The secret’s out: An interview with Secret Theatre Project founder Richard Crawford on his first-ever Singapore show
“High heels are out”
“High heels are out”
Nowhere else but in immersive theater has the cliche “the show must go on” ever rung so true. Since everything happens in real time, whatever the audience may say, goes. Every disturbance, chuckle or epiphany becomes a seamless part of the narrative; unruly drunks and silent wallflowers are part and parcel of the experience. In a show by London’s Secret Theatre Project, that spontaneity gets an extra layer—secrecy, because nobody knows where or what is going to happen.
And now that the exclusive experience is finally in town, the mystery can officially begin. Across the table from us, founder, director and actor Richard Crawford casually leans back, signature fedora tipped and ready to spill the beans. The 36-year-old thespian founded the company in 2008, and has since found sold-out success in New York (his adaptation of Edward Scissorhands), Hollywood (Freakazoid), London (Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs) and Hong Kong (SE7EN Deadly Sins and Project Mayhem).
The Singapore show is their first one here.
It was actually a whirlwind decision made in a matter of months last year. Crawford had been staging Project Mayhem in Hong Kong in October, and swung by Singapore to hang out with friends. He got a good feeling about the island, met with potential venues, and by early 2018 decided Secret Theatre was coming to Singapore.
For this cast he has a diverse group—comprising one Singaporean, a handful of international actors, and some full-timers with the company; one of whom was even “in the new Star Wars film”.
Traveling together, says Crawford, has turned them into a family. “I’m not even gonna say friends, because friends suggest that we’re all hanging out and having a good time; I say family in that things can get a bit heated, and you fall out, and you hate each other. And then Christmas comes along and the show opens and everything’s okay again."
It opens here on May 3, at a location revealed to audiences only when they’ve bought a ticket. Crawford remains remarkably tight-lipped on that little detail; but then again you’re paying for the intrigue. Will you be traipsing around Gardens by the Bay, or roughing it out in a warehouse in the East? Guess you’ll have to buy a ticket to find out.
Why did you start Secret Theatre Project?
We started it because it seemed like an interesting step away from traditional theater. I was living in New York, and it was the same Broadway shows all the time and they were aimed at tourists; and none of my friends who actualy lived in Brooklyn, ever went to the theater. So I thought how interesting would it be to start something that’s not in a theater? When you go to parties or galleries they use different spaces, they all look different; but theaters can look the same, only the stage is different.
And then it was immersive and site-specific kind of by accident, because the other thing was, if you wanted to do a show on Broadway—unless you’re a millionaire—you can’t. We didn’t have the money for seats and we didn’t have the money for a theater, so we had to hustle together a venue. So we just started doing it that way—in warehouses and factories and interesting spaces, and since then I’ve done them in all sorts of different spaces. I haven’t done a show in a real theater in a long time.
That’s kind of where it came from—to do shows that weren’t for the tourists but for the people living in the city, in an interesting space; and for people who had stopped going to the theater, to start coming to the theater again.
After London, New York and Hong Kong, why Singapore?
I like Singapore as a city, really. I like that it’s spread out, it’s lush and green, it’s warm; it’s quiet compared to what I’m used to, but I like that. I met with a couple of venues and they were really cool; they understood, more than Hong Kong, what I wanted to do. They understood immersive theater. They thought that it was exciting, and they wanted to help me do it. There was good energy about it. Another reason why was because people were flying over from Singapore to see my show in Hong Kong, and I was like that’s mental. And they were really cool people; the kind of people I would like to see at the show.
What do you have planned for the Singapore show?
You’re gonna move; high heels are out—that’s a little advice. You’re gonna move, but not dramatically, for this show. It’s very condensed, the experience, but you go on a journey; it doesn’t just happen in one space. The tone and mood of this show is kind of thrilling, dangerous, but kind of sassy, fun. And I’m happy to let that out of the bag, because it’s a very inclusive show; I think everyone who comes will enjoy it. This production will put a smile on your face—and scare you at the same time.
So it’s scary?
A little bit, in a fun way. You know, like how going to a haunted house is fun. It’s not shocking; we never have people leave scared. And the tone or mood of it is presented in a way that you feel like you’re having fun with it, because it’s fantastical in some ways.
Space in Singapore is clearly an issue. Can audiences here expect the same scale of your other shows?
This production has been done in bigger venues but also smaller venues around the world. I haven’t scaled anything down, production-wise, in terms of set and venue. What we have done is a reevaluation of this show and made it better—we have more choreography in it than before, we’ve added elements that we’ve seen work. With this production, I think this will be really effective and hopefully our best show.
