secret theatre

Photo: The Secret Theatre

Five years after its sold-out show in 2019, The Secret Theatre kicks off 2024 with its first show at the Mandala Club in Singapore. Founded by actor-director Richard Crawford in 2008, the UK-based immersive theatre production is known for its well, secrecy, and wildly different themed performances each time. Its site-specific performances have travelled to Hong Kong and the USA. 

With a cast from international stage productions such as Mia Ortega from The Lion King: Rhythms of the Pride Lands, The Secret Theatre’s 2024 show is titled “The New York Secret”.

Set in close quarters as the audience moves around the space, the cast provides opportunities to interact with music legends like David Bowie and Elton John as they recreate the hedonistic 1980s in New York, where art and music thrived in the Big Apple. 

secret theatre
The New York Secret led by music legend David Bowie. (Photo: The Secret Theatre)

In the two months since the announcement, the show’s pre-sale tickets have sold out, with Crawford planning to add more show dates. Although The Secret Theatre’s experiential productions aren’t your typical stage theatre shows, it’s safe to say that Singapore’s audiences are hungry for more. 

Crawford added: “What’s particularly fascinating is the genuine curiosity and eagerness displayed by Singaporean attendees. Instead of shying away from the unknown or unconventional, they actively seek out and embrace the unique elements we bring to the table. It’s this very spirit of adventure and openness to new experiences that has fueled the success of our shows in Singapore.”

The new normal

Globally, theatres worldwide have taken a hit due to the pandemic. An article by The Guardian in August last year lamented how “the regional theatre movement (in North America) is facing the biggest crisis in its 75-year history”. Quoting a lack of manpower, rising production costs, unexpected delays, and an audience that has taken to staying in more, up to 25 to 30 per cent of theatre-goers have yet to return. Even Broadway in New York wasn’t exempt — in January last year, 12 shows closed early. 

secret theatre
Shakespeare in the Park by the Singapore Theatre Company. (Photo: Singapore Theatre Company)

Locally, the arts and theatre, particularly, have been on the mend since COVID-19. As live shows were put on pause during the height of the pandemic, The Sunday Times published a survey in 2020 stating that those employed in the arts were “non-essential”, akin to a public slap in the face for all in the sector. Unsurprisingly, it was refuted with many passionate responses throughout the arts and creative industries.

In a 2023 report by Centre42, a non-profit organisation dedicated to archiving the history of Singapore theatre, there were 138 live shows in the year, compared to 219 live shows in 2019 pre-pandemic. More original work was showcased last year, totalling 97, compared to 78 in 2020. 

It’s what Charlotte Nors, managing director at the Singapore Theatre Company (STC), calls “the new normal”, reflecting the difference in numbers pre-COVID. She recalled how moved she was to see audiences return when STC, the first performing arts company to return to live shows at the end of 2020, staged Tuesdays with Morrie and their sold-out “The LKY Musical show”. 

secret theatre
Tuesdays with Morrie. (Photo: Singapore Theatre Company)

Inevitably, the pandemic has somewhat changed audiences’ behaviour; she’s noticed that patrons are purchasing tickets at the last minute, which is also echoed in The Guardian. On a larger scale, Base Entertainment Asia, a mass-market production company responsible for the theatre programming for Sands Theatre at Marina Bay Sands, has noticed a few other emerging trends. 

Chantal Prudhomme, CEO of Base Entertainment Asia, shared that she’s noticed an uptick in more “diverse and inclusive programming”, including “exploring a wide range of themes related to culture, identity, and social issues”.

Additionally, an acceleration of digital integration, partly due to the forced isolation of the pandemic, as theatres experiment with technology to supplement their performances. 

“The fusion of technology with live performances presents exciting opportunities for immersive storytelling and innovative staging techniques,” Prudhomme added. 

Wooing the crowds

Perhaps thinking outside the box is the way to go, offering audiences a much-needed adrenaline boost to fire up their appetite for performing arts of all kinds. “I think our experiences appeal to people who aren’t just interested in theatre so that we may have a wider audience,” Crawford pointed out, “If you love concerts, glamour, and an escape to a different world, then we can appeal to that.”

secret theatre
Photo: The Secret Theatre

While immersive theatre productions are nothing new, they’ve been slow to catch on here, even though they open to a warm initial response. Smaller, independent companies such as Andsoforth, a predominantly dining experience with actors and interactive sets, and OH! Open House, an arts organisation that uses experiential art walks and immersive theatre, give local audiences a glimpse of what could be. 

Based in London is the famed Punchdrunk, founded in 2000 and credited with the award-winning “Sleep No More”, a site-specific, interactive show based on Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Its Shanghai debut in 2017, Macbeth, now reimagined in the city in the 1930s, won Best Breakthrough Act and a Thea Award for Outstanding Achievement in Connected Immersion Theatre.

In New York, Third Rail Projects, led by artistic directors Jennine Willett, Tom Pearson, and Zach Morris, have won multiple accolades. Likewise site-specific, their shows include an adaptation of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland set in a hospital ward named Then She Fell. The group also has an education programme with workshops, lectures, and residencies. 

Pushing the boundaries of theatre even more is Control Group Productions in Denver, Colorado, founded by artistic director Patrick Mueller, which takes the experience outdoors. “The End”, a mobile immersive performance on climate change that debuted in 2022, happens in a repurposed school bus that drives around the city, using indoor and outdoor environments and multidisciplinary performing artists. 

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CONTACT, an outdoor immersive performance. (Photo: Singapore Theatre Company)

In 2022, STC did a similarly real-world-meets-fiction show with “CONTACT”, an outdoor live theatre performance where 20 audience members followed actors on the promenade along the Singapore River. The play’s sound was delivered via an app and headphones

Love for theatre never dies

The general sentiment is optimistic as theatre companies continue to find their footing. “Theatre in all its forms is an ever-changing organism that keeps reinventing itself in certain ways. I feel there will always be a place for traditional theatre, as well as what progressive experiences like ours are,” said Crawford. 

Mass market shows such as Hamilton, debuting for the first time in Singapore in April courtesy of Base Entertainment Asia, have stirred up considerable public excitement. Prudhomme also divulged that they will be bringing back the musical Miss Saigon in August, a show that was last in Singapore 23 years ago.

For these coming months at least, audiences in Singapore get to choose if they want to wholly immerse themselves in a world of fiction set in the 80s in New York. And depending on how involved they want to be, they come away with different experiences from the night. 

Crawford sets the scene, “Picture this: You might suddenly find yourself front row at an impromptu mini-concert, the electrifying music resonating through the space as the characters engage in a musical interlude.”