Admittedly, when I heard House of Yes was doing a show called Ketamine: The Musical, I wanted to roll my eyes. I imagined a glitzy spectacle full of drug jokes and little self-awareness, happily consumed by an audience of partiers. Or, like, an entire show where people sit there motionless? I don’t know. Something about it rubbed me the wrong way.
At the same time, the venue recently impressed me when they issued a public apology for their “One Night in Bangkok” party in which they acknowledged they were inadvertently “reinforcing stereotypes of a tourist-saturated city at other people’s expense” by using “clueless cliches, sexploitation stereotypes, trans slurs, [and] casual racism.” Their ability to actually admit they messed up and willingness to alter the entire party at the last minute to remove the problematic bits demonstrated an ability to listen and learn that, honestly, I rarely expect in nightlife.
So, I approached Ketamine: The Musical with as open of a mind as my jaded self could muster. What I found was not anything resembling a typical musical but a visually-entrancing artistic representation of the ups and downs of a time on ketamine that mixed aerial silks, dance, opera, EDM, lecture, and more, and presented it to a crowd eagerly ready to breathe it all in.
And what exactly are they breathing in? Ketamine is a drug typically used for anesthesia and sedation; when used recreationally it can cause hallucinations, dissociative effects, psychedelic revelations, and fragmented realities for about an hour—conveniently, about the length of the show. High enough doses can lead to what’s called a “K-hole,” where users are extremely dissociated and can have “sensory shutdown” in a “free-floating state,” often not being able to move.
Anya Sapozhnikova, who owns House of Yes with Kae Burke and was one of the show’s creators, explains she’s been a part of NYC nightlife for many years, and has observed ketamine go from something more obscure to “almost mainstream.”
“It’s not like it’s the only thing people do, but it’s really spiked in popularity lately,” she says. “It’s a very weird drug to be part of the party scene. It’s not like it makes you want to dance and have sex and feel beautiful and feel up and feel awake. It kind of just puts you in a K-hole and you’re in a corner.”
Interestingly, a large portion of Google search results for ketamine focus on its miracle-like potential for treating depression. Oft-maligned party and psychedelic drugs being explored as cures for mental illness is nothing new; studies have been done on the positive effects of MDMA on PTSD, psilocybin (shrooms) on depression, and even using LSD to help with alcohol and narcotic addiction.
This could explain why, despite the dissociative’s odd presence in the high energy environments of clubs, it’s now so popular. People party because they want to feel good, but they usually end up feeling worse the day after a long night of feelin’ nice, especially if you’re dabbling in the kind of stuff to spike your serotonin. Perhaps a night of total detachment to bass beats could make you feel better in the long run?
Although the show takes you on a performative journey of an experience on K, Ketamine‘s audience was far from detached. It was refreshing to see a more formally standard live show put in front of an audience that isn’t used to being reserved and polite like most theatergoers; in fact, the vibe was so enthusiastic that amidst shouts of “This is fucking genius!” I found myself feeling that I should’ve consumed more than a piña colada so I could get on their level.
Not that I wasn’t having a good time—the carefree vibes wormed into my notes, which include such gems as “drugs = YOLO” and “What is gender? Who cares.” But it wasn’t all joyous rain-dances performed by powder-dusted lithe bodies, dancing glitter tongues, and Special K cereal puns. Or Sia-esque wigs, which there were a ton of for some reason.
A DJ character spent time in between candy-colored spectacles explaining the effects of the drug to us, including some of its bleaker aspects. Sex on ketamine, he says, isn’t exactly recommended, unless the phrases “flaccid selfhood” and “fluids cascade meaninglessly” get you goin’. The show later verges into nightmare territory with an “after after after hours” full of strung-out zombies, mutant baby monsters, and distorted music, but it doesn’t end on a depressing note by any means. Bummer endings don’t exactly make for good afterparties.
I wonder if it might’ve been wise to include some form of information on how to consume ketamine safely, or how to cope with a K-hole, but Sapozhnikova explains that she didn’t want to take on a position that framed herself or House of Yes as an expert on anything. “I’m not an authority on telling people how to do drugs or not to do drugs,” she tells me. “I wanted it to be a broad strokes approach, painting a picture of something that was happening rather than telling people what should or shouldn’t be happening. So, it was a way for me to be creative using something very current as the focal point, without saying you should do it this way, or you shouldn’t do it, or it’s bad or it’s good. Because I’m aware that it is both of those things.”
She’s more focused on destigmatizing and opening up opportunities for conversation than prescribing any sort of belief. “It’s important that, when things are happening, you make it comfortable for people to talk about them. And so I think talking about [drugs] builds a dialogue; I don’t think it makes people who weren’t already thinking about doing them do them,” she adds. “And as we know, telling people not to do drugs doesn’t make people not do them.”
Still, if I left Ketamine: The Musical with a raging desire to throw some up my nose—and admittedly, I was intrigued—I really wouldn’t know what amount to do, how to prepare or what to expect. But it is true, they have no obligation to turn an artistic experience into an extensively educational one. They did explain certain aspects of the drug, and at intermission (described as “our K-hole”) a woman offered us sweets from a bowl, explaining “candy and ketamine are enemies.” If I felt compelled to ask how it all worked I imagine there would be many people there willing to give me a lesson, especially as the folding chairs were removed and the art/life divide began to blur at the club’s afterparty that raged until 5 am (I know because I found myself still there at that hour).
If you’re interested in falling into a K-hole of your own, you’ll have a (legal) chance: Ketamine: The Musical is being reprised next month for two nights (or maybe more) due to popular demand. And the future should hold more shows like this, as Sapozhnikova says that type of “dialogue-inducing” narrative work is “absolutely what [she] wants to do, and as House of Yes gets more solid we’ll have more room to make this kind of work.”
The show has certainly permeated Anya’s brain; she describes to me a dream she had right before I called her.
“I had this dream that I had tuberculosis or something, and I knew I was dying. I knew I was going to die very terribly. And I was able to score this liquid Ketamine and was going to overdose on it on purpose. I was on it and I was feeling good and was like, maybe I shouldn’t die. And then realized I didn’t take enough of it, then was in this dilemma of should I die or should I not and I was confused and sad. And then my friends all came over, and I was like, ‘What is my life in the grand scheme of things? Nothing.’ And then I woke up and you called me and then I was talking about how much I love making my art, and I totally want to live.”
“Ketamine: The Musical” returns to House of Yes on September 26 and 27 at 8 pm.