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Richard Crawford, secret theatre
Secret Theatre’s founder, Richard Crawford

Interview: Secret Theatre director Richard Crawford

“This particular show could be seen as violent but I feel it provides an enlightening message”

Written by
Olivia Lai

Hong Kong’s worst kept secret and immersive theatre experience Secret Theatre is returning to Hong Kong for the third time this November with a new show, Project Mayhem, taking place at another mystery location.

The travelling theatre show that started life in New York City has been running events in London, LA and Sydney in recent years. For this latest edition, if you can figure it out from the title, the mystery theatre project is tackling themes of fraternity, masculinity, violence and psychological warfare. The hush-hush performance also features incredible immersive storytelling, site-specific set design and roaming characters. Details of the venue are not disclosed until you buy a ticket. We chat with Richard Crawford, the troupe’s American founder and director, about Secret Theatre’s beginnings and what Hongkongers can expect next month... 

Can you describe what Secret Theatre is to people who are unfamiliar with it?
Secret Theatre projects are immersive, site-specific theatrical shows where you are invited into the narrative. Previously in Hong Kong, audiences have helped hunt and kill vampires and assisted the police in finding a serial killer. 

How did you come to establish the troupe?
Secret Theatre was established in New York in 2008 and was a knee-jerk reaction to stale broadway shows that were primarily attended by tourists. We wanted to produce shows using the wonderful and interesting spaces and buildings around New York where people working in the city could come and have more of an engaging experience. By allowing the audience into the show, we felt we were really crossing a creative line. We also wanted to add a sense of the unexpected and adventure by keeping all the elements involved a secret. This then led to shows in LA, Edinburgh, London and Hong Kong. 

As founder and director of Secret Theatre, how do you keep things fresh year after year?
We are the only company in our field that produces new material by emerging writers as well as adaptations of classic novels, films and plays, so the audience really doesn’t know what kind of adventure they’ll be going on.

Can you tell us a bit about your creative process? How do you translate a play from paper to a site-specific venue? Or do you get intrigued by a venue first?
It depends. Sometimes I create the production around a fantastic venue but if the original work is a thrilling ride, I’ll adapt a show to fit a particular space. 

What are the biggest challenges in adapting the same performance in different cities?
There are many challenges when adapting a show to a new city. Costs, visas and a travelling team make it expensive, which is why many immersive companies don’t travel. Finding a great space is also challenging in a new city, but in the case of Hong Kong, I have a good team here who help with that. 

How important is audience participation – how would performers encourage it if an audience is particularly unresponsive?
We are inviting you into a world where the action unfolds in real time – you can engage as much as you are comfortable with. Obviously, if you really get involved, you will have a more fulfilling experience but the design of the show is that the action is such that even an unresponsive audience won’t affect the wild adventure we all go on.

Secret Theatre is back for the third time in this city. What makes Hong Kong so unique and makes you return?
We’ve worked hard to lay solid foundations in Hong Kong as the audiences really engage with the ride. It’s also been important to me that we can offer homegrown talent the chance to perform in our show. This show is set in Hong Kong, so I really wanted the leads to be Asian and I’ve been really lucky to have great, talented performers from Hong Kong leading the show.

The show is in town for almost a month. How do you make sure the venue and plot remain a secret?
It’s difficult as we have to set the tone and mood for the shows in our marketing. This particular show could be seen as violent but I feel it provides an enlightening message today. Keeping it a secret once the shows open can be difficult, but that’s out of our hands.

What’s next in the pipeline for you?
I’m forever in the present! Our current show has had offers from Sydney and LA but right now, I'm 100 percent focused on delivering the goods in Hong Kong. And to be honest, I can’t bloody wait! 

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