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NPR Arts & Life

'Sleep Rock Thy Brain' Play Uses Science As Inspiration


Well, now a more subjective study of dreams. It comes from the Humana Festival of New American Plays in Louisville, Kentucky. The festival was founded by Actors Theatre of Louisville. And each year, that theater commissions a new work for its company of apprentice actors. This year's show, a series of three one-act plays, is called "Sleep Rock Thy Brain."

Erin Keane of member station WFPL got a front row seat.

ERIN KEANE, BYLINE: As planning began to get underway for this year's Humana Festival, Sarah Lunnie, the company's literary manager, recalls she hadn't been sleeping well.

SARAH LUNNIE: I had actually been having some strange sleep experiences. I had had a cluster of night terrors.

KEANE: At the same time, Amy Attaway, the associate director of the apprentice company, took her actors to a flight workshop at ZFX Flying Effects - think Peter Pan or the flying monkeys in "Wicked."

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: And then I want you to bring her down just a little bit over the...

KEANE: Attaway started thinking about the narrative possibilities of stage flight.

AMY ATTAWAY: Flying effects are usually used as spectacle, or as, sort of, the icing on the cake of the play. So I wanted to see if we can make a play where the flying effects were part of the story.

KEANE: The planning for "Sleep Rock Thy Brain" began.

ATTAWAY: And so the thing that Sarah and I realized pretty early on was that - that it was a sort of perfect metaphor for what's going on in your brain when you sleep.

KEANE: The neurological activity that makes you feel like you're falling or flying.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Ignition, (unintelligible) we have lift-off.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Lift-off. OK, the clock is starting.

KEANE: For "Sleep Rock Thy Brain", playwright Lucas Hnath wrote about sleep problems during space flight. He and the other two playwrights, Rinne Groff and Anne Washburn, have all written plays about science before. They all came to Kentucky to visit the University of Louisville medical school's sleep center. It's directed by Dr. David Hiestand, and he showed them around the sleep lab, which is housed on the top floor of a downtown hotel.

DR. DAVID HIESTAND: Our sleep room is very much like a normal room except for it has camera on the wall and it has monitoring equipment. So individuals would come in, they typically sit on the bed, they'd have the electrode monitoring wires basically put on their scalp.

KEANE: But the sleep techs don't sing their patients to sleep, like they do in Rinne Groff's "Comfort Inn," the first of the three acts and the one most directly inspired by the playwrights' visit to the lab.


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: (Singing) Down goes the sun, your hard work's done. Good little children, sleep.

KEANE: A new sleep tech loses control of her lab during the overnight shift. The lines between sleeping and waking life begin to blur.


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Dr. Abramovich, ever since I was a little girl, I was always...

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Yeah, Sylvie, it's not just Angela who doesn't want to hear the story.


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: But it's the reason that I can't sleep at night. It's led to my drug addiction, my self-destruction.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Well, I'd like to be sympathetic, but I think it's great that you can't sleep at night.

KEANE: Act Two, Anne Washburn's, "Dreamerwake," also begins with a sleep tech hooking up a subject. But the action becomes increasingly surreal inside the patient's anxiety dream.


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: There's snakes, there's zombies, there are creepy half (unintelligible) things.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: They're sections of the sidewalk which suction onto your feet, and you can't move no matter how hard you try to move.


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: And you open your mouth to scream and you can't scream?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: You open your mouth to scream?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: And nothing comes out but a tiny, little, raspy cry.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: And no one hears it.

KEANE: Washburn structured "Dreamerwake" to mirror the dream cycle, something she learned about at the sleep center.

ANNE WASHBURN: I thought it would be fun to write about a dream, because dreams are things which it is so easy to have and which it is so boring to hear about. So I thought that would be a challenge.

KEANE: In all three acts, the actors fly in dream sequences, in aerial dance numbers, in zero gravity above mission control.

WASHBURN: So it's like having a special effect, but at the same time, it feels like the world's oldest and most fabulous special effect. Like the Greeks, the deus ex machina. Like, I feel like getting people above the level of the set has been the goal of mankind ever since they started, like, actually making theater.

KEANE: Many of those early plays were ceremonial or spiritual in nature. Now, Actors Theatre's literary manager Sarah Lunnie sees science emerging as an equally powerful source of inspiration.

LUNNIE: I wonder if that's part of why a lot of plays today are engaged with science, is that it's actually a way for writers to engage with an idea of a kind of divine or something larger than themselves.

KEANE: It's an idea that seems to be connecting with audiences at Humana. Performances of "Sleep Rock Thy Brain" are nearly sold out, and the audiences seem to be wide awake.

For NPR News, I'm Erin Keane in Louisville, Kentucky. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.