Sleep No More is exactly the kind of show that should never have made it in New York City. This macabre piece of immersive theater requires a large cast and a huge staff, probably the most expensive set in New York (it calls for a unique multi-floor space), and it's so far west, it's practically in the Hudson River. Nevertheless, since opening in NYC in the spring of 2011, Sleep No More has gone on to win the Drama Desk Award for Unique Theatrical Experience and receive write-ups in The New Yorker and Vanity Fair. The show was even featured on The CW's hit teen drama Gossip Girl.
Since the beginning of Sleep No More's surprising rise more than two years ago, many more uniquely immersive shows have come and gone with varying degrees of success. Then, in the spring of this year, Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812, an inventive little musical that premiered in 2012 at Ars Nova, took a leap of faith and moved into a made-to-order supper-club-in-a-tent venue that was placed in an abandoned lot near Manhattan's High Line park. Natasha, Pierre received rave reviews and the tickets went like mad. Last month, the show was able to move its special venue, christened Kazino, uptown to the theater district.
Howard Kagan, Natasha, Pierre's lead producer, believes these shows have been successful despite the expense of completely creating (or re-creating) a space because they are reaching audiences who are seeking different ways to engage with entertainment. "They don't necessarily go to traditional theater and don't want to sit in an orchestra section that makes them feel like they're in church," he explained.
Ironically, St. Ann's Warehouse, a New York theater that led the trend toward placing shows in unique spaces, started off in the sanctuary of a landmark church. Artistic Director Susan Feldman explains, "The programming at that time was mostly music, but there was also a lot of spectacle. And then we moved to DUMBO and were given a warehouse. And so we were transforming the warehouse in similar ways that we had transformed the church." For them, at least at first, transforming spaces and creating shows with an immersive vibe was less an artistic choice and more a necessity. The choices were driven by the temporariness of their spaces.
"What we really learned was the beauty in the experience of the performers and the audience all feeling like they were in the same space," Feldman reported, citing the example of their current all-female production of Julius Caesar: "The director wanted to make the theater feel like a prison…[she] had the idea of having the audience come through the loading dock. When you go to visit people in prison at Rikers Island, there's a certain point where you go into a vestibule and there's a door in front of you, and then this door comes down behind you. So there is that moment where you are inside the space, and you can't go either way. [Our space] sort of sets up that feeling that you are in a controlled space." The revamped theater also puts the audience and cast in a shared space by covering its typical stage area with rented risers and turning the audience 90 degrees to the left.
Sleep No More, which moved its set to a 100,000-square-foot warehouse space in Chelsea, which once housed a series of nightclubs, from deserted schools in first London and then in Boston, also uses a renovated, dedicated space primarily out of necessity — the piece is so unique that it couldn't be staged in any smaller a space. Likewise, Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812, after outgrowing Ars Nova, built their own innovative space in order keep the show's non-traditional elements. "What we did at Kazino is, we [put on] the Ars Nova production in a larger way," said producer Howard Kagan. "…the way that the actors and musicians are not living on a traditional stage space throughout the show...They're walking around the audience, making eye contact with them. They're on the same floor level as the audience. And that's really what we want to preserve." In some ways, however, Natasha, Pierre represents a new generation of unique-show-in-unique-venue theater. According to Kagan, it would be entirely possible to stage the production in a traditional venue, but for them, an unconventional venue has become an important creative choice.
"It doesn't mean we would never go to a proscenium theater. We can talk about different solutions for different venues but for me the right next step for the show is to put it somewhere that's as spectacular as Kazino; however, it might be taking an existing theater and just changing it." Kagan feels it's important to retain the aspects of the production that make the audience feel involved because he believes that audiences are becoming less interested in being passively entertained. "So much of our time now is spent with their thumbs moving around on a screen or jumping from application to application…" he posited, "We ratchet up the involvement of the audience in the experience and make it much less passive."
The final piece of the puzzle, of course, has to do with finances. After all, building or renovating a space is more expensive than simply moving in to an existing dedicated theater. For Feldman, the investment pays off. "If it makes a show coming to our space possible then it's worth it. That's one of the reasons why the artist has chosen our space — you can feel like you're in a warehouse or in a prison." And, even if Natasha, Pierre one day moves to a more traditional space, Kagan hopes the venue will still impress. "The idea would be for folks to have the same experience when they walk into the building that they had walking into Kazino," he said, "which is, ‘Oh my goodness, look what they've done with the place.'"