Immersive Theater

How Do We Watch a Show Today?

Exploring The Immersive Theatre: Sleep No More


“Let’s go to watch a show!” The theatre image that occurs in your mind may contain a well-designed stage surrounded by rolls of seats. Audiences seat in the dark, and fix their eyes on what happens on the stage. However, this traditional method of theatre has been challenged nowadays. A British theatre company named Punchdrunk has produced over fifteen shows that encourage audience to develop the narrative by themselves. Among these shows, the most popular one is called Sleep No More.

The trend of the future stage show and cinema will be immersive and interactive experiences. As one of the experimental theatres, Sleep No More is gradually becoming the topic that people talks with relish. All the stories are happened in a derelict building whose name is The McKittrick Hotel in the New York City. The building is actually a block of warehouse in Manhattan and, at the same time, the “stage” of the show. In this five-floor building, over twenty actors and actresses launch the adapted story of Macbeth according to the timeline. The audience is asked to wear a Venetian carnival-style mask, loitering around all the delicately designed and decorated rooms and corridors and chasing up and down stairs to find the plot and clues (The New York Times, April 13, 2011). The entire show is performed three times once, and audience can make their selections to follow one or any actors each time during the three-time performance:

  1. Manderley Bar
    Passing through the minimally illuminated corridor, all the audience is guided to the main entrance of the show: Manderley Bar.
  2. Elevator
    From the Manderley Bar, audience will enter into an elevator. The elevator will take the audience to the lower level of the building, where the show is staging.
  3. Settings
    All settings, including shops, ballroom, cemetery, courtyard, children’s room and so on, are in the building. Audience promenade in and out the different rooms and halls to chase the characters and find the plot.
  4. Trial
    At the end of the show, all the audience are guided into the ballroom. Macbeth will be hanged to death here with the masked audience surrounds him. Each audience becomes the part of the jury. After the trial chapter is over, audience will be guided back into the Manderley Bar.


There are several rules for watching Sleep No More. Firstly, the audience cannot get their masks off during the show; Secondly, the audience must keep silent during the show; Thirdly, the audience are encouraged to separate with companions and to make a journey by their own; Fourthly, audience are encouraged to explore the props such as newspapers and letters during the show.


Watching a Sleep No More show is widely considered as a completely different experience from watching a traditional show. By following different characters, each audience has a unique journey. As the old saying goes, “There are a thousand Hamlets in a thousand people’s eyes.” In Sleep No More, there are not only a thousand Macbeths in a thousand people’s eyes, but also a thousand narratives in a thousand people’s eyes.

On the other hand, the opportunity of approaching characters and watching the show right here under their nose arouses the interests of the audience. The immersion effect makes the audience to go inside the show and identify themselves as a part of the show. However, actors seldom interact with audience during the show. Therefore, the audience seems to be a ghost wandering among them.

Comparing with traditional theatre shows, Sleep No More does make great changes in form and produces a promenade theatre, as well as an environmental theatre. However, the changes are limited in form and do not touch the core of stage shows. Erkki Huhtamo categorizes modes of address in interactive art, especially audio-visual art into two main kinds: “indirect address” and “direct address”. The indirect address refers to the third person mode dominant and the direct address refers to the first person mode dominant (Huhtamo, 1995, 4). The interactive theatre shows require the participation of the audience. The producer of the show is dedicated to break the forth wall and communicate with the audience. For example, in the famous Broadway show Matilda, Mr. Wormwood (one of the characters) launches a monologue at the beginning of the second half of the show. He raises a question to one of the audience, and slips into the show based on the answers of the audience. The participation leads the audience to be a protagonist of the show. However, in Sleep No More, audience with masks seems to be invisible. Although the distance between characters and audience is extremely shortened, the gap of identifications still exists. The audience in Sleep No More is playing a roll of “a voyeur, a libidinous outsider.”(Huhtamo, 1995, 4)


CHOOSING MEANS LOSING. As one of the core in many interactive art pieces, making a choice is inevitable. Watching interactive films such as Kinoautomat (1967) and Sufferrosa (2011) requires making choices by voting cards or mouses. When a viewer makes a choice, he or she will abandon the other possibilities of the narrative. The same circumstance can also be found in Sleep No More. When the audience follows one or two characters, other stories are abandoned. Jenna Ng (2011, 2) describes the audience in interactive cinema involves the ability (or, at least, so perceived) to intervene and change the image to produce an alternatively meaningful text and to have that text reflected back to the audience. With the choices audiences made, the discourse should “produces meaning within the discourse itself” (Espen J. Aarseth, 1997, 48). However, in Sleep No More, the narrative is all broken up. Although the show is acted three times, most of the audience still cannot structure a meaningful story with the limited scenes they experiences.

Although watching Sleep No More is not a fully satisfying experience, the show provides a blueprint of the future immersion theatre. As far as I am concerned, the more guide can be input into the show. In order to help the audiences to structure their own narrative, several designed routes can be provided as the recommendation route before audiences enter into the building. Or, the information about what’s going on in other rooms can be sent to the audiences during their exploration. In order to increase the interaction, communications between the audience and the characters can be allowed during the show.


However, a new question has been raised. With communications and fully interaction, how can the producer control the show process? These changes may cause a series of challenge for the Punchdrunk Theatre Company, and we are looking forward to their improvements.

Posted by Jia Shi

WC: 1107


Huhtamo Erkki. “Seeking Deeper Contact Interactive Art as Metacommentary.” Convergence: The International Journal of Research into New Media Technologies 1.2 (1995): 81-104.

Ng Jenna. “Fingers, Futures, Fates: Viewing Interactive Cinema in Kinoautomat and Sufferrosa.”

Aarseth, Espen J. Cybertext: perspectives on ergodic literature. JHU Press, 1997: 48

New York Times. “Shakespeare Slept Here, Albeit Fitfully”, April 13, 2011