This must be the place. (at Huge)
This post marks the first of what I hope will be a multi-part series on one of Manhattan’s most beloved user experiences.
This past Friday the 13th marked my first visit to the McKittrick Hotel to witness the dark despair of Sleep No More. For those who haven’t had the distinct pleasure of this distinct experience, New York’s Sleep No More is the brainchild of Punchdrunk, a British theatre troupe well known for its interactive, genre-bending productions. The company is chiefly responsible for transforming a 100,000-square-foot Chelsea warehouse into the artfully decaying hotel, a multi-floor study in rich jazz-era atmosphere and Hitchcockian menace. The swing bands and dinner jackets of The Heath bar and restaurant and the open air of the Gallow Green rooftop garden are the recent additions of Punchdrunk’s partner company, Emursive, but Sleep No More, 3 years after its Manhattan debut, remains the big draw.
Most New Yorkers know the Time Out summary by now; the show is a macabre chimera of Hitchcock’s Rebecca and Shakespeare’s MacBeth set in 1939. Actors perform a silent combination of dance and contact improv, maneuvering and capering around bewildered spectators, who are clad in white neutral masks reminiscent of a Venetian nightmare. The building itself is like one big dark ride or haunted house to wander through. No phones and no speaking, but plenty of exploration.
Time and setting are bent and broken by Punchdrunk as the company leads the masked audience through five floors of chapels, medical facilities, shops, speakeasies, bedrooms, banquet halls, and horror set pieces. The staff encourages wandering hands and eyes. With no one to stop us, we rifled through drawers, picked the pockets of hanging jackets and dresses, read discarded letters, and got pulled into chance encounters (“one-on-ones”) with the eerie performers. We went where we wanted to when we wanted. I won’t spoil the experience (or this post) with a lengthy account of what I saw, suffice to say that it made me hungry to see every nook and explore every cranny. That said I feel that what I can offer is a quick analysis of the user’s experience.
Had I seen this show prior to beginning my coursework in UX at General Assembly, I don’t think that I could have possibly appreciated the true wonder of the show. What Punchdrunk and Emursive created is not just one of the most compelling off-Broadway shows in New York, but a master class in design for a budding generation of creators, coders, UX/UI architects, and artists.
Sleep No More is a bleeding, thumping howl crying “your experience is what you make of it.” In no other place can I see a show that is different for each fan — of which there are thousands. With five floors to explore and a little less than twenty characters to frantically follow, each show defines possibility. A chance glance with a taxidermist might lead to a private soliloquy. A pull on a rusted handle could allow the discovery of a tear-stained letter. The opening of a locket… well… you get the point. Everything in the hotel is designed on purpose, and yet every spectator’s experience is by accident.
Not only that, but the experience is transformative. The spectator protected by a mask assumes an alter-ego, one that thinks nothing of standing by and watching as death, agony, and the unreal unfold. My companion remarked that you should be “an exhibitionist and a voyeur to enjoy Sleep No More.” Those that love the show do indeed become both. We lie down in ruined beds, drink liquor offered to us by madmen, and put an ear to dead receivers, hoping to hear an incantation — or a cry for help.
As a UX designer-in-training, I have many hopes for my career and work. But what I truly hope for more than anything else after that stormy Friday the 13th is that Punchdrunk is leading a vanguard of haunting interactive experiences. Already PC gamers have seen such potential in titles like Gone Home, which lets users experience the homecoming of Katie Greenbriar to a house occupied only by dread. Similarly, The Stanley Parable is a black comic analysis of meta-narrative and interactive design as it relates to a tormented office drone. And with the imminent arrival of virtual reality content platforms like Sony’s Project Morpheus and the Oculus Rift even more of these interactive exhibits may become commonplace. I would love all the time in the world to explore a VR McKittrick Hotel in the near future.
Of course, nothing can compare to the experience of Sleep No More in the flesh. I only ask for the virtual facsimile because tickets are only on sale through September 28th. Sleep No More has been threatening to close for years now, despite the continuous stream of sold out shows. As a new and happy user, I can only hope that the threat remains empty and that the show dances on.