Monday, 29 February 2016

Theatre Practitioners: Indian and Asian Traditions

I recently came across the practitioner/theorist Bharata, who is considered to be the father of Indian theatrical forms. No one really knows who he was, or even when he was practising, and it is believed that his text, the Natyashastra, is actually the work of several scholars over a number of years.

Regardless, this is actually a beautiful text.

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According to Bharata, theatre and the arts are gifts from Brahma, the creator god, and is a "noble form form of diversion" which was intended to be enjoyed by all people of all castes and classes.

"Please give us something which would not only teach us, but be pleasing to both eyes and ears. True, the Vedas are there but some like to Sudras are prohibited from listening to and learning from them. Why not create for us a fifth Veda which would be accessible to all the castes?"
(from BHARATA MUNI, Natyasastra, tran. Adya Rangacharya. 1986)

According to Bharata, the success of a performance is measured by the reactions of the audience; that they should be moved to reaction. Again this shows that it is believed that theatre's purpose is to induce catharsis; that enlightenment, education and emotion are the key goals of theatre.

Despite the opening of the Natyasastra reading like a beautiful parable, recounting Brahma's gift of the fifth Veda, which incorporated all of the arts, and required "...persons who are smart, intelligent, observant and self-controlled..." to practice it, the text also incorporates detailed instruction on all aspects of mounting a production, from choosing the location of the theatre all the way to the specifics of costume and make-up for different characters.

"Never start a show without worshipping the stage..."
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In parts, I find echoes of the Aristotelian Unities: "An act should cover the events of a single day..." 

In others it describes forms of mime and physical theatre, stating that large objects, such as chariots or elephants, should not be brought onto the stage themselves but instead represented by gesture, movement, costume, etc. In this I also find similarities to Horace's distrust of spectacle, which was popular in Greek theatre. Horace believed that spectacle was unedifying and only for entertainment, not education: Bharata seems to agree. If spectacle is non-educational, does this mean that the absence of it is therefore more educating?

However, I must admit that in many ways I find the Natyasastra quite proscriptive and prohibitive: it could be read as a handbook which dictates certain methodologies which are acceptable, even as far as how certain characters would walk. I would find this rather limiting, not taking into account differences in characterisation or differences in the actors. However, in this I personally see the origins of the 'stock character' and the roots of theatrical traditions such as the Commedia (specific stories, characters, characterisations and costumes)

Stock characters, costumes and masks from the Commedia dell'arte
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At the same time, I was also reading more about the major theorist of the Asian dramatic form (Noh Drama) Zeami - another figure of mystery who went by many names during his lifetime, and as many following his death, because of his paranoia that his theories would be stolen by his rivals.

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Zeami writes that an actor must be a master of all of the elements of his art. Only then can he tailor his performance to the time and the place, and create what the audience require, which according to Zeami, is novelty. This is in opposition to the theories of the Natyasastra, as it seems to suggest an element of spontaneity and allowing the actors to interpret the characters themselves, rather than sticking rigidly to a stricture or structure.

" actor who strives only to play demon roles will never some to understand what is really of interest about them. An actor who has mastered every technique and occasionally plays a demon role, will create the Flower, because his portrayal of the role will be unusual and so will be of interest to his audiences."
(from On the Art of the No Drama: The Major Treatises of Zeami trans. J.Thomas Rimmer and Yamazaki Masakazu. 1984)

Zeami compares the art of the actor to a flower: it blooms (novelty), dies (novelty wears off), then, during its appointed season (when the time is right) it blooms again (novelty returns). I really like this analogy, and can see it reflected even across the wider theatre industry: reviving productions after a length of time, or re-staging a play when parallels can be drawn with a current event or political procedure, which reintroduces the sense of novelty.

It appears that Zeami appreciates versatility and spontaneity in performance, rather than rigid control. He also understands that the audience want to feel as though they are seeing something for the first time: "...the principle of novelty represents the nature of the Flower, then the spectators coming to watch a performance would expect just this quality." During his treaties on the Flower he also extols the necessity of continual training throughout an actors life, continually learning new arts in order to create the Flower of novelty and mastery of the art.

