Fortune Favors the Bold: Sleep No More and Being Brave

It was only ten minutes, but it felt like longer that I stood and watched the tailor mend a length of white cloth. He worked a long trail of red thread in an overcast stitch down a sleeve, ignoring the birdlike creatures who watched him, listening to the phonograph skip.

Before that, we stood outside a hut in a forest labyrinth whose walls seemed to be made of bone. A crazed nurse was inside with one of our companions, but all we could see through the slats were her hands, fluttering, past golden beams of light. It all felt so normal, until I turned my head and realized that we–in our anonymous, birdfaced masks–were haunting her.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. I should start at the beginning. I heard about a play called Sleep No More on metafilter, and people talked about it like this:

In the NYC production, there’s a really beautiful pas de deux with the young man and the pregnant woman that takes place in a bedroom sort of up by the ceiling. That, and the chocolatey goat orgy, were the most memorable scenes for me.

I was intrigued, so when my sister mentioned it, I suggested that we attend for our birthdays on the 26th. A few days after I turned 29 and she turned 34, we stood outside in the cold behind a line of tourists. “Is this the line to see Macbeth?” they asked, and I cringed, and only cringed worse when we were shuffled inside past a coat check line where some old man flirted with the coat check girl.

I was torn between nerves–all I knew, really, was that someone had helpfully tweeted that I should follow the techno music–and skepticism. Some people on yelp said it was hardly better than your typical haunted house, and as they shuffled us into a crowded pseudo 1930s bar, I was feeling a distinct sensation of “RenFest.”

In my head, I decided I would stick with my sister. That’s what would feel normal–would feel safe. But then they split us up. I was told to head upstairs, while my sister would stay in the bar and wait. They had us don masks, which were like something out of a Miyazaki film. Mine pushed my nose down uncomfortably. The sense of claustrophobia was immediate and extreme. Then they put us on an elevator. The operator told us that we should consider ourselves alone for the journey. He let one guest off on a floor alone, then closed the door behind her. A few people gasped. I was too busy trying to calm myself down to respond, even when he looked me right in the plastic-framed eyes.

I wandered out, feeling afraid and utterly solitary. Here’s something you should know about me: I’ve never gone to a party alone. I’m the type who is always looking for a friend, a companion. In high school, whenever possible, I sat in the back of the room–cracking jokes and giggling to my friends. We remained above it all, together.

And so being isolated was disarming, particularly when we were dropped off in a sanitarium room that looked right out of Weird New Jersey. Some of the beds were lumpy. There was a bath tub standing alone and rusted at the back. I wandered out into the hallway and turned, only to glimpse a forest, flashing with strobe lights, and a taxidermied beast at the center.

Too scary, I thought. I don’t want to go in there.

I tried to stay close to crowds of masked patrons, even though I wasn’t one of them. But soon, I noticed several of them gathered around a woman who hung up dingy clothes on a clothesline. She walked briskly off–I noticed that they followed her. So I followed, too. She danced and writhed on a sanitarium bed, then was up again, off–

into the forest.

I stood at the threshold. A gang of girls breezed by toward the stairwell, holding hands and giggling. No, snickering. Above it all.

It would have been safe to be above it, but I knew then that I would never really get the most out of my (expensive!) ticket if I chose to do so. So I changed my mind. I plunged myself into the forest, running after the woman. I stood at the head of the crowd as she thrashed in the bone-dry branches and stopped to draw a compass rose on the ground with chalk. It was a maze, I realized. Usually, at RenFests and harvest celebrations, mazes are an opportunity for me to show off. I touch a wall with one hand, tracing a long path out and out and out. I never get lost.

But I had no reason to show off–no one to show off to. I ran after her, open-mouthed and hotly breathing into my plastic mask. I threw aside everything I knew about mazes.

Eventually, I found myself outside. My heart was no longer racing. I felt like I was fully inhabiting my body again, rather than floating somewhere over it. I stepped into a stairwell. That’s when an attractive actor in a long coat breezed by, a crowd behind him.

Follow an attractive man? I thought. Why not?

The show would soon show me the foolishness in that thought. Over the course of the night, I’d see that same man beat up and kill a pregnant woman, smother an old man with a pillow, and beat a young man to death with a brick in a bar fight. I’d glimpse him covered in blood, cleaned, then bloodied again. It’s a violent show, intense. Some moments felt ripped from a horror film: the crazy nurse, muttering to herself. The detective who opens his desk drawer and uncovers a dead bird.

And yet there were moments of surprising tenderness, too. I watched the tailor fix a shirt. I stood over another while he typed. I watched a man (the same one who caused all that violence!) sit on the edge of his bed, half-dressed, staring out into space. I stood only inches away from them, listening to the rhythm of their breathing. I thought about all the time spend staring out into space, those tiny, intimate moments that belong to no one but myself. Sometimes, late at night, I’ll look up suddenly–sure I’m being watched. But no, alone. Sleep No More was the best transcription of that moments, tiny and strange and easily forgotten, that I’ve ever seen.

And I wouldn’t have experienced any of it if I had stuck to my fear, or, worse, my cynicism. In order to be a part of it, I had to disarm myself from all my comfortable defense mechanisms, strip myself down, let myself be raw and vulnerable.

But I’m glad, for once, I let myself not be safe.

It’s an important reminder. For plays. For life. For writing, too. I’ve been grappling with revisions on the Starglass sequel and I know, in drafting, that I was sometimes afraid to get too weird or strange, to do things that aren’t often seen in YA. I know from feedback–from my editor, my agent, my lovely beta readers–that I wasn’t quite as bold as I needed to be. For this, and for future projects I need to let myself be raw and vulnerable, to wear my geek heart on my sleeve, to get wild and weird, in order to let moments of truth shine through. Tiny, intimate moments that speak to deeper emotional realities. That’s where art is, not in distance, but in vulnerability.

6 Comments

  1. I ALMOST saw that show while in NY, but opted for another show (due to, go figure, expense). I wish I went now – it seems like a totally crazy, inspiring, vivid experience. And i’m so glad you found inspiration out of it! I think, as a writer, you have to be brave in the first place (actually SHOWING someone your work is scary enough, right?) So you’ve already slashed safety. Good luck doing it again. :)

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    • Oh you should DEFINITELY go next time you’re in New York. It sounds cheesy, but it’s much more than a show–it’s an experience.

      And you’re totally right. Writing necessitates opening yourself to so much every single day. :)

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  2. Sounds amazing (like you!). Will definitely have to give it a go next time I’m in NYC.

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    • Do! I’ll be your hot date. <3

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  3. Great entry! I adored Sleep No More when I saw it in New York – so much so that I ended up going back for a second round a few months later. It’s stayed with me and, when I think about it too much, it haunts me. A truly unique piece of theater.

    I like the point you made about opening yourself up, allowing yourself to be vulnerable to the show in order to experience it fully. Very relatable! So often we allow our perception of self – our fear of genuine emotion and need to cling to a specific identity – to get in the way of allowing us to experience art fully.

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    • I SO want to go back! It’s infectious, that way.

      And thank you so much–I’m glad this resonated.

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