The immersive theatre Sleep No More turned Shakespeare's shortest tragedy into a long-lasting puzzle. In over a year, the show’s hundred rooms, 24 characters, and three-hour runtime have attracted tens of thousands of people, but none as fanatical about solving it as a core group of superfans who have visited the show scores, if not hundreds, of times, spending princely sums in the process.
They joke that the show is a drug and its location, the McKinnon Hotel, a ‘crack house’ – albeit the most expensive crack house the world has known, with a reported 80 million rmb budget.
My friend Xu is one of them. She attributes her 67 visits to a science background and a need for completion. After seeing it the first time, she said “I realized I missed out on the essential scenes. I had to see them all.” The play takes place across five floors of the hotel, with various scenes playing out for just a few audience members at a time. The plot, which is adapted from Macbeth but influenced by Hitchcock’s Rebecca and given a twist by incorporating the Chinese folktale Legend of the White Snake, is multi-layered. This complexity and the desire to understand all of the various levels is one of the strongest pulls for superfans like Xu, who only buy the 770rmb VIP tickets. The changing cast and chance to experience the choreography up close are additional attractions.
Xu’s friend Yin (close to 100 visits) was left completely baffled by her first experience. Yin believes it takes around 20 visits to get a thorough understanding of the story, by following just two characters.
One of the superfans I spoke to spent over a week chasing a particular actor who played five roles, trying to see him in every one. In the end, she never saw him. Apparently, he was operating the elevators that week.
The superfans talked in hushed tones about them. They ask if you really want to spoil your experience with the details. They live for them: the one-on-one.
The one-on-one is a private encounter between an actor and an audience member, often in a private space, that reveals certain details about the show that can’t be gleaned from anywhere else. They are intimate and personal, and for the superfans, can leave them feeling ecstatic. Of the 300 or so audience members, less than 20% will be chosen for one. Even this is a higher percentage than in New York, according to some fans who note the Chinese show has added more one-on-ones to appeal to a local crowd.
For Mai, who has been 172 times, one-on-ones are the keys to the puzzle, unlocking plotlines and characters’ emotions.
Her dedication comes with a high price tag. Including two stays at the McKinnon Hotel at 5,000 rmb each (she swears room 802 has hidden information about two characters), she estimates she has spent about 150,000rmb on the show.
For Nic, a 25-year-old fashion writer who has seen the show almost 70 times, Sleep No More helped him get through a tough period during his career. “I was really unhappy,” he said, “So I just fully dove into this world. I can turn off my WeChat. I’m free from work for three hours when I go.” For Nic, the community that’s built up among actors and other fans is a major draw as well. He calls The McKinnon Hotel a mini-society, complete with celebrity worship.
What’s at the heart of the obsession of the show’s biggest superfan, whom I’ll call Zhang? Zhang, who has been to the show a record 230 times, wouldn’t speak to me, but other fans say he is driven by the character “Violet”, a maître-d in the Manderley Bar, a jazz club attached to the hotel where show-goers can take off their signature white masks and relax. “At the bar, you’re not just an audience member, you are acting and finishing the performance with them,” said Nic.
For many of the superfans, the show’s popularity – it celebrated its 500th show last Saturday – has slowly worn them down, and what they perceive as the bad behavior of new audience members – pushing, talking loudly, and using their phones – has chipped away at their sense of enjoyment of the show. For Rayne, who has been to Sleep No More more than 140 times, she has moved from audience to participant and now acts as a steward for the show. “When you really like something, you can't help but want to guard it,” she laughs.
For Nic and Rayne, the show has been a gateway drug to the theatre and musical worlds in Shanghai and beyond. For Xu, Yin, and Mai, it has been an introduction to Macbeth and to immersive theatres in China and abroad, though they are often let down after Sleep No More’s high quality and strong potential for addiction. They may not have to wait too long. Rumor has it that Sleep No More’s production company is planning another immersive show in Shanghai.