Soultari Amin Farid, Chan Sze-Wei and Germaine Cheng discuss their top picks for dance in 2019, and discuss trends they’ve observed in the scene this year.
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Amin Farid (AF): Hello everyone I am Amin Farid and today I’m here with my friends, Sze-Wei and Germaine and we will be talking about our top picks for dance in 2019. Hi, guys.
Germaine Cheng (GC): Hello.
Chan Sze-Wei (SW): Hey there!
AF: Anybody who would like to start to talk about your top picks?
SW: I will start with a caveat that it was really hard to choose. I’ve got a list but I also liked a lot of things that you both like too. My first two – okay, I’m condensing, I’ve got six but I’m calling them five – were pieces by William Forsythe, which were presented as sort of blockbuster programme at the Esplanade. One was Impressing The Czar, which is quite an old piece of his from the ’80s, which was danced by the Dresden Semperoper Company in March at the Esplanade, and then there was one of his newer works, Blake Works I, which was presented by the Paris Opera Ballet in June. And I’ve actually never seen Forsythe’s works live – it was a real treat. I’ve seen many things on video, and it was fantastic. My second one was like… the absolute opposite of the Esplanade is a bare bones showing in the P7:1SMA studio. That’s the P7:1SMA Dance Company who lent their studio to Eng Kai Er to do a showing of her work Blunt Knife, and that was in June. My number three is, not a Singapore piece either, is The Lost Wax Project by Preethi Athreya, who is a Chennai-based choreographer who showed this contemporary work at the Esplanade Annexe, as part of Kalaa Utsavam just this November. Number four was a piece that was part of the Forward Shift showcase in the da:ns festival. And it’s a new work, which is actually still in progress in a way, by Pichet Klunchun, and it’s called No. 60. And that was just mind blowing because he has taken his lifetime practice and research of Thai Khon classical dance, and drawn out a set of movement principles and patterns and dynamics in almost a mathematical way, which is super impressive. And my last piece is a lecture demonstration by Nirmala Seshadri called The Problematic Danseuse, which she has been working on all year at the Dance Nucleus, talking about her life history and her relationship with Bharatanatyam and censorship. So that’s my five.
AF: Wonderful. We would like to ask Germaine for your top five.
GC: Sure. This is in no particular order. Actually some of the pieces I have on my list are from quite early in the year. It’s quite nice to jog my memory and revisit them. We’ll start with something that happened in January as part of the M1 Fringe Festival. This is a piece called Q&A by Rachel Erdos And Dancers. My second pick is a piece called 0 in 1 《自己的自己》 by the Bulareyaung Dance Company. This was part of double-bill at the Huayi Festival this year in February. The third thing on my list is the Binary – International Artists Showcase, which is part of the M1 CONTACT Contemporary Dance Festival and this year it was double-bill with pieces by Kitt Johnson, as well as Shintaro Oue. The fourth piece on my list is a piece at da:ns festival called Princess which I think we will have much to discuss. Actually I don’t have a fifth one because I think it was too hard to decide. So I just decided to go with four.
SW: Thanks for donating the extra one to me.
AF: It seems that me and Germaine we have similar top picks because I like Q&A a lot and that was the work at the M1 Fringe this year. And I was also the moderator for the post-show. It was very well-received, I can see. And Bula’s work, 0 in 1 was definitely an eye-opener for me. Princess as well. And I would also say that the work by P7:1SMA and Dance In Situ, Complexnya, that was wonderful as well. The way they have created a site-specific work in Chinatown. That was wonderful. And for my last top pick, it’s actually groups of dancers that were invited from the Nusantara or the Malay world, for the Malay Heritage Centre’s Lintas Nusantara. And for this year in particular, it was also about trying to show how these dances were created during the colonial period, in trying to show their unhappiness towards their colonial masters. It was very wonderful to watch them as well. That was my top five, but maybe we could start a conversation about what we felt with some of the work that we have watched and would like to talk about. Maybe let’s talk about Princess.
