Creative Capital: The couple that specialises in unique immersive dinner theatre in Singapore
Andsoforth attracts a large audience of people that aren’t regular arts-goers. Husband and wife team Stuart Wee and Emily Png recognise that it provides a great opportunity to engage and convert new audiences to the art form.
When one mentions Singapore theatre, the companies that come top of mind are the established players like SRT, Wild Rice, Pangdemonium, and TheatreWorks. Arts lovers will also rattle off groups such as Toy Factory, Necessary Stage, Checkpoint Theatre, Cake Productions and Drama Box. But the one theatre company that is always overlooked is Andsoforth.
And that’s most likely because Andsoforth is simply not your usual theatre company. This group, founded and run by Emily Png and Stuart Wee, specialises in immersive theatrical dining experiences.
What’s that you might ask? Here’s what it isn’t. It isn’t your grandmother’s dinner theatre experience in which you sit in front of a stage, eating bad food watching two-bit performers butcher a script.
So what is it? It’s a roleplay experience in which you get to enter a novel and inventive world, take part in and watch a story unfold, while also enjoying good food and drink. Sounds too good to be true? It’s not. And the fans who have discovered Andsoforth and their productions are simply bursting for you to know just how much fun you can have at one of their shows.
What’s especially impressive is that Andsoforth attracts a large audience of people that aren’t regular arts-goers. And the fact that Wee recognises that it provides a great opportunity to engage and convert new audiences makes Andsoforth a pretty important player in the local scene.
SO STUART, CAN TELL US HOW YOU AND YOUR WIFE EMILY FIRST MET? WAS IT LOVE AT FIRST SIGHT?
Emily and I met while playing music in a children’s church. I was bass guitar and she was on keys. We hung out for a year before I finally realised that she was the one I wanted to spend the rest of my life with. We could talk for hours without getting tired and our conversations were always about the future, dreams and goals. I guess she liked me too because three months after we got together she proposed that we sign up to get a HDB and we did.
WHEN DID YOU ATTEND YOUR FIRST IMMERSIVE DINING EXPERIENCE? DID YOU DO SO TOGETHER?
When I was at Beep Studios as the studio manager, we got a booking with Geoﬀ Pesche (mastering engineer for Coldplay and Kylie) from the famous Abbey Road Studios in London. I asked my then boss, Kevin Foo (who is currently General Manager at Sony Music Entertainment for Taipei City, Taiwan) if Emily could come along because I wanted to propose to her.
He agreed because he is a romantic at heart. Emily, being the curious and adventurous traveller started searching online for interesting events and experiences all over London and discovered www.Gingerline.co.uk. But it was already sold out during our travel dates.
When we got to London, she continued to check in with them to see if anyone had given up their seats and finally, we got a reply. We popped our virgin cherry for our first immersive theatrical dining experience. And I proposed in Paris a couple of days after.
WHAT STRUCK YOU ABOUT THAT FIRST EXPERIENCE? DID YOU KNOW THIS IS SOMETHING YOU WANTED TO DO?
The combination of actors, set design, lighting, sound, theatrical food, cocktails tying in with a theme gave us the most fun and unique dining experience we’ve ever had. It was genius and fun.
We wanted Singapore to have something like this, but we did not know how to do it or if anyone had ever done such a thing. We didn’t even know what to call an experience like this.
We went back and did some research and found that in 2001 a restaurant called Igor’s had opened but closed a year after. It was a horror theme restaurant that was successful for three to six months after the opening but started losing business after that.
We realised that it was probably because there was no reason for customers to come back again since the theme was constant.SRT also did a themed dinner in 1998 called Ah Kong’s Birthday Party, created by Ivan Heng and Dick Lee. But that was it. We couldn’t find our immersive theatrical dining fix in Singapore.
So we said to ourselves that if no one is going to do it, we’re going to attempt to. We registered our company in 2014 and roped in friends, as well as friends of friends from various industries like a chef who had just come back from an internship at Noma and Lasalle students, to do our first show.
It was called The Hideaway. And, looking back, it was a disaster. Still we sold out, because of the novelty.
DID YOU SET UP THE COMPANY AND TAKE THE PLUNGE INTO THIS FULL-TIME RIGHT AWAY OR DID YOU HANG ONTO YOUR DAY JOBS UNTIL YOU WERE CONVINCED ANDSOFORTH COULD SURVIVE?
