When Sleep No More invited SmartShanghai to see the show after some updates... they picked the tired millennial who hadn't seen it yet (moi). And holy sh*t, I can't believe I hadn't seen it until now.
If you have no idea what "Sleep No More" is…. it’s an award-winning immersive theatrical experience that was originally started by UK theater company Punchdrunk.
We are going to take you on a tour of the back stage ins and outs of this certifiably mind-blowing theatrical performance, with someone who works behind the scenes. Hollaaaa.
But first.. some quick memories: A hospital scene where a lover dies mysteriously (I got there late so dunno) and his girlfriend vomits up... stuff all over her white hospital gown, a physical fight between a dude and a pregnant woman that will make you GASP loudly (you can NOT bring kids to see this), and a penultimate slow motion dinner party that devolved from normal to complete debauchery (as a dinner party should). The slow motion acting is super melodic, gorgeous, and shall I say... ::looks up 'sensual' in a thesaurus:: ... voluptuary no... hedonistic.
The atmospheres and spaces are eerie. The McKinnon Hotel lobby is barely illuminated, the air appears dusty (how do they do that?), everything is hazy. You think "this is incredible". The story lines are bizarre, mysterious, shocking, and you think to yourself "how on earth is a show like this even ALLOWED in China??". The performers are gorgeous, lithe, spritely and engrossing.
ALL OF THIS IS TOO MUCH. We had to get access to someone at Sleep No More to see if we could understand a little more from the "dark side of the mirror". Enter, Hope Youngblood Heck, the Resident Director of of Sleep No More, Shanghai (i.e. the boss lady). And just so everyone knows, getting detailed info from these folks, is like trying to squeeze water out of rocks. So this is some pretty legit insider info.
The esteemed Resident Director, Hope Youngblood Heck. Photo by Brandon McGhee
SmSh: What do you do Hope?!
I'm the Resident Director. I maintain all the aspects of the show. Day to day, I'm working with the choreagraphy, the designers, the lighting designers, the costumes, and making sure the show is as "top" as it can be, and sometimes.. SOMETIMES... I perform, not often though.
SmSh: Tell us some facts and figures about the show.
There are over 90 rooms in the show, and they are each decked out with incredible detailed sets. It's over 6,000 square meters of "playground" where a multitude of performers are transporting you through what can only be described as a fever dream. There are places, and details in this building, that even performers who have been here for five years, are still discovering to this day. There are more than 20 McKinnon Hotel residents for each show (residents = performers) and over 300 audience members who participate in each show.
SmSh: What's the story about?
The main story is based on Shakespeare's Macbeth, but you don't need to know the story to enjoy it. It's set in the 1930's, but it's not a period peice, cause you'll notice there is some contemporary music, contemporary hair styles, etc. In a traditional play, people go off-stage, but in our show we build out the show so characters are constantly moving throughout the world. If you wanted to see the Macbeth narrative, you could. How would I sum it up in a sentence? "It's the story of Macbeth through a film noir lense". There is also a Chinese narrative. The show runs in other cities, and each place they would play new narratives to make it unique to that location. And so we have a traditional Chinese tail that runs through this show, and only through this show. There are multiple narratives, not just Macbeth.
SmSh: Sleep No More has had a long journey in Shanghai. Last year you had to close, tell us more.
Let's see. We shut down at the beginning of CNY, and then re-opened in June. The show has been going since 2016. I'd say there have been evolutions to the show over time, with roughly 30% of the show being different. We had to change a lot during the time of COVID. Some scenes were cancelled, and less interactions, but now we have brought all these things back. And when we had the chance to bring these things back, we have the opportunity to make it better and more intimate.
SmSh: I had the door slammed in my face a few times by performers. Some were related to smaller storylines that only small groups or even single audience members get to experience. Expound please!
If you have a moment with a Resident, you'll feel like "wow, that was just for me". Not many happen per night. So if you get one, it's very special. The interaction itself is very special, because you get into their innermost desires, and reveals more of who they are to either a very few people or even to one person. These are potent, beautiful interactions, especially in this time of post-COVID when people are seeking interaction again. So when we brought these interactions back, we focused them to be special, and intimate.
SmSh: What are some of the new things that have been introduced recently?
Recently we changed the front of house, and it's all inspired by Hecate. Each season we change the front of house, the Manderley Bar. Each time we change it, there are other things revealed about the show. Little windows into the show. Hecate, the grand witch, the idea is that she holds the whole world of the McKinnon Hotel in her hands.
SmSh: The show has some really racy scenes, flexible sexualities, how on earth did this get into a show here?
We were surprised when we were approached with a desire to have Sleep No More in Shanghai. In comparison to the New York show, there is a different vibe, for example a lot of nudity in the New York show, so here even violence and sexuality is toned down here. (Editor's Note: Toned down? See the show. Some scenes will make you gasp).
