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2019-12-11 09:18:14

LIAONING, Northeast China — A man in ragged clothes peers through a crack in the window of a brick house, inside which a man and a woman are conducting a sordid love affair. The couple is oblivious to the doleful onlooker, just as they appear unaware of the dozen audience members huddled around them, watching from behind black face scarves as the two fool around.

The scene is from “Mythic Stories of Fanling Township,” an immersive play that encourages audiences to roam freely through a fantastical Republic of China (1912-1949)-era village, interacting with spider spirits, enchanted pottery, and a demon-fighting priest as they go along. The show, which celebrates its first anniversary Dec. 24, is the latest Chinese production to find success by playing into theatergoers’ desire for vivid, interactive cultural experiences.

Pioneered by British drama company Punchdrunk in the 2000s, the site-specific immersive theater format took awhile to reach China, but it has proved hugely popular. “Sleep No More,” a show based on the Shakespearean tragedy “Macbeth,” came to Shanghai in 2016 and became a sensation. Still going three years later, the play is now the city’s second-longest-running show of all time and has achieved cult status, with some fans attending hundreds of performances.

This type of play is a completely new theater format.

The show’s runaway success took even its British creators by surprise, with Felix Barrett, the artistic director behind “Sleep No More,” noting the “hunger and fervor” of audiences in Shanghai. Chinese scholars suggest immersive plays have struck a chord because they satisfy a “need for face-to-face communication” among consumers starved for connection in the digital age.

The Shanghai-based show has inspired dozens of Chinese producers to develop their own immersive pieces, with 11 such productions being staged in the city last year. Zhang Chunyang, the producer behind “Fanling,” tells Sixth Tone that “Sleep No More” transformed his view of theater.

“This type of play is a completely new theater format,” says Zhang. “It’s not a game; it’s art … so I will invest everything I’ve got in this.”

The 28-year-old went to see “Sleep No More” 14 times in total, traveling to London in 2017 to learn more about the immersive theater format. During the trip, Zhang says he detected an opportunity for a production based on China’s own literary heritage. He founded the Shanghai Juxian Culture Media Co. Ltd. that same year, eager to turn his idea into a reality.

Zhang and his collaborators chose to base their play on Pu Songling’s “Strange Tales From a Chinese Studio,” a Qing dynasty (1644-1911) compilation of supernatural stories. Considered a classic, the book’s mix of irony and hair-raising adventure has made it irresistible to Chinese readers for centuries: Even a 16-year ban on staged ghost stories beginning in the early 1960s did not diminish its popularity.

Illustrated scenes from “Strange Stories from a Chinese Studio,” published during the Republic of China period. From Kongfz.cn

Illustrated scenes from “Strange Stories from a Chinese Studio,” published during the Republic of China period. From Kongfz.cn

Much like Punchdrunk’s decision to base “Sleep No More” on Shakespeare, Zhang felt the use of familiar characters from “Strange Tales” would help Chinese audiences feel less lost upon entering the world he and his colleagues were creating. Plus, he found the stories themselves thrilling.

“I’m particularly interested in China’s classic, imaginative novels,” says Zhang. “A creative work needs to be imaginative — that’s basic.”

The show weaves together three tales from Pu’s collection, distilling the original’s myriad plot lines into a narrative web of despair and unmet expectations as characters navigate Fanling Township, a 3,000-square-meter fictional village built specifically for the show.

Like other immersive plays, the storylines play out three times over the course of a couple hours, allowing audience members to piece the narrative together for themselves. Visitors are encouraged to take an active role by following one of the show’s 17 characters around the village or even lingering in one of its over 30 fully furnished rooms, rummaging through papers for clues.

Promotional photos of characters from “Mythic Stories of Fanling Township.” From @幡灵迷境 on Weibo

Promotional photos of characters from “Mythic Stories of Fanling Township.” From @幡灵迷境 on Weibo

“Every audience member is their own camera,” Zhang says. “The things I’d see are different from what you’d see.”

“Fanling” finally premiered last December in Zhang’s hometown, the northeastern Rust Belt city of Shenyang. The humble venue belies the show’s enormous ambitions: The stage is in the basement of a dusty, near-vacant shopping mall that stands opposite a laundromat and an escape room. When Sixth Tone visits in early November, Halloween balloons bob alongside red banners celebrating the founding of the People’s Republic of China in the lobby.

The remote location, however, has not prevented the play from connecting with theatergoers. After a year onstage, “Fanling” has an average rating of 9.4 out of 10 on Douban, a Chinese review site. Like “Sleep No More,” the show has developed its own hardcore fan base, with some attending over 20 times, according to Guo Qi, the show’s writer.