Despite Zeami and Bharata not being as well known in the Western theatre traditions as the Ancient Greek and Roman writers, their manifestos are still very relevant and useful to modern theatre. I believe this is an example of the importance of heritage and history in theatre, which I touched on during my research degree and am currently composing a blog post on. I will post when it is ready!

Gerould, D. 2000 Theatre Theory Theatre. Devon:Roundhouse

Tuesday, 23 February 2016

Theatre Practitioners: Ancient Philosophers

Ancient Greek and Roman philosophers considered the place and purpose of theatre for society. It was a time when theatre wasn't so far removed from its origins in ritual and rites, so they proscribed certain rules and regulations for the 'proper' way that theatrical events should be presented, in the same way that religious ceremonies have their 'correct' procedures.

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Plato didn't believe that the concept of mimesis had any place in an ordered society. In his Republic he states, through Socrates, that while he appreciates the art, in his utopia, poets would be honoured but turned from the gates of the cities. (It is interesting to note that his great polemic was mimetic in form, however.)

...and, further, they are harmful to those who hear them. Everyone will be sympathetic with himself when he is bad, persuaded that after all similar things are done and were done even by [gods]… We'll forbid them to say such things.
 (PLATO) BLOOM, 1968. P.70

This distrust of poets and performers is one that is echoed, even by poets and performers themselves:

"Our poets keep long nails and untrimmed hair, much in solitude, shunning baths."

However, Aristotle believes that "Imitation is natural to man..." and that we learn first by imitating others. The idea that theatre could be used as an educational tool, that by watching a theatrical performance could be a learning experience, is also shared by Plato, although he takes this to the extreme and believes, therefore, that there should be restrictions placed on what can, or cannot, be presented on stage.

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During Aristotle's time, theatre became concerned with spectacle and scenic effects, removing theatre further from its origins in storytelling or religion. Neither Aristotle, nor Horace, appreciated the spectacle, both arguing that the best poets (playwrights) ought not to rely on scenic effects, rather on the strength of the plot. Both philosophers believe that tragic actions should not happen on stage, but ought to be described after the event. Horace admits that "A thing when heard, remember, strikes less keen on the spectator's mind than when 'tis seen." but that this would generate disgust rather than empathy, and empathy, and therefore catharsis, is perceived as being one of the main aims of the theatrical experience.

Aristotle strongly believed in the cathartic power of theatre, and considered the arts without reference to social, moral or religious purposes. He states that "incidents arousing pity and fear" in a performance can accomplish a "catharsis of such emotions" in the watching audience. This is something that is still considered to be the 'point' of theatre; watching a character experience a challenging situation, or strong emotions, allows us to empathise because we are experiencing the emotions simultaneously with the actor on stage; an experience that other forms of performance (modern film, television, etc) cannot replicate to the same degree.

I disagree in part with Aristotle's theory of the unities of theatre (time, place, action, character etc.) and many modern plays destroy the unities entirely, even down to something as simple as doubling up on the characters or having action take place in two separate places. However it provides a simple, linear layout for a production or plot, which is still useful.

"The youth who runs for prizes wisely trains,
Bears cold and heat, is patient and abstains:
The flute-player at a festival, before
He plays in public, has to learn his lore.
Not so our bardlings: they come bouncing in -
'I'm your true poet: let them laugh that win:
Plague take the last! although I ne'er was taught,
Is that a cause for owning I know naught?' "

I adore this passage from Horace; the idea that even in Ancient times those higher up the professional ladder took umbrage with untrained newcomers. This is a situation that our profession still hasn't overcome! I agree with him on this, although at times his ire seems misdirected and he heaps scorn on everyone involved in the creation of theatre, from the actors and writers to the audience themselves. It makes me wonder whether he actually enjoyed his job!

