The idea began in 2009 at an abandoned warehouse in New York. Secret Theatre Director, Richard Crawford shares his insightful experiences with us, along with the heavy criticism he has received.
For stage director and writer, Richard Crawford, there’s always constant pressure and expectation in every one of his productions, especially the adaptations. Initially starting his career as an actor, the Secret Theatre director has directed numerous stage shows across the world from Cirque du Soleil’s Dralion to Tim Burton’s Edward Scissorhands in New York.
Similar to his shows, Crawford is always on the move. From New York to Hong Kong, and Hong Kong to London, Secret Theatre specialises in site-specific immersive theatres and have since gained wide popularity, however this wasn’t always the case. The idea for an immersive theatre experience came into being due to Crawford and his team facing funding issues. The space had no seats for the audience and there wasn’t a stage for the actors. Despite the financial difficulties, Crawford had always harboured a passion to act and write ever since his teenage years. Directing was something that appealed to him.
We sat down over coffee to get to know Crawford a little bit better, and how he has managed to reach this far since his warehouse days. From discussing his morning routines to taking creative risks as an independent company, we find out just what goes on inside Crawford’s mind. Amongst his successes, Crawford also voices the oppression and difficulties he had to face at the start of Secret Theatre.
What brings you to Hong Kong?
I’m here to do our third show in Hong Kong. These are secret site-specific theatre shows rather than the normal sit-in theatre. We use different types of venues in Hong Kong and other cities. The first show in Hong Kong we did in a Mansion on an island and the audience went on a boat journey. This new show portrays a very interesting journey in a different part of time. We think it should be a really cool ride.
Besides Hong Kong, what else have you been up to?
The show that I have just opened in Hong Kong, I have opened in London too. We ran the show in London and it went really well, so we know that we can take it to Hong Kong. I just sold a show to Netflix, so I was over in Los Angeles and sold the script there. That’s pretty much what I have been doing this year, just bouncing between Secret Theatre and my own writing work.
How do you start your day?
It depends on the city but it all changed when I got my dog. So now, my day starts by taking my dog for a walk, which, if anybody doesn’t have a dog, is the best thing to do. You have to take it to the park, so instead of taking it to the MTR, you are forced to surround yourself with nature, and you see the little thing wagging its tail.
How did an idea for an immersive theatre experience begin?
The company started in Brooklyn, New York. We were all living in a big warehouse and none of us could afford to see theatre shows on Broadway. We were bored by what was happening in the theatre scene in New York, so we thought ‘Why not put on a show in the warehouse we were living in?’.
Audiences were sent a secret location to come to the warehouse to watch the show and they would be immersed in it. We didn’t have a theatre, we didn’t have seats, so we found ourselves creating site-specific immersive theatres in New York which accumulated in a production of Edward Scissorhands. It was a really interesting start to site-specific immersive theatre.
Which is your favourite scene you’ve done so far in your career?
I wrote a semi-autobiography for a show. It was myself, and then I died at the end. It was quite nice to see myself die on the stage. That was probably my favourite moment.
The first show in Hong Kong was special because we had speedboats, A haunted mansion and this jungle area. I remember standing on that mansion seeing all these boats coming across. That was probably the best thing that I’ve ever seen that I’ve done, and that’s credit to Hong Kong.
With so many critically acclaimed shows under your belt, do you feel pressure every time you work on a new project?
There’s always a huge amount of pressure and expectation, especially if it’s something well known. There’s a certain level that you need to hit and I’m always a trainwreck before we open the show because I want them to be really good and I want the audience to have a really good time.
Anyone who works in the arts industry has probably got the same issues of time, money and being able to make it work. It’s high pressure and quite stressful, but when you pull it off it’s super fun–an enjoyable feeling.
How do you deal with the negativity and criticisms?
I think it’s difficult. Any artist who works hard to put something out there and then somebody savages it–it’s not nice and it doesn’t exactly fill you with joy, but I don’t dismiss it.
Sometimes it’s because they didn’t like what we’re doing. Not everything we do will appeal everybody. Your interests might not be somebody else’s interest. What I put out there is what I like and it isn’t in everyone’s interests. You just need to accept that. Fortunately, our responses have been overwhelmingly positive so we know that we’re going in the right direction. We just have to believe in the project itself.
Have you ever left a scene out to get better ratings ?
No, I wouldn’t leave out a scene for better ratings. Critical reviews are becoming less and less relevant– the audience reviews my shows. I’m more interested in what the audience thinks than a critic. For better or for worse, I’ve never changed something because I wanted a good review or commercial success. I’ve always felt that whenever you do an adaptation, be true to that test but make it your own. Don’t want to change it too much though, as you want to pay your respects.
