The Ground Floor
Perhaps now, to escape the quiet devastation of the desert, is as good a time as any to visit Studio 3, the bustling, boisterous space where you can raise your voice, your mask and a glass. The studio bar on the fairground set, presided over by the Fortune siblings and entertained by the in-house band, Walk of Terror, serenading the patrons with sweetly sultry blues and swing classics. Their name is emblazoned behind them on a gold-lit archway painted with skeletons engaged in a danse macabre. The overall impression is that the cars of an old-fashioned, touring carnival have collided with a burlesque bar. Champagne is served from the coconut shy and cocktails from the popcorn stand. The floor is scattered with round bar tables with scarlet cloths, each lit by a soft glow from a fishbowl of white feathers in the centre. Above, a handmade banner hangs from the ceiling, red painted letters on a white sheet: It’s A Wrap! The atmosphere is celebratory, but the faded, peeling paint of the once-bright fairground signs has the sadly ominous air of things ended and decaying. There are three dark doorways by the entrance: two will lead you into a maze of mirrors, turning you about in a chaos of copies of yourself (and who knows who’s watching?) before depositing you back at the start. The barely lit twists of the third will take you to the hidden opium den, to recline on red cushions or climb to the curtained beds high up on the walls. At the far end of the bar, there is a closed door on a fortune-teller’s booth, - just as empty as the psychic’s parlour in the town. Beside it, a wheel of fortune stands, its segments marked out in bright but dusty colours and marked with arcane symbols, unreadable - only a game. At this end too is the little canopied bandstand bedecked with fairy lights and chinese lanterns, where Conrad and Andrea will present their magic act - an improvised Indian Basket Trick, using a cardboard box and long, wooden stakes. Andrea smiles sweetly in her tiny, sparkling red dress. Conrad performs with the hard professionalism of an embittered artiste who thinks this below him. They are not the only ones who will come here to sing for their supper: Harry, desperately hopeful at the end of his career; Faye, so sad and cynical at the start of hers. All the applause and bold carnival lettering and sequins, a tawdry, faded mask trying to hide the Studio’s sharp teeth.
Put your own mask back on to leave the brightness and the noise and follow Andrea back into the inner workings of the place, to the warmly lit lipstick and powder chaos of the communal dressing room - long banks of mirrors lit with strips of bright bulbs, tables before them strewn with trinkets, with jewellery, with greasepaint, with the tools and the lucky charms and detritus of an actor’s work. Mushrooming hoop skirts and frothy 1950’s chiffon petticoats hang like clouds from the ceiling above, along with some slightly moth-eaten looking stock costumes. One of Claude’s scattered collections of owl figurines takes up a full station to themselves. A jigsaw puzzle lies half completed, speaking of long hours waiting for a cue, but for a space which seems made to bustle with a dozen chorus girls, it is unnaturally empty - a place in decline, going to seed. Messages of luck and love are scrawled cheerfully upon the mirrors in lipstick for no-one to read (though Wendy will find the malicious and paranoia-inducing note left upon her glass by the Seamstress). Andrea and Wendy each have places at the long dressing tables. Oscar pauses here too, to reapply his worn clowning face, staring emptily into his own eyes as he seeks to hide from the awful reality of his own existence - blurring his own identity, just as he tries to numb himself with drink.
Tucked away beyond Andrea’s station on the left is Conrad’s small, private dressing room. It is barely more than a closet (an apt word), and he is crowded into a tight corner of mementos, affirmations and fan mail by his own costumes hung on a rail. There is something bleakly colourless to this space, compared to the companionable chaos outside.
