Art & Culture - 06/13/18

Dining in Wonderland

Written by Daniel L

Two theatre buffs are redefining Singapore’s performing arts culture, all through a pop-up dining and theatre concept that puts audiences right in the thick of the action.

Andsoforth is a Singapore-based nomadic restaurant that doubles up as an immersive theatre at secret venues around the city. Its founders Stuart Wee and Emily Png promise intrigue, mystery and a human connection at the heart of it all. With 28 productions held since its inception in 2014, they have captivated close to 2,800 guests per show through gripping storylines and compelling set designs that stretch the imagination and push the boundaries.

To fathom how a concept like Andsoforth came to be, Emily points to London, a haven for immersive theatre, as their main source of inspiration. “We went there in 2014 and saw a couple of live shows from Secret Cinema and Gingerline,” she tells us, and there the idea began. Immersive theatre may have been well established in the United Kingdom, but it was still a relatively new kid on the block in Singapore. By blending food and drink with drama and interactivity, Andsoforth set out to change that. Each production runs for three evenings a week, for a stretch of two to three months. Judging from the 100 to 120 attendees per evening, and the fact that tickets for the most recent shows have all been snapped up well before their debut, it’s clear they’re succeeding.

Each Andsoforth production revolves around a secret theme and location that’s revealed only to participants. Past events include The Imaginarium of Disco David, an interdimensional take on how disco’s appeal has been taken over by hip hop, and Adventures in Grimmsneyland, a satirical spin on Disney fairy tales. “Audiences become part of the show’s characters and go through five different rooms in groups of 20 to 25,” Stuart says. “People usually start off a little awkward, but soon get out of their comfort zone and socialise, eventually having fun.”

That fun comes in all kinds of unconventional, sometimes controversial, forms. From ballerinas dancing en pointe to drag queens playing fairy godmothers and even synchronised swimming thrown into the mix, it really is about expecting the unexpected and taking in the theatrics, front-row style. Alcoholic drinks beckon audiences in at the beginning of their adventure, and a four-course food menu, prepared by chef Jason Ang, formerly from the famed Pollen restaurant, accompanies each room and sets the stage for the mood to follow. Making all that happen takes superhuman effort. Each production takes at least two months to conceptualise and involves an ever-changing team of actors, chefs, set designers, lighting designers, soundscape artists, scriptwriters and costume designers. And each set is completely redesigned from scratch to ensure new, never-before-seen stages that bring audiences to another reality. “Like opening a Christmas present, you won’t know what to expect when you unravel our show,” Stuart tells us. “That’s when we blow your mind.” Previously, you would have had to keep that spectacle to yourselves, but recently the founders have chosen to lift their ban on photography, allowing audiences to spread the word via social media.

Being hands-on in this business has afforded Stuart countless memorable moments, but his favourite by far is seeing the emotions of the audience pre and post-show. “I double up as bartender event night, and out of the 2,800 guests at each production, there will be a handful of haters,” he admits. “I’m totally okay with that, I’d rather they have a strong opinion than be on the fence…I don’t intend on doing shows that please everyone.” For those that love the experience, however, the sense of fun is irresistible and the human connections it inspires, impossible to ignore. Audiences are thrust into situations where they have to break the ice by performing dance moves or diving into a pit full of plastic balls, all simplistic acts designed to help them loosen up and be themselves. The founders have witnessed random strangers become friends and book a party bus for post-event clubbing.

With over 28 shows done and dusted, it’s hard to imagine that Andsoforth struggled in its infancy. “The founding years were tough. We poured all the money earned back into the business and were in debt at one point,” Emily recalls. Still, the couple stuck to their guns, confident that Singapore would come around to this artform. This year has seen a major shift towards profitability, but the power couple are well aware that there’s much to conquer. Besides searching for a bigger space to stage their next event, they’ll be heading to Scotland later this year for Edinburgh’s Fringe Festival, the world’s largest arts festival, always on the lookout for inspiration. The end goal? “A grand show within the next six years that takes up the entire building and rivals what Secret Cinema and Punchdrunk are doing in London,” he declares.

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