In our exponentially growing technological age, it’s easy to produce a stage show that has all the fittings of a modern-day creation — lights, special effects, and pageantry that ooh and awe spectators at will. On the other side of the spectrum of entertainment, there are shoestring-budgeted shows that focus on evoking emotions from the viewer’s heart more so than bedazzling them. Once in a while, though, there comes an extravaganza that has both qualities, combining visual thrills with an inclusive message about love, harmony, and humanity.
With its debut at the Pasadena Civic Auditorium imminent (May 26th-27th at 8 pm), “Memory 5D+ — An Immersive Musical Odyssey to a Distant Past” is a worthwhile $4 million-dollar project by creator Ulan “Vivian” Xuerong, founder of the event’s producing company, China Film Hua Teng Movies & TV Culture. Characterized by Chinese Taoist philosophy and yin-yang principles, the production is set to highlight the poignant artfulness of traditional Chinese culture with a series of indigenous instruments and performances. A cast of 43 will regale in various ways – including, but not limited to, Chinese acrobatics, Tuvan (Mongolian) throat singing, shadow play, and Tibetan folk songs. The instruments to be featured will include the Gijak (a Persian-originated bowed string instrument), Guqin (Chinese zither), Konghou (Chinese harp), Pipa (Chinese lute), and more.
This is all to be done against a resplendently visual backdrop and projections that have been fashioned by creative designer to the stars, Tom E. Marzullo, who has been working with another visual effects wizard, albeit predominantly of the film world — John Hughes — who has added to his artistic palette by writing the scenario for “Memory 5D+.”
Hughes, who is originally from Liverpool, England, has an impressive filmography to his name, having worked as a visual effects artist on movies such as “Moana,” “Frozen,” and “Big Hero 6,” to name a few. Plying his knowledge of film to the stage has been a rewarding process for him and for the production as a whole, which is unanimously expected be a stellar success.
On May 16th, Hughes graciously took time out of his schedule to discuss “Memory 5D+” in anticipation of its opening in Pasadena.
Since most of your background involves film, what did you discover as being the most notable difference between film and the stage (for “Memory 5D+”)?
The point of view is different. You have a fixed point of view in film, whereas with the stage there are several different locations to work with. With movies, you can also edit between different camera positions, but you can’t do fast edits on stage. Ultimately, [the difference in] point of view is what you have to respect.
How did the project come to your attention, and why did you think you’d be a good fit for it?
I suppose it’s like the concept of Guanxi (translated from Chinese to mean “a system of social networks”), which can spread wide among working colleagues. Vivian Xuerong has been in charge of the project. She heard about me and came to my home. She was really enthusiastic, and I was attracted to her enthusiasm and the fact that the story is very Eastern, obviously. In the West, we have good vs. evil, and good triumphs. In the East, and in this story, it’s centered on conflict — and solving it harmoniously.
What are some of the biggest challenges you’ve encountered in bringing “Memory 5D+” to life?
The biggest challenges are language and distance. With language, I try to work around it as best as I can. Although my wife is Chinese, we’ve had translators assist me with the show. The ideas are complex, and sometimes those ideas get lost in translation. Regarding distance, though we live in a time with great communication, time zone differences between here and China have been somewhat of a challenge as you have to be careful when scheduling any communication.
Given the deep substance of the show, describe how you went about your research process in preparation for it?
It is based on Taoist philosophy and the concept of harmony — and the idea of balance which is key to the story. When I approach anything, I can’t fall back on assumptions. I did know some stuff, but I had to do a lot of reading on my own to challenge my perceptions, in addition to discussing the culture with others, and what’s embedded in it.
How has your working relationship with creative designer Tom E. Marzullo been?
We’ve had a good working relationship in bouncing around ideas. He comes from an experienced background and we mostly talked about the tone of the production and the feeling we wanted. It’s an abstract discussion about the emotion we wanted to convey.