Another who would never deign to use this communal space is Dolores, but there is no humble trailer with her name on it - the diva commands her own suite. A long set of rooms decorated in a dusky, twilight blue and furnished and trimmed in gilt. At one end, a pretty, cream-upholstered, regency-style chair stands before an oval table with a pair of stylish, silk-shaded lamps. But the overall effect is baroquely sinister, as the whole threatens to be overwhelmed: by the weight of fan mail and gifts from well-wishers piled against it; by the strange conglomeration of mirrors, dozens of them, gilt framed, looming above the table, and angled so that every facet, every movement, every imperfection of the subject before them is captured; by the snow, which against all logic, encroaches from the studio next door, dusting the table, frosting the chair, piling in treacherous drifts against the wall. Further in the furnishings continue to be opulent, but rather more conventional. The lights are low and golden. Upon a wide persian rug, the elegant little writing desk where Marshall pauses to write the note ending his affair with Dolores. And beyond that, the bed - a great, dark four poster with heavy silk jacquard covers - where he will guiltily wrangle with Wendy when she, crazed with grief at discovering his betrayal, spirals into destructive rage.
Windows in this room open onto a wintery landscape beyond, but this is just as false and illusory as everything else in the Studio’s realm. This is nothing but another film set, heaped banks of snow towering each side of a frozen river, chill mists, icy white light. There is a wooden rowing boat, half sunken, in the freezing lake. In one corner of a snowdrift, the artifice comes clear - a director’s chair and clapperboard stand, along with a little table set with a decanter and glasses, frosted and crystalline with snow. Up above on the taller of the snowbanks is a door which you cannot reach. When opened, all that can be seen beyond it is whiteness, and much is obscured. Andrea flees here at the height of her distress, running, tumbling over the icy slopes in a state of sheer panic, venturing into that frozen chamber and falling back from it in shock, as over the snow a great, shadowy hand appears, reaching for her tiny, cowering form. As she faints away, you see that the shadow is cast by Claude, concealed beyond the door. And now he emerges to scoop her up and carry her back to the dressing room, suspect in his apparent tenderness.
Beyond this room is another inside-out world, as you walk from the snowscape and through a doorway to find yourself emerging from an ancient clapboard house with fogged, dusty windows and onto the expansive veranda at its front. The building looks worn, dilapidated, despite the strings of lights which trim the eaves of the low porch: but the veranda is newer, its foundations firm, chic and Hollywood with decorative, white enamelled, cast iron furniture (although already ivy is climbing the table legs as though it has stood, untouched, unmoved for longer than it seems). There are even two shallow, square decorative pools, one at each end of the long platform, the water, still and dark beneath the moonlight. Watch Wendy, as she bends hesitantly to the pool, clouded with sand and dust, reaching for the silver bladed scissors which shine so enticingly under the water. And unseen in the twilight behind her, perched upon the veranda’s railings, Oscar sadly echoes her every movement, her reach and grasp. Who is the puppet?
Steps lead you down and onto the chipped bark of another woodland trailer park, although the caravans you see before you now are somewhat newer and cleaner than those of Encino, provided for the comfort of the Studio’s employees. Lacy net curtains hang in the little windows. Beside the door of Wendy and Marshall’s green and white van, teetering piles of books stand, worn and weathered, on the bare ground. In front, a little white-painted wooden crate does service as a coffee table, ringed with folding canvas chairs and a sagging, but comfortable looking, velveteen sofa. Laundry hangs outside, a domestic scene. But the next caravan along has production notes and shooting schedules pasted upon its side, betraying the fact that this is just another set. But now Frankie runs into the scene, innocent, carefree, Marshall in tow. Frankie chases, teases, hurls pillows childishly at the more reserved Marshall - a subtle flirtation, sweet and rather sad, even as Dolores appears in full, sparkling regalia. She feigns surprise and bewilderment as Frankie playfully covers her eyes and they lead her blindly across the forest floor and to the little marquee erected beside the caravan.