If you change it for a critic, it’s like you’re lying to yourself. I haven’t always had good reviews; I’ve had 5 star reviews and I’ve had 1 star reviews.
I’ve been doing this for 13 years now and sometimes the shows that got high reviews–I’m thinking how did that happen? The best review that I ever had was a show I did in LA and I knew it wasn’t very good, but then I’ve done shows that I thought were the best shows that I had ever done and I’ve been critically savaged. You can’t be precious.
How do you know when an idea is worth turning into a theatrical production?
We’ve done film adaptations, we’ve done book adaptations, we’ve done new shows as well of new writing. With the immersive theatre, it’s just how involved can the audience get and how good of a time can the audience have in that production.
If I was personally buying a ticket for the show, I’m thinking ‘Would I enjoy to be in that world?’ If I do, then it’s a good place to start. We’ve done everything from Romeo and Juliet to Edward Scissorhands so it’s a lot of different genres. The difficult thing is to make it work immersively so that the audience can be involved and play a noticeable part.
Do you get easily get impressed by theatre these days?
Yes, absolutely. There’s a new play in London called The Ferryman and I haven’t been impressed by theatre in a long time but this blew me away–the writing was incredible, the acting was amazing, the young children in it were sublime, and that really inspired me to how amazing theatre can be.
Punchdrunk have amazing sets and it’s different to what I do. They’re more about each person having a different experience and exploring a world, where mine’s bringing you into my world and putting you on a theatrical ride. I’m always impressed with their sets. I don’t try to stay in my own bubble, I try to see as much of what other people are doing.
Which is your favourite TV show and movie?
Peaky Blinders is an amazing British series, I’m watching Narcos right now and the French film Elle is a pretty good.
I like watching shows with Australian Actors like Ben Mendelsohn and Jack Mcconnell–any film he’s in, he brings something to it. I follow good actors and even if the film isn’t great, they can save it.
What marks a good story for you?
I’ve done so many different productions, so I guess the goodness in the dark side that comes out in shows are appealing. A lot of the shows tend to be quite tragic–lovers die, brothers die and I guess that it’s quite interesting.
I doubt we’ll ever do a rom-com as I don’t think that it will be engaging. Most people have tough lives–life is tough, the world can be quite an uncomfortable place. The new show we’re doing in Hong Kong says something about the world we’re living in.
In terms of characters, I like the type who shows vulnerability and have more dimensions than the ‘Sex Goddess’ or the ‘Macho Hunk’–it’s just a one-way traffic in the narrative. Everyone has a vulnerable side and sometimes people fight against that so it’s nice to see it in a character.
Do you think storywriting has changed over the past 10 years?
When I was in LA they told me there are plenty of actors, directors and producers but not enough good scripts and writers. It’s a fact people read; if you’re not going to read books then you’re not going to be inspired to be a writer.
There are fewer writers out there and you can feel it when you watch Netflix. There is a sea of content but a lot of it isn’t good. When you go to a cinema; it’s a nightmare. There are 20 films showing and just one of those films might be good.
Have you worked with any actors that couldn’t cope with your style of directing?
I’ve worked with a complete range of different actors. From real divas to actors who weren’t humble or nervous about everything but they tend to pull off the best performances.
It’s two visions coming together (between a director and the actor) so sometimes that can cause some friction. However, you just have to work through it. One of the most difficult actors I’ve ever worked with was a nightmare but he was electric to watch. It is what it is.
What are your thoughts on method acting?
Not many people know what method acting is and there’s a huge amount of confusion in the media. For example, an actor called Shia LaBeouf plays a homeless guy so he starts sleeping in a park.
Anyone who wants to know what method acting is should read a book called A Dream of Passion by Lee Strasberg. It’s taking your real life experience and putting it into a performance. I’m inspired by Lee Strasberg and my warm-up for my actors is developed from Lee’s warm-up.
Last but not least, a question for fun; if there was an empty billboard, what would you paint on it?
Let me tell you this. I am Scottish and I was shocked to my core to read in The Guardian that Scotland has been voted the most beautiful country in the world.
So I feel like I will pay homage to Scotland by painting a beautiful old mountain with a nice big lake and a river going through it, and maybe Mel Gibson riding through that on a horse like Braveheart. It would say “Come to Scotland, it’s the most beautiful country in the world.” That’s a billboard that I would like to see.