Audience members wander through dozens of elaborately decorated rooms as dancers perform a blood-and-sex filled adaptation of Macbeth at the immersive theater production Sleep No More. The lighting ranges from dim to very dark; guests are intentionally separated from the people they arrived with. Before the performance, an actor usually declares that “fortune favors the bold,” and the 400 or so audience members are instructed to wear — and not remove — ghoulish white masks, fueling a sense of anonymity amid the production’s fantasy setting. And sometimes, former staffers said, audience members just reached out and groped them.
Sleep No More puts on nine performances a week at the McKittrick Hotel, a former warehouse in Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood where the production company, Emursive, also runs two bars and a restaurant. The show is an artistic creation of the British company Punchdrunk — which doesn’t run the New York City show day-to-day — and tickets start at around $100. It’s a theatrical phenomenon, attracting celebrities and pop culture cameos. Performers say it is one of the most exciting productions they could list on a resume.
But eight former Sleep No More performers and staffers told BuzzFeed News they were groped by audience members during the show. In all, BuzzFeed News confirmed 17 incidents of groping or sexual misconduct by patrons during the show — including of two former performers who were groped multiple times. Sleep No More acknowledged seven of those incidents, and contested the rest. In all, BuzzFeed News spoke with more than 30 current and former employees, but most declined to be identified, citing Sleep No More’s nondisclosure agreements or fear of reprisal from the company and theater community. Four former employees who were groped provided their names.
The employees’ complaints about sexual misconduct span from 2011, when the show opened, until 2017, and are corroborated by either emails, texts, other documents, or interviews with people whom the victims confided in. (BuzzFeed News began its reporting after receiving a secure tip.)
A file photo of Sleep No More on July 25, 2011.
Lucas Jackson / Reuters
Several former employees said the fundamental setup that makes Sleep No More so alluring to audiences — mystery, anonymity, and a sexually-charged performance — enables sexual misconduct. Performers have previously mentioned to the New York Post and New York Times that they have been inappropriately touched by audience members.
For the audience, Sleep No More is a unique experience — but for its employees, it’s their workplace. And the incidents some former employees allege opens a new window into the national reckoning over sexual misconduct, and a look at how the familiar dynamics of power and entitlement play out in an anonymized, disorienting setting that allows some guests to act on their worst instincts.
“Once you gave people a mask, it was carte blanche to let them do whatever they wanted.”
The off-Broadway production is not unionized, and some former employees say Emursive, at times, failed to adequately protect employees in the workplace. Some former employees who experienced sexual misconduct by audience members added that, while they didn’t feel traumatized or victimized, they felt they needed to speak out because such incidents should not be part of a normal work environment.
“Once you gave people a mask, it was carte blanche to let them do whatever they wanted,” one former steward, a staffer who directs and assists the audience during the show, told BuzzFeed News.
Some former employees said they felt safe at Sleep No More, and they didn’t experience sexual misconduct. One former staffer said she felt like she was never discouraged from reporting an incident to management. And a current performer told BuzzFeed News that she was “shocked” to hear performers were groped, and said she felt safe there.
Sleep No More does have extensive written policies concerning employee safety and mandatory employee training programs. The policies discuss what employees should do if they experience sexual misconduct, difficult patrons, and other issues. An attorney for the production said that no policy at any entertainment venue can guarantee audience members won’t ever act up, and that the policies try to prevent and address those issues.
The written policies also include a guide for each scene and character, telling performers where crew members are stationed in case they need assistance. And part of the training includes role playing, where someone acts like an unruly audience member and performers and staffers practice how to react and get help.
Regardless, Billy Bell, an actor who played Boy Witch, was grabbed on the genitals by an audience member. Another actor who performed as Boy Witch four years earlier told BuzzFeed News that an audience member tried to insert a finger into his anus in the same scene.
Jesse Weiner Photography
A former original cast member said she was groped three times over 17 months.
And an audience member rubbed his crotch on former steward Jessica Jarvinen while she was guarding an off-limits staircase, Jarvinen said. She said patrons also groped her breasts several times.
Former performers discussed the issue with each other just nine months after the show opened in New York. In December 2011, a woman performer emailed fellow cast members about sexual misconduct by patrons. “A few of us that having been trying to create some more solid guidelines/protocol on sexual harassment, which, unfortunately, is prevalent,” she wrote in the email, seen by BuzzFeed News.
In response, the former original cast member replied, “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.’”
And on May 1, 2017, a representative for the stage managers met with a supervisor and asked for extra security and floor staff because “more incidents have been happening,” such as actors “being grabbed and harassed by audience members,” according to meeting notes seen by BuzzFeed News.
A statement from McKittrick Hotel management said, “After seven years of successfully hosting two million guests and producing a critically acclaimed theater production where our colleagues overwhelmingly feel supported and inspired, it is wrong to make generalizations from a handful of incidents where patrons may have behaved inappropriately. The McKittrick Hotel strives to ensure that our colleagues are empowered on all levels — for their performances, creative ideas and raising any concerns. We carefully train staff regarding workplace safety, provide resources for immediately reporting any concerns and, in the rare instance beyond our control where patrons may have violated our policies, take immediate action to remove them.”
“Safety is our highest priority,” Emursive said in a statement, adding it has held 3,500 events and employed 3,000 people. The McKittrick Hotel, the company said, “effectively implemented extensive training that ensures preparedness for the unusual instances when issues occur.”
A company spokesperson and two attorneys refused to be named, and demanded not to be directly quoted in two meetings with BuzzFeed News. BuzzFeed News was allowed to view Sleep No More’s policies regarding safety and inappropriate sexual conduct and take notes from them for a limited time during one interview. The representatives refused to give BuzzFeed News copies of the policies; one of the attorneys said he didn’t want BuzzFeed News scrutinizing them.