Here Eugene has been preparing, for he was not always a grocer, and you will find him now in an ill-fitting sequinned dress, his wig askew, applying his fuchsia pink lipstick beneath a cheerful banner reading “Happy Birthday Dulors” in multicoloured letters. Brightly coloured streamers and fairy lights hang from the ceiling and balloons are tied to the backs of the simple wooden chairs. Champagne flutes are set out on the little canteen table. Eugene giddy and grinning, sashays towards you and plants a kiss, a smear of neon flamingo pink, upon your mask. As he performs his act, Marshall and Dolores slow dance together with Frankie sandwiched between them - their chaperone happy in this vicarious romantic closeness. They break apart as Wendy arrives. She is skittish, stressed and clearly doesn’t want to be here. But Eugene encourages her into the revelry, daubing her face with his garish make-up, dressing her up in sequins, laughing together. Until he puts his curled wig upon Wendy’s head and she stands there, a laughable parody of Dolores’ glamour. And she realises she is being mocked. She throws her champagne in Dolores’ face and flees, mortified.
When this tent is quiet and empty, the chairs scattered and the glasses overturned, you might instead follow Oscar here, with his battered little suitcase of tricks and flask of whiskey. Here he waits for Lila, wandering lost in the studio’s labyrinthine vastness. When she strays upon this place he is welcoming, kindly, so unlike her previous encounters. He tries to make her smile with his clowning and even shares with her his rapidly diminishing alcohol - just a trace of sad frustration showing, as he tips the champagne glass to her lips when she initially declines. He mimes and pratfalls and dances upon the tiny stage in the corner for her amusement, pulling her to her feet so that she might dance too - and freezes. His hands grip her shoulders, his eyes are empty. “We live inside a dream”. Stanford’s voice from his mouth. He walks away from her, hunched over with agonised shame, picks up her bag, and holds it out to her - a firm invitation to leave. Unable to bear that she has witnessed his lack of control.
And beyond the tent, in a hushed and neglected little patch of woodland, is where Oscar’s path leads him. Conrad’s too, if you choose to follow his desolate trail from the bright lights of Studio 5. For hidden away in the deepest shadow, is a little steel box of a hut, smaller even than the caravans, grimy and overgrown, its windows so thick with dirt you can barely see within them. And locked tight, impenetrable. It exudes a palpable sense of menace. This is the door to Studio 8.
Conrad stands frozen among the trees, tears of dread running down his face. You wonder why he doesn’t just flee, how the Studio forces such compliance, is obscurity and performing drag in small town bars really a worse option than this? Blindly, he reaches behind him, grasping for comfort or companionship. Perhaps it is your hand that he finds. He leads you to the threshold, pausing to trace the letters “Studio 8” in the window’s dust, and on inside. There is a place down in the black emptiness beyond where metaphor takes form, the horse is truly fallen and stone cold dead. What horrors hide in the shadows you cannot guess and will not know, for you are lucky and protected - your guide will expel you from this cold place before the screaming starts.
Back out and into the woods, pin sharp white light through the haze dazzles you, leaves you half blinded. Follow Wendy as she moves through the trees, first like a sleepwalker, then with an increasing mania, dancing across the forest floor, throwing up sprays of damp-smelling wood chip, clambering wildly through and up those branchless trunks like something barely human, driven by fear and madness.
And when that madness has run its course and the course of Marshall and Dolores’ affair has similarly reached its end (or courses has been steered malevolently by others), Marshall, filled with remorse, will seek Wendy out at their little caravan on the edge of these trees. Watch as Wendy leads Marshall by the hand, scrambling across the tumbling wood chip up the slope of the hill, between the trees, and below them the crowd begins to gather, led here by the other players in this fated, nightmare act. They kiss and embrace upon the hillside, her hand is on his throat, holding him at bay, but then she seems to relent. He buries his face in her neck, his passion made all the more fervent by guilt and relief, but her gaze is turned away from him. She pulls the scissors from her pocket, raises them, shining so bright in the moonlight, and plunges them down into Marshall’s side. He reels away from her in pain and shock - stares from the blood upon his hand, to her, in horrified disbelief. And, made swift by panic, she pins him to the tree, stabbing the scissor blade over and over into his chest. His white shirt is streaked crimson as he stumbles away from her, falling to his knees. Wild-eyed and desperate, Wendy drops the scissors and wraps her arms about him, lifting him to his feet. But his weight is too much for her, and her hands slick with blood, he slips from her grasp. As she reaches for him once more, arms outstretched - he drops, vanishing into the ground, lost. She stands frozen.
