You’re on a boat heading to Luk Chau, an island just off Lamma, with a bunch of strangers. There’s a bar on board, the music is from the 1920s and just as you’re starting to relax with your second drink, a man staggers up from below deck covered in blood.
It’s about now that you realise this is not your average night out in Hong Kong – and it’s about to get even weirder. The music cuts out and you hear dogs barking in the distance. A fog light appears through the mist, a small boat approaches and everyone is ordered off. At the end of a short jetty is a house where everyone is split into groups and interrogated.
At least, that’s what happened at last year’s Secret Theatre Project, SE7EN Deadly Sins, an immersive theatrical production and the first of its kind in Hong Kong.
For those not familiar with immersive theatre, it’s a style of production in which the audience members play an active role. They are part of the story, however small their role may be, and are in the middle of the action, free to roam the performance space and interact with the actors.
The added thrill of Secret Theatre Projects is that they are secret. You only find out where to meet when you buy your ticket and even then you don’t know where you are going – you just know the dress code and a few leaked hints.
“Last year people were just told to get to pier 10 and find a man with the ‘hat of death’. And don’t wear high heels,” says Secret Theatre producer Daniel Burke.
As the audience milled about pier 10 in Central, a young female beggar approached asking for spare change. She was an actress – the show had already begun – but not everyone was quite up to speed. One newbie to immersive theatre called the police to report her.
There’s an obvious challenge to previewing a show that is secret. Last year’s production hints at the lengths that the crew go to make the performance convincing. It was many months in the making. When a friend of Burke, who owned the house on Luk Chau, said she was considering selling or renting the house, he jumped at the chance to base the production in this remote location and the nine actors, mostly UK based, came out for the show.
“All the cast stayed in the house – it turned into a something like [reality TV show] Big Brother,” says Burke.
Last year’s show was a success – its six-week run was sold out. Burke and director Richard Crawford are hoping for a repeat of that success and say that the formula – which was born in New York and honed in London – is well suited to Hong Kong, where audiences are starved of exciting, creative shows.
“Word spread really fast last year. Hong Kong is a concentrated place and people are out and about all the time. We were sold out last year – by the end people were begging for tickets,” says Burke.
It’s advisable to book early this year – but you won’t know what you’re booking tickets for because Burke, as always, is keeping his lips sealed. It’s reasonable to assume that the show will be based on a well-known film since all the previous productions have been. Edward Scissorhands was staged in an abandoned New York factory, while Tarantino cult classic Reservoir Dogs was put on in a London warehouse.
Last year’s show was likely such a success because it was new and fresh, making theatre not a passive experience but a real adventure, and also because it was tailored for Hong Kong. Unlike some of the fabulous Arts Festival performances that are brought in from London and New York, this was a production made especially for our city, and one that couldn’t be staged anywhere else.
And this year Burke promises the same. That’s the only clue he’s giving just now. “We are looking to do something exclusive to Hong Kong, using it to its advantage,” he says.
It was Burke’s idea to bring the show to Hong Kong, but it was Crawford who launched the Secret Theatre Project in New York. The two had met at Newcastle University in 2002 – Burke was studying film production and Crawford studied theatre – and after university Crawford moved to New York, where he first staged Secret Theatre, while Burke came to Hong Kong in 2008. On a trip back to London he met Crawford, who by then had returned to Britain, and tried to convince him to stage the show in Hong Kong.
When Crawford came to Hong Kong, he was blown away. “He said it reminded him of New York crossed with Ibiza. He saw the potential and we cracked on with a plan,” says Burke.
For anyone wary about signing up for something that might thrust them unwillingly into the spotlight, fear not – you won’t be forced to participate.
“We’re not interested in picking on people. We can gauge the audience and know which people are interested in getting more involved and which ones want to hang back,” says Burke.
Regardless of whether you want to fully immerse yourself in the Secret Theatre world or just stick your toe in, it’s going to be an adventure. It’s not often you get dressed up for a night out and have absolutely no idea where you’re going.
Secret Theatre, October 29 to December 15, secret location (to be revealed on purchase of ticket), HK$668 (early bird), ticketflap.com