So On, Andsoforth: The Story of Singapore’s First (And Only) Immersive Theatre Company
Imagine stepping into a nondescript industrial building and finding not a gritty, empty concrete room, but a classy, atmospheric bar run by quirky characters. You buy a drink, and before you know it, an enchanted creatures enters the room and begins to dance. You’re led by them down a mysterious path, crawling through hidden doors or sliding into a ball pit, and before you know it, you’re well on your way into a fantastical world unlike anything you might ever experience ‘in real life’.
That, in essence, is the basic idea behind the concepts Andsoforth, Singapore’s first and only full-time immersive theatre company, have come up with in the five years since their inception. Founded in March 2014 by husband and wife team Stuart Wee and Emily Png, Andsoforth has only grown in popularity, with a loyal fanbase not just in Singapore, but even garnering interest from international audiences. Each time, their concepts have only gotten bigger and better, with sprawling multi-room experiences that serve to surprise with each door opened, or a full night’s worth of programmes that evoke laughter, wonder, and pure joy.
But how and why exactly does one set up a company like Andsoforth? “Back before we started Andsoforth, we went to London because of a business trip with my previous company to do some music mastering and album producing,” says Stuart. “At that time, Emily was still my girlfriend, and I told my boss I had plans to bring her along on the trip and propose to her. My boss obviously couldn’t refuse that, so Em ended up coming along on the trip.”
“But beyond the proposal,” he continues. “Em was really inquisitive and was finding all these cool things for us to do together in our spare time in London. We ended up discovering plenty of immersive theatre, in a time when it was just beginning to gain traction in London, with a couple of supper clubs and other experiences. But the one company that left an impact on us was Gingerline, which really opened our eyes to how it was possible to combine theatre, music, set design, food, and transport audiences to this completely different world.”
Following the trip, both Stuart and Emily left inspired, and wondered if anything of the sort had been in done in Singapore before. There were one or two attempts at it from time to time, but the companies that did try either stopped doing them altogether, or folded. “We had this crazy idea then, and just asked ourselves why not us?” says Stuart.
“Of course, there was this huge learning curve for us because we’ve never done anything like it before, and we don’t come from a theatre background at all,” he continues. “So a lot of our beginnings was all about collaborations, where we aimed to collaborate with freelancers who valued the craft and the skill involved, make something together, and give our audiences a crazy night out with all these unique concepts, learning the system step by step.”
2 years after it was set-up, Andsoforth was contacted by the Singapore Tourism Board (STB), who asked them for assistance on a project happening in London. It turned out that Gingerline were embarking on a Singapore-themed immersive dining experience, and needed help from actual Singaporeans in understanding Singapore culture better to ensure a better final product. “It seemed like a good opportunity at the time,” says Stuart. “We dug out all our savings, maybe 10k or so to just go there for a month, pay for our own lodgings and intern for Gingerline. We taught their actors how to speak Singlish, how Singaporeans would talk and behave, helped build their sets, helped order props for the show to make it authentic from SKP plastic containers to copies of The Straits Times.”
“And the thing is, it did turn out to be a pretty cool stint,” he continues. “And we used the opportunity to meet lots of people, like some other Singaporeans who had come on board to help them with their project – actress Celine Rosa Tan and Gillian Tan, the latter having programmed the whole thing for Gingerline. But that was the point where we saw what they did, and wanted to bring something similar over to Singapore.”
“We then conceptualised how we would build our own system of immersive theatre, and take inspiration from but differentiate ourselves from Gingerline’s concept,” Stuart explains. “While Gingerline was very performance-driven, with less emphasis on a story, Andsoforth decided we’d always have a progressive, linear multi-room experience that’s scripted with a storyline for every show, so that we’re bringing you through a narrative, and not just a series of performances.”
With the immersive theatre scene picking up steam around that time, Stuart and Emily . both dedicated themselves to continually improving their own product as developments in the scene came about, doing research in their own times and going out of their way to see immersive theatre whenever possible, be in in London, Edinburgh or anywhere else. “We’ve ended up seeing most of the major and minor immersive theatre companies of the world, and in comparison, Andsoforth doesn’t have as much budget as say, Punchdrunk or Secret Cinema, who have literally pump millions of pounds into their productions,” says Stuart. “Even when we make a profit, most of that ends up going back into the next production we plan for.”
“Singapore is still playing catch up to London, and we’re maybe 2-3 years behind,” says Emily. “Part of Andsoforth’s aims are to bridge that gap where we can and stay current with our tech and production. A lot of the time we do that by actually going out there to see shows, see how they build their sets, how scripts are being done, and connect with the community. A lot of that comes with seeing as many different shows as possible, from children’s shows to the circus, and we just learn how to keep up with new tech and innovations, from projection mapping to food and bring them together to form a new experience.”
Adds Stuart: “Over at Edinburgh, there’s so much going on, with a combination of amazing shows, good shows and bad shows. Maybe 10,000 shows in total over the festival, and you can’t possibly see them all. It’s a lot like the lottery – if you manage to see one amazing show, that’s essentially like hitting the jackpot, but you’ll still always be learning, from costumes to set and lighting. It’s only by watching so much that you know what works and doesn’t work.”
