Last month, Buzzfeed News confirmed 17 instances of groping or sexual misconduct by patrons of the immersive theater show Sleep No More.
Having experienced the show for the first time just a week before the story broke, I can't say I was surprised by the accusations.
No, I'm not bitter because of the more common complaints I've heard from patrons: I didn't get lost in the dark halls of the McKittrick Hotel, and I don't care that I didn't get any of the coveted one-on-one scenes. Instead, at every step of my two and a half hour journey through the show, I felt that the safety of the performers—and of the audience—was being compromised for the sake of an experience that just wasn't worth the risk.
Sleep No More's first stop is a bar where you're (somewhat aggressively) encouraged to drink alcohol before entering the show. Then, groups of 10 or so patrons at a time are ushered into an elevator lobby, where you're given a mask and three rules: No talking, no cell phones and no taking your mask off.
As we boarded the elevator, all I could think about was how those three rules didn't seem quite sufficient. Were they really not going to tell us not to touch the performers? (Later I would also wish they'd told us not to run.) Instead, the elevator attendant gave us one final directive: "Fortune favors the bold."
All three rules were frequently disregarded. Even in the presence of performers, patrons were on their phones and talking loudly. Even more troubling was how audience members treated Sleep No More like a competition. Those who did their research could have found dozens of articles about how to have the best Sleep No More experience, many of them including tips about how to land a one-on-one. (Basically, there are some scenes in the show only meant for one audience member to see. A performer will select someone and take them to a room that isn't accessible to anyone else.) The articles suggest that to get a one-on-one, you have to follow a performer closely, and be towards the front of the crowd where they can see you.
But Sleep No More performers move through the Hotel quickly, running up and down stairs, always with a stampede of audience members behind them. These moments made me scared for the safety of everyone involved, especially for those patrons not physically able to run up and down stairs.
But more than that, the stampedes demonstrated that if audiences were treating Sleep No More like a contest, the performers were the prize.
Is it any wonder that this attitude—exacerbated by alcohol and anonymity—would lead to audiences sexually harassing performers? So many other factors make Sleep No More performers vulnerable: frequent nudity, being alone with audience members, a show that treats their experience as secondary to the audience's.
I have so much respect for the cast of Sleep No More; they are immensely talented performers with superhuman stamina. I'm sure many of them love the experience of performing in the show, and that's valid. But they deserve better.
Eight former employees told Buzzfeed they were groped. But Sleep No More only acknowledged seven of the 17 incidents; they contested the rest because the performers didn't immediately report their experiences. Harassers were sometimes kicked out of the show and then let back in—some were not removed at all.
There are so many small steps Sleep No More could take to create a safer, more pleasant experience for performers and audiences alike, like creating and enforcing strict rules around audience behavior, and letting fewer people into the Hotel at a time. But mostly performers deserve a work environment where they are believed—and taken seriously—when they say they've been harassed or assaulted.