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Theatre was considered to be educational and edifying. It was a unifying experience across most social classes and castes, and even the layout of the theatres reflects this; sat in the round, with the speaker in the centre. The ancient philosophers and poets; Aristotle, Horace and Plato, provided the roots of Western Theatre tradition, the effects of which are still apparent in many modern productions.

Theatre Thoughts: The Role of the Critic

The times, they are a-changing... and the arts, by necessity are changing with them. The way I want to think about here is theatre criticism.

Image Source: (if anyone can tell me the original owner of the artwork I will gladly credit them!)

In the past the Critic has been a figure of power; feared and despised: Ashwin Sanghi said that "...the relationship between critic and writer is similar to the one between the pigeon and the statue." and Tennyson wrote that a critic is "a louse in the locks of literature." However, Dustin Hoffman is quoted as saying that "a good review from the critics is just another stay of execution." Critics, especially in the age of the printed word, often possessed control over the success, or demise of a production; stories about of shows being cancelled after opening night when the reviews were dire. (Leaving aside the now legendary panning of Les Mis) However, in the digital age, the power has shifted and the role of the critic is one that is now being questioned.

"A good drama critic is one who perceives what is happening in the theatre of his time. A great drama critic also perceives what is not happening."

"The critic has to educate the public; the artist has to educate the critic"

"The public is the only critic whose opinion is worth anything at all."

This quote from Mark Twain is particularly prescient. In an age of instant connection and world wide media, a well phrased tweet can have more power than the most critically insightful review of a production or a piece of art.

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Nowadays, bloggers are just as likely to be invited to a press night as the traditional medium critics from broadsheets and journals. Indeed, the National Theatre Shed held a specific event for invited bloggers. 

The role of the critic has traditionally been to inform and advise: those planning a visit to the theatre may decide for or against a particular production based on a review read in the Sunday papers. Nowadays it is probably more likely that a review will be read online, followed by having a look at several different opinions, and maybe deciding on something completely different.

One of the main problems with any form of criticism is that taste is subjective. I experienced this personally when I attended a production that had received good reviews and lots of positive posts on Twitter, but I found puerile and amateurish. For every bad review blog read there may be another writer who loved it. While this could be an example of an egalitarian model of criticism, it could also be serving to muddy the waters, making it unclear as to what may actually be worth seeing. But then, as previously stated, taste is subjective so what I love, you may hate.

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I don't know what the end result will be. I think traditional print media is dying anyway, and that in my lifetime we will see the final daily newspaper being pulled from the shelves. In conversation last week I mentioned, to an avid reader of the Observer, that I had read the same article but I had accessed it online after finding it through a keyword search on Google. I think this is the way it is going, and that critics affiliated to recognised institutions such as the Guardian, will still have some sway over theatre makers and practitioners. But, when star reviews from bedroom bloggers and the twittersphere sit happily alongside the Telegraph and Independent on marketing materials, their power is waning and, to paraphrase Mark Twain, the public's opinion matters.
 P.S. I realise I sound quite disdainful here (bedroom bloggers) and I realise I am one of those! No need to point out this seeming hypocrisy! 

PERSONAL: Day Out at Hogwarts

For Christmas my wonderful boyfriend bought us tickets for the Warner Brothers Studio Tour, and I've been hopping with excitement since then!

An owl brought me my Hogwarts acceptance letter!

In the interests of full disclosure; I am a big Harry Potter fan. Not to the extent that I would camp out in the rain to see the stars, but enough that I can quote from the books and the films off the top of my head, and I have a pub quiz worth of trivia about all things Potter related. Oh, and I've done the real sorting hat on Pottermore, and it confirmed what I always knew; I am a Ravenclaw for life.

So this weekend I donned my uniform and went back to school:

Why I will never be a grown-up

Despite being giddy with excitement I was also a little trepidatious: what if it didn't live up to my expectations? But I needn't have worried. From the moment we arrived, even the parking attendants welcomed us with a smile.

The tours have entry times, for reasons of crowd and queue control, but once you're in, you can take your time. The only stipulation is that it's one way - once you have moved on from a room you can't go back in to see something you may have missed. So we really did take our time. The tour encompasses two large studios and an external backlot and we were told the visits averaged three hours. We took over five!

