Friday, 25 March 2016

REVIEW: Lady Rizo | Multiplied - Soho Theatre

Lady Rizo: Multiplied - Soho Theatre

Okay, this review is going to be a little bit biased as I absolutely adore Lady Rizo (fangirl alert!)

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Lady Rizo is a powerhouse performance artist; from quirky to sexy, soulful to brilliantly bonkers, she has it all. Her shows are always a tour-de-force in cabaret, and this one was no exception. My partner has been to a couple of her shows as well, and said he thought this show was the best he'd seen. 

Since having a "human baby" four months ago (!) the show covers aspects of motherhood and family. Gorgeous songs intersperse with entertaining anecdotes from both her childhood and her recent history, meaning that I felt as though I was on an emotional roller-coaster; doubled-over with laughter one moment and weeping uncontrollably the next. Beautiful, personal touches blend well with rock-star-like control of the audience and the finale felt almost like a rally as the whole audience spontaneously started dancing.

Backed by three superb musicians, the music was tight and controlled; the perfect accompaniment to her dynamic and impressive vocals. They occasionally broke off into amazing improvisations and the banter between Lady Rizo and her drummer had the audience in stitches.

I love her. I loved this show. I can't say enough good things about it, so I'm going to stop before I start babbling.

Thursday, 24 March 2016

Theatre Thoughts: Mental Health

This is kind of a follow on from a previous blog, and I can't start this off better than with this quote from the late, great Robin Williams:

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Working in the arts and creative industries is hard. It's an overpopulated industry with an extraordinarily high unemployment rate. Rejection is a constant, daily fact. And this can be mentally and physically exhausting, especially when this rejection may be based on something that cannot be worked on, or improved, or changed. I often got cut from auditions because of my height, or my weird body proportions meaning I didn't fit into an existing costume (I have a long body and short legs, and I'm a touch under 5'4")

Across all of the creative industries this is the case. Writers will have manuscripts turned down time and time again with often little or no explanation more than "It's not what we're looking for at the moment." Dancers will get cut from auditions with no explanation or reassurance. Fair enough, the people holding the auditions, assessing the manuscripts or whatever, have their own agenda and issues, and they are not there to boost the egos of people who don't suit their requirements; but something I've noticed is that there is very rarely anyone there who can support those people.

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It's mentally, and physically exhausting. To have to pick yourself up from a 'no', and go straight to the next audition with a smile and your A-game.
I remember one day, getting a 5a.m. train to London from the Northern town in which I lived at the time, for a day of, I think, four auditions. A singing call at about 8:45, an open dance audition at 10am, a closed audition at 2:30 and another singing audition before 4. I didn't get any of them, and had to jump on a train back up North to perform in a show that evening. I had to plaster on the smile and make-up, and give each element my all, despite being drained of energy and tired to my bones.

This is a regular occurrence for many performers, writers, artists. And it surely takes its toll on physical and mental health. Constant rejection, constant energy and constant sales, when the product you're trying to sell is yourself, and being told that yourself isn't good enough is heartbreaking.

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And even when the impossible happens and you do get a gig, it's usually not a forever job. In six weeks, nine months, or a year, the contracts will be up for renewal, or the cast will change, or the show will close. The book sales will dry up and another book has to be written and pitched, the painting will sell but another has to be created. There is no stability and no sense of longevity. Even for the lucky ones who seem to jump from one job or commission to another, there is still impermanence. It's the permanent fact of life in the creative industries.

Having to pick yourself up and dust yourself off time and time again is so fatiguing. And you hear the same platitudes over and over again; "It wasn't meant to be", "Something will come along", "Their loss", etc. etc. which can become wearying in its own right, despite being meant with the best intentions.

There are lots of mental health charities which use the arts as a source of therapy, and this is wonderful. Participating in dance, painting, writing, etc. is proven to improve mental health. But what if these creative outlets are the source of your income and identity? What then?

What do you think?

Saturday, 19 March 2016

Theatre Thoughts: Casting Choices

There's been a bit of a kick-off across my Facebook over the news that reality TV "star" Ferne McCann has been cast in a musical.

