Stages Of Sleep No More, Part 3: The Sound

Much of  the secret of Sleep No More is perpetuated by the dreamy and continuous soundscape that fills the space. Composed and created by Stephen Dobbie, the sound of the McKittrick is more than background noise. For Barrett, “the building is like a living, breathing organism.” Dobbie has built 17 different soundtracks for 17 zones of the McKittrick, most composed, with some sourced songs. He and Barrett want the sound to be familiar for the most nostalgic parts of the brain. The music feels cinematic, reminiscent of old movies and the glory days of film, and it sets the tempo and pace for the performance. The cinematic motif creates a primary gesture of the audience experience. “You are in your own personal film,” says Dobbie. “You are the star, and everything is happening around you.” At 10 minutes past every hour, the soundtracks repeat, and, for three minutes out of every hour, everyone anywhere in the building hears exactly the same thing.

Photo Yaniv Schulman

Explaining the idea behind the single playback method, Dobbie says, “The show in NYC is the product of years of doing the shows and wanting to be able to control the sound in a much more efficient way, which opened up a lot more creative possibilities.” The decision comes from the culmination of trying many different ways to do this “instead of having people spread out saying 3-2-1 and pressing play, or having a computer with the inherent problems that software can bring,” he says, noting that it is absolutely crucial that, once the show starts, there can be no radio silence. The only intentionally silent place is the elevator, but the voice of the operator quickly fills the void. If any other space in the McKittrick ever went silent, it would feel broken, whereas if it went black, it would feel like part of the piece.

Dobbie approached the sound for each of the 17 zones of the McKittrick separately. Even in minor or liminal spaces, “All of the sound design is driven by the performance in that room,” he says. In the ballroom, for example, there are “two massive subs,” whereas the domestic spaces have smaller speakers tucked away.

Dobbie says that a lot of the experience is borne out of Doyle and Barrett’s imaginations. Sometimes sound comes first, sometimes movement. “Sometimes there is music and choreography around it, which serve to counter each other,” Dobbie says. There is a lot of found music, mostly popular music of the era. Dobbie bases his work on period research, also “making sure we have enough songs to play on the radio so you’re not just listening to a loop.” Once the team has found period pieces, Dobbie fills in the blanks with new sound that might take up the rest of the hour surrounding that three-minute clip. In the case of the NYC production, a lot of pieces have been established from the previous productions. “A lot of what I did on the most recent version of the show was improving it, making sure the sound design on each side of a piece of music was more sympathetic or more jarring,” Dobbie says.

Photo Matthew Craig

With no closed circuit cameras or video monitoring, Carolyn Boyd, senior event manager or, more accurately, the production stage manager, and her staff are the “eyes throughout the building,” she says, responsible for audience, performer, and object safety. Boyd has been with Sleep No More since its Boston incarnation. Over time, the staff has found the trends within the shows, allowing them to anticipate which doubles to have on hand and where to stash them. Before each performance, they check on repairs, communicate relevant info to the cast, and reset for each scene. During the show, four stage managers and three run crew members move throughout the space on an individualized track. Their objectives in each scene are to make things happen consistently and safely. When necessary, they can communicate with each other via radio. At the end of each night, they meet and compile notes about what happened: Did a prop break? Did an audience member wander off with an object needed in a scene? A day team comes in each day to do notes, and each day, someone spends hours resetting everything.

Sleep No More’s magical elements include one-on-one moments where a performer, reading the audience members to find someone who is receptive, takes a single audience member into a private space. There is, however, always a stage manager nearby who knows the duration of what can be happening and can enter the room if there is a problem.

Performed linearly, the entire action of Sleep No More would take approximately eight hours. The simultaneity creates a need for repetition which, says Doyle, “gives the audience a chance to work out how to play this game, [thus] the work is more satisfying the more times you see it.” In some ways, the goal of occupying the larger space is to spread the action across the space, according to Doyle. The audience is brought together, but there is still a sense of individual journey, driven around the space by light cues, sound, and the performers. What makes Sleep No More different from traditional promenade theatre is that the audience is also encouraged to spend time touching, opening, reading, and exploring every inch of the McKittrick.  

Read part 1 about the space and part 2 about the lighting.

Natalie Robin is a NYC-based lighting designer, the associate producer and production manager of American Realness Festival, a founding company member of Polybe + Seats, an associate artist of Target Margin Theater, and an adjunct faculty member at NYU and Brooklyn College.

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