S. Elizabeth: While this is technically some writing in our “Haute Haunts” category about a visit to see my Best Good Friend after she moved away to a new city, and the interesting things we did in the span of 24 hours in our whirlwind trip to NYC — I received some unexpectedly wonderful feedback from readers who had been interested in doing something I specifically mention in this essay, but were too scared and anxious to give it a try, until they read my thoughts about it here. Henceforth I’ve always thought of this piece as “Sleep No More For Nervous Nellies”. Enjoy! (And if you take a trip to Sleep No More in NYC, I want to hear all about it in the comments!)
It’s funny, I lived less than an hour from New York City for almost eight years and in all that time, I only traveled into the city once or twice. To be honest, I have always found NYC massively intimidating. There’s so much–too much!– going on at any one time; everything is too loud, too close, too big! It’s a little overwhelming for my anxious, suburban heart. Ugh, what an admission! But there it is. However, earlier this month an opportunity presented itself that was I in no way going to pass up…
My beloved Best Good Friend moved to the Philadelphia-ish area last November and so it’s been six months since we have seen each other; when she suggested flying up to visit her for my birthday weekend, I was overjoyed and jumped at the notion immediately. And while we did spend time in her darling new city, and had some lovely adventures in the surrounding areas, we also took a thrilling 24 hour side trip to New York on my second day there.
Now, as we were there for such a short amount of time, I am not even going to pretend I know everything there is to know about New York, or really anything about this place at all. I’ll leave the comprehensive NYC travel reviews to the experts (and maybe the people who live there. I guess you guys know a thing or two about a thing or two.) We were actually in the city for a very specific reason– a rare and lovely gift that my friend had arranged for us to experience–and that, I can definitely fill you in on!
(It does bear mentioning though, that we stayed in a lovely hotel in/near the flower district, and walking between locations, enclosed on both sides by damp and fluttering vines and blossoms and blooms and leafy growing things, was an utterly enchanting bit of sidewalk springtime travel magic.)
As you may have guessed by now (perhaps via premonition whispered by my instagram updates while I was standing in line), we attended the much-lauded-in-certain-circles, performance/experience Sleep No More. If you’ve not heard of it, Sleep No More is an immersive artistic creation by London’s award-winning PUNCHDRUNK, in which roaming audiences experience epic and emotional storytelling inside sensory, theatrical worlds–and the specific story in this case is Macbeth, or, “Shakespeare’s Scottish tragedy through a film noir lens.” Taking place at the McKittrick Hotel, which, according to the playbill, has a story of its own–
“Completed in 1939, the McKittrick Hotel was intended to be New York City’s finest and most decadent luxury hotel of its time. Six weeks before opening, and two days after the outbreak of World War II, the legendary hotel was condemned and left locked, permanently sealed from the public. Until now…”
–audiences move freely through a transporting world at their own pace, choosing their own path through the story.
I was terribly nervous. Everything makes me a little bit nervous; more often than not, I’m operating on the on the weak adrenaline of constant, low-grade anxiety. But this? This. Was another level. So, hopefully, I am going to share enough to let you know that I did not, in fact, die of a broken neck after tumbling down a steep staircase in the dark–no, indeed I did not! I walked out of the show exhilarated and utterly exhausted, but perfectly alive. If you’re anxious, like me, these are the things you probably want to know right off the bat.
It’s difficult to share one’s experiences at Sleep No More without oversharing, though. Every detail I let slip is one less secret for you to discover for yourself, one more surprise spoiled. Or maybe not? One of the things that makes this such a unique experience is that everyone’s encounter with the hotel and its inhabitants is so vastly different. With that said, I will try to keep this spoiler-free and just share a broad overview (particularly as a guide for nervous nellies).
Once in the hotel you must check your bags, so bring some cash. Also, no cell phones allowed, and no talking! You then get your “room key” (a special playing card, mine was a stylized ace) from the front desk, and make your way through a small, close, pitch black maze which quickly deposits you into the Manderley Bar. (If you feel your way along the walls, you’ll be fine.) Depending when you get there, you might have time for a drink or two, but honestly, I am not sure that’s a great idea. I’ll get to that in a bit, though.
You are then divided into groups by a dapper gentleman and his vampy companion, and all guests are given ghoulish white masks; this creates a sense of anonymity so that the rest of the audience dissolves into generic, ghostly presences, enabling that each person can explore the space alone. They suggest that guests who wear glasses should instead wear their contacts–which, I don’t wear contacts because everyone knows they can roll back behind your eyeballs and get stuck in your brain, so no, thank you. I wore my mask over my glasses and was mostly fine.
You are guided into an elevator which places you in close quarters with about fifteen people; you are jostled around a bit, and soon ushered out, in small groups, onto various, darkened floors of the hotel–with only one cryptic intonation of advice: “fortune favors the bold.” And then, I, like many people at this juncture in the evening, became separated from my group.
As I stepped into the darkness beyond the elevator doors, I immediately felt immersed inside a dream. Only two other guests exited with me, and they disappeared down a dim passageway as if they had never been there at all. I felt a brief flash of panic before I hit upon the idea that buoyed me throughout the entire night: inside dreams, I forget myself. I behave quite differently. Which is to say that I become audacious and daring, and delight in strange experiences. Emboldened by this logic, I crept along the corridors, investigating and examining each aspect of every room that I encountered, each space a different chapter of a story just beyond my grasp. I peeked in coffins, rifled through police files, filled my pockets with candies from gleaming glass jars (I don’t even like candies, but dream-me dictated this must be done.) And just as I reached the stairwell to ascend to the next floor, an unmasked figure rushed by me, mumbling and muttering curiously. This was one of the characters! As I watched, he began a fitful, violent dance, and eventually clambered up along some pipes on the wall to continue his manic capering. A small crowd of masked guests gathered around me as the actor culminated his performance with a dramatic leap from above, only to walk away, nonchalantly, as if he had business elsewhere. The throng dispersed, and I was again on my own.