I don't watch reality TV. Even the adverts for things like Essex Shore, or whatever it's called, make bile rise in my throat. But I can't deny that they have some sort of popularity, and their lead characters have, I'm aware, gone on to do other (usually equally banal) things within the entertainment industry.

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On the one hand, I understand why the vitriol: I trained as an actress and dancer, and to appear in a show like this would have once been a dream for me* so to see someone who is "straight up there" on a karaoke, and who was rejected from a drama school so went travelling instead, is a real kick in the teeth to all of the supremely talented, dedicated, highly trained performers out there who are desperate for work.
She seems so, I don't know: glib about the casting. Her attitude is extremely irritating and thoughtless: "I sing all day long..." Great. Doesn't make you a singer, sweetheart. Have you trained and worked for this? Nope. You're a pretty face who happened to be in the right place at the right time for some TV executive to see you and decide he can make a buck off of you.

One of the points raised was "Why? Why was she cast?" Yes she has a certain type of popularity, but the people who watch her shows are not the sort of people who would buy West End Theatre tickets.

And this, I think, is the point. They're not. But they could be. They are a previously untapped source of revenue, and casting someone like this may get a whole new audience in to the theatre, to see a "sleb" in the flesh. And you never know, they may like it! Marketing departments across the arts are constantly trying to think of ways to engage new audiences, and this is one of the ways that theatre can.

Brooke Shields, Denise Van Outen, Michelle Williams: some of the celebrities who appeared in the West End's 'Chicago'

It has happened time and time again - celebrity casting in order to sell tickets. Hell, Chicago made it into an art form of its own! My auntie would go and see the show each time there was a cast change (i.e. new celebrity playing any role), so that was the point; repeat custom and drawing in fans of a particular person. However, the Union isn't a huge West End theatre and probably can't afford the likes of a Hollywood star, or maybe even a faded 80's pop singer. But they can afford a reality TV star.

The Union isn't one of the major London theatres, so this will get the press talking, and different kinds of press such as tabloids and magazines, that would not usually cover theatres. This casting has made news already. It will get fans of her and her show into the theatre, and will probably get people in purely for the chance to possibly watch her crash and burn.

The way people are going on (on my timelines, at least), you'd think she was playing the lead. She's not. She's playing the role of Myrtle Wilson; the character is a wannabe flapper who makes all of the wrong choices. In this way I think the casting actually quite inspired; if Myrtle was real and alive today, she'd totally be the kind of person who wants to be on a reality show.

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Isla Fischer as Myrtle Wilson in The Great Gatsby movie

You never know - she might be quite good. I doubt even a cash-strapped theatre or company would risk their reputation casting someone utterly shite. The rest of the cast is cracking, so this shouldn't be allowed to overshadow them.

Yes, I'm annoyed they've gone for someone who sounds so flippant about it. Yes, I'm gutted for the people who auditioned only to find they've been passed over for someone with such limited performance experience. And yes, I think that talent should trump every time. But it doesn't, and I can see why this decision has been made, as galling as it may be.

* I regularly have a dream where I'm suddenly standing on-stage or backstage, and have to go on and do a role. It's usually a really hi-octane dance routine or pas de deux, or sing a leading role. And I have no idea what the show even is. The panic is real.

Theatre Conversations: What Do You Do?

I've been thinking about this for some time, and yesterday had a conversation with a good friend of mine about it.

What Do You Do?

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When you first meet someone new, this is one of the first things you ask. "Hi, what's your name? Oh, nice to meet you; and what do you do?" What you're actually asking is "What do you do for a living, how do you make money? How do you define yourself and therefore how can I define you?" The most common response is to answer with your job title or profession: "Hi, I'm John. I'm a teacher." or "My name's Maisie, I'm an Executive Assistant to the Managing Director of a banking corporation." Whatever.

Why do we define ourselves by our job titles? Job titles are arbitrary anyway and can differ from company to company. What one theatre calls a Production Assistant, another might call Company Administrator. Why do we feel the need to have worth bestowed upon us by what we do to earn money? And does this mean we have no worth  if we are currently unemployed?