Our first two productions were executed while we held on to our full-time jobs. We call that the first year of Andsoforth. We used what little we made to put into the company. In January 2015, we decided to leave our day jobs and work on Andsoforth full time.
CAN YOU EXPLAIN WHAT YOU DO TO A LAYPERSON?
Think of it as a video game. You could wear a costume and play a character and escape reality and like in a video game, you’ll eat potions and food that the game creators designed. Now translate that video game into an immersive theatrical dining experience.
Andsoforth’s goal is to create a world that transports the audience and disconnects them from Singapore and reality. Everyone is in character right from start at the entrance where we check for tickets and dietary requirements to the bar staﬀ and even the service crew.
The food is curated and designed to be in theme with the show as are the cocktails. Everything has to have a little surprise because as Singaporeans we have a high expectation for what’s on the plate.
WAS IT HARD INTRODUCING THE CONCEPT OF IMMERSIVE DINING TO AUDIENCES HERE?
It took three years to find the balance between food and performance. In the earlier days, tickets were easy to sell because shows had limited seating and show runs were really short. I think back then, guests came expecting great food and any performance was just an after-thought.
Ironically, we were more focused on the performance and set design. It took us three to four years of both good and very negative feedback to truly identify all the problems and address them.
Then came the next issue we discovered. Audiences were interested in themes more than something exciting. That means it didn’t matter whether it was an immersive theatrical dining experience – if they didn’t understand or like the theme, they wouldn’t come.
So we started do adaptions of classic books. Dinner in Wonderland which is based on Alice in Wonderland, saw our largest turnout to date with 6,000 attendees and a six month run. We had to adapt it six diﬀerent times after that, including creating children’s versions as well. We understood that familiarity was what drew audiences to a concept.
WHAT’S BEEN THE BEST PART ABOUT RUNNING YOUR OWN BUSINESS?
Being the captain of our own ship. We get to decide how we want to sail the sea of life. The two of us love to travel. Sometimes, when we’re on someone else’s boat we feel helpless not being able to travel where we want and when we want.
We need experiences overseas to create what we create; the beautiful landscapes, cityscapes and all the shows we watch inspire us to be better and reach for an international standard for our productions.
AND WHAT HAS BEEN THE HARDEST?
Seeing an amazing production that had so much work poured into it not gaining enough audience attendance just because people didn’t like the theme.
The Imaginarium of Disco David was one my favourite productions but it had our lowest attendance because the general feedback was that people didn’t like disco. The funny thing was that it only had one disco scene and the people who came had the best time.
HOW BIG IS YOUR TEAM? I ASSUME FOR SHOWS YOU USE A LOT OF FREELANCERS AND PERFORMERS. HOW DO YOU FIND TALENT?
Andsoforth started with just the two of us full-time but now we also have a designer and venue hire sales manager. The latter helps to rent out our venue when we are transiting between productions. We have a venue for hire called warehouse16.
We have our go-to freelancers, many of who we meet through friends. We hold casting calls for actors and usually aim for about 60 to 80 people to cast from. Our chef is a rare find and a man of many talents. Together, we built two kitchens and have fed over 20,000 people.
Our designer for all our collaterals is my cousin Natalie Wee. We engaged her as soon as she graduated from Lasalle. She has been designing all of our posters and logos since 2014. I dare say she has since made quite a name for herself – she goes by Cloudhedd on social media. It is possible to say that we have assembled our own version of the Avengers.
IS CASTING DIFFICULT?
It was really diﬃcult when we did not know what to look for. After 40 concepts, you learn a lot about dealing with actors and spotting the signs. There is quite a bit of referencing that is required, word-of-mouth, and people we trust in the industry that have inside news on whether an actor we’ve cast has any quirks, frequently shows up late or doesn’t take direction well.
Of course, we have a couple of trusted and reliable actors but it’s not to say we don’t give other actors chances to be part of the show. Our runs are long, longer than most theatre productions. For example, Valhalla and The Chambers of Asgard which started Nov 16 2019 runs all the way till Feb 15 2020.
WHAT’S MORE IMPORTANT, DELICIOUS FOOD OR A GREAT THEATRICAL EXPERIENCE?
Both are equally important. Some guests come focused on the dinner while others like the themes and food isn’t as important. Still, guests are paying an average of S$118 and even though they don’t know the breakdown of a ticket price, subconsciously, they are going to want good and filling food.
