- Dreamers and Insomniacs: Audiences in Sleep No More and The Night Circus
When the British theater company Punchdrunk brought their production Sleep No More to the United States, they offered audiences the chance to immerse themselves in a noir-style mash-up of Shakespeare’s Macbeth and Hitchcock’s Rebecca. Rather than passive observers of a static spectacle, audiences of Sleep No More became active players in its world. The show developed a passionate fan following, including author Erin Morgenstern, who drew upon her experiences with Sleep No More as she was developing the magical circus at the center of her debut novel, The Night Circus. In both the theatrical world of Sleep No More and the fictional world of Morgenstern’s Le Cirque des Rêves, audiences are responsible for mapping their own journeys through the created spaces of the productions, shaping their own experiences of the event. Sleep No More and The Night Circus are tributes to the power of audiences, privileging spectator over spectacle.
Punchdrunk has performed a variety of immersive theatrical events, from Oedipus in a Victorian garden to a ball inspired by Romeo and Juliet and The Firebird to a Doctor Who fan experience. But Sleep No More stands out among Punchdrunk’s productions for its scope, duration, and devoted fans. Running first in England in 2003, then in 2009 in Boston at an abandoned school before transferring almost immediately to a warehouse in Manhattan, Sleep No More has a history of evolving to match its place and time. Over its run, the show has become more entrenched in its Chelsea location, building additional spaces for audiences, including a speakeasy accessible by elevator from the street and a rooftop bar. Fans of the show can now attend the production as many as sixty times, always finding something new. In addition to writing individual letters, blog posts, and responses, they have developed online communities to share [End Page 135] their experiences, connecting with forums and tumblrs such as Scorched the Snake, The Bloody Business, and Behind a White Mask. Passionate followers who returned more than once were first called “Sleepalos,” then “Insomniacs,” while some prefer the term “The Sleepless.”1 For simplicity’s sake, I will use “Insomniacs” in this essay, as it is the term I have encountered the most often. These fans create critical and creative essays, fiction, artwork, and music to chronicle their experiences. They take photos of the objects they have received during performances: playing cards, masks, keys, rings, even tearstained tissues.2 The highly individualized nature of the performance means that each response shared over social media is unique, allowing audience members to collect and compare wildly different experiences over the run.
The emergence of this fan community suggests that audience members feel compelled to share their experiences, chronicling each unique trip through the McKittrick, trying to find ways to convey what the performance meant to them. My first visit to Sleep No More included bringing a group of honors students who were on a school trip to New York. Even without knowing about the complex fandom surrounding the event, students were still anxious to tell their stories. They spent their late dinner (and many of the following days) describing the places they had explored, the scenes witnessed, and the details noticed. But the very act of sharing an individual experience can be problematic. One audience member explains this impossibility as: “Try as I might, I still couldn’t give it all to you. I can’t share my night, because the magic of this production is each person has a highly individualized experience.”3 Another blogger argues that even if you manage to successfully convey your experience to a friend who wants to see the production, your account “may do them the injustice of not allowing them to determine their own dramatic destiny.”4
Though there are infinite paths audience members can follow as they explore the production, most audience interactions with the environment of Sleep No More fall into the categories that the author of Behind a White Mask refers to as “the Search” and “the Tail.”5 To search is to take the time to...