Richard Crawford’s immersive Secret Theatre back in Hong Kong: prepare for Project Mayhem

You don’t know where it is going to be or what it will involve – but with Crawford’s brand of ‘immersive theatre’ you know you can get in on the action which, as he explains, throws up a number of challenges for performers

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 14 September, 2017, 6:18pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 14 September, 2017, 7:45pm

We have all been to the theatre, but a lot of us – if we’re honest – will admit to have being a bit bored. You buy a ticket, turn up, take your seat, sit in darkness, try not to eat your snacks too loudly, perhaps laugh a little too loudly to show you have understood the jokes, clap and leave. You rarely have a chance to get involved in the action, and you definitely never book a ticket for a play without knowing what it is about or where it is going to be held.

That is unless you go to one of Richard Crawford’s productions. Crawford, the founder and artistic director of Secret Theatre, creates among the most innovative, risk-taking productions around. He is a pioneer of so-called immersive theatre, for which people buy a ticket without knowing where they are going or what they are going to see – just that it will be something completely out of the ordinary, and they will be involved in the action. He has held his productions in Hong Kong for the past two years, with a run of his latest scheduled from November 3 to December 10.

Born in Scotland and based in London and New York, Crawford is a member of the Actors Studio in New York and a former student and performer at the Lee Strasberg Theatre and Film Institute in the same city. But during his years working in traditional theatre, he increasingly felt that something was missing – that it was failing to connect with its audience.

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His jump into immersive theatre, however, happened by accident. “I was living in New York, where putting on a play is really expensive. I was living in a 20,000 sq ft loft with nine other people in Williamsburg – before it became cool – and we thought, ‘Why don’t we start putting on plays here?’ It immediately became secret and site-specific, and we couldn’t afford chairs, so it became immersive.

“It’s so fun and adventurous and exciting to do this. I once got asked to direct Hamlet at the Edinburgh Festival, and I was just bored. I really miss the extra layer that the audience can provide.”

Crawford estimates that about half of a typical Secret Theatre audience is made up of people who don’t usually go to the theatre. His best-known immersive productions include an adaptation of Edward Scissorhands in 2010; Reservoir Dogs in 2013; Freakazoid in 2014, in which the central performer, in the role of an artist, has a meltdown; Romeo and Juliet in 2015; Evanesce, about wrongful imprisonment, in 2015; and futuristic courtroom drama Code 2021 in 2016.

In Hong Kong, he put on Hell Hath No Fury at Dusk Till Dawn at Ophelia in Wan Chai last year, and SE7EN Deadly Sins in 2015. For the latter, ticket buyers were told to look for someone at a pier in Central, which was followed by a boat journey where the action started with a murder. It all ended up at a haunted house on Lamma Island, with a speedboat chase thrown in for good measure.

“I visited a friend who lives in Hong Kong,” Crawford says. “We went out on a boat, we were drunk and the sun was setting, and I said, ‘You know what would be really cool: to do a show on a boat in Hong Kong.’ I couldn’t quite believe that a year later we were doing it. It’s not the way I usually get my ideas, but this one seemed to work.”

The challenge with immersive theatre, he says, is to strike a balance. If there is too little audience involvement, it doesn’t feel very immersive; too much and people can lose sight of the narrative.

His audiences are limited to 120 people. While everyone can get involved in the action, Crawford explains that one of the key skills that performers need is the ability to determine early on who is interested in taking an active role and who is more of a wallflower. People with a background in improvisational comedy, he says, are often more comfortable with audience involvement than traditional actors.

“The hard thing for the performers is that some people take it as an opportunity to be difficult,” Crawford says. “They can sabotage it without meaning to. For us, it’s about how you deal with that.”

Occasionally he has to step in when things go too far. During one production, for example, a real-life fight broke out between two audience members. “They were so pumped-up – and drunk,” he says. “I had to go and talk to them, and we were able to carry on. But the beauty of these situations is the audience thinks it’s part of the show.”

For Code 2021, staged in a perfectly preserved former courtroom, the audience had to decide on the guilt or innocence of the defendant.

“If they found him guilty, he was led into a chamber where they watched him die; if they found him not guilty, everyone just went home,” Crawford says. “Most audiences found him not guilty. One woman said, ‘Let’s vote guilty to see what happens.’ Then, when he was executed, other people said, ‘This is your fault’, and she started crying.”

Back in Hong Kong: Secret Theatre Project, where you’re part of the action

The emphasis on secrecy isn’t quite as fierce these days, mainly because Crawford wants to ensure audiences won’t be offended by the material. His current production, Project Mayhem, for example, involves a certain amount of violence. Some mystery does still remain, though – so while we would like to reveal the show’s source material, the first rule of Secret Theatre is still that you do not talk about Secret Theatre.

Secret Theatre Project Mayhem, Nov 3-Dec 10, various times, location provided on purchase of ticket through Ticketflap