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Shaolin Warriors: Return of the Master - Q&A with Stephen Leatherland, Director

Is Shaolin Warriors a family show?

Shaolin Warriors is most definitely a family show for all ages. In particular there’s a teaching sequence with children from the audience who experience being taught Kung-Fu live on stage! So far this show has entertained over 600,000 people overseas of all ages. This year we’ve looked to recreate the show especially for the UK audience, thus making it more interactive, more attractive and ultimately, more exciting.

What's the one act/performance/move that makes the audience wince the most?

It is very hard to name the act that makes the audience wince the most as there are so many exciting feats! Personally, I’d suggest the ‘five spears thrusting the body’, a stunt where a warrior is supported in the air with spears. Others include lying on blades, the nail bed, breaking iron bars using forehead alone to name just a few! However it should be noted that although almost any object can be used as a weapon, the warriors are non-aggressive. At the heart of their ethos is grace and elegance which is a fundamental theme throughout the show.

Do the performers get injured very often?

Although the odd minor injury may happen, the Warriors have been fully trained since they were very young. As most of them began their training as young as 4, they’ve established all the tips and tricks needed in order to ensure their optimum safety. They’re also incredibly strict in their meditation and physical preparation before each show.

Who are the Shaolin Warriors?

The Shaolin Warriors are performers of Shaolin style martial arts. Shaolin is a major genre within the Kung-Fu and Chinese martial arts world, especially in Northern China.

Is there a large percentage of people who start Shaolin training and then drop out?

Yes, the intense training means that not many can bear the hardships during the hottest and coldest months throughout the year. They really are pushed to their limits and as such, we can’t realistically expect all students to become Kung Fu masters. However, no matter how long or short, we aspire to help people become both physically and mentally strong.

The Warriors display a truly incredible amount of skill and timing in their performances. How many years of training does such mastery take to achieve, and at what age does a Master usually begin his training?

They start basic training from the age of 4 with serious training from the age of 7.  With such intensive training (6 hour a day every day) mastery can take just 5 years, however this would equate to many years training elsewhere.

The Production tells the story of a young Warriors ascension to mastery of his art, and all the discipline and hardships that entail, as well as the meditation needed to focus such training. Does this reflect the experiences of each performer? The passion and skill displayed would certainly imply this was more than mere acting on their part?

Yes, indeed meditation and focus are part of the daily life of each Warrior.

After each daily training session and before the performance time is set aside for meditation, contemplation and focus.  Without this the passion and skill would not reflect in the performance.

Some of the feats displayed appear to the untrained eye to be beyond the realms of human ability! Without giving away too much, is this special effects, supernatural forces at work, or just the pinnacle of what a devoted human can achieve? 

Indeed the feats displayed are amazing, however they are not special effects – rather many hours of training to achieve.  Having said that, although dangerous there are procedures put in place to minimise any danger that may involve serious injury.

The show gives an insight into the day to day life and philosophy of the Warriors in China. However, with the stresses of travel, and performing such physically demanding feats for the duration of the tour, do you think the Zen philosophy and physical conditioning comes into play in in their delivering such a flawless performance each night?

Absolutely, just like a dancer they have to keep their bodies in peak condition and their minds focussed on their performance.  They each have their own personal way of achieving this, and Zen philosophy is inevitably part of this.

The lighting, scenery, colours and imagery in the show are truly incredible. Somehow there is never too much for the eye to take in, yet there is no time to take your eyes away! It’s truly a credit to the Director. Was it a challenge to combine such visual vibrancy with so much movement?

No, on the contrary, the show lends itself to creative ideas and it was more of a challenge to choose between certain ideas because there are so many!!!!

The music is very dynamic, and the rhythms at once modern and ancient. At time it is reminiscent of techno music, and the atmosphere is electric. Do you think the performers draw energy from the score? 

Yes, definitely.  The music is an essential part of the show and the performers use the rhythms and cadences to enhance and dramatise the performance.

Finally, as Masters of your discipline, what advice or words of wisdom could you give to budding students of the Martial Arts, or admirers of the Shaolin culture who may be reading this please?

If you are studying a Martial Art or just an admirer of the Shaolin culture then are advise would be to train hard, have an open mind and walk in peace.  All the feats are achievable if you are willing to put in the time and dedication to your Art.