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We live in a corporate society, and we need to earn money in order to live. As the charts above show, we spend a huge amount of time at our place of work, and it's hard not to define yourself by the activity you spend most of your time doing.

During a period of limited employment, I found myself reading a lot more, doing some painting and sketching, writing a lot more than I have done for years and teaching myself how to bake (I'm still not great, but hey ho!) So when someone asks me what I do, I could answer: "I love writing and have written a play, and I blog a lot. I play with my cats and watch documentaries on things like Ancient Egypt or the development of language. I spend time with my friends, and time on my own, reading, drawing, or visiting a museum alone; and I do freelance work for a theatre." 

However, I don't. I answer that I am a freelance theatre practitioner. I define myself in these hypothetical eyes by what I do to earn money, even though, at the time, this was not the thing that I did the most.

The ironic thing is, that if someone introduced themselves to me in the former pattern, I feel that this would open up a lot more conversational opportunities than the latter. 

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During this same time I was burdened with self-doubt and anxiety. I felt I had to prove my 'worth'. Having a monetary value (salary or wage) attached to your title (still arbitrary and variable across companies) assigns you worth. But is shouldn't.

We need to stop placing so much personal value on our job titles. You might be a snowboarder who enjoys flamenco dancing, and work in an office. You might have painted a series of triptychs and like long walks with your three dogs, and be a barista or a waiter.

You are more than your job title, and worth more than what money your company decides your job title deserves. Remember that. You are worth more, in more than monetary terms. 
And maybe next time someone asks you the dreaded question "And what do you do?" Shake it up a little bit. Actually tell them what you do, rather than what your method of income happens to be.

Theatre Thoughts: ACE Burlesque

The other day it was announced that the Hebden Bridge Burlesque Festival has secured Arts Council England funding for their next event.

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In recent years HBBF came under fire from protesters, arguing that Burlesque was anti-feminist, akin to stripping and shouldn't be allowed in certain venues. Fortunately the team behind the festival were able to overcome these objections and put on an acclaimed festival. This year many of the venues booked for events were flooded before Christmas, leading to a scramble to find other performance spaces. I'm sure it's been a roller-coaster for them, so the news that they have secured ACE funding for the next event must be a huge weight off their minds.

I have a background in cabaret performance, so I may be a little biased here: HBBF is the first event of its kind to get ACE funding. The Arts Council has suffered from year-on-year cuts and in the theatre world it is becoming increasingly difficult to gain funding from them (one friend has spent several weeks putting together the application and has to wait several more weeks to hear from them. Many more have had their applications refused.), so for a burlesque event to gain funding is a coup for the cabaret industry as a whole.

But it got me thinking: why is this the first? Why haven't ACE funded burlesque before, and will this set a precedent for future funding. 

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Burlesque and cabaret is so inclusive. There are performers of all races and ethnicities, performers with disabilities, from the LGBTQ community, those who identify as gender fluid and more. They all find a home in Cabaret, and therefore tick the boxes for funding from the Arts Council. Festivals also tend to include workshops and talks, therefore fulfilling the educational requirements of ACE.

Previously, cabaret performances have tended to be largely self-funded or venue-led. Many smaller shows are profit-share, and any surplus from the first show gets carried over to be able to offer a small fee to performers on the next show. It tends to be self-sustaining.
In London and some other cities, there is another side to cabaret where venues will offer a set amount of money to a troupe of performers, or a company, or a set of individuals to put on a show that suits the venues requirements.

