ENCOMPASSED: THE WORLD OF PUNCHDRUNK’S SLEEP NO MORE
A Profile of MATTHEW OAKES and KELLY BARTNIK, Actors in the epic SLEEP NO MORE
In the Field with Lori Zimmer
Literally everywhere I walk around New York, someone is talking about Sleep No More. All around Chelsea, people talk excitedly while clutching their sanctioned white masks, but I even hear chatter in other parts of the city, at restaurants, bars, even while in line at the bank. “Then all of a sudden I was pushed out of the elevator and into the middle of a psych ward/orphanage,” “There were NAKED PEOPLE right in front of me!” “It was like being in a movie!” Whenever I hear any of this, I know immediately that they are speaking of Sleep No More.
I’ve experienced the interactive play/exhibition/set twice now, and both times was pleasantly disoriented. I’d read the reviews, all from the scope and experience of the writer, which was interesting. But I can’t help but wonder (actually, I think about this a lot) what a mind fuck it must be to actually work there.
I have many actor friends, and when they prepare for a role, they sometimes (usually annoyingly) take on characteristics of their character. But the fact of the matter is, whether in a play or on set, their work experience is not even one tenth as intense as what living day to day in Sleep No More must be like. Aside from playing a somewhat Shakespearean role–it is loosely based on MacBeth–the actors have a unique experience. The entire set is like entering a fabricated world; it’s more real than a stage set and more complex than just a movie set, as the audience can actually go through drawers (which are filled with documents and other odd items), open closets, and even eat candy from the candy shop. It spans floors of a giant warehouse, seemingly endless at first (not to mention dark enough to disorient anyone).
The production, by PunchDrunk, is unlike any interactive piece out there. First of all, there is little to no dialogue, just an incredible reliance on body language and actions for the actors to convey their story. Secondly, the audience is not only present, but can really get in their way. Although masked, they can go anywhere and do almost anything (except talk or remove their masks, of course). Not to mention the up-close nudity, and the harassing jerk that is bound to happen here or there.
I simply can’t imagine entering this “world” everyday–though this world is absolutely beautiful with its painstaking prop detail with complexity that blows my mind–for “work,” and can’t help but wonder if the Sleep No More universe seeps into the actors personal lives when off the clock.
It is rightfully insanely popular, selling out nightly, even at a hefty price of just under $100. In our culture obsessed with escapism through movies, it allows us to actually live and touch a cinematic fantasy, something audiences could never fully achieve before. Like Westworld without the robots, I felt I’d hopped in a time machine or entered a dream, even after I knew what the sets were like the second time around. I talked with two of the actors, Matty and Kelly, about their experience working and acting in Sleep No More.
Lori Zimmer: What productions were you involved in before Sleep No More?
Matthew Oakes: After graduating with my MFA in dance from NYU-Tisch in 2007, I’ve mostly been a free-lance dancer for a variety of “downtown” choreographers and most recently was Trisha Brown’s assistant. I’ve always been attracted to the abstract narrative. My interest in dance came out of a love for theater and music. Theater and acting have always been something that I’ve wanted to branch over into and have had the opportunity to perform with The Gallery Players in Brooklyn and go on the road with a “non-traditional” musical revue show produced by the Bailiwick theater in Chicago. I took on Sleep No More as a way to combine the love of both in a way that is not only abstract but also the most fulfilling work I have ever done. I just became SAG eligible through some extra work and, thanks to SNM, I’m looking forward to exploring the sides of theater and film that I have put on back burner, once my time with SNM has come to a close (which I don’t foresee ending any time soon). P.S. Know of a good agent?
Kelly Bartnik: Prior to joining the cast of Sleep No More, I was performing with Cora Dance, directing the teen repertory company at the Brooklyn Arts Exchange and working full-time as a Property Manager in Soho.
LZ: The sets are detailed, beautiful, and haunting. What did you think the first time you set foot in them after being accepted into the project?
MO: We weren’t allowed to enter the space until our first day of rehearsal when the set was just about complete (not that it is ever finished, it’s always exciting to come in and see new things). This way we could form a visceral first-time experience exploring the space on our own. It was a very influential time; when I finished exploring that first time, I had a bank of “flashbulb memories” of sights and sounds and smells that I continue to draw on when I’m in the space playing one of the five roles that I cover. After it was over, it felt like a hazy night out on the town, when you wake up the next morning and you just have fragments of where you had been and what you had done. But, at the same time, your recollections are so vivid and tactile. Each room, each object holds many different energies at any given time, and that energy is constantly in flux. Each observer brings with them a different experience, a different perception which sets attune a different frequency for each participant. It is when that observer allows themselves to let go and have their instincts be their guide through through the McKittrick; well, that’s when the magic happens.
I know plenty of actors that fully immerse themselves in a role for a film or a play, but Sleep No More is entirely different; it seems completely encompassing. How do you prepare for the performances, as they seem to be more like living a role than playing one?