Much of the evening was spent thusly. I explored a bit, ran into a character, and just watched to see what would happen. I saw things tragic, savage, desperate, furious. I observed obscure transactions, tender touches, and wild embraces. I watched passively as a handsome taxidermist ripped his own seams to repair a precious specimen; I followed this gentleman’s restorations for ten minutes and was, in some corner of my brain, shocked by how closely I allowed myself to stand, viewing his work. Mere inches away from this stranger, doing a bit of routine puttering, pretending as if I was not even there. I then saw a witch’s orgy. Twice! This was purely coincidence; I didn’t know where I was at any given moment, nor could I recall where I had been, so that I ended up in the same room at the same point in time for this frenzied, feverish interlude was pretty incredible, and easily my favorite scene from the evening.
At the end, I spent what I believe was three hours immersed in the hallucinatory atmospheres and scenarios of The McKittrick and Sleep No More. I was assured ahead of time that I would be able to sense when things were starting to wrap up, and I wasn’t sure what that meant, but I eventually saw various characters take a masked guest lightly by the arm and lead them back to The Manderly downstairs, and other guests, seeing this, followed the ghostly procession. I somehow found myself back at the bar, breathless, emerging from a dream (or was it a nightmare?) that was already starting to fade. My friend and her husband were waiting outside for me ; the sun was setting on the city and a light, chilled rain had begun to fall. We retired to Death Avenue down the block for cocktails and a spirited discussion of our own, individual experiences. (An essential aside: my friend ordered the grilled octopus; it was amazing. We shared a slice of celebratory figgy bread pudding with fig ice cream, and that is also not to be missed.)
I still cannot believe that me, little mouse that I am, attended this extraordinary performance. Of course, that it even happened at all is due to my friend planning a birthday gift, for me; one “that Sarah will enjoy and remember and hopefully not freak her out too much”–and these aren’t her words, but I imagine that was part of the thought process. And for that, I am profoundly grateful. And for you, I have a few pointers and tips!
— Be comfortable! This is not the night to try out your new six-inch heeled Fluevogs. Flats and sneakers are best because you are going to be running around a lot. My friend warned me of this and I’ll admit, I scoffed. “Running? I see no reason for that!” Well, I was wrong. Also, I had twisted my ankle terribly before we even got on the train to leave for NY, so if I can walk the city and run up and down five flights of stairs countless times on an injured ankle, you will do just fine. I will say, though, that two weeks later I am still sore and bruised, so that probably was not very smart on my part.
— The hotel gets pretty warm, especially with all the running and exploring and so on, so wear light clothes. I wore a linen tunic, leggings, and sneakers, in case you are curious. If you had imbibed at the bar ahead of time, I would think you would be especially overheated, and also maybe not very clear-headed, so I honestly would save the cocktails for afterward, while you savor your evening and experiences.
— While this is an immersive performance, it can also be interactive. It is possible that a guest can have a one-on-one, personal encounter with a character! I am not quite certain how this happens, some people say that you have to be alone with one of the characters, others say you have to choose one and follow them relentlessly. I think, though, you have to somehow indicate that you are ok with it? Maybe locking and maintaining eye contact? I was decidedly not cool with the idea of it, so I just didn’t look at any of the characters directly in the face and I was fine. My companions, however, each had a one-on-one! But they were both definitely into that happening for them, so I am not surprised.
— Maybe re-read Macbeth. I don’t remember a thing about it except witches and murder.
— And lastly, I saw several couples holding hands, never very far from one another. I know it sounds a little judgemental to say this, but that’s kind of dumb, and I think they are missing the point. You can’t have individual experiences when you’re joined at the hip like that! Of course, for all I know someone might have a health condition, or might severely panic at some point, and need a partner nearby. But if that does not describe you, I would heartily suggest that you and your companions go your separate ways, and each have your own delicious adventure!
As it happened, Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination had opened at The Met a few days prior to my arrival, so we took advantage of the timing and visited the museum the day after Sleep No More. We had a five o’clock train to catch, and this afforded us plenty of time to take in this exhibition featuring fashion and medieval art from The Met collection, and which examines fashion’s ongoing engagement with the devotional practices and traditions of Catholicism.
Along the path of our pilgrimage, there were exquisite masterpieces by Dolce & Gabbana and Versace, as well as McQueen, Valentino and Dior; the various gowns were inspired by ancient religious art and architecture, and referenced the church’s hierarchies and gender distinctions, as well as the conceptual divide between heaven and earth. Liturgical pieces encompassing more than 15 papacies from the 18th to the early 21st century were housed in the Anna Wintour Costume Center. Photography was forbidden in this latter area, but these papal relics were both exquisite and thought-provoking (for reasons you can ponder upon yourselves, if you care to ruminate on monies spent for these things and these particular people) and absolutely worth as close a look as you can get.
We stopped at the gift shop before leaving and at that point I encountered my most heart-stopping situation of the whole trip. Take a look at this receipt. What, did I unbeknownst to myself, attempt to purchase some papal regalia? What was I thinking? Yikes! As it turns out, I am no high-roller; the cashier had mistakenly tried to charge me 800K for an $80 necklace.
And that, friends, is my most recent NY experience! See below for a slew of photos from the Heavenly Bodies exhibit, and feel free to comment with some must-dos and must-sees for my next visit up there. Who knows, maybe we can meet up for coffees or cocktails or a many thousand dollar shopping spree. Obviously, The Met thinks I can afford such things!