Hit immersive show Alice’s Adventures Underground is poised to entice a whole new audience next month when it opens in Shanghai. The artistic director of creator Les Enfants Terribles tells Eleanor Turney about navigating pitfalls including state approval and why he’s thrilled to introduce China to what for many is a new form of theatre
After a run at London’s Vaults in 2015 and 2017, Les Enfants Terribles’ Alice’s Adventures Underground is heading to Shanghai. “When it was first suggested, it sounded like one of those things you talk about but doesn’t actually happen,” laughs artistic director Oliver Lansley. “But here we are.”
“Chinese producer Xie Yi saw the show first time around in 2015, and afterwards said she’d love to take it to China. She thought it would be perfect. It kind of came out of nowhere for us but it’s been really exciting. She’s done a remarkable job of pulling it together,” says Lansley.
“We’re really noticing a huge trend for immersive theatre and that type of experience, and seeing how that is gradually creeping into different markets across the world. We’re very excited to be one of the groups spearheading that and taking it to different places, and finding techniques to be able to do so.”
Les Enfants Terribles’ show is an immersive journey into Wonderland, creating a fully formed world that blends story-telling, music, theatre, puppetry and circus. The production will spend four months in Shanghai, in a specially constructed space made of lightweight, detachable containers so the show can pack up and tour. In Shanghai, 150,000 tickets will be available before the show tours around China.
While the UK has a long history of immersive, participatory and site-specific work, it is less common in China. Developed by Les Enfants Terribles and Emma Brunjes Productions in Shanghai, the Chinese version of Alice’s Adventures Underground will be imported by WE Culture Connect and produced by Yidiantong Cultural Communication Corporation.
“You can see there’s this incredible appetite in China for new, exciting, unusual work,” says Lansley. “There’s this feeling that their doors are opening and they’re keen to experience more things. Immersive theatre is at the heart of that in some ways; there’s definitely this big appetite over there for walking into these worlds.
“It’s exciting genuinely to be breaking new ground. In London, you’ve got audiences that are familiar with immersive shows, but in China, they might not have even heard the term ‘immersive theatre’.”
Breaking new ground is certainly exciting, but also nerve-racking, admits Lansley. “We did had some concerns, initially, about how the audience would react. But Punchdrunk has got Sleep No More in Shanghai; when we went to see that, we realised that, really, people are people wherever they are and whatever language they speak.
“We all understand the world through stories; that’s how we learn. Everything is within the framework of stories, and therefore there’s something about stories that is universal.”
He continues: “I think there’s something very basic in the way we all understand stories, so providing you make those elements accessible, it actually doesn’t make a huge difference what language you’re speaking. We’ve done The Terrible Infants [the company’s award-winning show for younger audiences that blends puppetry, music and performance] in non-English-speaking countries and we’re always surprised by how people understand what’s going on without the use of language because they’re so familiar with the form of stories.
“I’m less worried about that than we were, and again there are a ton of people who have come to Alice who have never been to an immersive show before, and they’ve managed. As long as we do our job, hopefully audiences around the world will take to it in the same way as English audiences have.”
1. National Theatre Live shows are popular in Beijing and Shanghai; shows screened in China include Frankenstein with Benedict Cumberbatch, who has a huge fan base in the country.
2. The 2017 Olivier Awards were streamed to China for the first time, via Youku, a Chinese video-hosting site.
3. Immersive theatre company Punchdrunk opened Sleep No More in December 2016 in a disused five-storey building in the Jing’an district of Shanghai. It is the third longest-running show in China, and has sold more than 60,000 tickets.
4. The Beijing Playhouse is known as ‘China’s English Broadway Theatre’, presenting musicals and plays in English for a Chinese audience.
5. Other UK shows, including works by the Royal Shakespeare Company and War Horse, have toured to China recently.
The piece has been translated into Mandarin – a difficult task, presumably, given Lewis Carroll’s fondness for nonsense.
“There are so many English-isms in it,” agrees Lansley. “It is quite a delicate thing to play with. Our directors are bilingual and they’re helping with the translation process directly. With immersive theatre there’s always an element of colloquialism and improvisation.
“It’s definitely a unique and an ongoing process for us, but I think we’re starting to get there, but of course it’s hard to tell because none of us speaks Mandarin. We’re going to have to trust that they’re saying the right things.”
Translation is always a tricky aspect of taking shows to different territories, and with Alice, Les Enfants Terribles has more than just the script to worry about: “The thing I think is difficult about it is the wordplay, because there’s so much and it’s all about the misuse of words, and words meaning different things, and so obviously that is the stuff that is harder to translate directly,” says Lansley.
“The key is to ask: what is the feel and the emotion of the story you really need to get across in this scene? And as long as that’s clear, you understand what’s happening. It’s making sure that what we capture is an essence of the world and the feelings you get through the space, and also fundamentally make sure that the audience’s journey still feels really clear and relatable.
“For the audience that comes to it in London, it is Alice in Wonderland, but you’re not there to see Alice in Wonderland, you’re there to be Alice and go to Wonderland. So as long as that emotional and physical experience is there, I think, hopefully, the feeling of the show will still translate pretty well.”
China is obviously a very different cultural context for the show and this is something Les Enfants Terribles has been thinking about a lot.
“There are a lot of cultural differences, of course,” explains Lansley. “The thing I’ve found most different is merchandise – the way different cultures consume different media, and what people want to see. It’s very interesting to compare that between cultures, especially around the merchandise and the marketing and the way things are sold.
“In China, we’re got so much ‘merch’. There are Alice dolls being made. And there are lots of marketing things regarding the images, and putting them on phone cases and things like that. If you were to do that for an immersive theatre production in this country, people would find it very consumerist and commercial and tacky. Over there, we’re finding that if people have been to an experience, they want a memento, something physical they can take away.”
The other big cultural differences are around China’s one-party state, and censorship. “The whole system works very differently over there,” says Lansley. “It’s very easy to forget that China is a communist country and everything needs to be approved. It’s a serious process in terms of government approval for all the scripts. That’s a huge mountain of paperwork, but thankfully it’s not one that I’ve had to scale.
“China is at a very fascinating time in its history; over a short space of time it’s opening up to the Western world significantly. You can see this merging of communism and capitalism, and it’s fascinating to observe and to see how those two things move forwards hand in hand.”
It’s been a very interesting process, concludes Lansley. “We’re hoping to take Alice across the world, so this has been very instructive. We’re in talks about taking the show to other places, including America, so that’s very exciting. And we’re in talks to take a few of our other shows internationally, including China, so hopefully off the back of Alice that will happen.”
Artistic director: Oliver Lansley
Senior creative producer: James Seager
Number of productions (2016-17): Eight
Audience figures (2016-17): approximately 300,000
Staff: Seven, plus five associates
Turnover (2016-17): £1.25 million
Alice’s Adventures Underground production budget: £3 million
Funders: Arts Council England and private investment
Key contacts: Oliver Lansley and James Seager, email email@example.com