SW: I’ll start on that. Princess is a work by Filipino artist called Eisa Jocson, who recently won a Hugo Boss award for Asian artist of the year. This work Princess is the second in a trilogy that she’s making called Happyland, which is questioning this kind of consumerist construction of happiness. In Princess she goes to Snow White, and questions why in Hong Kong Disneyland, which is a major employer of Filipino entertainers as foreign talent there, why the Filipinos are never cast us princesses, or in any of the lead roles. And the answer is because they’re not white. The Chinese performers rarely get these parts either. She’s looking at the labour of creating happiness in the Filipino body and connecting that to that kind of classic, domesticated feminine role. And she presents this as a duet. She’s got a doppelganger, Russ Ligtas who’s a performance artist, and they’re both dressed up as (puts on Disney princess voice) Snow White in these really sweet little voices.
AF: Yes, I remember that voice.
SW: (in Disney princess voice) It’s like “Oh hello there!”. And they come across as very charming and fall into tears in Amin’s lap, for example.
SW: And charm the audience and then the facade breaks down, to start to expose the frustration and the difficulty they have.
AF: Yes, and what I really like about Princess is because of that social critique, in a way. When I was watching it, I was also thinking of the labour and also thinking about the Filipinos that had to leave the Philippines to work elsewhere. And, also the idea of whiteness – you know, “Snow White” – and I like that the layers that she was bringing and sharing with us and also very much how we were brought into this narrative or non-narrative of just bringing us through this and then suddenly breaking into themselves. And having that time for us to think about the labour that goes in the acting of Snow White, for example.
SW: Of the production of happiness.
AF: Yes the production of happiness. Germaine you have anything to add to that?
GC: I think the way she used repetition – at the beginning, you always see Snow White as this very charming, feminine princess-type figure, but the longer it went on, the more creepy it got. Because the mimicry was so precise, but yet you never notice these things when you watch the film or the cartoon, but when you see it, it’s almost larger than life and then they’re coming at you, they’re talking to you…
SW: And repeating the same lines.
GC: Like “how are you, how was work? it was nice!”. And suddenly you realise that wow, it’s actually something that you never noticed before, but it’s so amplified in the way that she structured the work. And I think, at the end when it kind of fell apart, it was a little bit surprising, I think, because I didn’t expect it to fall apart that much. But I think she knew that she wanted to go that way. And I mean, everything came off – the costumes, the hair, the voice and suddenly you realise that there’s really… you couldn’t even distinguish them at the beginning at all, until the very end.
SW: And not that the show fell apart. It was that that constructed character of Snow White fell apart. I think the show held together very well.
GC: Yes, very much.
AF: I remember going home and feeling really overwhelmed with that lasting feeling. And I’ve not really watched a show that has such a lasting effect on me. And yah, that was…. (sighs). If I can only express it through movement right now, I would. But okay, now.
SW: Move leh, we’ll describe you. “Gesture of supplication”.
AF: Talking about happy moments. I felt that watching Bula’s work, 0 in 1, that brought a lot of smiles because you’re seeing this group of gentlemen dancing together and how they are playing. And I’m just going to pass it to Germaine to describe a little bit about 0 in 1.
GC: Sure. What I remember is that it was a very playful and exuberant work but and yet it was something that was born out of a very tragic situation because they had just gone through a typhoon and they were rebuilding their lives and the community and everything. But I think the main message of this was the spirit that held them together. And so it was really… it started out being – they all just came out and you saw that the dancers were extremely different bodies, personalities, but somehow… they were playing catching, they were running around like one of them would stop and be like, “Okay, I’m out. I can’t do this anymore”. And I guess they were just kind of very uninhibitedly themselves. You didn’t feel like they were acting or they were putting on a show, or it was a performance to them, they just were okay to be themselves to interact with the audience very freely. There was this huge piece of blue tarp that was on the stage, and then they started to play with it and mould it. It was super funny, the audience was laughing pretty much the entire time or clapping along, singing along. And I remember there was one image that they made – they took the tarp and then one guy was at the front and somehow he had water in his mouth. He was spitting out water. and then he was like, “Oh look, the Merlion” and the whole entire audience exploded. Yeah, so it was just very clever. And I guess a testament to the kind of adaptability and creative spirit that came out of the community even through such a hard time.