* Maybe it's partly this DIY attitude, which permeates all areas of cabaret and burlesque, that has meant no one has asked for help from ACE before. Or maybe they have, and have been turned down - I'd like to know more if this is the case! Cabaret performers are largely self-sufficient and maybe it's a little bit of this sensibility.
* Perhaps (and I'm sure this isn't the case) the people who are putting on the shows don't think that cabaret is *worth* funding? That it's not worthy of funding in the eyes of the "establishment" because it's not a 'serious play' or piece of politically inspired contemporary dance in an immersive environment. (I have nothing against the latter, actually, it sounds quite interesting!)
* It might just be that cabaret performers don't really have the time to sit filling in a lengthy application! From my experience as a full-time cabaret performer I would spend most of my time making or repairing costumes; working on choreography; updating my website; searching for music for routines; networking and maintaining an online presence; shopping for glue, fabric, crystals or the 'right colour shoes'; and vast swathes of time travelling on trains or in the back of a car. If you're also planning a show, or series of shows, there is the added stress of doing all of the above for whole group of performers and liaising with venues, techies and marketing. Where is the time in the day??

Photographer Credit: Mat Ricardo -
Model: Ruby Deshabille -

I'm glad that HBBF gained the funding. It will be a financial weight off their minds, which will allow for more "risky" programming, which in turn will expose the audiences to the weird and wonderful variety of variety.

I'm glad that this might set a precedent for other productions and groups to apply for (and hopefully gain) funding from the Arts Council, as this will allow more and more people to be introduced to cabaret and see it for the modern, subversive and progressive performance that I believe a good show can be.

And I'm actually really glad it's happening first outside of London! Here we have our pick of venues, events and performance styles, and I'm happy that a festival all the way 'oop North is getting this opportunity.

Friday, 11 March 2016

Theatre Thoughts: Etiquette

There have been an increasing number of reports over the past few years of actors, sometimes extremely high profile, who have reacted from the stage to hecklers in the audience.

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On the one hand I could argue that the actors themselves could be considered to be at fault - when on stage, you are playing a character; being that character and experiencing the character's world as they would. In that world, the audience does not exist, really, and therefore the heckler does not exist. I could argue that these prestigious actors ought to be able to block out any extraneous distractions and not lower themselves to the level of the heckler.

I come from a performance background in cabaret: I regularly received, and witnessed other performers receiving, heckles; sometimes good-natured, sometimes not. It's expected in this kind of performance; in any style of performance that breaks the fourth wall you are inviting the audience to respond. Sometimes this elevates the performance to another level (some of my favourite memories are those of expert hosts shutting down ill-thought-out heckles with perfection) and the whole audience comes 'on-side'. Sometimes it makes it awkward or tense, and sometimes it can destroy a performers confidence. But, as I said, unfortunately if you are directly addressing an audience, you may receive an answer from them.

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However, I absolutely despise rudeness, and in a traditional theatre context, that's what heckling is. It's plain rude. If I were attending the theatre and someone in the audience started to heckle, I honestly think the red mist would descend. If someone I was actually with at the theatre heckled, it'd be cause for immediate termination of the relationship, after I had finished shrivelling up and dying of mortification. (I very nearly broke up with a boyfriend once after his phone rang while we were at the theatre) 

Why this rise in heckling? Or talking in the audience, using mobile phones, or anything that isn't giving your full attention to the action in front of you? Action that you have presumably paid to see and gone out of your way to get to. Is it indicative of our modern society and our decreasing attention spans? The society that believes that every one of us is a special little snowflake and deserves to be the centre of focus as all times? Maybe some people just can't get through a couple of hours without making their opinion known. Oh lord, it makes me angry just typing this!

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Maybe there needs to be an educational intervention: when tickets are booked there should be a box to check, next to the Terms and Conditions; "Are you, or any other member of your group, a first-time theatre-goer?" If you tick 'yes' then you have to attend a mandatory, pre-show lecture on theatre etiquette before being allowed to watch the performance. Maybe Cinema Ninjas need to be rolled out across the board (although I think this would potentially be more distracting?) I don't know.

In an age of relaxed societal strictures, I feel as though theatre is suffering; both the audience and the performers. If you want to chat, wait until the interval or the end, and if you want to heckle, don't. Just don't. Save any criticism for a strongly-worded tweet. Just wait until the end of the show for that as well, please.

