Jim Stark and I are alone in a bedroom that smells of dried herbs. The lights are low. He takes me by the hand, pushes me up against the wall, and looks me in the eye. He’s crying. We’re standing by an altar strewn with herbs, a rosary, and religious icons.
Jim takes a fresh daisy from his pocket. One by one, he plucks the petals, repeating, “She loves me,” then “She loves my crown.”
The tears keep running down his chin.
“She loves me. She loves my crown.”
The last petal falls. He’s so close I can feel his breath.
He kisses me on the cheek and presses a sachet into my hands. It’s thick with herbs, a torn page of a Bible, and a small vial of perfume so strong I can smell it through the lilac netting.
Jim’s wife Donna is sitting in the next room with ten or so of their closest friends.
It’s time to rejoin the party.
Out here in the living room of the Starks’ Brooklyn apartment, we’re at just another house party. But in the bedroom, we were in the world of the McKittrick Hotel.
Jim, a forty-five-year-old artist and mixologist, and Donna, a forty-three-year-old substance abuse counselor — and the rest of the attendees of this party — are what you might call “superfans” of “Sleep No More,” an immersive, interactive theatre production by British theatre company Punchdrunk. They blog about their obsession on Tumblr. They create fan art for the characters they love most. They debate which actors they think are strongest, and weakest, and whether or not their fandom has gone downhill since the halcyon days when they first discovered it.
Set in a dreamlike, Hitchcockian (by way of Lynch) “McKittrick Hotel,” “Sleep No More,” located in a sprawling warehouse on 27th Street and 10th Avenue in Manhattan, is equal parts “Macbeth” and “Rebecca,” dance show and art installation, theatre piece and extended role-playing game. Masked audience members are free to roam (silently) anywhere in the six-story space, which includes a full-scale mental hospital, a Scottish town high street, a cemetery, a palatial estate, a forest, and the titular hotel itself. They can follow characters, rummage through drawers in search of letters that might illuminate the story, or simply sit in a corner and listen to the eerie, 1930s-style music that weaves its way throughout the building. There is more than twenty-seven hours of material in the show, which, combined with the nightly cast rotations, makes it virtually impossible to see the same show twice, and allows superfans to collect vast catalogs of knowledge about the show in its endless possible permutations.
The luckiest audience members, by popular fandom consensus, are those who get the “one on ones” (or “1:1s,” as members of the fandom refer to them on Tumblr). At certain designated moments in “Sleep No More,” characters lock eyes with certain audience members — often those who have followed them most faithfully throughout a “loop” of action. They extend a hand, and Lady Macduff, or one of the Witches, or Hecate herself, might take you into a locked room. They remove your mask. They whisper words into your ear: fragments of Du Maurier’s “Rebecca,” or of “Macbeth” itself, or some hybrid of the two. Sometimes they might even kiss you, or give you a trinket to keep.
It’s that intensity — at once deeply transgressive and uncannily reassuring — that Jim Stark has recreated tonight in Bay Ridge. One of the many artistic projects the Starks have created from their passion for “Sleep No More,” Jim’s custom 1:1 encounters are perhaps the purest distillation of what he sees as the show’s magic beyond 27th Street: fan fiction-as-immersive-theatre.
Many of the other fans, like Jim and Donna, were inspired by the show to construct their own creative responses to the experience of the show.
Jonathan Martin has seen the show 114 times. His artistic alterations to the plastic masks audience members wear, from paper mâché to rhinestones to straw to ordinary paint, became so famous among the fandom that he was able to raise over $2,000 on Gofundme — donors all got masks as rewards — so he could attend the closing night of “The Drowned Man,” Punchdrunk’s London show. Some of the masks are inspired by certain characters or moments in the show. Often, Martin says, he’s made them as thank-you gifts for cast and crew members who have affected him most, or to fellow fans who have become friends.
The bloggers known as Max and Rebecca de Winter made annotated copies of “Macbeth” tracking each and every reference to the play in the show’s set design.
Yet few have created as diverse a set of responses as Jim and Donna. Aside from the 1:1s, Jim — with Donna participating as sounding board, cheerleader, task master, and editor — has created everything from painted masks to canvas paintings of crow wings to antique boxes filled with memorabilia to a new line of craft cocktail syrups, evoking in part the powerful sense-memory of the McKittrick. He’s now using the name “Doctor Stark.”
Jim and Donna are no strangers to fandom — they met in the mid-90s on metal band Nine Inch Nails’s online fan message board (Jim likes to joke, “the first words I ever spoke to her were ‘fuck you,’” the result of an argument over an upcoming album release). The pair spent several years running Nine Inch Nails conventions together. But little has compared to the intensity of their following of “Sleep No More.”
Jim and Donna have seen “Sleep No More” eighty-eight and seventy-eight times, respectively, since 2012. They’ve commuted into New York from their home in New Haven, and at around $100 per ticket, that adds up to $16,500, plus money they’ve spent on food and drink at the McKittrick’s affiliated properties: the Heath Restaurant, Gallow Green rooftop, and Manderley Bar, all of which are “set” in the same narrative world and, until recently, featured characters with whom intrepid visitors could interact. At least two other fans I’m aware of have seen the show more than 250 times as of this spring, though there’s no official record-holder.
It’s “probably an excessive amount,” Jim admits, adding: “In my defense, we didn’t do anything else. We didn’t travel, go out, even go to movies. We pretty much only spent money on this one thing for a couple of years.”
Donna admits that the first time she saw the show, she didn’t know what to expect. She ended up there because she couldn’t think of anything she wanted for her birthday. “I told [Jim] I didn’t really want things, but rather experiences,” she says. “I wanted to do something different and interesting that would stay with me forever. I suggested we check out this new immersive play that Neil Patrick Harris had been tweeting about.” Neither expected much more than an intriguing night out.