AF: And I like when you were saying that they were being themselves because they were themselves, many facets of themselves. And they were very playful and also challenging stereotypical constructs of masculinity, right? At moments you would see one or two of them dressing up with heels on, right. And they’re dancing folk dances and they were wearing quite heavy boots. There was a comparison somewhat of a group of men in boots and then you have one of them wearing heels. Right? And I thought that was really cute, the way that they constructed it. And the singing – actually, they have beautiful voices as well.
SW: It was a folk song, that they repeated and repeated and repeated.
AF: Yes. And I think they are indigenous. They’re from the Paiwan tribe.
SW: I think Bula started it almost as a kind of community project. He was a dancer, at Cloud Gate Dance Theatre, and then he decided to step back and give back to the tribes where he came from, which some of them are quite isolated. And these boys he picked – I guess there must have been eight or nine of them – they’re not professional dancers. He really just picked guys from the village and they really look like guys from the village. When they’re at first sitting and lying on stage you’re like “wow”, and those heavy boots you’re talking about, those rubber yellow construction boots. They look really like they’re sitting by the side of some country road, and the kind of exuberance and authenticity with which they played these games and sang and danced and kind of challenged each other. There was one part with this folk song where they’re repeating it over and over. It comes with these stamping, earthy steps. They were challenging each other to outdo each other in terms of tricks or movement, whether I’m doing a back arch or I’m doing a jump.
Yeah, it was very strong, but at the same time, Bula managed to bring in a sense of choreographic arc that was not narrative, but had different sections that allowed us to see them differently. Quiet introspective moments as well showing a kind of sadness. I think, for me, the way I was reading those kind of campy moments that you’re describing with the heels and some of the feminine gestures, were a kind of sadness about that identity and maybe how difficult it might be to live that. The scene that really stuck with me was when that tarp transformed into an ocean, there was just one dancer who was rolling very slowly on stage, delicately, beautifully, and it’s unexpected because in other sections, he looked so awkward. But he was doing these slow, almost butoh-like rolling on the stage and then some of the other dancers unseen, because it was very dark, were pulling this enormous tarp and this is the size of the Esplanade Theatre Studio stage. They were running it back over him and forwards like the ocean and the light had been made red. So what was normally a very common-looking blue tarp that you see in construction sites really became this sort of surreal black wave. There was really a degree of the kind of mundane and the sublime that I loved in this show.
AF: Yeah. And probably we can talk about the next work that we liked. It was Q&A by Rachel Erdos as part of the M1 Singapore Fringe Festival. Today, Germaine actually brought the coloured cards, which we were given during the show. Maybe want to talk a bit about the cards?
GC: Yeah, these were given at the very beginning of the performance. Being very systematic, we think or we hope that the questions will be addressed in sequence, but obviously, that didn’t happen. So maybe just to give an idea of the show, basically the show was crafted around these questions. And so the dances were created, like movement responses to some of these questions, some of which were very humorous and some of them were very dramatic and quite introspective. Just to give you a range, there is a question in here that says, “Do you have a secret hunch about how you will die?” And then the person is just like, being very exaggerated and flailing around on the stage falling over and all that.
SW: So they read out the questions.
GC: Yes, they do read out the questions. And then, of course, the question of “If you could wake up tomorrow having gained one quality or ability, what would that be?” And then there is of course, this superhero music and they’re just flying around. But then there are also more heartfelt moments like, “Describe your relationship with your mother” and then that spawned a very tender duet between two dancers. And then a lot of it was very warm and inviting. You didn’t feel like the audience interaction was too much. And even if the questions were posed at you directly, you didn’t have to answer them super honestly, I guess. But I think just overall, the atmosphere that was created was one that was very warm and very generous.
