I’m walking through a maze of black curtains—lost, confused, no longer able to pinpoint where I am. Suddenly, I arrive at a 1930s speakeasy straight out of the prohibition era. Jazz plays. Cocktails flow. A brunette in a red flapper dress greets me at the door. She smiles at me like I’ve known her my whole life. Such immediate familiarity should be unnerving—like one of those strangers offering a free hug on the street. It’s anything but. I fully believe, in that moment, that we are best friends, or maybe new lovers, who haven’t seen each other since yesterday.
Minutes later, she’ll explain the mask to me and my fellow theatergoers, stroking my arm as she passes by. It’s an uncanny riff on the white masks out of Eyes Wide Shut. We’re to wear it at all times during the experience. Never take it off. And then she points us to an elevator. For the next three hours, we are ghosts. We’ll be voyeurs of love, sex, arguments, baths, and betrayals. We’re free to go anywhere we like in six stories of the old hotel, touch or taste anything we want, and follow whoever catches our attention. But we are ghosts, so we cannot speak to anyone—though it’s possible, I’ve heard, that at any moment, an actor may beckon me alone into a room, take off my mask, and . . .
This is Sleep No More, a production by the British theater company Punchdrunk that’s had a popular run in N.Y.C., among other cities, for the past seven years. To New Yorkers, it’s no longer the hottest ticket in town, but it’s had respectable staying power, and still sells out routinely to hundreds of people who attend each night, many of whom are seeing the play for the second, fifth, even tenth time.
Sleep No More is the flag bearer of an old but burgeoning trend of immersive theater—including intimate productions like Then She Fell, which invites 15 people a night into a rendition of Alice in Wonderland, or so-called “escape rooms” operated by several companies, which allow small groups of friends to be locked in a hotel room or bank vault to discover clues that can get them out. Such productions pull theatergoers out of their seats and place them in full, interactive environments inside the fourth wall–often times with actors who will acknowledge your presence as part of the story, dance with you, drink with you, or ask you deep, personal questions that no friend would dare.
But Sleep No More is captivating more than just audiences. In fact, the play came up, again and again, in more than a dozen interviews with some of the biggest tastemakers in VR storytelling—ranging from academics, to Disney Imagineers, to indie developers, to creative leads at companies like Facebook.
“Sleep No More is super influential for a lot of people in VR storytelling, because it’s, in a sense, [the experience of] being in a story,” says Edward Saatchi, producer at Oculus Story Studio. “So it’s a cool thing for us to look at and study.”
“You even have a mask on your face. Isn’t that so crazy!” laughs James George, cofounder of the new media company Specular. “The analog is so real. So direct.”
If our description of Sleep No More has elicited images of madrigal or murder mystery dinners, then it has severely failed. Sleep No More, like its contemporaries in immersive theater, isn’t just a big experience of dress up. It’s actually a carefully articulated story environment, designed to let you explore while also guiding you toward the story’s action—all while protecting your identity behind an anonymizing mask.
Sleep No More was imagined by Felix Barrett. Talk to him for a few minutes, and he seems like the most unlikely creator of such a thing–full of seemingly hypocritical contradictions. He openly “hates” traditions like theater in the round, which bring the audience to a more intimate level with the cast, and he laments the inherent classism at theater’s core.
“In ancient times, you could throw cabbages and heckle if you didn’t like it, and in the modern day, the ticket was expensive, but the experience felt like it was made for the cast and crew,” Barrett says. “I wanted to enable the audience to have agency.”
Agency. It’s the ability to vote with your eyeballs and your movement, to craft a story as a viewer. What if the story were taking place all around you? What if you could enter rooms that seemed interesting, leave the ones that got boring, and make a story more about yourself?
So he began building Sleep No More, a story loosely based upon Macbeth, as a dance-filled free-roaming play. And he learned it didn’t work for the exact same reason he hated theater in the round. “It wasn’t working because you kept seeing your fellow audience member’s response,” he says. “You were too self-aware, so you were seeing it through their eyes.” His eureka moment was a mask. Allow the audience to hide their response, and they’d have a singular experience among others. Hide their identity, and they’d feel more confident in their voyeurism.
“[In Sleep No More] the moments you might share only with a loved one, you might share with a stranger,” says Barrett. “To tell a story at that level of intimacy and exposure because you’re so awkward emotionally was our first building block.”
