An avant-garde dramatic arts production is redefining the meaning of “roadshow.”
It’s called “Remote Shanghai,” and if you’re game, put on a pair of headphones and join a group venturing into the theater of the streets, with a machine voice directing your itinerary and actions.
It’s hard to define this latest outing by the Shanghai Dramatic Arts Center. It’s being described as an “outdoor cruising theater production.”
“Remote Shanghai” is the local version of an international phenomenon staged in cities around the world, from Moscow and Milan to New York and Bangalore. In every city, the “Remote X” series tailors one or several routes for the city.
“I was amazed when I experienced ‘Remote Taipei’ in 2017, and I decided to bring it to Shanghai,” said Liu Lei, producer of “Remote Shanghai.”
Participants don headphones at the beginning of “Remote Shanghai.” Under the playful guidance of a computer-generated voice, this group of strangers forms a loose league, called the “horde” by the voice, and explores the city from the perspective of artificial intelligence.
The synthetic voice in the headphones serves as GPS and also directs movements of the “horde.” Participants might walk through a cemetery, visit a temple, take the subway, or go into a hospital. The destination of the two-hour journey is a climb to a five-story platform.
The voice requires the “horde” to make a joint decision on direction in front of a three-way junction, it soliloquizes, and sometimes it gives strange or even awkward orders, like “stretch and dance to music” when the group is on a Metro train” or “pick one object from your bag that showcases your personality and hold it high” when participants are walking on a busy street.
The voice requires participants to consider a public square in downtown Xujiahui as a stage, with passers-by as performers. However, in the eyes of the passers-by, the remotely controlled “horde” looks like a group of street artists.
“This is a project that encourages participants to think from the angle of an observer about the relationship between the individual and a group, the transient nature of human life and the eternity of civilization and culture,” said Liu. “In a modernized civilization, who do we follow when we are guided by algorithms?”
Liu said he likes the project’s aim of making participants think instead of just entertaining them like most traditional theater productions do.
“It’s in line with my interpretation of post-modern theater — drama continues when one walks out of the theater,” Liu explained. “Participants are guided out of their daily routines to do some independent and serious thinking, which those living in a busy city like Shanghai rarely do. We live in a glittering city where a lot of us work like animals due to heavy pressure. To me, this is a very dramatic contradiction.”
The original creators of “Remote X” are a team of author-directors from Germany, who call themselves Rimini Protokoll.
The team is known for creating new forms of theater and tapping performers who are not professional actors but, rather, experts or specialists in particular circles in life. Therefore, audiences are presented with “unperfect but real” performances instead of those that are “perfect but fake.”
Rimini Protokoll artists were invited to Shanghai last year to design the route for “Remote Shanghai.”
According to Liu, a cemetery, a historical or religious location, and a high platform are three requisite elements when Rimini Protokoll designs a route for a city.
“Public cemeteries are easily found in Western countries, but not in China,” Liu said. “We are lucky to have the Longhua Martyrs’ Cemetery in Shanghai. It’s a far-fetched choice, but it has a temple near it and its downtown location saved us a lot of trouble when designing the rest of the route.”
The most challenging part of creating “Remote Shanghai,” he said, was obtaining permission from all management and security departments along the route.
“Generally speaking, China is yet open enough to the form of outdoor theater,” said Liu. “To my surprise, the managers of the Longhua Temple were the most supportive and open-minded ones. They allowed us to go through the temple as long as we didn’t disturb the monks and pilgrims. We showed previous ‘Remote X’ series videos to the Longhua Martyrs’ Cemetery managers before they gave their permission.”
He added: “On the other hand, our previous design of making the horde dance on the ground floor of a department store in Xujiahui was rejected by the store’s manager. The original destination we wanted to set on the roof of an office building, where participants could get a bird’s-eye view of the whole route. That was turned down by the public security department.”
In the final version, the horde danced to music from the headphones at a public square in front of a department store. The destination of the journey was set at an outdoor platform behind the backstage of Theater Above, which is located on the fifth floor of Xujiahui’s Metro City shopping mall.
Liu said the process of acquiring all the required permissions from various departments took about four months. Rimini Protokoll artists spent three weeks in Shanghai to work on the script and sound recording for “Remote Shanghai.”
So, what do people who took part in this experimental theater experience think of it all?
“I like the form of the program though I’m not sure I fully acquired the messages it intends to pass on,” participant Gu Ying told Shanghai Daily. “To me, it’s an interesting and daring experience to do something brave and awkward in public. Knowing that some people are accompanying you and doing the same things filled me with courage.”
She continued: “We are strangers, but at the same time we are supporters of each other on a temporary team. This reminds me of relationships among people in a metropolis like Shanghai. We tend to appear indifferent about other people’s lives. But this is also a kind of freedom one can acquire in a modern city, and you feel secure being part of it.”
Another participant Qin Chao said he would like to have had more interactions with other horde members or even with strangers on the street.
“I was ready to ‘suit myself in strangers’ gazes’ when we were given awkward orders in public,” Qin said. “There could have been more brave designs or even assignments that could be accomplished only with the help of passers-by.”
“Remote Shanghai” has an English version for foreign participants. A French tourist, who preferred to be identified only as PJ, told Shanghai Daily that he enjoyed the experience as the tour led him to sites and corners of the city that he wanted to see as a tourist.
David Amar, who has worked for a foreign-invested company in Shanghai for three years, bought a ticket to “Remote Shanghai” at a friend’s recommendation. He said he thought the organizational form of “Remote Shanghai” overshadowed its content. Amar said he prefers site-specific innovative theater, like “Sleep No More.”
“Yes, we are inside the experience, but it is completely different experience compared with ‘Sleep No More,’” said Amar. “I can understand that in China we discuss a lot about the relationship between artificial intelligence and humanity. It’s philosophical.”
He said his favorite part of the journey occurred when the horde was walking in a long passage in the subway. The voice in the headphones required participants who wanted more individual freedom from society to walk along the right-hand side of the passage, and those who preferred discipline and regulation to walk along the left side.
“I would like to have had more interactions like that,” Amar said. “It’s good we were made to think about the scenes we mindlessly walk past every day. But I was kind of expecting more storytelling, or maybe us being asked to do something more.”
A “Remote Shanghai” horde can be up to 50 people. In each group, four theater staff members serve as “shepherds.” But only one of them identifies himself at the beginning of the journey in case any participant needs help. The other shepherds pretend to be participants, with one controlling the pace of the voice orders. The shepherds ensure that no participant is left behind. Sometimes, they might step forth as “braver members” to encourage other members to follow awkward orders.
“Each journey can be very different, depending on the personalities of the participants,” said shepherd Zhang Dingchen. “Some appear in an excited mood throughout the journey and dance on the street as if they were in a night club. More introverted participants tend to resist instructions, especially the awkward ones.”
Zhang said the uniqueness of each journey is the major charm of the production.“It’s meaningful in a sense that it promotes new forms of theater and illustrates the exploration of the relationship between performers and audience in a vivid way,” he said.
According to producer Liu, “Remote Shanghai” managed to break even — just — because of support from cultural foundations.
“This is not a commercial project, and we knew it would not make money,” he said. “As a state-owned company, the Shanghai Dramatic Arts Center regards it a responsibility to present audiences with varied forms of theater work.”
“Remote Shanghai” will run through November 30, Thursdays through Sundays. It starts at 2pm at the Longhua Martyrs’ Memorial Hall.
Tickets are 150 yuan (US$21) per person on Thursdays and Fridays, and 180 yuan on Saturdays and Sundays. The English version, available on Sunday, is priced at 200 yuan per person.