AF: I think what I really liked about the work was because, she has taken something very simple, which we have taken for granted. Questions which we don’t necessarily talk about with other people and tapping into that intimate side. Because other than just watching the dancers performing and asking these questions to each other. We’re also asking these questions to ourselves. And I felt that it was such a good start to the year to watch something like that, making us think a little bit about our lives and the people who have impacted us. And I don’t know, those questions are questions which sometimes we do ask ourselves but we don’t hear it being verbalised or asked to another person. We ask ourselves that, we don’t actually ask it to another person. I remember being very emotional at certain parts, especially when they’re talking about your mother or your father, people who are a very important part of your life. It definitely was a very touching moment.
SW: So I have a question. Not having watched the show but knowing that the premise was that this is a set of questions that if you put two strangers together to ask each other, they will fall in love. Did you guys fall in love?
GC: Well, we didn’t ask them to each other.
SW: Not with each other, with the show.
AF: But there was a moment when we were asked to look at–
GC: Yeah, yeah. Basically these questions are crafted by a psychologist. And the kind of hypothesis is to increase intimacy between two people. And at the end of going through these questions, you sit with the person and you stare into their eyes for I think, three, four minutes. That’s what happened at the end of the show. They pulled audience members down, and then sat them, and you just waited. And then the lights just faded whenever the time ended. I think there were people – I didn’t go down – but I think there were people in there who really experienced something, I guess, with the person that they shared the moment with. There were people who went down in a pair, as friends. And someone I know, said that it ended up being quite emotional. I guess it’s not something that you commonly do even if you’re very close friends. You wouldn’t look at the person in silence for, I guess what is quite a long period of time.
SW: Yeah, sounds like it has resonances with Ming Poon’s piece on loneliness at Forward Shift, where he invites audience members to come down and have a slow dance with him. Also a really powerful work. Shall we move on to another piece that both of you really liked? Again, I really want to hear about this because I was away and didn’t get to catch Complexnya. What happened?
AF: Well… if you guys can also help me I’m just trying to recall. It was at Chinatown–
GC: Hong Lim Complex.
AF: Yes, I watched it twice. And in the two times I watched it, I saw many different things. But what I liked was how we were able to explore the space, the Hong Lim Complex itself… well maybe because of my background, I am trying to find stories and I’m trying to look beyond the technique, because… Technique is important, but I’m trying to make sense of what we’re doing. But what I like was that they brought me… it felt like I was traveling with them to different places. And what I liked was a lot of the intimacies of what that space gives… so I remember us starting in – it wasn’t the first level, it felt like it was ground floor but it was not the ground floor. It was the ground floor of the residential.
GC: Level five.
AF: Level five, okay, level five was the ground floor of the residential.
GC: Below is all the shops.
AF: Right, and then they divided us into two groups eventually and we were going up two different ways. And then subsequently, we met up. Along the way we saw different things and I was very glad that I went twice so I followed the other group and see what they were up to. It felt nice because I was also witnessing moments when they were very playful, but they didn’t look like they were playful, but they were playing. Germaine, you have anything to add to this?
GC: I think what’s interesting for me is that this is…. this is a work by P7:1SMA and (Norhaizad Adam) is the choreographer at P7:1SMA. And this is actually the second piece that I’ve seen that Haizad has done in Chinatown. So in 2016, he did something as part of the Soul Searching….
SW: It was a collaboration at Smith Street, wasn’t it?
GC: Yeah. It’s quite interesting that he’s come back to Chinatown again. And one thing I remember from the first time, because I was part of the Soul Searching project also, is that while we were kind of walking around and looking at places, one of the passersby remarked and said that “oh it’s so interesting that there’s a Malay artist deciding to make a work in Chinatown”. Yeah. And to me, it’s very interesting that he’s kind of drawn to it and he’s come back to Chinatown again, of course in a very different way. And I really enjoyed the, I think this was a little bit more, I want to say aggressive, then his previous work in the sense of wanting to claim the space, the vocabulary seemed a bit more – to me the word is just “fierce”. I just keep thinking that, just how they’re approaching it is a lot more like there was a lot of fists, a lot of kind of very strong and almost combative moments, especially between the two rival groups of dancers. And I think it really helps you to see, I think he billed it as a performance walk. You’re not just taking the performance but you’re seeing the gritty tiles, you’re seeing the very rusty grills on the shop fronts and all these things. And I think I really enjoy it, like you say, how it took you around Hong Lim Complex and there was some very interesting turns, like it’s very narrow staircase and suddenly it opens up to a huge square and you didn’t expect that at all. And I felt like it was very well done in terms of not just choreographing the dancers, but also choreographing the audience movement and the kind of viewpoints that you would get for each of the scenes.
