Behind ’Sleep No More’ : Shakespeare, Hitchcock & celebrity sightings

*Published on Nov 1, 2011 on EDGE

Jonathan Hochwald is one of a troika of producers for the runaway hit “Sleep No More.” He is a romantic with a flinty financial brain and a keen artistic eye.

Although he agreed to meet me on his 19th wedding anniversary, his wife did stop by at the end so they could take a walk together in the slanting crepuscular light, after stopping by to take the pulse on scores of dancers, designers, bartenders, tech crew and security staff who make it possible for theater goers to traipse through the created from whole cloth McKittrick Hotel on West 27th Street.

’Macbeth’ through a dark glass

The name of the hotel is an homage to Hitchcock suspense classic “Vertigo” and inside the overlapping connective tissue continues to thread its way through every iota of this production as the new hotel becomes the home of London’s Punch Drunk Theater Company’s take on “Macbeth” as seen intensely through a dark glass.

Hochwald’s other producers at Emursive are Arthur Karpati, a real estate wizard and Randy Weiner, a lauded producer of hybrid nightlife, which mixes spectacle, drama and a place to drink. He is the producer of the acclaimed “Donkey Show,” a disco retelling of “Midsummer Night’s Dream,” and the founder and manager of The Box downtown.

A scene from "Sleep No More"

Weiner is married to Diane Paulus the artistic director of A.R.T. in Boston, where “Sleep No More” made its US debut to sold out crowds and rave reviews. Hochwald has been a producer for decades is the president and founder of Madstone Productions, a New York-based company of touring concerts and theater founded in 2005. From 2006-2010, he was the executive vice president of Madison Square Garden Entertainment. All three men are fathers and it seems as if their skill sets and temperaments combine and overlap to create an unstoppable force that has made “Sleep No More” such a gob smacking success.
Watch this Broadway.com video on “Sleep No More”:

A goose bump experience

Hochwald and his wife Jenn Stone saw the piece in Boston and were smitten and hell bent to bring the work in NYC. When asked if there is a litmus test he uses to lock on to a project Hochwald describes, “a sensation akin to goose bumps, a presence of greatness. You know this all can sound very unscientific, but in fact these reactions really transpire. When I first saw ’Sleep No More’ it happened, it was a veritable awe-inspiring event. I left wanting to tell everyone I knew about it. It was a combination of deep talent and a unique, and this word is overused, but a singular experience in the theater. The work was really immersive and that is what we named our new producing company Emursive.”

Immersive theater, site specific theater, experimental theater, “Sleep No More” seems to have taken these monikers’ to new high. The piece is based on Shakespeare’s “Macbeth,” a play long plagued with bad ju-ju and yet there is no worry among the cast or Hochwald to attempt to thwart the curse by saying the Scottish Play as many in the theater will do. They fully embrace all that will come their way. The play as interpreted by the Punch Drunk artistic directors Maxine Doyle and Felix Barrett concentrates making sure that every image, aroma and action from MacBeth is embedded into an evening long show which encompasses over 100,000 square feet of theatrical playground. There are five floors and 100 rooms to explore.

A scene from "Sleep No More"

Audience finds own version of ’MacBeth’

Hochwald is clear that the logistics for at first creating, and then running a play on such an enormous physical scale is “mind-blowing” But he goes on to say ” the love poured into this work to create brick walls, pine forests, grave yards, entire villages, and write love letters and then dance and act montages every night where the audience, fully masked, wanders and rushes and chases after the cast in order to find their own version of the play, takes a commitment, passion, soul and love that rings through and cannot ever be faked. I think that is why we never worried about the curse of Macbeth because the positive we poured in, the love counters the curse. I certainly hope saying this won’t reverse our amazing luck and success.”

Jonathan Hochwald

The work opened in April and was scheduled to run for six weeks, but it has just had another extension, even Hochwald can’t keep track of how many this is, and it is scheduled to run through December 10. Every show, eight shows a week are fully sold out, with a $75 or $95 ticket price.

Watch this Theatermania.com video with interviews of the producers of “Sleep No More”:

No ads to promote it

What of the many unique aspects of “Sleep No More” is how it is booked – audience can choose (if available) reservations at five different times Mondays through Saturdays, with five additional late night seatings on Fridays and Saturdays. Getting a booking is the hard part – the show has been all but sold-out for every performance with ticket prices of $75 and $95. The show’s success has been pretty much viral – the producers have yet taken out ads to promote it.

Hochwald says he believes that ads are ” about positioning, and although it sounds esoteric, this event has to be felt not positioned. We took a leap that people would literally find the work remarkable and they would then remark to everyone around them that it had to be seen. The play would leave you no choice but to talk about it, liked or hated, you must talk about it. That is what has happened.”

A scene from "Sleep No More"

Incredible word of mouthThe success is based on word of mouth and incredible editorial response. It is the darling of the celebrity crowd where bold faced names like Natalie Portman, Justin Timberlake Spike Lee, Kevin Spacy, Hugh Jackman, Matt Damon and the Olsen twins, don Venetian beaked carnival masks to gawk and scurry after the actors much they way they are often hounded on the streets of NY, London and LA.

Punch Drunk’s Felix Barrett and Maxine Doyle, the co-creators of "Sleep No More"

The feeling in the McKittrick Hotel is Hitchcock, Kubrick, Shakespeare and a Halloween party on the perfect drug concoction. According to director Felix Barrett,” It is a 360-degree experience where you get lost in a parallel world and you are empowered by anonymity. You take the liberty to do things outside of your normal life. And life is not normal here.”

Watch American Repertory Theater artistic director Diane Paulus discuss “Sleep No More”:

NYC experience

Normal life may not be happening in the halls of three former Clubs: Twilo, Spirit and Bed, now transformed into an abandoned hotel from the 30s, but the bustle of the city is all around in the far reaches of West 27 Street. In fact that was one of the main draws for Hochwald and his group. “We had an opportunity to create this piece in way far out, Sunset Park, Brooklyn and then this came up and I felt, as a New Yorker, that the direction real estate has gone in the city means that so much of the life for artists has brought about a fundamental seed change in Manhattan. Doing the piece in the heart of Manhattan felt like another part of the artistry. This was what we all came to NYC to do and experience.”

When asked for the cost to mount and run the work as well as the payback to the investors, Hochwald is coy,” Let’s just say that is was insanely expensive and continues to be because there are so many people, 150 people, at work on the stages, behind the scenes, making sure for example that there are love letters fresh each night, that the aroma of caramel is evident in the sweet shop, that there are three kinds of blood, washable, edible and what is indelible on the walls.

A scene from "Sleep No More"

A kind of mandela

That alone boggles the mind. But with all that attention to detail and eight shows a week, the investors are all very happy that they pitched their lot in with Emursive. And we are overjoyed to present this work that is literally embedded with so much detail, passion, respect and ultimately a kind of joy. It really is a kind of mandala, or a sand painting that is constantly shifting and morphing. For us this is a living breathing thing and we see it get better and better. In fact we hope that the McKittrick Hotel can host other artists and artistic events.”

A scene from "Sleep No More"

This notion of new pieces coming into the ghostly haunt intrigued me but Hochwald’s cell rang, his attention was drawn out of the cafe and back across the street. His wife appeared for their anniversary walk and the sun was dipping into the Hudson. The scene changed and we parted company on 27 Street as the audience began queuing up outside.

For more information on “Sleep No More,” visit the show’s website.

Watch Amanda Palmer sing “My Funny Valentine” at a performance “Sleep No More”:

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