Tuesday, 1 March 2016

Theatre Thoughts: Why Do We Bother

I recently undertook a research degree, looking at Fringe Theatre and New Writing. I am reproducing parts of it here, as I think it may be of interest!

One of the questions I asked during my research was “Why Do We Bother?” Why bother creating something new when people may not come, or may not like it? I interviewed participants who work with New Writing and in Fringe Theatres, and held many informal conversations, both online and in person.

Why Bother?
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As Anna Furse states to Delgado and Svich: “…ironically performance studies, feeding an industry in which there is a ninety per cent unemployment rate, keeps drawing applicants….” (FURSE) DELGADO&SVICH, P.71. 2002

“Performance has no notable value in terms of survival, and yet it seems to have been around as long as people have.”
FREEMAN, 2007. P.137

In several of the literature sources I read in support of the research, from both before and during the time frame I considered for the inquiry, there are references to theatre being in a state of crisis: Delgado and Svich state that: “Theatre [is] in a particularly precarious state…” (DELGADO & SVICH, 2002. P.6) however, other texts believe that we are in an age of theatrical innovation and creativity, with Sierz writing that “[In] 2003-8, 42 per cent of plays in a sample of sixty-five English theatre companies were new, and the box office performance of new plays showed a considerable increase on any previous figures…” (SIERZ, 2011. P.16)

Most theatre attendees have been to at least one musical (75%) or play (72%) in the past year. Fewer (38%) have been to a dance performance and even less (27%) have been to the opera… Two in three (66%) want to maintain or increase the number of musicals and plays they attend this year, primarily driven by London attendees, which would continue the upward trend in attendance of West End theatre. 
MERMIRI, P.15-16. 2013

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The Participants responses to the question of why they bother were very personal, but all shared the same feeling that they loved the creation of the ‘New’, feeling as though they were part of a tradition and a continuing of a heritage. They also enjoyed the challenge of creating something that had never been done before, and from my supporting reading, it appears that audiences are responding:

New work made up more than half of all productions staged in 2013, according to research into the output of 273 venues around the UK… The British Theatre Consortium… found that new work – including original plays, musicals, pantomime and opera – made up 59% of all productions, 66% of all performances, 63% of all seats sold and 66% of box office income… this is the first time since records have been kept that new work has overtaken the number of revivals staged.
HEMLEY. 2015

One of the things I wanted to find out during the inquiry was why those who are involved in writing and creating new work are drawn to this area of theatre, if there is a lack of funding, and only recently, it appears, increased interest. 

“In terms of why bother...if I were to apply that logic, I'd probably not do anything! Why bother going on holiday when it will come to an end?! Why bother staying healthy when we all will die one day?! I bother because I love it, I care, I'm excited by the people I work with and what they and we have to say. And I believe that live performance can make people feel something and move them in some way. 

This feeling was one that was replicated from many of the participants during their interviews and through the supporting literature. When asked why they bother, the responses indicated that those who work in theatre, especially involved in the creation of new plays and stories, felt as though they were continuing a tradition:

Well, theatre, in some form or another has been around since the earliest times. The urge to tell stories while cavemen assembled around a campfire. Okay, so the cave mouth has become the proscenium arch and the campfire is a spotlight, but the compulsion remains the same; to hear and to tell stories: to make sense of the unknown. 

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Shepherd and Wallis support this point by writing that “…drama is prior to the arts… drama connects back to something fundamental in human behaviour, with a point of origin in primitive ritual.” (SHEPHERD & WALLIS, P.58. 2004.)

I often feel like we treat text – especially revered classics – as a strict parent that we don’t want to let down, but sometimes wish we could rebel against! I much prefer to see New Theatre as a best mate that you can tussle with, on a level, editing to suit a specific actor or production. 

This indicates to me that the involvement in New Theatre is about the freedom to express a particular event or emotion in a way that is truthful to both the participants (writers, producers and actors) and their intended audiences. As Vire wrote: “When was the last time you gave a standing ovation at the movies?” (VIRE. 2015.)

