Putting Shaolin monks on stage

Steve Nolan became fascinated with gongfu after watching the 1970s TV series Kung Fu.
Steve Nolan became fascinated with gongfu after watching the 1970s TV series Kung Fu.PHOTO: COURTESY OF STEVE NOLAN
The Shaolin show is now on at Marina Bay Sands.
The Shaolin show is now on at Marina Bay Sands.PHOTO: EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY

Producer of the Shaolin theatre shows Steve Nolan says he appreciates the beautiful movements of gongfu more than the breaking of things

8Q

Monks aged nine to 30 tumble and leap across the stage and perform stunts such as breaking wooden poles on their limbs and getting propped up in the air with sharp spears. All these acts are a part of Shaolin, a theatrical production which follows on the heels of Shaolin Wheel Of Life and Shaolin Kung Fu Masters.

The productions have been a hit since Shaolin Kung Fu Masters made its debut in 1999. They combine acrobatic stunts with dramatic light and sound effects within the framework of a compelling narrative. The shows are produced by Steve Nolan and directed by Micha Bergese.

In Shaolin, the five young monks who escaped the deadly massacre in the previous instalment are all grown up and leading separate lives. They are hunted once again by a vengeful emperor who is bent on wiping them out.

The cast of hand-picked monks changes every few months, partly to give more of them a chance to be a part of the show.

  • BOOK IT / SHAOLIN

  • WHERE: Sands Theatre at Marina Bay Sands, 10 Bayfront Avenue

    WHEN: July 13 to 31, 7.30pm on Tuesday to Friday, 2 and 7.30pm on Saturday, 1 and 6pm on Sunday

    ADMISSION: Tickets at $45 to $135 from Sistic (call 6348-5555 or go to sistic.com.sg)

Nolan, who is 52 and married with one son, has extensive experience in the entertainment industry as a production manager and lighting designer.

He says: "We choose based on the storyline, we know what skills we need, and then the abbot of the temple picks who he thinks is the best in the specific skills."

With the cast getting reshuffled so often, it means the show is constantly getting re-energised as well.

"Sometimes during rehearsals, the monks perfect something they have been practising for weeks before and we would just slot it into the show if we can. The last portion of the show is kind of freestyle, we just want to get the most out of everybody."

1 What are your fondest memories in the 17 years of the Shaolin productions?

We did a premiere show in 1999 of Wheel Of Life at the Royal Albert Hall and my son was born just two days before that. So you could say two babies were born at that time.

Another fond memory was getting invited to Superstars Of Dance, a dance competition by NBC, five or six years ago. There were dancers from the popular show Lord Of The Dance, the Australian Dance Theatre and Bollywood, and we came in second. That was really one of our proudest moments. It confirmed to me that what the monks do is recognised as a form of performing arts.

2 What is the worst accident that has happened?

The typical injuries are twisted knees, broken ankles and really bad cuts. The swords used are very thin and bendy and razor sharp.

Once, a monk did a somersault and landed on his neck. For a couple of hours, we were prepared for the worst, but luckily it was just really bad bruising and he was hospitalised for two weeks.

3 Do you think the monks could win an Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC)?

I think some of the older ones, yes. The abbot Master Pang, he's 38, but he's a tough guy, big enough, strong enough.

I've seen guys back at the temple break rocks with their hands and I think they could give the UFC fighters a run for their money.

4 What do the monks do to relax outside of the show?

They don't go out to party or drink. They are young guys though, so when they see a fast car, their heads would turn and follow it.

We are trying to arrange for them to visit Universal Studios Singapore, they love doing that sort of thing.

5 Have people been inspired to learn gongfu after watching the show?

Matthew Ahmet came to see one of our first shows when he was about seven years old. He bought the videotape of the show and every night, he practised in front of the television. Now, he runs a Shaolin temple school in London and travels around the country and visits schools to give demonstrations of gongfu. He even appeared in Shaolin Wheel Of Life and was also on Superstars Of Dance with us.

6 Why are you fascinated with gongfu?

What started it was the TV series called Kung Fu (1972-1975) starring David Carradine.

Every episode would start with him arriving in a new town in America and there would be bad guys roughing him up.

But he always turns the other cheek and only in the last three minutes or so would he subdue them with gongfu.

7 Have you picked up any gongfu moves yourself?

A lot of the audience members like the breaking of the things, but now that I understand more of gongfu, I appreciate the movement more. It's so beautiful, like dance.

If I had to pick something to learn, maybe qigong and taiji.

8 How would you like to be remembered?

I'd like to be remembered by the show, that we've always put on good shows.

In the 17 years, they've raised lots of money for the temple and awareness of gongfu.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 25, 2016, with the headline 'Putting Shaolin monks on stage'. Print Edition | Subscribe