Has the show been done elsewhere before?
What’s interesting about these shows is they’re site-specific. We’ve done shows before in other cities, but they’re always so unique to that city that it feels like a new show; and I approach it as a new show. Everything changes because the venue is completely different, the cast that you use is completely different. I tweak the scripts—so everything has to be in line with Singapore. For example if it were Romeo & Juliet (which it isn’t), Romeo might be a rich expat who lives on Sentosa Island, and Juliet is an immigrant who lives in Little India; and Thibault is a Malaysian.
So this show is set in Singapore; and when you arrive it’s happening in real time in that venue. That person you’re talking to is from Singapore and it’s happening.
How different is it finding actors for immersive theater as opposed to traditional theater?
I think for immersive theater you can either do it or you can’t. Some people have done a lot of improv before; if I know that an actor has done stand-up comedy, then I know that he’s going to be pretty effective as an immersive actor. That’s what’s difficult—finding people who are comfortable and are good at being live with the audience, who can talk directly to a room of 80 people at one time. It’s completely spontaneous. They say in live theater every show is different—to a certain extent that’s kind of true. In immersive theater it’s completely different, because the audience is completely different, and they have the chance to be spoken to, to walk around, to interact. No person is the same or is going to say the same thing, so you’ve got to be prepared. You’ve got to be so deep in your character that you can just *snap* knock off an answer. It’s a tough gig—you either love it or hate it, the immersive side. There’s no fourth wall, and a lot of actors love that.
Are you confident Singaporeans will be responsive participants?
The thing is, it doesn’t matter—because we create a show where we believe that what’s happening is what’s happening; as crazy as it gets. The show is not like other shows, it’s not a puzzle room or something; it just relies on the audience responding naturally. So if you want to get involved and come in and speak and all that, you can. But if you don’t, if you want to stand back like how you would in real life, then that’s fine as well. It doesn’t require everyone to come right here and do this and press this button so we can move on. And I think that surprisingly it’s not "not responding" that’s a problem; the problem actually is from people joining in a little bit too much, and from some people getting a little bit carried away.
How do you prepare for an immersive show?
I don’t open the show without doing it with a live audience. You can rehearse all day, right, but there’s no one there—you can’t open and presume everything’s going to be okay. For this show, we’re doing a pre-show with 80 arts students—people who are training to be actors and who live in Singapore, because to me they are the future for me doing (more) shows here as well.
And actually rarely does anything change, because you’ve prepared—whenever I’m directing anything I think about the elephant in the room, and the elephant in the room is 80 people. I’ve also done so many immersive shows I can predict how ridiculous every little bit could get, the worst case scenario. That said, in every production there are one or two moments nobody can believe happened, and are absolutely outrageous—in a fun way.
Are people comfortable with the secret aspect?
We have a 24-hour hotline when you buy a ticket, where people can call and talk to the characters straightaway. So if you bought a ticket today and you have any questions, you can talk to Queen Pussy straightaway. She gets a lot of messages—Is there food? What time can I come? What do I wear? There is a mystery, but I want to help people as much as possible.
She has the whole day free to take calls?
Yeah, she’s the queen, we’re here; this is happening. The queen is living and breathing in Singapore, she’s available 24/7 on her WhatsApp. Call her whenever; call her this time next year she’ll take your call from you. If you call and say, "Hi Queen, I met you, I love your shoes, can I invite you to my wedding?" she’ll take your call and be like, "I’m down".
Where does Secret Theatre fit into the global arts scene right now?
I feel like theater and the immersive is on the rise. The immersive stuff is mind-blowing, compared to where I was 10 years ago in New York. If I’d wanted to go on a night out and gone to the show we’re doing now, it would have been the best night ever. For me personally, we’re traveling around the world and doing these shows, so it seems like people want to do it; and it feels inspiring to give them something theatrically they haven’t seen before.
What’s your favorite show that you’ve done?
My favorite show is this one—and I’m not just saying that—because it’s fun! I don’t always perform in the shows because I direct them. This show’s more fun, and I’m working with new people in the city; so this is probably my favorite show—and the best experience I’ve had doing a show of mine.
Any advice to first-timers coming to watch?
Be on time, otherwise you’ll miss out. There’s no late entry; it’s like traditional theater. And if you’ve got additional questions, Queen Pussy has a 24-hour hotline.
Secret Theatre Project will run from May 3-Jun 10 at a secret location. Super Early Bird ticket prices start from $99 and you can find more information here.