That’s what we strive to achieve. That said, when you do break down a ticket, the sets are the most expensive things in immersive theatre. We have to create a whole other world for guests to enter after all.
ANY HORROR STORIES FROM PREVIOUS PRODUCTIONS YOU CAN SHARE?
Drunk guests that are so drunk even before they’ve stepped through the doors. And it’s even worse when they speak in a foreign language, talk over the actor and take it as if there are no other guests in the room with them.
Because of this, we do have a clause in our terms and conditions that gives us the right to remove drunk guests at the door or during the show if the said guest is disruptive and touching or endangering our actors.
YOU’VE NOW PUT ON 45 CONCEPTS. HOW DO YOU COME UP WITH THE CONCEPTS AND STAY FRESH CREATIVELY?
We believe that we’re good trend spotters. For example, The Imaginarium of Disco David was inspired by Netflix’s The Get Down and the resurgence of disco during that time in fashion and music. Valhalla and The Chambers of Asgard was a combination of Highland Park’s Valfather Whisky approaching us and asking us to pitch, my own long-time desire to do a viking concept and because History Channel’s Vikings has become one of our favourite shows.
Our next concept which will happens in April is Around the World in 80 days. It was inspired by the recent arrival of “le petit chef” and the need to challenge the notion of truly taking guests around the world in an immersive setting.
WHAT PERCENTAGE OF YOUR WORK IS FOR CORPORATE CLIENTS? HOW DIFFERENT ARE YOUR CORPORATE SHOWS FROM THE PUBLIC ONES?
It really depends on what or who comes first. If we have plans for a certain show, and a client approaches us to do something around that date and we don’t have the capacity to do it, we wouldn’t take it.
We don’t like to produce sub-par works. We’ve done work for Deloitte for their family day of 2,500 people. And for that, we erected the first on-sea-water-obstacle-course in Sentosa. After that, Sentosa saw that it was possible and did their own versions. We do corporate dinner and dances which usually means entertaining an audience that might not necessarily give your actors the attention they deserve. For those, we need to work a lot harder to get the audience to loosen up and have fun.
We had also introduced synchronised swimming for the launch of NCO club’s Madame Fan which was an idea to utilise their dive pool. This was before the movie Crazy Rich Asians came out. Honestly, we had no idea that would be something rich folk would do.
WHO IS YOUR AUDIENCE?
Anyone and everyone! We’ve had daughters celebrating their mother’s 70th birthday at our show. We have a lot of locals, many of whom have never been to a local theatre production before. But because we’ve incorporated dinner, they take it as a dinner date.
That gives us the chance to expose them to various art forms and immersive theatre. Expats make up to about 20 per cent of our audience, and about 10 per cent are tourists. We’ve had guests from New York, Thailand, Indonesia, Shanghai, London and Australia. We’ve even had people fly down just to catch our productions.
TELL US MORE ABOUT ANDSOFORTH JUNIOR.
ASF JR is our children’s division which started out as requests to do a children’s version of Dinner in Wonderland. Our largest production to date was 22 Stories held in a 20,000 square foot warehouse in which we built 22 rooms in a museum fashion.
Through the rooms, we brought 22 stories to life, breaking them up into four diﬀerent lands: Grimmsneyland (named after the Grimm brother’s tales of princesses), Wonderland (Lewis Carroll), The Land of Nights (1001 Arabian nights), and Storyland (Hans Christian Andersen).
Children were given maps and they had the freedom to find, meet, interact and listen to a story from whichever character that was there that day. Unlike Disneyland where the only character interaction is taking a photo, we made sure children could ask the characters any burning questions and really understand the stories they were so used to being told. We saw 35,000 people for this production in April to July 2019.
WHAT’S IN STORE FOR 2020?
Around the World in 80 days in April to August and The Wizard of Oz from October to December. They should be rather big productions.
WHAT’S THE ULTIMATE DREAM?
To have Southeast Asia look to Singapore as a hub for immersive experiences like London and Shanghai. And also be so strong people fly in just to catch a show. I’m always praying that Singapore Tourism Board or some other investor doesn’t bring in Punchdrunk or Secret Cinema – the big players in the West – as it would crush smaller, local guys who are trying to get into the immersive experience scene.
We’ve been to some of these smaller players and they have so much potential. A few need a little business advice but they are definitely not lacking in creativity. We have much to give. But Singapore being Singapore, we tend to cannibalise each other and not give credit and honour to the creators. I hope that doesn’t happen to my sector.