EastIndie: Moulin Dream sees VAST teaming up with Shanghai’s legendary Pearl theatre. How did this collaboration come about?
Brian Wang: We were already familiar with the Pearl because of our previous performances there over the past few years, including The Princess Bride and The 39 Steps. We were planning a different interactive/immersive performance earlier this year, but we met with Grant and Frank from The Pearl and thought that a new collaboration would be a more effective and worthwhile investment. Also, The Pearl’s venue is absolutely beautiful and lends itself perfectly to an interactive theatre show.
EI: The show is based on Moulin Rouge and Dream of the Red Chamber. How have these stories influenced the production?
BW: Moulin Rouge is one of my favorite films of all-time and I’ve always felt it was avant-garde and underappreciated at its time. The frenetic, ultra-vibrant fusion of classic and contemporary music directly inspired our own song list and mélange of styles and stories. I’ve always admired Baz Luhrmann’s method of updating Shakespeare or La Boheme and felt that was the only way we could attempt to introduce Dream of the Red Chamber to a new generation who might see it as boring or old-fashioned. Both stories share common themes of beauty and sadness, artistic performances, dream sequences, forbidden love, admiration of women, poetry sessions and heavy drinking. By bringing them together in the ambiance of 1920s Shanghai, we created something like a fusion burrito – French/Australian/Chinese content with a Great World/Old Shanghai wrap.
The show has evolved constantly since we brought the team in and we’re excited for it to continue evolving with our audience.
EI: What drew you to the idea of interactive/immersive theatre?
BW: I first saw Sleep No More in New York five years ago and was immediately inspired. I couldn’t fall asleep that night and stayed up writing down notes of inspiration on my phone. When I heard that Sleep No More was coming to Shanghai and holding auditions here, I was excited about the prospect of being involved in the actual performance. I auditioned for the show’s foreign producers on their first visit and made the initial cut, but then wasn’t called back. I was so depressed that they hadn’t selected me, but then later discovered that they hadn’t chosen any Shanghai locals. I went on to audition for them twice more during the following year and when I didn’t hear back again, I took the failures quite personally. Eventually, I told myself to quit wallowing and feeling sorry for myself and started my first interactive show shortly thereafter.
EI: Moulin Dream offers audiences the opportunity to choose their own adventure and follow 24 different actors across six different story lines. Tell us about the preparation for such a complex experience and the challenges of bringing the show to stage.
BW: It’s a collaborative show that has required the contributions of several actors, singers, dancers, visual designers, and sound designers over six weeks of rehearsals. As the director, I conceived of the overall structure and skeleton for three months before we finally brought the entire cast and crew together. The show has evolved constantly since we brought the team in and we’re excited for it to continue evolving with our audience.
EI: What can people expect from the show?
BW: The audience can expect a night of constant entertainment. There’s something for everyone – from sensual cabaret shows and breathtaking aerialists to contemporary classic songs and golden oldies from 1920s Shanghai. For those who enjoy love stories, we have several stories of star-crossed lovers to follow, including the classic La Boheme storyline that inspired Moulin Rouge to a Dream of the Red Chamber story line. For folks who are more interested in the unique history of Shanghai, they can choose to follow various speakeasy characters and delve into the underworld.
The major difference is that our performances are up close and intimate, so that audiences can feel the emotions of our actors on a deeper, more visceral level.
EI: The Pearl is already one of Shanghai’s most atmospheric venues. How will you be transporting the audience back to the 1920s?
BW: I completely agree with you about the unique ambiance at The Pearl – it is one of the major factors why we wanted to partner with Grant and his team. Our actors and singers are using the entire theatre as our stage instead of the traditional proscenium. The second floor is now a living space for our performers, with individual spaces for our artists to prepare for their shows, along with a room for our resident fortune teller and tarot card reader. We also completely transformed the third floor into a secret speakeasy hideaway with opportunities for period-specific gaming, so anyone with a penchant for playing games of chance can take advantage of the chance to watch and learn.
EI: How will the show be told for multilingual audiences?
BW: Our cast is half Chinese, half foreign and most of our performances are non-verbal. We experimented with the same model in a previous show and found that audiences could still understand things even with limited English. However, Moulin Dream is still essentially a musical, so the performances and story lines are universal. I’d compare this to attending an opera or ballet, in which the stories are told via movement or in a completely different language like Italian or German. The major difference is that our performances are up close and intimate, so that audiences can feel the emotions of our actors on a deeper, more visceral level.
EI: Take us through your process for assembling actors for such a range of diverse story lines.
BW: The collaborative process has required a cast and production team who trust one another and are adaptable enough to handle a general feeling of unstructuredness. Most of our actors were part of our previous show, so they already knew what to expect. New members have needed more time to get familiar with the unsettling feeling of not knowing exactly what will happen at any given rehearsal or show. Our interactive theatre performances are not like traditional shows. Instead, the actors must be prepared for the unexpected on any given night, all while staying in character.
Our performers were genuinely having fun and playing with one another, creating authentic moments that made me laugh, cry and think.
EI: Does interactive theatre require a certain level of improvisation from the cast?
BW: I’d characterize our performers as a long-form dramatic improv team whose goal is not to make our audience laugh, but to think and feel. ‘Improv’ generally has a connotation of being short-form and comedic, so I’d prefer not to use that terminology, but there’s a lot of overlap and our actors are encouraged to play with the audience and with each other. Every night our show evolves and improves because of the nuances brought out by new interactions.
EI: What has been your favorite moment in preparing for the show?
BW: It has been an absolute pleasure to be at The Pearl for rehearsals every week and slowly begin inhabiting the space. Last month, we needed to create an impromptu video of our rehearsal for our government license. Although it was a stressful, last-minute request, our actors raided the dressing room for whatever costumes and props they could find and jumped into rehearsal with verve and enthusiasm. As I roamed throughout the venue recording their performances, it was the first moment I saw our vision becoming a reality. Our performers were genuinely having fun and playing with one another, creating authentic moments that made me laugh, cry and think. That was one of my favorite memories.
EI: Is there anything you would like to mention about the show?
BW: Theatre is ephemeral. I’ve been proud and blessed to have participated in or attended so many memorable shows, whose usual life-spans were only 2-3 performances or a few weekends. I hope everyone takes advantage of the opportunity to enjoy our original and unique performance.
VAST’s Moulin Dream runs every Thursday, Saturday and Sunday evening at 7-9PM from October 17 to November 17 at The Pearl theatre in Shanghai. Tickets here.