The Great Hall

I'm not going to give away all of the secrets of the tour; it was filled with informative and entertaining videos, not only of the stars of the film, but also those behind the scenes such as Creature Effects managers, Production Designers and so on. 

Fleur Delacour: mock-up and final outfit ** The Tri-Wizard Cup and Golden Egg

Harry's Glasses                  **           Dumbledore's Office

Costumes, props and set pieces were all accompanied by plaques, describing details and providing titbits of insider experiences, which were occasionally quite funny, especially in the case of the Animal Department! 

At the half-way mark we stopped for a much needed tankard of Butterbeer; the recipe for which is a closely guarded secret, and had the opportunity to see some of the props and sets which were too big to be permanently inside, such as the Knight Bus, Privet Drive and the iconic Hogwarts Bridge.

The second studio houses the Special Effects and Creature Workshops, where we met a variety of the inhabitants of Harry's world, including Buckbeak the Hippogriff and Aragog the giant spider! In this studio we took a wander down Diagon Alley, marvelling at the tiny details in each shop window. It is also home to some of the concept artwork and the design and planning pictures and models, which were extremely impressive.

Butterbeer!                       **      Outside Harry's House

Meeting Aragog         **    Paper model of Hogsmeade

For me, my favourite part of the tour came at the end: a scale model of Hogwarts, used for the impressive wide frame shots of the castle and the huge, sweeping vistas around the grounds. I admit I got goosebumps as we rounded the corner and saw it lit up as though at night, with tiny lights glowing in the windows.

I highly recommend this tour to anyone who is a fan of the books or films, or both. The tickets can be quite expensive but if you really take your time, and take in everything in each section as we did, then it is definitely worth it. I'm glad we don't have any children as I think we'd have spent most of our time trying to corral them and keep them under control, although there are lots of things to keep them occupied such as Wand Choreography and Broomstick Riding (which we didn't do) 


This has left me with a greater appreciation for the films and the decade of work and vast amount of effort that went into making them so magical. When we got home we watched the fourth film and I realised I was looking at everything except the actors, recognising props and costumes, and tiny details such as the decoration on the bed curtains in the Gryffindor boys dormitory! 

The first book came out in 1997, meaning there are people in university who have never known a world without Harry Potter. And the Warner Brothers Studio Tour really does bring that world to life.

Monday, 22 February 2016

Theatre Thoughts: Philosophy and Politics

As is so often the case, my thoughts have been sparked off by a blog...

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Theatre, the arts, as a political weapon is nothing new; Boal's Theatre of the Oppressed is one of my favourite examples; 

"[Boal] set up a number of groups to practice Theatre of the Oppressed, and the ideas of ordinary people from these groups were put forward to become law. In four years, thirty bills of law were created using this method, and thirteen of them became law. This process became known as Legislative Theatre."
CHADDERTON, 2013, P.201

However, using theatre primarily as a political tool, in the style of the Dadists, I think misses the point of theatrical performance. Yes it can be political but if a play is purely based in politics you may as well watch Prime Minister's Questions (there's more overacting, booing and hissing in half an hour of that than you'd get in your average Christmas pantomime!) Theatre also has to entertain and engage, it can question and provoke but without the element of entertainment it would be a very dry pastime. 

Unfortunately, there is no way that theatre can become completely divorced from politics, or the pervading influences of the day. Everyone involved in the production of a play brings their own opinion and point of view to the performance and it simply cannot be helped. Derrida believed that "the author was merely a cultural construct: the product of an age, class, sex, socially determined expectations and appetites, and so forth." (STRATHERN, 2000, P.46) Therefore there is no art that is not politically motivated at some level, whether that was the creators intention or the intention that the viewer places on it after the fact, because we are all a product of our environment. This also has echoes of Barthes' 'death of the author' but his deconstructionism determined that even the language we use is subject to inherent bias and subsequently language itself cannot be trusted. 

