When I was in New York in late August (just before I started school), I was lucky enough to attend Sleep No More with Emily, who had been before. So I had enough of a guide to tell me what I needed to know to make my experience a complete one:
A 1930s hotel. You must not take anything inside. You must not speak. You must wear your mask. You have three hours. And while you may be frightened on occasion, nothing will jump out at you.
Inside: Shakespeare’s Macbeth meets Hitchcock’s Rebecca and it’s all told through dance (did someone put together a show based on my favorite things?). What follows is a theatrical experience unlike any other because it is fully what you make of it. If you are not sprinting down the stairs in pursuit of a character, you are in my way. I’m still having vivid dreams about this “show.” Like so many others, I long to return to Manderley.
Get in the mood, loves. This is a long one. (So long, I’ve had to break it up into two posts. Part II coming soon)
I may not have been able to take anything in (there’s a $3 coat/bag check), but here’s what I came out with.
WARNING: Spoilers follow!
After checking your belongings and checking in (at which point you are given your playing card), you are plunged into darkness. Dark, narrow hallways. If I hadn’t been to the Tactile Dome as a kid, I would not have been prepared for this experience and known how to conquer my fear of the dark. Eventually, after winding this way and that, you come to…
We bust out out of the darkness into an anteroom with a desk and a telephone. I picked up the receiver hoping to hear a voice or at least a dial tone. Nothing. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try it.
Looking ahead to the next room, there’s a moment of culture shock. You’re not in New York 2012 anymore. We’re smack in the middle of the glamorous 1930s. A red velvet and dark wood bar, complete with jazz singer and band. I suddenly feel underdressed for the occasion.
Emily and I avoid cocktails, knowing the high-energy adventure that is ahead and opt for water. We realize as we approach the bar that there is a character there, already observing us. At first, we think she is Hecate, but later someone calls her Constance. She is a beautiful blonde all in black. An extremely attractive man is starting at her and drinking slowly, also in character. Emily and I review the artifacts in the room rather than standing around with cocktails like most guests are doing, which attracts the characters’ attention and gaze. We lock eyes with Constance while getting water and later while examining the artifacts. We are tempted to speak to her, but don’t. Later, she will speak with us.
As Aces, we are the first through and the first to get our masks.
Constance and the male character ask for us and explain the rules while flirting shamelessly with each other and with us. They give us our masks, tell us “fortune favors the bold,” and remind us not to speak to retain our anonymity.
I maneuver to be the last one on the elevator, but I’m still not the one chosen to explore the mysterious 6th floor. Instead, I’m the first one off at the 5th floor. I wandered through the insane asylum for about 5-10 minutes, not seeing a soul until at last I found the Nurse. I follow her down a hallway and into an office. As she takes off her coat, I immediately break a rule by talking to her. “Let me get that for you.” She gave me such a look then went to write in her ledger so I ran. I was afraid I’d already lost everything.
The One on Ones
Both took off my mask. One scared me and one loved me. One would kill me and the other protect me.
The Lady in Red (Hecate) – presides over the three witches’ orgy
I suspect I got this one on one at the last possible moment. She seemed to be heading backstage, but I thought I would follow her as best I could up until the last moment. She slipped through a door and in my hurry to follow I nearly barged through the door with her. It was the sudden severe stare she gave me that caused me to pause. I refused to look away. Let her examine me. Stare into the depths of me. At this moment I forgot the characters were acting. It was incredibly intense. At this point, she had forcibly put red lipstick on the second Mrs. DeWinter and stolen a tear. I had managed to follow the Lady in Red to where she let a male character drink it and they laughed together. In retrospect, she really did seem like she was done. Ready to sweep off and disappear, but my forwardness changed her mind. After what seemed like a full minute of staring, I took a step back and put my hands behind my back, as though to say, “begging your pardon, carry on.” But she grabbed my face, my jaw below the mask, then my right hand. And she pulled me into the room with her.
Just that simple moment of choreography was probably the best. How the characters manage to engulf you in their wake and ensure the door shuts behind you. Making it clear it is only you they want.
Inside, she continued the stare. It was this that made me feel I had really intruded. Manage to mildly surprise, but not unnerve her. She had such power. She stated it was time to get a better look at me and removed my mask. Again, she grasped my chin hard, and stared into my eyes. I held her gaze, refusing to blink. She smiled. And asked if she could trust me. I nodded, thinking I had better not make the mistake of speaking again. I didn’t know the rules here. She had removed my mask, but I wanted to prove my resilience to her. She smiled again, a wicked smile. The room looked like a dressing room. An ornate screen, a vanity. We stayed standing, only inside the door a few steps, just behind one of the screens. She plucked a silver vial from the vanity and I grew cold, wondering if she would put lipstick on me. Instead, she pulled the top off and stuck the vial hard against my lips, raising my chin with her other hand. She stared as I drank the salt tears.
She seemed pleased by this reaction, my holding her gaze, and produced a note from her dress. She again asked if she could trust me. I nodded again. Once. Twice. Quickly, rushing at this point and whispering conspiratorially, she demanded I take it to the porter in the lobby. As she pushed me out the door, she said “Go!” And so quietly I could barely hear it, “And he’s wearing a red coat, by the way.” Hissing, “Go, with all haste!”
Out in the hallway again, I stood stunned by the brief and intense experience. I felt my pupils were dilated and my heart was pounding. Was there more in that vial than salt water? There was a woman in a black mask (an usher) by the door. I held the note for her to see and raised my arms in the typical “Where?” pose. She just stared back at me. My heart racing, I began to run.
I wasn’t sure what would happen if I didn’t find the porter in time and what would happen to me if I saw the Lady in Red in that case, so I ran scared and partly blind. Bursting into rooms and down flight after flight of stairs. Each time I encountered an usher I would repeat my questioning. So many blank stares in return. It didn’t seem fair. Like they were resigned to my fate. Wholly given over to this world, I was sure the Lady in Red would kill me if I didn’t fulfill her mission. So I think I saw every possible room in this manner. Running, pushing past others in white masks. Whirling about as I got more and more lost. Once, an usher nodded in the direction of the rooms near the stairwell. I only got more lost and revisited ground I had already covered.
Finally, an usher on an empty stairwell gestured to her ear upon my question. I indicated with my hand, it’s ok to speak? She nodded. I whispered in her ear, “the porter. The lobby.” She responded, “take the other staircase.” At least now I had a clue. There were two staircases. One on each side of the building. There must have been a whole other set of rooms I had yet to explore. I ran again. This time going down and around, discovering the entrance to the ballroom and coming up the other side.
Finally, finally, I found the lobby. Perhaps 10, 15 minutes had passed since I was pushed out on my mission. I found the porter almost immediately, putting white sheets over the furniture. I grabbed his arm and he ignored me. Not seeing me. I kept at it, breathing heavily from my running. Finally, he looked at me, exasperated. But still refusing to the take the note I was holding in front of his face. Finally, I grabbed his hand. He took the note and shook his head. He went over behind the lobby desk and picked up the telephone. So quietly I couldn’t catch it, he said a single phrase and hung up again. He never looked at me again. I picked up the telephone, but heard no tone. No voice. No sound.
It was only after successfully handing the porter the note that I realized, idiot!, I did not think to read it! But I couldn’t resist looking up the experience to see if anyone had. I don’t know for certain it was the same note, but it could have been.
My dearest Porter,
I know you know where it is. Bring me what I seek. And, please, no more games.
I’ll write about the second one on one and other rooms and characters in a follow-up post.