One-on-one immersive theater breaks the wall between actor and audience
Theater producer Weng Shihui made a leap of faith to return to Shanghai last November with two one-on-one immersive shows, and an international team of artists.
Such innovative and intimate forms of theater are still new to audiences here, despite the metropolis having welcomed all types of pioneering shows in recent years.
Pandemic control measures were changing constantly, followed by an outbreak after rules were relaxed, all impacting the performance market.
In spite of all the twists and turns, the shows finally premiered in late February. This time, it was Weng and her team who asked audiences also to take a leap of faith – to be blindfolded, tied up in a wheelchair and pushed into a room where your senses are caressed.
Alexander Devriendt, artistic director of the Belgian theater performance company Ontroerend Goed that invented the shows, is confident such trust could be built, based on previous international tours.
"'The Smile off Your Face' is the first show that we traveled the world with. The first country we went to is Morocco. People often ask us what's the difference between audiences across the world. What is fascinating is that the more we traveled, the more we saw similarities than differences," he told Shanghai Daily during rehearsal.
"We take the audience on a journey and give them possibilities."
"A Game of You," on the other hand, is an encounter of oneself in a "labyrinth," where the audience plays the main role and constructs the story.
Both are one-on-one theater, meaning the show is for one audience member at a time.
"Both shows are a cooperative investigation of trust and intimacy with the audience," explained Weng, artistic director of the performing arts production company Tempest Projects that brought the shows to Shanghai.
"In essence, they are created in collaboration with the audience. The performer-spectator relationship is reimagined."
The shows' first round of reviews attest to their confidence.
Both shows premiered in late February to critical acclaims, with top-viewed comments on user aggregate site Douban saying "buy tickets now before it gets too popular" and "refreshing and never-seen."
Now the artists will try out English-speaking sessions, well, because "they can" and because "it's Shanghai."
"The practical answer is that we have such talented actors with international backgrounds that it would be a shame not to do it in English."
"Both shows grew out of a European context. It felt slightly like a different show when we do it in English and in Mandarin, though the essence remains the same. It's like a Bach's variation. Different languages offer a different color, touch, rhythm and perspective."
She also considers it a pity for a city as international as Shanghai to be missing quite a lot of international shows due to the pandemic over the last three years, part of the reason she braved to take the shows back last November.
"We were aware of the risks, in theory, but it still became more difficult in reality," she recalled.
"We experienced the policies in all its phases and glory since the conception of this project at the end of 2021. We were walking on shifting sands as we maneuvered between different situations."
Intriguingly, the unusual difficulties during the pandemic, in which many people around the world felt it was a test to their personal space, is a major factor that Weng decided to bring the show.
"We lived in such an isolated state, yet collectively we experienced so much isolation together," she explained.
"These two shows provide a space of 30 minutes dedicated to each person, for them to be heard, to be felt, to be connected in a strange and wonderful way."
Shirley Yu, a financial analyst and theater lover, really appreciated such dedication and has been recommending the shows to friends while considering a second run of the show herself.
"I've seen many shows in Shanghai, and other countries, but this is very unique. It's not your average immersive show that is really popular now," she said.
"This is not only immersive. For half an hour, I own the stage. All care and focus is on me. I actually felt cured. It's also unique in the way that how you feel depends on your input and your interaction with the actors – it could be different for everyone, which makes it hard to describe. All I could tell my friends was – you just really have to try it!"
1. "A Game of You"
Date: March 21, 28, 2-4:30pm
Ticket: 229 yuan (www.247tickets.com/t/a-game-of-you)
2. "The Smile off Your Face"
Date: March 21, 28, 6-8:30pm
Ticket: 229 yuan (www.247tickets.com/t/the-smile-off-your-face)
Venue: Shanghai Culture Square
Address: 597 Fuxing Rd M.