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‘Modern audiences are hungry for shared human connection’ – Secret Cinema creative director Marah Stafford on creating the film event

5 min read
Secret Cinema

Luke Dyson

This piece was written during the 2023 WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes. Without the labour of the writers and actors currently on strike, the movie being covered here wouldn't exist.

Summer lovin' is in the air in as makes its first jaunt outside of London in the UK. The immersive cinema event has recreated the worlds of Moulin Rouge, Star Wars, and Back To The Future among many others to create a filmic world for fans to experience ahead of a unique screening of the film.

For its inaugural Midlands outing, attendees are going back to school at Rydell High as is brought to the big screen. As crowds learn to hand jive and help fix up Greased Lightning, FILMHOUNDS spoke to Sceret Cinema creative director about bringing together the popular events.


Secret Cinema is here in Birmingham. How does it feel to see all of the hard work of all of the cast and crew come together?

Opening to new audiences in Birmingham has been a total joy. The dedication and talent within this cast and crew are exceptional. There is nothing like witnessing the collective euphoria of our audience singing and dancing together. I feel so proud of what we've achieved. 


How did the idea of Secret Cinema come about? It's such a unique way to view film and such an immersive experience.

Secret Cinema started in 2007 with secret screenings in abandoned warehouses. Audiences would often attend without even knowing what film they were attending. To date, people have visited our secret filmic worlds over a million times, with over 70 productions worldwide. We've taken fans Back to the Future with Marty McFly, to the cobbled streets of Paris for Moulin Rouge, and invited them to join forces with the Rebel Alliance for Star Wars.


I attended the event and the immersion is incredible. How do you begin planning how to bring the world to life?

I always start with the audience. I have these immediate questions about how we get people active, empowered, and emotive within this story we want to tell. Our worlds should always be an escape from reality. So, in this case, we knew that motivating the audience to sing and dance was essential. This is not a passive traditional theatre ticket. We create shows that transform people's lives and take them out of the everyday.

Secret Cinema
Secret Cinema

There were moments where I really was fully sucked into the illusion of 1950s high school in California – what do you think are the most important parts of achieving that immersion for the audience?

To achieve this living, breathing world, we ensure our sound design, music choices, casting, accent training, costumes, and daily school life is all evocative of an American nostalgic dream. You should feel that you belong at this school and are, therefore, just as likely to be sent to detention by Principal Mcgee as Kenickie is. 

Also, the way our audiences commit to 50's attire is miraculous. People go to town at our Secret Cinema merchandise store or dig deep in their closets to find the perfect poodle skirt, leather jacket, or simply some cool shades or glasses. When people come dressed for success they are sure to find themselves quickly in the heart of Rydell's action. 


The cast is, of course, fantastic. What work do they do in the run-up to the shows to be able to stay in character so well?

Our cast commits to a meticulous study of the film. Day in and day out, you'll see them watching their scenes to capture accents, the cadence of voice and speech, physicality, and mannerisms. But more importantly, we spend time in rehearsals diving deep into the era and honing the improvisation muscle. This cast can dynamically respond to audience members in the moment, and no show is ever the same. They are phenomenal, and we're so proud of their rigorous work ethic and commitment to making this world come to life for our wonderful audiences each night.


The costuming is something that really stood out to me as being so authentic to the original film. How do you achieve that?

Our designers, Susan Kulkarni and Martina Trottmann, are total magicians. There's no one else like them in the business, and it's a complete honour to work with these two and their incredible teams. When you see these costumes in action, you see impeccable attention to detail and a labour of love for this immersive art form.


I wanted to know why you chose Grease as a subject for Secret Cinema?

This title has a place in everyone's heart and spans so many generations. It's definitely one for the nostalgia seekers who are ready to escape back in time. Also, with singing and dancing at the core of this show it's a total celebration of summer. Grease is a timeless title and immersive theatre is such an inclusive form of entertainment. I love how it can bring so many people who might not otherwise attend theatre into one space.


A lot of people I spoke to that attended the event loved the film so much because they have a personal connection to it through a loved one – do you share a connection like that with the film?

Well, I certainly know the words to every song and have from an early age. I also grew up on the West Coast of America, so It feels truly extraordinary to transform a parking lot in Birmingham into an American High School… full of songs, dancing, and teenage mischief.

Secret Cinema
Luke Dyson

Did you have any input from anyone involved in the original film when it came to putting this concept together?

We work closely with Paramount Entertainment but have yet to collaborate with anyone from the original film directly. If this production has a future life in the UK or internationally, I hope to get some of the original cast to attend.


The fans that attend obviously get so into it by dressing up, singing along, and acting along. What is it about Grease and Secret Cinema as a whole that garners the reaction it does from attendees? 

Modern audiences are hungry for shared human connection. We spend so much of our life on email, text, and social media, so when we escape into an immersive world, we can release our inhibitions and dance, sing, and laugh together. It feels so good. Too good, in fact. Sometimes I just want to live inside our shows year-round.


Finally, if you were speaking to someone who had never been to Secret Cinema before, what is one thing you would say to them ahead of an event?

Come ready to jump into the action but also know there is a place for everyone inside these worlds. If you want to be at the heart of the show and centre stage – we'll take you there. Or if you'd rather witness the action and party on the sidelines, that's cool too.

Secret Cinema Presents Grease: The Live Experience is at Birmingham NEC until August 13.