makes this possible. I mean that literally, perhaps NOW the artform and our culture are in synch so as to support work which is daring, inviting and experiential. Perhaps in this day and age, there is an opening into a new way of working both on the stage and off. This could be due to technology becoming more and more interactive, or it could possibly be a larger issue of people feeling less and less in control of their lives and more and more desensitized to what is happening around them. People are hungry for direct contact, the experience of being within the event. Film has become the milieu for the passive experience, the theater now must ask us to actively engage.
“Sleep No More” plunges me into a world where my senses are heightened and I am given a power of choice that is far greater than anything I’ve felt in the theater before. Maybe, just maybe, these experiences are desired by people right now more than ever. Quite possibly, work which directly addresses these contemporary themes will herald a new era for the daring artists willing to pursue them. How exciting that there is an opportunity opening to create work which can support itself and its creators, and possibly even MAKE some money. These entities could invite investors or partners or sponsors to support the work rather than donors and grants. And in this model, there might be a different outlook entirely on the theater as something for profit and valued in a different way in our culture. Only time will reveal to us if this road is fraught with the potholes of special interest, influence and the eventual degradation of the form – but it’s definitely worth finding out.
The point here is not that the old model is broken or doesn’t work – it’s fine. But, there is a new one emerging as well that artists should definitely consider (and there is definitely room for both). It seems to be mostly open to those trying larger work that is exciting, interactive and experiential. It must be attractive to sponsors, or investors (yes, investors) and/or partners. My guess is that Emursive Productions is taking the bulk of the profit from the “Sleep No More” performances, but that Punchdrunk is seeing something here too (I would hope).
“Sleep No More” is important because it is NOT a Broadway show and it IS making money. It is not mere entertainment, but an artful, inventive, bold work. It is thoroughly contemporary, creating an entirely new world that is alluring, lush and sexy. It reveals to us that, at this moment in time, a piece of contemporary theater can embrace a new and profitable business structure, something rare and exciting.
Is this a new direction for some artists to take? Time will tell. My guess is that it will. As more and more young people are enticed into entrepreneurship via the low threshold for entry (namely, the internet), they will learn experientally about business while they also learn about algebra and geography. Some of these will be enticed by the theater and will blend their creative talents with their business acumen. It won’t be decades before we see this as it is happening now. “Sleep No More” is a grand example of this new oeuvre, and I predict there will be many more that follow.