[On 5 December 2009, I published an article on ROT entitled “Theater and Computers.” It was a bit of the history of computers in theater and a speculation on where that might someday lead. A little less than three years later, Dave Itzkoff, a culture reporter for the New York Times, ran an article in “The Arts” section of the paper that described the use of computers in a performance in a warehouse in New York City’s Chelsea neighborhood. Published on 23 May 2012, “A Guinea Pig’s Night at the Theater” was a sort of review of this unusual presentation. I think it makes a useful continuation of the exploration of new technology in live stage performance.]
Even when it is not executed perfectly, theater can stir a range of feelings, from boundless elation to existential despair. On rare occasions, it can even impart blinding pain, as an overly tight mask presses your glasses into your face, setting off sensitive nerve endings you did not know you possessed.
I learned this on Thursday night as I wandered the corridors of “Sleep No More,” the site-specific theater event presented in a labyrinthine Chelsea warehouse. Created by the British company Punchdrunk, “Sleep No More” lets masked attendees follow, with eyes, ears, hands and feet, an open-ended tale that mashes up “Macbeth” with elements of Hitchcock films like “Rebecca” and “Vertigo.”
At the invitation of Punchdrunk, I was taking part in an experiment to see, primarily, if this immersive experience could be technologically tweaked to yield a new narrative-within-the-master-narrative for select participants. (I imagine that the secondary, unstated goal of this field trial was to test my exceedingly minimal threshold for discomfort.)
Working with the very nice and talented students and faculty members from the MIT Media Lab (and financed by a partnership of British arts and innovation organizations), Punchdrunk had revisited the smoke-filled and dimly lighted chambers of “Sleep No More” to add digital enhancements that — if I discovered them — would be activated only with the help of a special mask that was outfitted with sensors, though not necessarily built for corrective lenses.
By adding state-of-the-art gadgetry (including 8,000 more feet of cable and another 100 or so strategically placed Bluetooth and RFID sensors) to some already nontraditional storytelling, Punchdrunk’s ambition was to deliver something like a living video game. But for now, this emerging art form is still in its rudimentary, Atari 2600 phase.
The test run began with a pep talk from Punchdrunk’s Pete Higgin, whose title, enrichment director, already says something about the nonconformist company employing him. But he did not want to tell too much about my coming adventure.
“If it all works, then great,” Mr. Higgin said on the phone before the performance. Sensing, perhaps, that I wanted a bit more encouragement, he told me, “Do get excited.” But he added, “There could be glitches.”
This was my first time at “Sleep No More,” at a West 27th Street space that Punchdrunk calls the McKittrick Hotel, and while I tried to keep an open mind, even its customary, unenhanced experience can be polarizing. For some, it is thrilling to be in a scrum with dozens of sweaty people chasing its characters from room to room to room. For others, it feels like a firetrap designed by David Lynch. (It is left to the reader to determine which camp I fell into.)
For the nonclaustrophobic sorts who brave “Sleep No More” on a given night, there are already several story lines to be witnessed en masse. But I was supposed to be getting a narrative that was new and unique and, above all, exclusive to me. I was the 1 percent.
After donning my special mask — Is it supposed to be this tight? It is? O.K. — I was brought by myself to a room where an actress playing a psychic invited me to communicate with a spirit using a Ouija board. When I accepted her entreaty to help the troubled ghost, she said the ghost and I were now bound together and put her finger to my temple — and, to my surprise, the mask began to vibrate. This was cool.
But my further explorations of the “Sleep No More” environs — a creepy hospital, a ballroom, a maze — had to be aborted because of mask-induced facial paralysis and imminent loss of consciousness.
After several adjustments to my gear by the Punchdrunk team, I was restarted, by myself, in a lawyer’s office where the keys of a typewriter began clacking away by themselves. (Again, points awarded for the atmospherics.) A printed message told me to seek a woman in red, and when I exited the room, an actress dressed in a flowing crimson gown awaited.
The woman — who I later learned is Hecate, the lead witch in “Sleep No More” — then entered a nightclub where other audience members and I watched her perform a garish lip-sync of “Is That All There Is?”
But when Hecate left this room, I was unsure where to go next. I wandered through more of the public scenes — a card game that turns into a brutal fight — until a “Sleep No More” delegate physically escorted me to a woman’s bedroom and left me alone.
With no warning, Hecate emerged from a wardrobe, delivering a genuine shock as effective as it was low-tech. She removed my mask, rubbed a vial along my face as if collecting my tears and made clear I was now in her service. This was the end of my story.
On Friday afternoon, when the show was dark, I returned to the McKittrick, where the Punchdrunk crew walked me back through some of the spaces that my enhanced experience should have led me to. (Yes, they made me wear the mask again. Yes, it still hurt.)
I had missed, for example, a library where a book was supposed to jump off its shelf and point me to a kitchen pantry where a radio was to play me a secret message. In fact, an entire story line, about a love potion, a broken contract and a terrible revenge enacted by Hecate on the woman who breached it, had eluded me.
Most crucially, I did not know that I’d been traveling on Thursday night with a companion of sorts: a second experiment participant at a remote computer who was playing a text-based game on an Internet browser that occasionally intersected with my live “Sleep No More” experience. This person had been writing messages to me on the seemingly self-propelled typewriter and could even see me on a webcam in discrete moments when I hope I was behaving myself.
Tod Machover, an M.I.T. professor who is director of the institute’s media lab’s Opera of the Future group, told me that one of the experiment’s goals was to see if “you can take a live experience, whether it’s a concert or a theater show or hanging out with people you care about, and experience that somewhere else” — not only observe it, but feel as if you’re participating in it as well.
(Incidentally, Mr. Machover was telling me this by phone from Singapore, where, he said, “I’ve been texting my daughters all day with photos — they probably think I’m nuts.”)
These kinds of investigations, Mr. Machover believes, could have long-term implications for programs like the Metropolitan Opera’s Live in HD series, which brings real-time broadcasts of its operas to theaters around the world. But for now, he said, “we’d have to decide how important it is for two people to be paired. It’s a hard thing to do.”
Felix Barrett, the artistic director of Punchdrunk, said from London that he too had encountered “goblins and gremlins” when he did his own trial run a few days before mine. (The only way he can give his actors notes, he said, is to run the gantlet himself.)
“This was our week of ironing,” he said. “It would be amazing now to have a week, once it’s ironed, to work out how to fold it so it’s the right shape.” All that is planned so far, he said, is for his group and the MIT Media Lab to reconvene in June and decide what to do next.
It is not my place to tell Punchdrunk how this experiment should be fine-tuned. But at the risk of influencing its decision-making process, I will say that after an arduous and wearying Thursday night at “Sleep No More,” I crawled into bed and dreamed that I was staying in a hotel with my own personal 7-Eleven built into my room. I woke up Friday morning feeling a kind of happiness I didn’t know I was capable of.