Twenty years after becoming one of the highest-grossing movies of all time, “Titanic” is again taking center stage — except this time, it’s not at a theater.
Beginning next week, the Shanghai-based drama group DreamWeaver Productions will invite fans of the film to experience the doomed voyage firsthand aboard a ship refurbished to look just like the luxury liner. Aboard the vessel, which will sail along the Huangpu River from Nov. 1 through 25, guests will take part in “Ship of Dreams: The Titanic Experience,” a three-hour immersive theatrical experience that invites attendees to play the roles of some of the show’s central characters.
“They can choose to follow a character around, be a part of the story, or just sit back and enjoy the view,” Ann James, the director of DreamWeaver and a producer for the show, told Sixth Tone.
To lend an added air of authenticity and transport the audience back in time to 1912, when the ill-fated ship made its first and final voyage, James decided to move the show from the Huangpu Theater to the river itself. Aside from being roughly 90 percent smaller, the floating venue bears a striking resemblance to the original, even including the gaudy dining room staircase and the iconic grandfather clock from the film.
Brian Wang, the director of “Ship of Dreams,” was inspired to create his own immersive theatrical production after watching “Sleep No More,” a similarly styled show loosely based on Shakespeare’s “Macbeth” that toured through Shanghai earlier this year.
“[It] was the first immersive show I watched, and it taught me that theater could be performed live in a three-dimensional space, with the audience as part of the show,” Wang told Sixth Tone. “I truly felt transported to another time.”
In order to create the immersive experience Wang envisions, audience members are asked to come dressed in the fashion of the early 20th century. This also helps them blend in with the actors and their respective storylines, some of which might even be familiar. For a premium price of 200,000 yuan ($30,000), a guest can play the role of Rose, one of the movie’s star-crossed protagonists.
Beyond the silver screen, though, the show also dives into the annals of history. For example, James included a storyline about Chinese passengers intent on smuggling the plans for the Titanic back to China — a nod to “The Six,” a recently released documentary that profiles the Chinese passengers who were aboard the ship and survived when it sank.
Actor Luke Nestler plays John Jacob Astor, the Titanic’s wealthiest patron and one of the 1,514 who died. Nestler told Sixth Tone he’s excited about the spontaneity and unpredictability of immersive theater. “We try to plan everything, but when you throw an extra 200 people into something and you give them a bit of freedom and flexibility, anything can happen,” he said.
Like the passengers aboard the real Titanic, the audience for “Ship of Dreams” is divided into different classes depending on how much they pay for their tickets. Kate Meyers plays a fictional third-class passenger on the ship, Irish immigrant Shannon Dempsey. “She is tough but charming, and she has a very specific goal that she’s trying to achieve,” Meyers said coyly. “She’ll stop at nothing to achieve that goal, so she’s very tenacious.”
With 15 storylines progressing simultaneously, some audiences may find it difficult to keep up with all the characters. Actor Dorian T. Fisk, who is unable to reveal the character they play, recommends picking a single actor to follow. “If they follow me for three hours, they will understand exactly who I am and my background, and what happens to me in the end — it’s choose-your-own adventure for the audience,” they said.
James, for her part, says such a high degree of audience participation is likely to be the norm for theater going forward. “It’s definitely moving toward a more interactive and immersive experience, and that’s because our audience has changed,” she said. “Now they’re millennials who want to be a part of the experience. They want to feel, see, smell, and taste when they go to the theater.”
Nestler, the actor, believes the story of the Titanic lends itself especially well to immersive theater. “Most of the audiences coming to the show will already know the story of the Titanic and be fans of the movie,” he said.
In China, the lore surrounding the Titanic has proved to be particularly magnetic. In 2013, the Canadian musician Celine Dion performed the movie’s wildly popular theme song, “My Heart Will Go On,” for China Central Television’s annual lunar new year gala. And in November of last year, construction of a life-sized replica of the ship — complete with a simulated iceberg crash — began in the southwestern province of Sichuan.
Editor: David Paulk.
(Header image: A screenshot from a promotional video for the immersive drama ‘Ship of Dreams: The Titanic Experience.’)