When Richard Crawford staged the first Secret Theatre production in Hong Kong in 2015, audiences didn’t know what they were getting into. They were told to show up at the pier in Central to look for someone, after which they all hopped onto a boat where someone got murdered. They finally ended up in a haunted house on Lamma Island to help solve the crime.
Mr Crawford is now in Singapore to unveil his latest Secret Theatre project to Singapore audiences. Once again, the audiences have no clue what they’re about to see. But after positive reviews of various Secret Theatre projects that have taken place around the world since 2008, they know they’re in for a wild ride. The Scottish-born Crawford himself is mum about the details – only to promise it’ll be as good as, or better than, any project they’ve done elsewhere.
Mr Crawford started off as an actor drawing good reviews for his performances in London and New York. But while living in Williamsburg, New York, in a 20,000 sq ft loft with nine other people, he and the others struck upon the idea of staging a play in the loft, instead of one of New York’s exorbitantly-priced stages.
That gave birth to Mr Crawford’s own version of “immersive theatre” – a style of theatre where audiences don’t just sit and watch the story unfold, but are allowed to wander around the space to witness or even participate in the action. Audiences sometimes find themselves in the thick of things, such as running away from a mass murderer or giving evidence at a court hearing.
Secret Theatre has now mounted productions at major cities around the world including New York, London and Los Angeles. And Mr Crawford has even succeeded in selling a show concept to Netflix. But even as producers from other cities such as Sydney and Mumbai are wooing Mr Crawford to do a project in their cities, he has decided to set his latest project here.
For 10 years, you’ve managed to persuade tens of thousands of people to buy tickets to see shows whose plots, cast and locations they know nothing about when they’re buying the tickets. How?
Yes, it’s quite a crazy notion that people would buy a ticket to a show they know very little about, and it’s a risk for us too to have this show in Singapore, where there hasn’t been something quite like this before, on this scale. Sure, people can go online and see that the company has done a version of Fight Club in Hong Kong and Edward Scissorhands in New York. But we are still asking people to take a risk with their money every time. I do think, however, that the mystery adds a bit of spice to their evening. And in London and New York now, there are Secret Weekends, Secret Hotels and other forms of mystery concepts. People want the thrill and excitement. You know, I went to the theatre in London recently, and I knew where I was seating, what I was watching, who the actors were, and so on. The show was great, but I kept thinking that in my world, the audience would get off their seats, go up to the stage and ask the actors some questions.
You have done productions in an asylum, a courtroom and a haunted mansion. There have been speedboats, fistfights and murderers. What can the Singapore audience look forward to?
This upcoming show in Singapore may well be the best show we’ve done to date, because we’re incorporating everything that we’ve learnt over the years to make this special. I can’t give too much of the plot away. The audiences, as always, arrive with absolutely no idea of what they’re about to witness. But I can say that the story definitely has a cinematic feel to it, with great fight choreography and costumes. And while it is set as a contemporary tale, it has a traditional core – you could say that it’s a story that has been around in global literature for a long time.
To say that it might be the “best show” you’ve done to date – that’s a big promise.
It is, but that’s what we target each time we have a new production – especially in a city like Singapore where it’s our first production. We’ve already done three shows in Hong Kong, and several in cities like London and New York. And by now people who have experienced our previous productions have certain expectations and we have to meet that. For the Singapore show, we have performers flying in from New York, HK, London, Manchester and Sydney – and, of course, some from Singapore as well. So it’s a big cast that’ll help put the audience right in the thick of the action.
You started doing “immersive theatre” after deciding to turn your loft into a theatre space. Was that your earliest experience of such an art form?
I grew up in Edinburgh which hosts the biggest arts festival in the world. And I would see street performers who would regularly interact with the audience and make them part of the act. So I’ve always wanted to make a stronger connection with my audience than just having them sit there. I want to include the audience in the narrative, such that if the police was interrogating the characters, I want you to be interrogated too, because you’ve seen the crime and you may know who did it.
Do you think “immersive theatre” is the future of theatre, considering how the younger generations of audiences are fed a steady diet of video games where they’re always participating in the action?
I don’t think it’s a fad. And I do think it’ll probably grow in popularity. There are definitely people who’ve spent the whole day sitting in front of their computers, so they don’t want to sit down for another two hours to watch a show. But I must say that as someone who lives in London, home of Shakespeare and many different forms of theatre, it is hard to imagine classical or standard theatre going away any time soon. Theatre is so popular here, and some actors and producers prefer the safety of a standard production where they don’t have to worry about 100 audience members wandering around the set as they please. And some people still prefer to just sit down and watch the actors perform for them.
Other cities want you to bring Secret Theatre there. But you chose Singapore. Why?
Singapore is right for us. It is crowded and compact. And you can get around from one place to another quite quickly. Also, everyone I’ve met here seems to be very enthusiastic and helpful about bringing Secret Theatre here. When I explained the concept of Secret Theatre, they understood it. I went to the lounges and clubs, and I really like the feel of the city. I could imagine the Singapore audiences taking to our show and having a good night.
Secret Theatre runs from now till June 10. Tickets available from https://ticketing.igo.events/o/37/secret-studio-lab
This story was originally published in The Business Times.