If there’s three things New York City knows how to do, it’s be bold, unique and alluring. This lies largely on the fact that New Yorkers are so diverse that niches spread like wildfire. The New Yorker is always looking for the avant garde spice of life and this is reflected nowhere better than in the thriving culture of immersive entertainment.
I’m talking about a kind of entertainment that provocatively smears the lines between traditional theatre, installation art and interactive performance. I’ve been to brilliantly breathtaking circuses, shows, plays, you name it, in a plethora of different countries but I’d never come across anything quite like what I found in New York. And I’m not sure that I ever will. Here’s a sneak peak into two captivating productions that stole a little chunk of my heart.
Queen of the Night
Self-touted as ‘New York’s sexiest dinner party’, a ticket gets you much more than the medieval meets modern feast that they serve the guests. The location is the Diamond Horseshoe at the Paramount Hotel on West 46th Street. You are guests of the queen at her initiation and that is as much as you will know as you descend the staircase, chaperoned by butlers with rosemary-infused cocktails to curb your inhibitions. You are wearing your best evening attire, as you do not wish to be refused entry or – worse still – disappoint the queen. Leave fear and shyness at the door. It pays to be bold. You will be made to feel outside your comfort zone, skin will be touched, dares will be given. In a hush whisper, the swanky butler wearing smudges of eyeliner provides two most important pieces of advice: speak to the butlers and always, always say ‘yes’ to anything you are asked.
If you play the game right, you may just be ‘chosen’. What does that mean? I’m afraid I can’t tell. And even if you aren’t chosen, don’t despair. You still have a captivating circus spectacle to behold, plenty of surprise company, lavish food and wine in surplus (you may be fed chocolate cake by shirtless performers), and the chance to redefine what it means to attend a dinner party. It is a party indeed. And the sexiest in New York? Well, it would be a tough one to beat.
Go with a friend, lover or group. I went with my best friend and we had such an amazing time. In my opinion this is an experience best shared with at least one familiar face.
Sleep No More
On a rainy New York evening, I made my way alone to the McKittrick Hotel to experience Punchdrunk’s Sleep No More. Since my arrival in the city I had been hearing repeated whispers about this immersive and interactive theatrical and dance performance, yet whenever I pried further into these flickers of conversation, I was quickly told that it was better to know nothing and simply go myself. All lips were sealed tight, except to agree that is was life-changing.
Sleep No More takes place over a 6 floor installation in the McKittrick Hotel (constructed from three adjoining Chelsea warehouses specifically for the purpose of the performance). Upon arrival you are given a white mask which you must wear at all times, serving the function of making you completely anonymous and with that, free and uninhibited. Don’t expect an assigned seat. In fact there are no seats, save you end up sharing a couch or stool on the set. After a trip up in a dark elevator (and nevermind that someone was pushed out alone at a random floor) you walk through a maze configuration and enter a Hitchcock-esque setting. You must remain silent and the performers themselves are wordless too. A noir score fills the air and you are free to roam wherever you please: from a witch doctor’s sanctuary to a gothic graveyard, through bedrooms, a bar, a moving forest, a candy room, dance floor or a grand banquet turned chocolate fondue orgy (yes, this really happens). You will find no shortage of spectacle, sexuality or spook as you construct your own non-linear narrative from the performance based on Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Although it runs for 2 hours and plays on a loop twice (so you can experience different parts throughout, or the same part from a different vantage point), participation brings total temporal and spatial dislocation.
I remember in one early moment I wondered if I had stumbled into an area I shouldn’t be in, as I found myself alone with a female character who came right up to me and, whilst staring into my eyes, removed her garments and stood before me utterly naked. Safe behind my mask, I stayed exactly where I was without flinching. Within a minute, a stampede of feet could be heard following another actor towards our private room. The lady covered herself with a robe in a flash, just before the room filled with dozens of people. Not a soul knew our intimate exchange just seconds before.
There are many secrets to discover, while you remain hidden behind your mask, and the whole concept plays heavily on the act of voyeurism, as violent and sexual scenes play out before you. Watching in such close proximity (so close if you want, you could feel the actor’s breath on your skin) is a guilty pleasure. Sleep No More plays into the shameful desire that resides within us all: to watch without being watched. But the bolder you are, the more you will be rewarded.
I dare you to go by yourself. If you do go with people you know, make sure you separate from them the moment you enter the hotel. This experience is better the more individual it is: forget anybody else, follow who you want, explore where you like, watch what incites you. You construct the narrative: it’s all about you. My only advice? Be brazen in your pursuit and don’t be afraid to divert from the masses – except for in the final ten minutes that is where you should follow the crowds: the wicked finale is not to be missed.