The mask pinches at the nose and forces you to breath through your mouth—it’s almost suffocating at times. But it allows audience members to edge up to sometimes crying, sometimes bleeding, sometimes naked actors with a shameless confidence.
But agency without guidance is worthless. Sure, it’s fun to eavesdrop on another table’s conversation during lunch, but most of us prefer a more guaranteed plotline–the sort of satisfying beginning, middle, and end that Hollywood has provided us time and time again.
It’s just about impossible to see the entire Sleep No More story, even if you go repeatedly. But to guide the audience, immersive theater productions employ all sorts of subconscious tricks. Sleep No More uses 35 hours of original audio, playing room to room, that will often draw you down a hall. Choreographed lighting will signal if a room is dead of activity, while “we place a light just in the furthest, darkest corner so you have something to journey toward,” says Livi Vaughan, a design associate at Punchdrunk who helped design Sleep No More.
At productions by The Third Rail, the company behind the much smaller-scale immersive productions Then She Fell, The Grand Paradise, and Learning Curve, actors will personally guide the audience through subtle cues. “We make jokes that immersive theater skills are just exceptional social skills. We lack them. We don’t always look people in the eye, listen, or pay attention to body language,” says Jennine Willet, cofounder of The Third Rail. “When we train performers, this is what we teach them, how to gauge the audience, and how to use the gaze to pull people in or push them away.”
To digital storytellers, Sleep No More is essentially a high-fidelity prototype of what a virtual reality story could be if there were no technological limitations. Every audience member, wearing that voyeur mask, could be interchangeable with someone at home wearing a VR headset. But what if that VR headset were so good that they could walk anywhere and touch anything, and it all felt perfectly real? What is a story then? And how is it told?
“It’s that idea of, does it help or does it distract from being able to present a narrative if you’re immersed in the story world in a visceral way? If that’s how it works, is that a good thing or bad thing for story?” says Jan Pinkava, creative director of Spotlight Stories at Google, the Academy Award-nominated studio that creates experimental film for 360-degree video and VR. Pinkava won an Oscar for directing Ratatouille at Pixar. “I come at it from a traditionalist direction,” Pinkava says. “The thing about stories is they’re authored things . . . Life is experience. Story is structure.”
Even though Pinkava released a remarkable narrative short in VR called Pearl, which places you intimately inside a car alongside a father and daughter who deal with the pangs of family life, he’s tepid on the principle of autonomy in storytelling. Maybe that’s why he laughs now, when all of his peers inevitably bring up Sleep No More, but he still hasn’t seen it.
“There’s still a big divide still between Hollywood and Silicon Valley for physicality of the entertainment world,” says Bruce Vaughn, former chief creative exec with Disney Imagineering. “Silicon Valley believes that traditional story is a dinosaur and is going to go away. Which isn’t untrue but is not as true as they think. And Hollywood still believes Silicon Valley is a flash in the pan, but it’s not going to go away. Neither one of those two cultures has really understood how to bridge that gap.”
To Vaughn, who is a big fan of the show, Sleep No More is a model of how those two worlds could collide as all audiences for entertainment—many of whom have grown up on video games—demand more autonomy. And he points out that it’s an idea Walt Disney embraced. Is an animatronic Lincoln or haunted mansion at Disneyland all that different from the immersive theater of today?
David Alpert, best known for producing AMC’s The Walking Dead, has also produced a series for Samsung’s VR headset. He recognizes the experience as a sort of reference spec to telling a story when you’re not in control of a camera. He tells a story (spoiler) of eating dinner at Sleep No More‘s attached restaurant that made him think about the scope of VR stories on a different level. “You can go have a drink and a meal and it’d be good. Or you can look down on your steak and realize, branded on your steak, is a series of numbers that correspond to a code to open a lock in the bathroom, and inside, there’s a piece of paper that gives you a mission.
“There are people in there eating a meal, and there are people living an espionage story. The idea of multiple layers of reality inside actual reality, gamifying the world, turning it into The Game. You don’t know what’s real and what’s not. You run into people and you don’t know who is an actor and who is a waitstaff. There’s an energy that’s great.” While many in Hollywood see VR’s inability to center the viewer as a shortcoming, Alpert is curious how he could leverage a world where everything is equally important, that is, until you piece it together, like at Sleep No More.
