Immersive Experiences: Hearing Is Believing

When I first heard about Sleep No More, a site-specific interactive theatrical work created by Punchdrunk, the production was still somewhat of a mystery to the public. I had heard it was based around Shakespeare’s Macbeth, that guests received masks to wear and were not allowed to speak and that there was a secret top floor that only a handful of visitors get to experience. When I purchased my tickets, I was prepared for an intensely visual experience. I hadn’t thought much about what Sleep No More would sound like, nor how vital a role sound would play in making the performance completely immersive.

The evening was utterly visceral and exhilarating: discovering hidden spaces, following actors as they moved about their journeys, discovering a love letter left tucked inside a book, sitting in an empty room, breathlessly waiting for what might happen next. Visually, the entire production was striking, but it was the sonic experience that pulled me in emotionally and made me truly believe.

Every moment was precisely choreographed to music and sound. I felt like I was like living inside of a film.* The music would rise in intensity or volume to signal the beginning or end of of a new scene. The sound of a particular room would help make the environment instantly more familiar (Is this room safe? Will something bad happen here?). The sound of the environment was just as strategic as the visuals in shaping each guest’s experience, whether one knew it or not.

What’s more, the parallels to the video gaming world were striking. Sound wasn’t just used to set the scene and establish ambience; it also told me where to go. Sound propelled the action of the actors and motivated the audience’s choices. “Sonic clues” led my way through the labyrinth. If I got lost, the sound of a room helped me realize if I had been there before. Each guest’s experience was uniquely his/her own.

Immersive experiences like Sleep No More herald a new phase of bold experimentation in audience engagement, and sonic is essential to bringing the audience “all-in.” It’s fascinating to watch these concepts and technologies bleed into in other areas of life and culture. Prime examples include the virtual reality headset Oculus Rift; Google’s Night Walk project; retail stores that are crafting total experiences for their customers; and countless pop-up shops conceived as interactive portals to a brand’s “world.” As our world becomes more digital, I’m fascinated by how so many brands, entertainers and venues are investing in these individualized, total-sensory experiences for their customers – and how important music and sound are to making us believe in even the most fantastic ideas.

*I later learned that several of Bernard Hermann’s film scores (including Psycho, Vertigo, The Man Who Knew Too Much) dominate the soundtrack of the evening. Check them out!

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