While Andsoforth began their shows and events in temporary spaces, it wasn’t long before they realised it would be much more efficient to work with a permanent space instead. Says Stuart: “We started off as a pop-up, and looked towards finding random spaces, like a cafe or empty building. It was all about temporary, transitional places where we had maybe 3 months each time to find a space, then conceptualise, figure out how to transform each space to suit each event, and really rely on set design to immerse people in that world. We had anything from 20 to just 3 days before the show to turn the whole place around, literally working without sleep to set everything up. Sometimes we’d have to become our own plumbers and electricians, and these are things you really don’t think about until you do it yourself.”
“Then in 2016, Emily found a a potential location, and we finally decided we wanted to get a permanent space, something that would give us more lead time, maybe 1.5 to 2 months each time to transform it and make it feel amazing. And maybe as an event venue, we’d get some interesting clients coming in too.”
That space is now event venue Warehouse 16, with Andsoforth having acquired a venue on the 4th floor and recently the 1st floor, giving them 2,500 to 3,000 square feet of space to reliably play with, having set up the permanent infrastructure and having to just change up the facade and set design each time a new show comes along. “It helps so much that we don’t have to keep looking for new space anymore, or rush to tear down our sets, and we can maintain a working kitchen with proper power points and lighting and sound, and not a makeshift one,” says Stuart.
At the core of most of Andsoforth’s shows now are their signature multi-room immersive theatre and dining experiences, which has audience members moving from room to room, allowing audiences to meet various characters and interact with them to help build the unique world of each experience, along with being served food in each room. “People naturally get hungry with all the activity and movement,” explains Stuart. “And over time, we’ve learnt to increase our portion sizes so people will end up feeling full after the show, and satisfied.”
With its emphasis on the theatrical elements, every Andsoforth show naturally requires a talented cast of performers to execute each show. Says Stuart: “Immersive theatre is still a very new concept to Singaporeans. Almost no one does it in Singapore, and maybe the closest thing you could call a regular thing would be Universal Studios Singapore’s Halloween Horror Nights. This is also an issue for the industry, with actors who’re only ever trained in theatre or film, and have no idea what to do in immersive settings.”
He adds: “Andsoforth was always about supporting local, and we’ve always employed as many local actors as was suitable, to build the community and support the local needs. We’re always willing to train them and workshop with them until they’re confident of it. Some people can handle it, some people can’t. The key to doing well is being good at improv, and being able to read the room and adjust according to the profile of each audience, and react accordingly to let’s say heckling or low energy audiences, and a lot of what makes a successful immersive theatre actor boils down to them being able to react fast and be on their feet.”
That brings us to Andsoforth’s latest production coming up this November – their biggest independent project yet, with a total of 7 rooms themed around Norse mythology titled Valhalla and the Chambers of Asgard. “Don’t expect Marvel’s version of the Norse gods, but plenty of strong female characters,” says Stuart. “There’ll be plenty of Valkyries, and if you read up about it, there was actually a lot of gender equality in Norse mythology, where Freya and Odin share 50% of the souls. And that’s the honourable souls – the dishonourable ones end up going to Helheim, ruled by Hel, who’ll take all the souls during Ragnarok (the end of the world) and destroy Asgard. We really just want to raise awareness of Norse mythology and the vikings. It’s a very rare topic, and few people in Asia actually read or know much about it. And the idea of Valhalla is a reward to dine with the gods, so it’s actually very apt for our immersive dining experience!”
“This time around, our team comprises collaborators such as Petrina Dawn Tan on lighting, our first time working with her. Ignatius Wee will be doing our audio engineering and production, and our regular collaborator, Jason Ng, will be our chef,” Stuart says.
“And we have Highland Park on board as our whiskey partners, which is nice because it actually has to do with Norse gods! It’s great that they came on board because they really understood what we were trying to do and tell a grand story together,” adds Emily.
“And that, in essence what Andsoforth is really all about,” Stuart says. “We want to bring to light stories people may have heard about but don’t really know. Like how for the Nutcracker last year, you can watch the ballet all you want, but what we do is go deep into the key scenes and bring them to life. There’s an educational element, an escapism element, but above all, is that our audiences have fun with it.”
“Immersive is a word that everyone knows but don’t really understand or can put a description to,” Stuart continues. “Say you play a video game, and you’d be immersed in the world of the game. The next level of that is VR and AR, and immersive theatre then, is to literally create that world around our guests, and let them interact with the characters in real life and touch this world. We want to escape reality via a narrative and change reality.”
“Your experience of being immersed could take the form of just having an actor talking to you, to using a digital projection to enhance the experience,” Emily adds. “Everyone has a different interpretation of immersive, so that certainly makes our job a little tougher when it comes to marketing and explaining what we do to people. But it’s good that people are taking an interest in it and want to enjoy more immersive experiences, so the audience is definitely there.”
The one way to truly understand and know what an immersive experience is all about though, is well, through experience. And as Valhalla and the Chambers of Asgard arrives this November, watch and see how Andsoforth brings this little known topic and mythos to life in a truly unique style, and quite simply, take a good idea and run with it.
Photo Credit: Andsoforth
Andsoforth’s newest show, Valhalla and the Chambers of Asgard, runs from 21st November 2019 at a secret location. For more information and tickets, visit their website here