I believe theatre has to reflect society in some way, otherwise the audience cannot recognise themselves within the action, cannot empathise, and therefore cannot experience catharsis, which Aristotle believed was the main point of theatre. Arguing with myself here, though; there is the old adage 'write what you know' - if every writer did that, then the vast majority of writing would be drearily similar. We would have no fantasy, no dystopian visions of the future, little historical fiction, etc. However in every genre, there has to be something for the audience to understand, surely? I can't imagine a play in which absolutely nothing makes sense or is recognizable, but would still resonate with an audience.

I've lost my train of thought now... hang on...

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I like the notion that "...the very architecture of a theatre... are bourgeois and support capitalism." (VILE, 2016.) A traditional theatre places the actor in a position of authority over the audience who sit below the stage in a very Nietzschean power balance. If the bourgeois, or the ruling classes, decide to have an actor say a certain thing at a certain time, then purely because of the set-up of the theatre, the audience are more inclined to believe what they hear: there's a reason why public speakers stand on podiums! Interestingly, the Ancient Greeks, who believed that theatre was a unifying, educational force, staged theatre primarily in the round, with the actors placed below the spectators (I realise that this is for reasons of acoustics, but I think it is an interesting point nonetheless!)

Along this thread of thought, it is then also interesting that much modern theatre takes place in non-traditional spaces; studio theatres, location etc. which subvert the ruling paradigm of a proscenium stage with the audience literally (and metaphorically??) in the dark. Is this an example of the arts attempting to pull away from politics? And by doing so, are we just witnessing the emergence of an opposition party? Political by dint of it not being political?

This is probably not what the original author intended to be conveyed, so, sorry! Also, this blog probably doesn't make much sense: my thoughts run away sometimes and I have to sprint to keep up!


Chadderton, D. 2013 The Theatre Makers. Abergele: Studymates
Strathern, P. 2000 Derrida: Philosophy. London: HarperCollins
Vile, G. 2016 Where I am Going Wrong as a Critic [ONLINE] Available at [Accessed 20 January 16]

Saturday, 20 February 2016

Theatre Thoughts: London Fringe Theatre

I recently undertook a research degree, looking at New Writing and the place of Fringe Theatre in the wider theatre industry. I'm going to recreate parts of it in this blog, as all at once it might be a bit much!

I am interested in New Writing due to its variety of subject matter and style. There is a vast amount of new work being produced each year, and many academic courses for aspiring playwrights and directors. Theatre is a notoriously difficult industry in which to be successful, 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)

The Union Theatre
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It is difficult to state the importance of Fringe Theatres for the wider industry; they nurture the next generation of playwrights, directors and practitioners and allow for a wider scope on subject matter, style and content than many mainstream or commercial theatres could.

London fringe theatres are important in the new writing system because they are small venues whose low profile allows many young playwrights to start their careers in relative obscurity, making initial mistakes far from the public gaze. Staffed by unpaid volunteers and theatre eccentrics, the fringe is one of the glories of London’s can-do culture: in good years… it buzzes with creativity and innovation. SIERZ, P.34. 2011

There seems to be, recently, a growing appreciation for the relevance of Fringe Theatre. I personally feel that this may be due to the number of fringe productions in recent years that have made the transition from the fringe to West End theatres or national tours, which has generated more interest in what was previously seen as a niche area. Combine this with a generation who want everything yesterday, who want to be the first to experience an event, or to be able to say “I saw that when…”; and the opportunity to potentially see the stars of tomorrow, or next week’s big smash hit in a smaller, more intimate setting and the appeal is undeniable.

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

The comparatively shorter lead times for fringe productions allow for an immediacy of response, which cannot be replicated with larger, commercial productions. As Michael Billington wrote in his Guardian blog, " rarely topples governments or incites direct action. What theatre can do is shift attitudes, articulate discontent, and reflect, often with microscopic accuracy, the mood of the nation." (BILLINGTON, 2007) This urgency of reflection is something that fringe theatre does incredibly well, and is another reason, I believe, for its widening appeal.

