It's really not often that I let a strange man take my hand and lead me into the dark. Especially not without an introduction. In fact, without even a single word exchanged between us.
Sleep No More changes everything.
It's an interactive, immersive version of Macbeth that plays out over 6 stories of a warehouse in Chelsea. No matter how cool you think that sounds, the reality is cooler. The audience wear masks, and are free to roam at will through the sets—a forest, a speakeasy, a Scottish high street.
The actors, maskless, run amok in this space, doing interpretive dance and occasionally pulling spectators into the scenes. Here's another important rule: as an audience member, you're not allowed to speak.
This results in flocks of silent, white-masked spectators racing after actors through the dim corridors of the warehouse.
Among other things, being masked completely changes how you interact with people. You don't think about how much energy goes into making proper facial expressions until you no longer have to.
You get to take a break from being a person for awhile.
I didn't realize how freeing this was until I was face-to-face with an actor, and she could emote at me and all I could do was stare at her, from just a foot away. Reflexively you try to communicate anyway—how do you tell someone you really appreciate their performance with only your eyes?
Back to the man. Back to anonymous intimacy.
I don't date. I don't want to, and I'll get anxious before I get emotionally attached. I'm aromantic—I don't feel romantic attraction, and I don't prioritize romantic relationships. But I get crushes: I've come to know them not as signifiers of romance to come, but as part and parcel of the excitement of meeting someone new and enjoying the freshness of our interactions. Crushes develop into friendship for me.
I love the allure of strangers. I'm a flirt, a terrible flirt, but always on the knife's edge of anxiety that my flirting will be followed up on, and I'll have to let someone down.
Being a (bisexual) woman adds an extra complication. I like men, but flirting with the wrong one can end badly. And I suppose no matter what gender you're attracted to, you don't often get to have intimate, flirtatious contact and then walk away, not without having an awkward conversation at the end of the night.
In a world full of romantics and people wanting more, how often do you get to have a moment? Just one moment, with an understanding of an ending.
Back to the theatre. Back to the dark hallways.
It's difficult to describe how good the Sleep No More actors are at confirming consent. They do it without breaking character, without removing you from the scene, and often without saying a word.
Generally, the actors don't look at you—they have perfected the art of looking through you, as if you're on the other side of an invisible veil. As if you're really the masked ghost that you see in mirrors throughout the space.
A one-on-one begins with eye contact.
Suddenly, a character's eyes will lock with yours. Sometimes it's just that: the look, and they are back in the scene. Sometimes it's more.
So this character, this actor, looked at me. I had run into him several times over the course of the three-hour show. (It's quite hard to track a single actor through their whole cycle—even if you don't get distracted and wander off, they're likely to lose you in the crowds and the dark.)
But there we were, and I was in the right place at the right time.
It feels special to be seen by an actor at Sleep No More. You feel so God damn special to have been plucked from the faceless crowd and given this gift of intimacy with a perfect stranger.
He took my hand, and held it, both of us silent, me masked. Then we ran. At first a crowd followed us down the stairs, and then we lost them in a still bigger crowd.
He stayed with me until the end of the show, mostly holding my hand, once hugging me as we watched another scene. And at the end of the play he escorted me back to the lobby.
He took off my mask. He said "thank you," and hugged me again. And then he was gone.
How often do you get to have a perfect, intimate experience with a stranger, and feel completely safe? That Sleep No More is a transaction between actor and spectator made it possible for me to enjoy that moment, in all its purity. That's a rare thing.
It's here that I have to praise the actors again, because they do so much emotional and physical work for the benefit of the audience. It looks like the hardest damn job in theatre from the outside. And this happy, joyous, special feeling I got from our encounter—it's lasted for days.
Hopefully the actor gathered from my garbled thank yous as we said goodbye that I'm really, really grateful. Shit, I had no idea I even wanted an experience like that, until I got to have it without pressure or fear.
It was honestly like being in a romance novel, only without the falling in love. When else do you get to meet a man and let him take you on a magical adventure within seconds? Without worrying about your safety, or his intentions, or the hard conversations you might need to have?
Sleep No More let me have this snapshot-perfect moment, the kind that a heroine has at the beginning of her story. It made me feel like I was part of something huge, or on the precipice of it. For me, though, I don't need the happily ever after. The beginning is enough.