What feeling or emotion is that, specifically?
The main thing I was interested in was power by isolation. [In one performance routine], there is only one performer on stage, and you would think it would feel empty, but with the assistance of clever projection, it’s the most powerful part of the show. When you talk about spectacle, we have segments with lots of people on the stage, but with a single performer you’re taking a different approach.
“Memory 5D+” has a rather large budget at $4 million. Where were the funds allocated, and do you agree with how the money has been spent?
It’s been spent very well as there are spectacular visuals and there are a lot of performers, all of whom are top-notch. I’ve seen them in rehearsals and they’re fantastic. Also, because it’s an international show, there’s a cost in that as well. The production is quite baring and it will be great for the audience, who will come away not only entertained, but know they watched something fresh.
Financially, you’re always taking some risks, but there’s a very important element to being brave and trying something new. There’s a striking sense of visuals when watching the trailers, but those who see it live will come away impressed with the dancers, music, instruments, and acrobatics — which are particularly memorable and fit into the story very well.
Has working on this meaningful project changed you personally and/or professionally? And, if so, in what way?
When you approach anything, you’re open to changing your point of view — and mine has widened and provided me with new insights. It’s not just the philosophy [of the show], but the production itself, as I’ve never done anything of this scale before. I’ve learned a lot and I want to do more of it. I’ve also become a fan of Mongolian music. The way this production has been done has been quite sympathetic to the way film is also done as it can be seen as an extension or variation of the film medium.
[Before this] I’ve experienced a great deal of satisfaction and accomplishment with film — you meet people who have seen the films you’ve worked on. Every new film is different with new challenges. I love that aspect of filmmaking, and this was like that, and I love being challenged. And to be or feel rewarded, you have to find value in the projects you’re doing.
What’s next for you?
My level of involvement with “Memory 5D+” has been all-encompassing. The goal is to do a touring show, which is why I don’t know to what degree I’ll be involved moving ahead. We look forward to having bookings all over the world and having this show be very successful in the long run. We’re hoping for a “Shen Yun” type of run — which is based on a different type of Chinese philosophy – which nevertheless proves that there is a massive market for Chinese culture and entertainment.
And, as for film, that will have to be on hiatus for a little bit, but not completely, as I’ve just optioned off a film (“Vivisection”) that will be shot at the end of the year. That will be a new experience since I’ve never had a feature film.
The just concluded two-night premiere of “Memory 5D+” was essentially a harbinger of how entertainment in the future is to be comprehensively experienced inside a theatre.
The show is technologically impressive, as it adds to what 3D cinema is capable of, but without the cumbersome glasses, and the added benefit of live performers interacting with the effects. Personified representations of Yin and Yang drive John Hughes’ narrative as an inextricable duality, encountering inspiration, beauty, destruction, and resurgence. These phases are part and parcel of Mother Nature, and there’s a certain awe to seeing them succeed one another with accompanying expressions of mellifluousness and cacophony.
Moreover, the production is rife with Tom E. Marzullo’s vivid visual effects not only in the background and foreground of the stage, but around the proscenium. The presentation is, moreover, immersive in the sense that there is a profound element of smell involved. For instance, during the show’s most powerful scene, when performer Zhou Siyao is strumming the pipa (Chinese lute) with relentless fury, amid computer generated buildings set ablaze, the audience, who can immediately identify the ominous scent of burning embers, joins her in solidarity as she performs her striking solo act.
Of course, the lavish origins of Chinese heritage are also paid homage to with a profusion of ancient instruments, none more exciting than the two indigenous bands who line each side of the stage in the final chapter of the spectacular. They first play as distinct entities before coming together in harmony to celebrate another spring revival and cycle of life. And, as Yin and Yang join the fecund procession symbolizing new beginnings, the future meets the past to acknowledge the immediacy of the present.
Please visit memory5d.com for more information about how to experience “Memory 5D+” in the future