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As part of my research I interviewed practitioners, directors and writers who work within London's fringe scene. Although the range of responses varied greatly, the Participants all held similar views on the main themes: that Fringe Theatre is essential to the development of New Writing, encouraging writers and directors to develop work away from the mainstream, to take risks and to have the courage to potentially make mistakes. In this way, Fringe Theatres help to shape the future of commercial theatre and underpin the continuation of the theatre industry.

With the abolition of the Rep [repertory theatre companies] came the death of the versatile actor who would throw themselves into any role. As a result, new work which emerged in those times has had to find a home in the self-funded… fringe, which is now the last bastion for new, exciting theatre.

Both my interview subjects and the literature I read in support of my research, agreed that work which could be perceived as ‘challenging’ is largely restricted to the fringe theatre. Bennett states that “…theatre directed at exploited or underprivileged groups… has necessarily developed outside the conventional routes of production…” (BENNETT, P.116. 1990) so fringe theatres play a role in encouraging the staging of provocative plays. It is also a place where new writers can make their mark before transferring to the commercial sector, so in this way the fringe theatres nurture the next generation of playwrights.

Operation Crucible: premiered at the Finborough Theatre, then went on to a successful UK tour before heading back for a sold-out run at the Finborough.
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When I spoke with the participants they confirmed that during their time working within the industry, there has been an increase in the amount of New Writing being produced, but that the general feeling is that challenging work is being increasingly overlooked by commercial theatre and this was reflected through the literature sources; that while New Writing is flourishing, the larger, commercial sector, is still relying on revivals to bring in audiences.

…it seems that classics and revivals are still far more prevalent than genuinely brilliant new work. In the last five years [many movie stars] have had West End productions of Hamlet. I believe new work has very little impact on the wider industry until it becomes successful or it has a star getting naked. It’s a sad indictment that seemingly more people go to pantomime in one month than go to all theatre in rest of the year.

There have been, and always will be, exceptions; for example “King Charles III” and “The Nether” were both examples of challenging, provocative new plays that enjoyed successful West End transfers (and a subsequent UK Tour in the case of the former): however these works originated in smaller, Off-West End and Fringe venues.

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However, the wider theatre industry still gives so much focus to big-budget, West End musicals, revivals of classics and ‘star’ performers.

The wider industry is ruled by punters, the punters want to see stars and shows they think they ‘should’ watch, therefore new work suffers.

Musicals and West End Theatre attendance is currently the driving force behind commercial theatre. However from within the New Writing sector there was still cause for optimism:

I'm not looking out for trends in theatre or thinking about the sociology of the art form. In the end good work, one must believe, will always find an audience. We are all human beings with the need for story. Robert Lepage has said that if film is communication, theatre is communion. Well I think we need communion and people respond to it if it's offered in the right way.

There will always be New Writing, because there is always a new story that needs to be told.

Because of this perceived freedom with the subject matter of New Writing, it allows writers and directors be more spontaneous and honest, and therefore feel as though they can create change within their intended audiences. Fringe Theatres are not always answerable to share-holders or governing bodies, which means they can afford to take more risks with the material they choose to present, and can create their own artistic aesthetic:

I take risks. I take a risk every time I put a play on the stage, whether my own or someone else’s. But then that is what life is about – risk. If there’s no risk, then there’s no worth, in my opinion.

For the Practitioners I interviewed, Fringe Theatre is integral to the continuation of New Writing, and therefore holds great relevance to the rest of the theatre industry. Writers feel that they can be more truthful when not catering directly to audience demographics, and therefore they may be able to make a more honest connection with their audiences. 

Bennett, S. 1990. Theatre Audiences. London: Routledge
Billington, M. 2007. Lifting The Curtain [ONLINE] Available at [Accessed 27 November 15]
Delgado, M & Svich, C. 2002. Theatre In Crisis? Manchester: Manchester University Press
Hemley, M. 2015. New Work Has Overtaken Revivals… [ONLINE] Available at[Accessed 15 August 15] 
Sierz, A. 2011. Rewriting The Nation. London: Methuen Drama