“And cut.” Stanford’s voice smoothly breaks the silence. “That’s a wrap.” See Wendy, bewildered and blood-soaked, as the red paper roses, thrown from the crowd, patter down on the hillside around her. There are whoops and cheers and applause and embraces, and the dancing begins as the music starts up, and on Studio Two’s wide veranda, a wrap party begins, characters gathering from the Studio compound and Encino alike. Faye twirling girlishly in her petticoats; Frankie, trailing balloons, leaping playfully across tables, cheerfully pursued by Andy; the Security Guard, slapping the icily affronted Claude on the back; Romola, a shy secretary once more, out of place and clutching her handbag to her; and Leland Stanford, your gracious host, innocuously offering cake, and serenely greeting his masked visitors. They laugh, they dance, they socialise, the illusion of something random, when nothing here is. And then their steps bring them into line, the wild fierceness of the hoedown takes them, every one. It is just a dance, but their steps seem driven, as though they dance in red hot shoes. And abruptly, whoever pulls the strings - cuts them. The players scatter, in the darkness, are hurled violently to the ground. All alone in the stillness, William and Wendy still stand. They walk towards each other across the wide stage, as though pulled to their own warped reflection. They cannot meet. They are seized, lifted, tumbled by the other characters, dragged apart as if on a raging sea. The rain begins. The stage empties. William steps down into one of the shallow pools. Wendy into the other. Bending to the surface, each takes something in their arms. As they stand, Wendy struggles to lift Marshall’s lifeless body from the water, and Mary hangs limp and heavy in William’s hands. Brimstone light blazes in the windows of the building behind them. On the left, we spy the shrouded visage of the Dust Witch, and to the right, Stanford staring intently out upon the tragic tableau that each has wrought, their fingers brushing the cobwebbed windowpanes. And all goes dark. Except…
The final show: The rain pours down upon the lovers, doomed and damned, in the water. The lights rise behind them more softly. No one stands at the windows, but Stanford appears at the door, and walks slowly onto the veranda. He looks from William to Wendy, surveying the carnage, but with none of the usual strange eagerness in his eyes. They are hollow. “Still rolling…” his voiceover intones, and he slips the revolver from his pocket. You guess his intentions immediately, they are written in his movements. “Still rolling…” In that awful mix of trepidation and resolve, in that odd little twist of his neck away from the weight of the gun hanging at his side. There is a tremor in the audience, an intake of breath, as he raises it to his head “Thank you everybody. We’re moving on.” He concludes with chilling calm, and as the darkness closes in, a flash, a bang, and Leland Stanford collapses, paper roses pooling around him like blood. The circle is broken.
This is so vivid and beautifully written - it brings back the best memories. Thank you for sharing.
PAUL PORTER THOUGH
One of the nicest things about Sleep No More’s long run is that it means there is a substantial community of seasoned immersive/promenade veterans who will go on to make fantastic performances. Emily Terndrup and Derrick Belcher’s “Debut” is full of beautiful tableaux, refined touches and high production value and I’m really, really glad I decided to give to its crowd funding.
It’s prom night! I went to so. many. proms. The Knockdown Center in Masbeth is a really spectacular space, and the show uses it well. One of the back rooms had a lot of vegetation added. When I went into it, I was alone, and arrived to find a smoke machine cloud suspended perfectly in the air, unmoving.
Other things I adored include: the fantastic live music; a solo for Emily involving some table lamps, and some very cool use of projection. Also, one of the props, an old television, showed clips from black and white European movies. Several clips came from Schlöndorff’s Young Törless (actually appropriate to the content of this show) which some of you may know is kind of a really big deal in my life. I was giddy to see it.
Unfortunately there are only two more performances, so if you don’t have a ticket, go get one now and see this if you possibly can. Kind of in the middle of nowhere and all the better for it.
Seconded, this was very cool to see.