Immersive theater brings fresh life to historical dramas

Wang Yong
Innovative new productions which merge theater with real-world settings leave audiences with a deeper understanding of our collective past.
Wang Yong
SSI ļʱ

Basking in the sun, you amble down the street on a winter afternoon, breathing air fragrant with fallen leaves of plane trees flanking the pedestrian paths.

It seems nothing unusual, except that you wear a headset from which you are listening to a historical drama and, while you walk along, you will “chance upon” actors and actresses at street corners who act right in front of you. You are at only an arm’s length from the performers.

At that moment, you realize you are on the same stage with the artists — the stage being the very streets you stroll along or the street-side buildings you step into. And all of a sudden, you have “relived” history — you feel you have become a character in the historical drama.

On Saturday, I joined a group of drama fans in Shanghai who participated in a test run of such an immersive theater show, which led us — the audience — along the famed Wukang Road, formerly known as Route Ferguson. 

Immersive theater brings fresh life to historical dramas
Wang Yong / SHINE

Audiences watch an actor and an actress who perform in “19 Wukang Road” in an old building on Wukang Road. 

The main plot of the play — “19 Wukang Road” — revolves around a correspondence between a father and daughter in the 1930s and 1940s. The girl and her mother settle on Wukang Road, while her father joins the army to fight against foreign aggressors, and for China’s liberation. It is a story of sacrificing personal interests for the better future of a nation.

As I waited at zebra crossings or elbowed my way through the crowds, I wore a headset which immersed me in the sounds and voices typical of that bygone era — an era of great social upheavals, an era of brave fighting for China’s future. The acoustic effect of the headset was such that I felt I was walking with one foot in history and another in reality. I was in the present and in history at the same time.

It was a magical way to make the audiences “live” in war and peace simultaneously. To most of us who walked throughout the play, it drove home the point that peace is so precious and that we should never forget our revolutionary pioneers who sacrificed their lives for a better China.

As I basked in the sun sifting through the foliage on Saturday, I was gripped by a deep gratitude for where I am today — a life in peace.

At the end of the two-hour play, a narrator speaking from our headsets asked us to turn around and look at people on the street. He said: “They may not know our story, but they are part of the story.”

Indeed. As I watched people in ones and twos at street corners, I felt happy for them and for the moment in which we all found ourselves. Having “walked through” the immersive theater, I suddenly realized that the moment of serenity under the afternoon sun was not an accident. It had a noble cause, and no one should forget it.

Immersive theater brings fresh life to historical dramas
Wang Yong / SHINE

Wearing headsets, audiences walk on Wukang Road while immersed in a drama.

Immersive theater brings fresh life to historical dramas
Wang Yong / SHINE

As they walk along, audiences "chance upon" actresses performing in the open.

In Chinese tradition, theater teaches morals. So it does in many other cultures. Different from traditional theater shows, where performers on the stage and audiences in their seats are separated by a “fourth wall,” an immersive theater allows audience members to become co-actors, or even co-creators of the story. The audiences are no longer “observers” or onlookers. In fact, at the end of the play on Saturday, the audiences gave the producer and director of “19 Wukang Road” quite a few suggestions on how to improve the storytelling process. Their suggestions might not all hold water, but their enthusiasm as participants was impressive.

Immersive theater has come into vogue in China in the past few years, as it can create experiences for audiences to live in the past and at present at the same time, when the boundary between reality and fiction becomes blurred.

An immersive play can be staged outdoors or indoors. I liked “19 Wukang Road” best, not just for its success in juxtaposing war and peace, but also for its outdoor environment in which I could feel the warm sunshine and smell the freshness of the air, while “landing” in a bygone era.

And “19 Wukang Road” is not just about war; a narrator speaking through our headsets guided us through a number of old buildings, each of which has a unique story to tell. As such, the drama helps its audience better understand the city of Shanghai from different angles — its revolutionary history and its evolving social fabric.

Sometimes, the modern brain needs to be immersed in the past to get a clearer understanding of the present. Knowing how our revolutionary pioneers have fought for our peaceful life goes a long way toward making us love our city more.

The drama “In Hell or Earth,” which debuted at Shanghai Dramatic Arts Center on November 12, had a similar effect. It was not an immersive theater show, but it was innovative in its own way. The lofty spirit of the protagonist — Feng Keng (1907-1931), a writer who died a martyr in her pursuit of a bright future of freedom and equality — was presented not so much by her own declarations as by the conversion of a secondary character — Cao Hanmin, a prison guard of the same age as Feng.

The drama gave full play to the guard’s inner spiritual struggle, in which he came to be enlightened by Feng’s ideals and courage. After the heroic death of Feng, he gave up his old principle of life — to survive, physically, at all costs. He finally decided to quit his job, knowing what to pursue for a better life — for himself and for society. On the stage, he “shouted” his decision to Feng, as if she was still alive, standing before him.

A member of the audience told me after the play: “Our happy life today is hard-won. Let’s cherish it.”

Indeed, Shanghai is a city of many stories, and innovative dramas have an advantage in bringing the modern mind closer to history, and deeper into reality.

Immersive theater brings fresh life to historical dramas

A poster for the drama "In Hell or Earth" at Shanghai Dramatic Arts Center

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