The first time we went to Sleep No More, my friend spent the whole first hour needing to pee.
If you haven’t been to Sleep No More, the show that basically invented immersive theater, I hope you’ll get a chance. They’re currently booking tickets for October, and if New York’s Covid numbers stay good… well, we’ll see. (I suspect that, like many things, it will never be exactly the same again; it’s hard to imagine a group indoor entertainment in which the most coveted event is getting into a small room with a stranger and taking off your mask. But then again, in many ways the weirdest thing about our cautious reopening has been how unexpectedly normal it feels.) Anyway, even if you haven’t seen it, you may have some idea of its general deal—maybe you saw it in the New Yorker, or on Gossip Girl. It’s the one where the audience members put on spooky white masks (wearing masks used to be strange!) and make their own way through a massive five-story theatrical set that is by turns a bar, hotel, hospital, apartment, forest, and town. There they follow, or randomly intersect with, or avoid actors playing wordless scenes in a play that is mostly Macbeth but a little bit not. If they’re lucky, one of those actors will take them into an empty room and close the door, and it’s more fun if you don’t know what happens after that.
That’s the shape of it. But I’m not here to talk about what happens at Sleep No More. I’m here to talk about getting inside. And to do that, I need to talk about the bathroom.
When I first went to see the show, it was March 18, 2011—eleven days after the New York location opened. An earlier version had been performed in Boston a few years before, and I’d read a New York Times article, but my friends and I really had no idea what to expect. You should always pee before you go somewhere unfamiliar (or anywhere at all, really), but we were running a little late and didn’t have time, so instead my friend asked the guy at the coat check whether there was a bathroom. He directed her to the woman at the will call window. My friend asked her if there was a bathroom. She directed us to the person taking tickets. My friend asked them if there was a bathroom. They directed us inside. And then it was dark.
The approach to Sleep No More, after the tickets but before the show, is an almost pitch dark hallway. Not only that, but the hallway doubles back on itself again and again, like a switchback road down a mountain. Only an occasional smudge of candlelight lets you see the dimmest outlines of the corners as you turn. If you don’t know yet that this show has no jump scares—and we very, very much did not know that—you are certain that someone or something is about to frighten you to death. And then you start to hear music, low jazzy music up ahead, though in your disorientation it can be hard to know what “ahead” means. You make one last turn, and come out in a bar.
This is the Manderley Bar, the place where it all begins. It’s a real bar—you are welcome to get an absurdly expensive drink while you wait for your ticket to be called. And like most other real bars, it does in fact have a bathroom. But because of the dark hallway, it doesn’t seem like the place for a pit stop. It feels like the magic has already begun. How can you pee inside the magic?
Almost as soon as we got to the bar, we were whisked away to a smaller room, given masks, and put on an elevator. Here, again, there was a sense of literally moving from the more-mundane to the more-magical: when the elevator doors open, wherever they open, you are truly Elsewhere. My friends and I were let out on different floors, because at Sleep No More they try to separate you and you should let them. I only found out later that she had to eventually flag down one of the attendants and get directed to a toilet.
This experience dictated my standard Sleep No More advice (beyond “let them separate you,” the most important things to know are: nobody is going to jump out and scare you, and the bathrooms are to your right as you enter the Manderley Bar and on the fifth floor outside the hospital). But it also influenced the way I think about any experience that aims for a sense of magic, in particular the many imitators (some good, most not) that followed Sleep No More into the “immersive theater” arena. Specifically: it’s not good enough to simply begin. You need a boundary condition, an experience that signals to the audience that they are moving out of the mundane world and normal rules no longer apply. Sleep No More has several of these: the dark maze to prime you, and the elevator to make the transition complete. The outcome is that by the time you reach the interior, as it were, of the show, you are ready to learn new rules. (New physics, even; several performances involve an apparent suspension of gravity.)
Sleep No More works because you feel like a ghost in a haunted house, watching other ghosts. They’re tormented souls locked in stuttering loops; you’re an incorporeal observer, moving at will but unable to speak or influence events. (If you speak in Sleep No More, outside of a one-on-one room, I will make you a literal ghost.) But in order to become a ghost, of course, you need to die. We are ready to be faceless, voiceless, silently floating ghosts because we have experienced a moment of transition—we have Crossed Over, or Passed Beyond the Veil, or more prosaically Gone Through a Maze and Up an Elevator.
(Ghosts, of course, don’t pee. The thing that would make this work perfectly is if the bathrooms were outside the Veil. But the fact that it feels so weird to ask for or even think about bathrooms inside the world of the show is a testament to how well that boundary crossing works.)
There’s a concept in digital media studies called the “magic circle”: the conceptual space within which the rules of the virtual world take precedence over the rules of the real one. The circle is always porous—for instance, in a very popular MMO, objects that only “exist” within the world of the game might be offered for sale outside the game for real-world money. But the existence of the circle—an inside, an outside, and a defined boundary between them, however permeable that boundary might be—is what turns a video game from a series of polygons into something that ruins your life. Some kind of loading screen or cut scene when you boot up the game—think of Isabelle’s daily announcements in Animal Crossing: New Horizons—sets this off as a space with its own rules and expectations and winning conditions, which is intoxicating in and of itself.
It’s been a long time since I studied this stuff, but I think a lot about the magic circle as it relates not only to games and virtual spaces but to theater, art, TV. I wonder how many unsuccessful entertainments would have been better if they’d clearly limned the passage into and out of the circle. A few weeks ago, for instance, I went to a musical performance at Green-Wood Cemetery, which was wonderful in the sense that I love the cemetery and hadn’t done anything for the previous 15 months, but kind of a flop in other respects. It had multiple problems—the music choices were erratic, the theme weirdly maudlin, a general air of corniness pervaded the proceedings, and we were led strictly from setpiece to setpiece by a tour guide who was valiantly struggling upstream against a bad (and wordy) script. But I think it might all have boiled down to the fact that we started the evening awkwardly and prosaically, pushing aside our masks to take tiny sips of booze proffered by representatives of the distilleries that had clearly sponsored the event. Then when things started they just… started. Contrast this with another event I went to at Green-Wood, many years ago, which started by following a path marked in tea lights through the cemetery at gloaming, past castle-like mausoleums and under a tunnel of trees. That event wasn’t much to write home about either—just a bunch of dressed-up douchebags drinking in the catacombs, like high school goths but with boring outfits and boring personalities and permission. The experience of being led in, though, gave it a fantastical aura, like something special was happening. Ultimately, in both cases we drank sponsored liquor, walked around the cemetery, listened to some music. But only in one did we do all that inside a magic circle.
I wonder how this can be applied to writing, in which beginnings are so crucial and so famously difficult. What does it mean for a book to mark the moment when you enter an alternate world? Could you have the equivalent, on the page, of Sleep No More’s dark hallway, and what would that look like? For the most part, I find extensive front matter in a novel pompous and alienating—so how do you balance that with the desire to explicitly open the magic circle and invite people to step through? The clearest example of a literary entrance into the magic circle I can think of is the frontispiece map. When you open a novel and see a map, you know exactly what’s going on; it’s a simple and undeniable signpost marking your passage into the world of the book, the rules of the story. But it’s also extremely genre-bound, pretty much unique to fantasy (and some historical fiction). How do we mark the entry into the magic circle of sci-fi, or literary fiction, or memoir?
And before we do that, can we stop to pee?