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Theatre allows us to experience events; whether those within our own sphere of experience, or from another perspective or culture, and Freeman writes that “…it is truth that we crave, in performance no less than in politics, in life no less than in love, and in art no less than in love…” (FREEMAN. P.89-110. 2007)

I believe the writer has the responsibility to stand witness to an event. To represent their world in the best way that they can. In the most honest, and truthful way… There is a lot wrong with our world, and a lot of people at the minute are feeling the same way, so some of the plays written will only exist for the next five minutes, but people will appreciate them while they are here… 

The theme of tradition and continuation was one which recurred throughout my interviews and informal conversations. Because theatre is something that has been around in many forms and styles for thousands of years, I gained the impression that practitioners feel they are part of a heritage, and New Writing is part of this creation of an ancestry.

Delgado, M & Svich, C. 2002. Theatre In Crisis? Manchester: Manchester University Press
Freeman, J. 2007. New Performance/New Writing. Hampshire: Palgrave MacMillan
Hemley, M. 2015. New Work Has Overtaken Revivals… [ONLINE] Available at [Accessed 15 August 15]
Mermiri, T. 2013. State Of Play: Theatre UK. London: Live Analytics|Ticketmaster International
Shepherd, S & Wallis, M. 2004. Drama/Theatre/Performance. Oxfordshire: Routledge
Sierz, A. 2011. Rewriting The Nation. London: Methuen Drama
Vire, K. 2015. What Live Theatre Offers [ONLINE] Available at [Accessed 29 November 15].

Theatre Thoughts: Traditional Storytelling

I recently went on a visit to the Horniman Museum in London (if you haven't been, it's a lovely afternoon out, filled with weird and wonderful collections!)

Very weird! The famous Horniman Mermaid!

One of the current exhibitions is Project Tobong, which is aiming to "...preserve and reinvigorate..." traditional forms of theatre and storytelling in Indonesia. 

It is a common thing that we hear - traditional, rural theatre companies across the world are dying out. Maybe this is a costs issue (touring theatre companies even in the UK are under threat!) as companies in less wealthy countries struggle to maintain their nomadic lifestyles in the face of rising prices. And as the world becomes smaller and more connected, even those in previously unreachable places may be connected to the internet, or own a television, increasing their opportunities for entertainment, and, possibly, decreasing their interest in what may be seen as an old-fashioned pastime.

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On the one hand, theatre must evolve. It is a constantly changing, reactive art form. And this is good. Any art, or indeed any thing, must evolve in order to stay relevant. Therefore, do we need to protect old, possibly irrelevant forms of communication or art?
Theatre must reflect the times. In these times we are living in what has become known as the Global Village. Theatre often reflects this, with productions such as The Lion King or Les Miserables packed and shipped in their entirety across the globe. The McDonalds of theatre; the same whether you see it in London or Tokyo. Culture is a commodity which is sold across continents. The Global Village has the same cultural reference points and knowledge, resulting in a homogenised theatrical culture.

On the other hand, stories which are relevant in one cultural area will not have the same relevance in another area: what a person living in Peru takes from a production will be very different to what a person living in Russia will read into it, even though they may be watching an exact reproduction of the same performance.
With the rise of the Global Village, traditions, and therefore traditional theatre, are under threat from this growing uniformity of culture. We are at risk of losing interesting and unique forms of art and communication, and thousands of people are losing touch with their histories. 

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Personally I feel it would be such a shame to lose traditional theatre; Project Tobong mentions the "ritual of historic storytelling and performance." Theatre grew from ritual and rite, and to forget our roots would mean that we lose touch with the purpose of theatre itself.
Cultures can learn from one another, elements of one theatre tradition can influence and inform another to create new performance styles, without losing the authenticity of the original forms. In the same way that galleries go to such pains to preserve the great artworks from hundreds of years ago, we should be protecting the theatrical traditions before they are swallowed up.

This line of thinking also led me to wonder if, in hundreds of years, our own theatrical tradition - staged, text-based - will become obsolete and redundant? Will theatre practitioners of the future look back on our culture and fight to preserve scripts and scenery, citing reasons of heritage and history?