Charlottean’s play expects audiences to doze off

05/23/2014 2:33 PM

05/23/2014 2:34 PM

It’s the unspoken fantasy of so many theatergoers: a highbrow cultural outing that, somewhere between the opening and the ovation, includes a nap. But most directors and performers conspire to, at the very least, keep their audiences awake.

Not so for a small but ambitious new show that opened and closed recently in Times Square, “Dream of the Red Chamber: A Performance for a Sleeping Audience,” co-written by Jeff Jackson of Charlotte

As its title suggests, it is meant to be absorbed by a slumbering crowd: Attendees doff their shoes and doze off in beds underneath the Brill Building. Around them, cast members in elaborate costumes act out scenes and gesture repetitively as their images are projected onto screens surrounding the space. The lights are dim; the music, constant and droning. The idea is for the spectacle to permeate the visitor’s subconscious.

Nearly 1,000 people attended in the first week, organizers said, half of them on opening weekend, when one show ran overnight, lasting 13 hours. The second and final overnight performance, on May 17, ran from 5 p.m. till 6 the next morning.

The show, directed by Jim Findlay, a veteran theater director and designer, is an adaptation of Cao Xueqin’s 18th-century novel about Chinese aristocratic life, considered one of the premier literary works of the Qing dynasty. The staged version was developed over two years.

It began as so many experiments do: “We were joking” about making a play for audiences to sleep through, said Findlay, who wrote the script with Jackson. But they came to believe the production had real artistic merit, he added, especially in how it dealt with the book’s theme of questioning reality.

The recent mania for immersive theater in New York and other cultural capitals has shown no signs of waning: Eager audiences expect to dance, dine, drink and exchange secrets and titillation with performers, sometimes for hours at a time. Now a new breed of experience seeks to stretch that artistic dynamic further, drawing spectators not just for lively participation but also to share their REM cycles and reveries.

The Rubin Museum of Art in Chelsea held its fourth “Dream-Over,” in which each visitor is invited to sleep under an artwork that a curator has chosen for him or her, and then roused in the morning for a round of dream interpretation. (With tickets priced at $108, the event sold out.) And the British musician Steven Stapleton has been giving 12-hour “Sleep Concerts” in Britain, Ireland, Switzerland and Germany at which fans doze through ambient sounds and videos in what is sometimes billed as an “avant-D.J. somniloquy.”

“Sleepovers have become quite hot in recent years,” said RoseLee Goldberg, the founder of Performa, the New York performance art biennial, which offered an all-night symphonic installation in 2013. In a digital age rife with distractions, “people are trying to find as many different ways to rethink the audience and the intimacy” of live performance, she said. “It’s very much a question of the nature of theater itself, and how you get inside people’s heads. So, obviously, if you lay them out in a bed, there’s this romantic idea that you get inside their dreamscape.”

Although sleep-based performance has been common in recent years in Europe, in the United States “it’s the new frontier,” said Mark Russell, an international theater presenter and co-director of the Under the Radar festival at the Public Theater. “It is this sort of taboo - you’re supposed to be awake for art.”

Findlay said he was eager to explore the drama and perceptions within the third of their lives that people spend asleep. He and Jackson worried that their staging might be too lively and disrupt snoozing, so they chopped up the narrative, allowing moments to happen randomly, the way a dream might be structured.

“The best is when people wake up and say, ‘Did this happen?'” Findlay said.

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