Immersive theater production Sleep No More, loosely based on Shakespeare’s Macbeth, encourages attendees to shake off the customary separation between audience and actor. According to a new report from Buzzfeed, that encouragement has lead to an environment where actors are frequently assaulted by patrons with little support from management.
Every performance begins with a performer stating “fortune favors the bold” to several hundred masked audience members. Some believe this call for boldness encourages patrons to boldly grope performers against their will. There is a mechanism in place for an actor to boot a rowdy patron—they pull off the mask which is held on by elastic. But Buzzfeed spoke with several performers who removed the masks of patrons, only to see them return to the show.
One actor says she had her breast groped during a performance. A Sleep No More spokesperson confirmed that ininstance security guards allowed him to return because he said he needed to “retrieve his mask.”
The actor wrote an email the next day to several supervisors at the time, saying, “I’m stunned that after two years something like this isn’t a smooth and clear process and that an audience member who gropes us is casually let back into the show. It puts all of us in jeopardy not to have this procedure in place and working.”
There are other protocols in place for following troublesome or drunken patrons, and actors are trained in how to respond to unwanted touching. But until very recently, there was no explicit message to the audience that touching isn’t allowed, but not for lack of demand. Here’s a 2011 email from a now former cast member requesting that audience members receive a stern warning against touching the actors:
“There should be a little phrase added to the entry speech about NOT TOUCHING PERFORMERS.” She added, “WE need it for protection and so the fucking ‘fortune favors the bold’ phrase isn’t misinterpreted by drunken assholes to mean ‘do whatever you want to performers.’”
The show is run by a production company called Emursive, who admit to knowing about some instances of groping, but deny that others were ever reported. In a statement, they claimed safety was their “highest priority,” and pointed to the sheer number of shows, patrons, and staff who have come in and out of their production balanced against the “17 incidents of groping or sexual misconduct by patrons during the show” confirmed by Buzzfeed.
Performers also alleged that when patrons arrived at the Sleep No More venue, the McKittrick Hotel, they were encouraged to drink before the show commenced, increasing issues with difficult audience members. Emursive denies that patrons are encourage to buy and imbibe alcohol to any greater degree than at a traditional theater experience.
Overall, it seems that many staffers feel deadened to the general atmosphere, which normalizes extreme sexualization and potential groping to an absurd degree. Buzzfeed even mentions a piece from Gawker’s Brian Moylan written in 2011, in which he instructs patrons on how to view all the nudity in Sleep No More, and admits to grabbing a performer’s butt.
Read the full Buzzfeed piece here.