In this sense, the practical lessons learned by Sleep No More are directly applicable to story experiences being developed in VR today, in which the physical environment is synonymous with the story itself. When developer Mac Cauley was planning his upcoming VR game, Spectro, he imagined a very similar haunted mansion that would change every time you played. “I would say the main influence Sleep No More had on Spectro is the eerie feeling that when you think you are by yourself, rummaging through all the little knickknacks and drawers on the set, a character might be on the other side of the door watching you through a keyhole, ready to come out,” Cauley says. “The emergent nature of that kind of performance made it seem like anything could happen.”
That same tension that Cauley is developing for his own VR story was a feeling Felix Barrett had baked into his play instinctively. But he learned how necessary tension was when was previewing Sleep No More in Boston, and the fire department said the environment was too dark. “We turned the lights up, and the show didn’t work,” says Barrett. “Suddenly the danger was removed. It was quite safe. It didn’t engage. We realized the threat and the constant threat is crucial to maintain suspense.”
But for as popular as immersive theater has become, it hasn’t solved its scale problem. Productions like Then She Fell offer incredible intimacy between the actor and viewer, but to do so, they only fill 15 seats a night. That means a year of shows can accommodate less people than a single movie theater for half a day.
A few years ago, creator Jennine Willet was having drinks with 14 creatives at Disney who worked on park attractions. They’d come to see how she crafts plays like Then She Fell. “They were like, I loved that scene with [redacted], how could you make that for 600 people?'” she says. “I think I spit my cosmo. I said, ‘I think that’s a paradox. I don’t think you can have intimacy with 600 people.'”
In person, that’s probably true. In VR? That rules of intimacy can change.
Ken Perlin is an NYU professor who actually requires every one of his students to see Sleep No More as part of their syllabus. And he imagines VR as the means immersive theater could come to the masses. “A lot of our current thinking is, in a small midwestern town, could you have people go into a place and experience something like a Sleep No More?” he asks me rhetorically. The answer, of course, is no. “Just to get a little crass about this in terms of economics, what is the technology about? It’s about the distribution of human creativity.” He walks me through the history of live music being recorded to photograph, and live theater being recorded to film, before landing at his final point. “By multiplying the distribution of that performance to thousands of people, you created not just more opportunities for actors, but a whole new industry. If you ask the question, what will be the low-cost consumer things we’ll be able to do . . . a version of the Sleep No More is going to be far more relevant to hundreds of millions of people, than this limited, premium N.Y.C. version of Sleep No More.”
Oculus Story Studio creative director Saschka Unseld found himself annoyed by Sleep No More‘s crowds, who will sometimes elbow you to chase a character, and the fact that so much of the show is designed around getting hundreds of people around a large space. In this sense, he preferred the smaller scale of Then She Fell, which inspired his biggest takeaway from attending immersive theater:
“In VR, you can have these uniquely 1:1 experience, but it scales to a massive audience,” he says. “A lot of the things I’m interested in moving forward are the relationships you can form with characters in VR . . . and an interactive relationship, not a pre-canned one, exploring the chemistry you have. To me, that’s what VR can do that no other medium can do.”
Unseld is not just spouting sci-fi platitudes. In fact, two of his fellow Pixar alums are developing an entire technological platform to build conversational characters into VR, and they recently demonstrated their capabilities in the VR short Gary the Gull. Tom Sanocki, who created Mater the dump truck from Cars before founding his studio Limitless, agrees that it’s only a tease of things to come, and Sleep No More‘s most special moments will be scalable through programmed personalities.
“Folks have put Easter Eggs in video games for a long time, but creating emotional experiences that only a few people get to have? [That’s different],” says Sanocki. “You get to play this game with this set of people, but every once in a while, that person you’re interacting with is a movie star. It’s Brad Pitt. That’s amazing.” I only half follow what he means by that, too, but anything with more Pitt sounds fantastic.
With all of the VR community’s enthusiasm about Sleep No More, perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising that even the Sleep No More team has tested the idea of building their play in VR. In fact, they actually filmed one of their very intimate, 1:1 experiences, from the first person and tested it inside a headset. Barrett says it worked, and it’s confirmed his suspicion that his own play can scale to other mediums.
“I’d love to do a whole VR project. I’d love to launch a Sleep No More TV show in VR. What would that look like?” he asks. But he’s not really asking, of course, because to some extent, he’s already figured it out. “We might just do that one day.”