SmSh: The Loin Cloth Shower Scene. How do cast members percieve audience interactions?
I think cast members love the "surprise" from audience member. We tell the audience to leave your mask on the whole time and give some distance to the performers. But we all love and enjoy so much when we break that space, and interact with the audience. Sometimes they have the most beautiful and funniest reactions, because they can be so surprised. You get this whole gambit of reactions, this show is a really dark "work" where people can allow their emotions to run free, some people are shy, some laugh, and there are people who really give themselves over to the show and its experiences.
Sometimes audience members even create their own experiences, for example, a Resident (performer) will go down a dark hallway, and you'll hear a scream in the dark, because someone has actually just scared themselves. (Editor's Note: No joke. This happens. You'll probably scare some audience members by accident by turning a corner and bumping into someone, and some might terrorize you... by accident).
SmSh: Tips and tricks for people who are seeing the show for the first time.
For the people who haven't seen it before... lose your loved one, or whoever you brought with you. There can be a feeling that you're supposed to get something specific out of the show, and if you try too hard to unlock it, you miss something (Editor's Note: This might sound like theatrical non-speak, but when you see the show, you'll know exactly what Hope means). If you allow yourself to be swept up by the work, you'll enjoy. Keep your curiosity high, and enjoy being taken away by the fever dream that it is.
SmSh: Tips and tricks for people who have seen it before.
The second time can be so frustrating, and the third time, people release themsevles a bit. It happens like this; the first time you've seen so much, then you have "goals" in your head for what storyline, or character you want to follow next time. So then you come back the second time and you're all "okay, I wanna see this, and I'm gonna do that", but then you miss the essence of the show taking you places on its own. But if you have goals, try not be overcome by them. It's easy to have an agenda... but the show has its own. (Editors Note: She's a mind reader. After my first show, I was literally drawing a map in my head of chasing after storylines I only partially saw).
SmSh: Okay, no more work. What do you like to do in Shanghai?
I have a 2-year old, so most of what I do is centered around young children haha. I like live music, recently been to Blue Note, and Shake (I love Jazz and the vibrance of live music). Favorite places to eat? Egg. Gosh if I didn't have a 2-year old, I'd be out all the time haha. There's a whiskey bar that I love that you might find me at called Union Trading Company (when I can get a babysitter). For the days I can't get a babysitter, I love the classes and events for families and children at Grow with Me. That place is a blessing for people with young kids.
Concluding Thoughts and Tips
Tip #1: Go see the show. Book your tickets RIGHT NOW. Take your spouse, friends, lovers, and enemies... all at once. You'll wear masks, so it won't matter anyway. Not. For. Children. (Under 16 is explicitly prohibited).
Tip #2: Ladies, if your special honey has primed this to be a night of romance, NO HIGH heels. Make sure your gorgeous feet are comfortable (I guess you too gentlemen, no high heels!).
Tip #3: Have a light dinner. Really. Keep it light. If you go into the show after having Cheesecake Factory's 1kg Meatloaf, you are going to be in a world of pain, and you won't be able to keep up with some of the chase scenes.
Tip #4: Go easy on the alcohol at the Manderley Bar. Why? You will need to BE CAREFUL. There are literally opportunities to run up a flight of stairs (if you want), and if you aren't particularly graceful, don't sabotage yourself more.
Tip #5: Don't pre-decide how much time you are going to spend there. You will be told that at anytime you can exit the show. When I went, it was just after work, and I was in a "go home and Netflix & chill with my dogs" mood, so I figured I'd stay for an hour then skedaddle. I stayed the whole time till the show crescendoed and ended three hours later at 10pm. Go with the flow.
Tip #6: If you didn't have time to get dinner before hand, just go across the street to the St. Regis Bar. They have leather couches, and decent food for a 10pm food affair. And occasionally, they'll have a magician walking around (that will only entertain if you ask). Get the classic Bloody Mary, even if you don't drink.
Tip #7: Hell no, we're not gonna end on #6. Lucky number 7. Don't be afraid to wander off by yourself away from groups of audience members. Sometimes... you'll catch part of a storyline, all by yourself...
One final parting thought, that maybe some of you who have seen the show can relate to. Towards the end of the show, I was following one handsome single character. A small group of us were. It was a moment where I thought:
"If angels and demons were real, this is what their experience must be like. Floating around silent and unseen, watching everything we do, chasing after us to see our stories, then perhaps drifting in and out of other people’s stories; and OCCASIONALLY breaking their silence to whisper mysteries in our ears, or asking us to follow them behind closed doors.
They see us when we are screaming alone in our own psychosis, they see us make love to our lovers, they see us murder, they see us attempt to summon them."
When you see Sleep No More, you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about.
Sleep No More has shows every day, click here to purchase tickets.