At first, Donna says, it took time to get into “Sleep No More.” As first-timers unaware of proper etiquette, Donna says they were probably “the worst audience members.” They held hands all night — a surefire way to hold up pedestrian traffic in the often-narrow building corridors — trying to figure out how to make the most of their experiences.
Then Donna saw the “rave.”
One of the show’s most iconic scenes — scored to chest-thumping techno and based on the sequence in which Macbeth receives a series of prophecies from Hecate and her witches — the rave is a seizure-inducing, fake-blood-spewing, ram’s-head-featuring extravaganza of sexuality and rage.
“Something really hit me,” Donna says of the rave and the sequences that followed. “There wasn’t any one moment that did it for me. It was the whole experience of the show — I’d never seen or felt anything like it.” She relished the moments of connection: a gaze into the eyes of a character, or even another audience member, and the feeling of power the show gave her. “I loved how it was up to me what I saw, who I followed, what my level of engagement was,” she says. “I felt I was both an observer and a part of the story being told.”
For Jim, the show’s power lay in the complexity of its narrative world — an aesthetic that Jim, a self-described “avid video gamer” likened to the post-apocalyptic video game “Bioshock.” He recalls a moment at the McKittrick’s Manderley Bar — the only place in the show’s landscape where mask removal and speech are permitted — when two of the show’s maître d’ characters, “Max” (played by Nick Atkinson) and “Violet” (played by Elizabeth Romanski), approached him.
“They quizzed me about myself, but also managed to tell me things about their characters,” he says, “stories, personal facts, anecdotes — a master class in ad-libbing and storytelling.” That’s when it clicked for him that “Sleep No More” was an entire world and that each character had an entire backstory to explore. He had to know more.
It was that hunger to know more that brought Jim and Donna, like many other fans, to Tumblr, where an ad hoc community had sprung up to try to solve the show’s various mysteries — the most prominent being the location of a ring Hecate asks audience members to retrieve for her in one of her 1:1s.
Donna says she and Jim were impressed by the level of detail and detective work going on in the Tumblr community — fans often try to track all the “references” to “Macbeth” in the show, like the trussed birds near the Macduff apartments that suggest Macduff’s lament that “all my pretty chickens and their dam” have been killed — and they wanted to be part of the conversation. When they first started posting, they did so anonymously, using the names Glamis and Cawdor, two of the titles bestowed upon Macbeth.
The anonymity only lasted a few months, as the fan community began to cross over from Tumblr into real life. After all, unlike television or film fandom, “Sleep No More” is rooted in a real, physical place (and one with bar attached, to boot). Its location in physical space — the fact that you can return again and again, that the Manderley Bar can be both magical otherworld and a New Yorker’s local bar, often at the same time — gives the McKittrick something that a book or a film can never have: the possibility of becoming an active participant in a narrative world. It also means that devoted fans are bound to run into each other at the Manderley Bar, or up in Gallow Green, on in the show queue, or at the raucous open-bar costume parties the McKittrick has thrown for events like Halloween and New Year’s.
Jim and Donna always spot at least one person they know when they go to the show or a party, sometimes five or ten. The group has become less a strict “fandom” than an amorphous group of friends, united by their love of interactive theatre and the vintage-McKittrick aesthetic.
Jim’s favorite character in the McKittrick universe was, until her departure, the mysterious Annabella (played by Ava Lee Scott), who read fortunes both on the Manderley bar during shows and on the Gallow Green rooftop bar.
Jim came to know Ava Lee Scott outside the McKittrick, as a friend. But that didn’t stop him from developing a close relationship with Annabella. “For years,” says Jim, “a trip to the McKittrick wasn’t complete without sitting with Annabella — she read my [tarot] cards and gave me life advice, nearly all of which I took, and she was always right.” Indeed, he attributes his courage to plunge headlong into the arts directly to one of Annabella’s prophecies. His most memorable night in the McKittrick is the one when she told him that he should be an artist and stop being afraid to take the leap.
It’s easy to say that Annabella isn’t exactly real in the literal sense. But for performers, as well as audience members, the McKittrick’s characters can take on a life of their own. Ava Lee Scott describes how completely she became Annabella: “I immersed myself in studies of herbs, alchemy, anything and everything supernatural and spiritual,” she says. “I studied every night and day. It’s fair to say I, the actor, disappeared in living this role.”
“You can never go back to Manderley again,” says the narrator of Du Maurier’s “Rebecca.” It’s a motif that’s repeated throughout “Sleep No More.” And for the Starks, there might be a grain of truth to it. Manderley has changed, after all: Cast members they first fell in love with have departed for other roles, policy changes have altered the feel of Gallow Green and the Heath restaurant, the show’s overall trendiness has changed the atmosphere. “Lately the number of people that are just doing this because they heard it was cool — and therefore don’t care about or adhere to the few simple rules — is increasing,” says Jim. “It can mar the experience when the audience is wandering around talking at normal levels, masks off, with their phones out.”
The Starks no longer attend shows as often as they used to, and they’ve sworn off several of the McKittrick’s special event parties after disappointing experiences.
But somehow, they keep coming back.
“When you enter the McKittrick,” Donna reflects, “you do so through a long, winding, dark maze. It’s very long and creepy, but when you finally make your way through it, you break out into this glowing red light coming from the Manderley Bar, which is the first area inside [audience members] see. Every time I come out the end of the maze into that beautiful red light, I break into the biggest smile.
“It feels like I’ve come home.”
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Tara Isabella Burton’s writing on religion, culture, and place can be found at National Geographic, Al Jazeera America, The BBC, The Atlantic, and more. She has recently completed a novel. She has seen “Sleep No More” thirteen times.