An actor prepares backstage for “Mythic Stories of Fanling Township” in Shenyang, Liaoning province, Nov. 3, 2019. Hannah Lund/Sixth Tone

An actor prepares backstage for “Mythic Stories of Fanling Township” in Shenyang, Liaoning province, Nov. 3, 2019. Hannah Lund/Sixth Tone

“Some audience members who’ve visited Fanling Township before come back to see how the villagers are doing,” says Guo. “I think some of them come because they see it as a sort of home.”

Some attendees’ passion for “Fanling” appears to border on obsession. After the show, Sixth Tone is added to a group chat on Chinese social media platform WeChat with about 300 other audience members. The group is an endless barrage of messages trying to piece together plotlines, with discussions lasting well into the early morning. Within a day, two different fan-made maps connecting characters and locations have been posted to the group.

(The actors') sweat was real; their tears were real. It was really worth it.

The show’s complexity is intentional. Zhang says that “a little fear and a little mystery” are key ingredients for any immersive play, though Guo stresses that it’s “only” necessary to see “Fanling” eight times to fully understand the story. For many fans, however, it’s the immediacy and proximity of the action that make the show addictive.

“(I’d come back) because I’m curious about the details, and because the actors’ performances really surprised me,” one audience member surnamed Ma tells Sixth Tone. “Their sweat was real; their tears were real. It was really worth it.”

Xu Zihuai, an actor who’s been with “Fanling” since its debut, says the play’s intimacy is everything. “Sometimes I meet brave audience members who’ll sit next to me,” he says. “I’ll lean in close and tell them my character isn’t doing so well at the moment.”

At times, however, excited fans can disrupt the show’s intense atmosphere. On one occasion, Xu recalls, an audience member screamed every time his character appeared.

A photo from “Mythic Stories of Fanling Township” in Shenyang, Liaoning province, 2018. Courtesy of Zhang Chunyang

A photo from “Mythic Stories of Fanling Township” in Shenyang, Liaoning province, 2018. Courtesy of Zhang Chunyang

The large crowds can also be overwhelming — a complaint familiar to the producers of “Sleep No More.” When Sixth Tone attends “Fanling,” there are sometimes as many as 10 people crammed around a single character, trying to read the piece of paper in their hand. When combined with the claustrophobic performance space, thick fog, and strobe lighting during pivotal scenes, the experience is intense.

But for the show’s creators, this is all part of the fun. “The first time audiences see it, they might be scared,” Guo says. “There are some frightening elements, but we do our best to tell people that the actors won’t scare them on purpose.”

Some even credit the play’s immersive staging with breathing new life into traditional Chinese culture. For Huang Xiaofeng, editor of the online ghost story platform Tianxia Wugui, “Fanling” might help audience members adopt a Qing-era mindset, in which barriers between the human and spirit worlds break down.

“The two worlds can communicate,” says Huang. “That’s what the ancients were like.”

Setting the production in pre-Communist China may also help it navigate any potential tightening of supervision over the culture industry. On Dec. 5, China’s Ministry of Culture and Tourism published a series of proposed regulations for the “performance industry” that would require public performances — including immersive plays — to have censors stationed on-site. The proposals also specify that shows should not include superstitious or bloody content. 

A photo from “Mythic Stories of Fanling Township” in Shenyang, Liaoning province, 2018. Courtesy of Zhang Chunyang

A photo from “Mythic Stories of Fanling Township” in Shenyang, Liaoning province, 2018. Courtesy of Zhang Chunyang

Zhang, the show’s producer, keeps his eyes peeled for regulatory shifts, telling Sixth Tone that he checks the news daily for signs of any changes that might affect “Fanling.”

“(Our show) is a representation of what it was like at the time,” says Zhang. “You can’t deny this history. Our country’s not that fake.”

The producer, however, is not letting any concerns dampen his ambitions. As “Fanling” enters its second year, the Shenyang native aims to take the show far beyond its northeastern haunt. He just launched a “Fanling” podcast and says he hopes to soon be staging shows in up to five Chinese cities, including Beijing and Hangzhou. After that, it’s time to look overseas, he says.

“I hope that when this play makes it abroad and is China’s biggest cultural brand, people will ask: ‘What’s a classic from when immersive theater began in China?’ and they’ll say it started with ‘Fanling,’” says Zhang. “That would be a triumph.”

Additional reporting: Yuan Ye; editor: Dominic Morgan.

(Header image: A photo from “Mythic Stories of Fanling Township” in Shenyang, Liaoning province, 2018. Courtesy of Zhang Chunyang)