Pop-up shows wow visitors at Disneyland

Spontaneous performances at theme park surprise and thrill audiences

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 26 August, 2014, 10:39am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 26 August, 2014, 10:39am

Hong Kong Disneyland may have big shows such as Festival of the Lion King and The Golden Mickeys to pull in the crowds, but what surprise visitors the most, according to the park's entertainment chief, are often smaller, spontaneous performances that they stumble across when going from one major attraction to another.

"Some of our theatre is in the times guide and you know that the Lion King will be showing at 2pm, but then a lot of the stuff we create is meant to be surprising. The guests would be walking around the park and suddenly there'll be a song and dance thing going on or there'll be a presentation," says David Lightbody, director of entertainment and costuming at Hong Kong Disneyland since January 2013.

"They haven't necessarily travelled to that place to watch that show but they find themselves there, and it surprises them and they will stand and become the audience."

Small ad hoc acts are probably the last thing you would associate with the 41-year-old; everything on his résumé reads big. He founded the Stray Theatre Company in 1995 under the patronage of Cameron Mackintosh (the producer behind Cats, The Phantom of the Opera and Les Misérables, among others), producing classic plays in Ireland and Scotland.

In 2005 he joined Mackintosh's company as general manager in charge of its operations on the mainland.

Four years later Lightbody set up his own company to produce the Chinese version of hit musical Mamma Mia!, which opened in 2011 and has since being performed in 20 cities across the mainland.

He will be introducing two new features at Hong Kong Disneyland scheduled to launch in October: a nighttime electric parade called Disney Paint the Night, and a show set in the Amazon to open around Halloween, Horrors of the Amazon.

But size isn't everything and what the commercial theatre veteran wants to do now is bring more spontaneous street performances to the park. He remembers a quote from Walt Disney about Disneyland being a stage. Lightbody takes that quite literally. He describes what he does as "guerilla theatre", or just a very sophisticated form of busking.

"If someone's really good, the pedestrians will automatically turn themselves into an audience member, and they'll turn and create a little semicircle around the busker - create that stage and become an audience for them."

Taking theatre out of conventional venues is something that Lightbody has always had an interest in. His first show was a 1996 production of Macbeth, performed at an ancient Scottish castle that turned out to be the ancestral home of one of the play's characters, Banquo. He has also staged plays and short scenes in old castles, under the Sydney Harbour Bridge and at the Great Wall.

I quite like discovering little corners of the park where you might be able to bring something to life
David Lightbody

One of his fondest memories is performing scenes from Hamlet with student actors at Kronborg Castle in Denmark, the setting for the Shakespeare tragedy. He recalls being at the site while tourists were milling around, and then surprising them with a performance "out of nowhere".

Today he still finds himself walking around the park scouting for potential places for new "guerilla productions": "I quite like discovering little corners of the park where you might be able to bring something to life," he says.

"There are a lot of corners, nooks and crannies and I like the idea that characters emerge out of bushes."

Another important part of his job is to hone small details in big productions. While the days when he hung all the lights, checked all the costumes and sounds, and reviewed almost everything himself - as he did in his first Macbeth production - are over, Lightbody continues to cast his keen eye over all the details that go into a show - all the way down to fibre-optic eyelashes in the new electric parade, for instance.

Over the past year he has also tweaked existing shows in small but noticeable ways. For example, in The Golden Mickeys, a production meant to parody award ceremonies such as the Golden Globes or the Oscars, Belle from Beauty and the Beast used to sing her number from behind a gauze.

"I just wanted to bring her right out front and get the audience to really see her and really engage with that song," Lightbody says. "What happens with Belle coming downstage is that we can really bring her much closer to the audience and that they can see her face, her eyes and hear her sing, in a much more immediate, intimate way, which is a fundamental part of musical theatre."

It took a lot of planning with the costume designers, lighting designers and stage crew to pull the idea off - and they did.

"Entertainment is wonderful shows, but it doesn't have to be huge to be incredibly exciting," Lightbody says.

Going back to the quote from Disney about the whole park being a stage, he adds: "My whole career, in many ways, has been about creating theatre in all sorts of different places, sometimes in very unusual places, so it made sense to me that if this whole place is a stage, then the opportunities to tell stories are endless."