MO: Completely encompassing! Being initially hired as a swing, I’ve gotten the opportunity to learn and play multiple roles, all vastly different, all foreign. At the same time, all of them are familiar. Familiar because, for it to work, you have to find yourself in each character! In film and theater where the audience is some how removed, you can get away with learning/finding the movements, mannerisms, inflections of a character. But with this work, because the audience is immersed in with you, I find you have to find the breath of each character. Before each show, I try to think of how that character would be breathing today. Once you tap into the character’s breath and let that lead you, you can then just follow the ride that the character goes on. It’s also important to think of the levels of the character’s physical states in each situation. If you think of it on a scale of one to seven, with one being the feeling of when your eyes are opening in the morning, and seven being when a bomb is about ready to explode, then put that in context of each scene, and where your character is at that energy–you suddenly get in tune with their breath, and this allows the character to just “be,” and not forced.
KB: Being part of Sleep No More is the most all-encompassing experience I’ve ever had as a performer. Purely logistically speaking, we spend almost every day in the same building with the same people doing the same show, with little time or energy to do much else. In that sense alone, it is an immersive existence. On top of the that, the show itself is such a multi-sensory, full-bodied experience that we embody for three hours a night; you can’t help but live in it. So, in terms of preparing, I stick to a pretty standard physical warmup. I don’t find I need much more preparation than that because once the show starts, you just have to jump in and take the ride.
LZ: The actors I’ve seen have tremendous concentration, never breaking their role, despite how many audience members follow them. Was the presence of the somewhat anonymous audience–being so close to you–distract you?
KB: Performing for an audience that is free to essentially make whatever choice that suits them is quite an interesting experience on many levels. Performance-wise, it is so fulfilling to be able to make connections with audience members–to look them in the eye, to touch their shoulder or kiss their cheek. It forces you to make meaningful choices and stay connected to your character every step of the way. It also really hones your spatial awareness skills; not knowing where someone might go or what they might do, and managing to complete your scene without injuring someone who does something unexpected, is certainly a skill in of of itself. I don’t view the audience as a distraction. They’re completely a part of my experience within the show.
MO: It’s only when an observer is fighting or forcing to allow their curiosities to give over to the environment that the energy is so off, it becomes distracting to a performer! I would like to say that a lighted cellphone or a couple holding hands blocking the stairway doesn’t distract me, but it does! I want them to have a great experience and, for that to happen, they need to allow the outside to influence their decisions in here, not distract from them.
But there is also a positive to some distractions. In two scenes where I play the porter, he goes into an emotional state where he begins crying either because he’s regretting his previous actions with Lady MacDuff or longing for something he’ll never have. I’ve had numerous times when an audience member has reached out and rubbed my hand or put their arm around me to console me! As “distracting” as an action like that could be, it somehow isn’t because, at that moment, that person is so immersed in the moment with you. Therein lies the difference. Our show is immersive, not interactive. At times there is a blurry line between the two, just remember: don’t force things to happen, just be open to allowing them to happen!
LZ: How do you choose which audience members you interact with?
KB: Being in such close proximity allows you to develop really intense, yet brief relationships with the audience members. I’m constantly aware of the people around me and I tend to interact with someone who I feel is “with me.” Someone who has maybe followed me for several scenes or who I can tell is completely invested in what I’m doing. And if that fails, then I go for the hot girls.
LZ: Being inside the McKittrick for just a few hours was completely disorienting for me (in a good way). Working in the environment must be a total mind fuck. What is it like to be in “another world” for your workplace? Has it affected other aspects of your life? Has it become your reality?
KB: A mind-fuck is a good way to describe it. Every time I walk into the building, I can’t believe that it’s where I work. It’s its own entity and it certainly has an affect on you. Like you mentioned before, it’s a completely immersive experience and the building is just another added layer.
MO: SNM has given me a new outlook. So much of the SNM world is about engaging your senses and allowing instinct to take over. When I walk now in the city I’m reminded to allow myself to observe, and engage all of my senses. To breathe how I would breathe in the outside world in any given situation. My reality blurs now with Sleep No More because I am now awake and I know how important it is to be authentic. My feelings, my characters feelings, are valid and justified. I can’t stress how important it is to keep things simple and listen to your instincts.
LZ: Personally, I tend to gravitate toward the experiential–be it visual art, theater or performance. Do you think that due to the success of Sleep No More, we’ll see more interactive productions like it?
KB: I certainly hope so. It seems from everyone that I talk to, that people are excited by and interested in this type of theater. It certainly isn’t for everyone, but each night I perform, I have a meaningful experience with someone in a white mask that I don’t know. That, to me, is incredible and so worth it.
Sleep No More performs six nights a week in a giant warehouse in Chelsea. It has been extended through September.
Written by Lori Zimmer
Edited by Meaghan Coffey
Photography by Alick Crossley, EMURSIVE, & Yaniv Schulman / Courtesy of Anuschka Senge of Syndicate Media Group
Design by Marie Havens
Matthew Oakes and Kelly Bartnik of Sleep No More, Photography by Alick Crossley, EMURSIVE, & Yaniv Schulman / Courtesy of Anuschka Senge of Syndicate Media Group