Jonathan Stoler, an attorney at Sheppard, Mullin, Richter & Hampton who represents Emursive, said in a separate statement, “The McKittrick Hotel clearly communicates and enforces expectations for appropriate conduct by patrons, and also carefully trains all employees for how to address the rare occasion when incidents occur during a theater production where performers work in close proximity to attendees.”
A Sleep No More attorney also said it has people who handle typical human resources functions that could address employee concerns.
Still, the show’s former performers and staffers expressed frustrations to BuzzFeed News — and some did, creatively, at the office. Miss Paisley, a cat who lived inside the warehouse before Sleep No More moved in, recently had a small, handwritten sign affixed to her bed in the stage manager’s office.
It reads, “HR department.”
When people arrive at the McKittrick Hotel, they are given a playing card and wait in the jazz-themed Manderley Bar for about 15 minutes. On a recent visit by BuzzFeed News, patrons were invited to buy a glass of Prosecco upon entering the bar and encouraged by a performer to “get drunk” while they waited. BuzzFeed News also received an email the morning of the production about an “exclusive happy hour” before the show, though such invites aren’t offered every night.
Former staffers who spoke to BuzzFeed News said that pushing alcohol on people — especially if they’ve had drinks before arriving — exacerbates their problems with patrons.
“A more inebriated audience is a more difficult audience,” said Avery Lincoln, who was a steward from July 2014 until February 2016. Another steward who worked at Sleep No More in 2015 said, “The weekend shift would just dissolve into this mess of drunkenness.”
Emursive said it doesn’t encourage excessive drinking and that patrons usually only have time for one or two drinks at the Manderley before the show. “As at other Broadway and Off Broadway shows, drinks are not served in the performance areas, must be purchased at full price and are not included in the ticket cost,” the company said in a statement.
A character called Man in Bar calls out the number on the playing cards, splitting up friends and family as they enter the main event. They are traditionally not instructed against touching performers.
Masked patrons wander through the Hitchcock-inspired set, with dark hallways and heavy drapes often leading from one room to the next. Each room is a different world — a forest maze, a funeral parlor complete with a coffin, a hospital ward of empty beds, a giant ballroom. As they meander at their own pace from scene to scene, the audience is encouraged to interact with the set, such as opening up desk drawers or eating candy found in jars.
A file photo of a Sleep No More performance on March 29, 2011.
Sara Krulwich / The New York Times
In some scenes, performers appear naked. In others, they’ll pick an audience member for a “one-on-one,” whisking the individual into a room alone. Once out of sight of others, the performer might deliver a monologue while standing inches from the audience member, or present the patron with a gift, such as a locket.
If an audience member behaves inappropriately, performers are instructed to remove the patron’s mask — it’s held on with elastic — signaling that they should be ejected.
This is what Bell did on July 22, 2015.
Bell’s character, Boy Witch, appears naked in the rave scene — a blood-filled orgy with strobe lights. He undresses for the scene behind a bench in the back of a room.
“They’re in this atmosphere that we’ve created where there are no limits, there are no rules, we're in a magical land right now — but in reality you’re still a person.”
On the night in question, an audience member was already standing in that area — and Bell said the man reached out and groped his genitals while Bell was undressing. Bell, now 27, told BuzzFeed News it made him “feel really, truly, uncomfortable.”
“They’re intoxicated,” Bell said of the audience members. “They’re in this atmosphere that we’ve created where there are no limits, there are no rules, we're in a magical land right now — but in reality you’re still a person,” he said.
Bell yanked the patron’s mask off, then continued with his scene. Staff members removed the man and let him wait in the bar, which is standard procedure for being ejected, until his wife exited the show.
Three members of management — which could include a head steward or house manager — are called on in such cases to meet with the audience member to determine if they should be let back into the show. According to the spokesperson, it takes one to decide to expel an audience member from the production.
An attorney for Sleep No More said factors considered include the severity of the misconduct, whether it was intentional, and whether the patron was drunk. The bar for ejection is low, added the spokesperson.
In Bell’s case, the patron said it was unfair to throw him out because the audience wasn’t warned that touching actors is forbidden, according to an email sent to a top manager that night from a staffer who spoke to the man.
Bell was worried the audience member would return, but he wasn’t able to get any information about him from the stage manager or anyone else in the show.
“Even if I, as a performer, wanted to press charges, there was no way I would ever know who did it. To me that was an issue,” Bell said.
A Sleep No More spokesperson confirmed the groping occurred but an attorney denied Bell followed up with management.
A file photo of a Sleep No More performance on March 29, 2011.
Sara Krulwich / The New York Times
In late 2015, Bell said another male patron — who had followed him closely during a previous show — grabbed his buttocks as he walked, clothed, in a scene.
The man returned on another evening and groped him again, on his buttocks, near the same scene, Bell said. Two other people — a second staffer, and Bell’s best friend, Ali Castro — said Bell told them about it. “I remember him telling me, ‘this motherfucker came back,’” Castro said.
“Why aren’t these people blacklisted from the show?” Bell said to BuzzFeed News, referencing inappropriate audience members. Bell quit for a variety of reasons in January 2016.
A spokesperson for Sleep No More said the production had no record of the incidents — and didn’t believe they occurred. It was an answer repeated several times by the spokesperson in response to BuzzFeed News’ queries about alleged incidents of sexual misconduct. The spokesperson said company policies encourage performers to report misconduct, so management was skeptical of allegations that weren’t backed up by complaints.
“What BuzzFeed has actually uncovered is that our policies and procedures work.”