AF: And close to the end I remember they were trying to queue us up, and they were quite aggressive. And okay, honestly, in that moment, I felt that they were going to send me to a room and I’m going to get… something’s going to happen to me. But there was a sense of fear, and I thought I was the only one who felt that, that sense of fierceness, but then eventually we all met and we’re all looking at each other.
GC: And then we just got left there. And you’re like “ok…?”
AF: That’s how it ended and I was wondering, “okay, wow, this is interesting”. The dancers just ran away.
GC: And it was just all of us in this tiny square like, “ok…?”
AF: “What’s happening next?” But yeah, that’s how it ended. I was trying to recall that moment, I remember onlookers looking at us and wondering what are we doing, right? And I remember there was one day when they were doing it and there is a very big square when we were looking down from the second or from the floor right above. There was also the wushu guy, Vincent Ng, was present, I think with his guru because it was an elderly man, and they were in that space rehearsing one of their wushu repertoires, but it was really interesting because there was a juxtaposition somewhat of dancers in that square. They were not dancing, they were merely being in the space and somewhat geometric at certain moments, it felt like they were creating patterns with their bodies. Wonderful experience.
SW: Sounds like there was a lot of subtlety in the way Haizad used his dancers.
AF: There were moments of subtleness and moments of fierceness. I remember that for–
SW: But that the fierceness worked, in a way it didn’t become sinister or annoying?
AF: No, it wasn’t sinister. It just felt that no, there was a slight imposition on the bodies of the people who were present. But I think it was just a moment to just make us recall a particular moment in history probably, I don’t know, I’ve yet to have that conversation with them.
GC: Yeah, I think to me, I read it as just them having a sense of something that they were fighting for, whether it’s to preserve the space, or just that– I think he wrote in his programme notes that what he felt about the space was that there was an urge for him to feel that he wanted to stop time. And I think like you say, I think Dance In Situ has done very well in terms of creating or commissioning work, I guess that is site-specific, but also quite site-sensitive in a way, you don’t– of course, you feel like wah I’m putting this dance piece into this kind of very everyday space and it’s going to invade it or whatever. But I think they have managed to do it in a way that still allows the space and whatever activity that it has to breathe in and to go on, and it’s not kind of just a massive takeover.
AF: Yes. I think we’ve provided some conversations about the top picks that we’ve had in 2019. Sze-Wei would you like to add something?
SW: Well, I just wanted to maybe, since we’ve got a little time, to draw us to another part of this conversation that we had in preparation for this podcast, about themes or trends that we’ve noticed this year, which we find interesting, which may not be linked to specific works or that might not have been our top pick work, but that we noticed that something interesting was going on. Germaine, would you like to start?
GC: Sure. I think one thing that was pretty significant this year in the street dance scene, was the programming of FULL OUT! at the da:ns festival. This is, I believe, the first time in a very long time that they have –
SW: On the main stage.
GC: Yeah, put street dance on the main stage. Usually, they have street dance programming as part of their free performances that are usually in Outdoor Theatre.
SW: Sixteen da:ns Challenge, mainly.
GC: This year, they obviously took a big step and decided to put it on the main Esplanade Theatre stage.
SW: Bringing in these international crews, right, which are quite a big deal.
GC: Yes, I think they have always had very good crews and collaborators that have come in for Sixteen da:ns Challenge but I think this is obviously a big moment. I think for me, and the conversations that I’ve had with some of the street dancers that were part of it, is obviously the sense that they were very excited that this is a new, probably the biggest venue that they have played. But I think there’s also a sense of what next, to make such a big jump. And then now we’re thinking about next year and well, what is going to happen? Are you going to keep this street dance on the main stage thing going, or what else can be done for the development of street dance? Because apart from giving them a bigger stage – Sixteen da:ns Challenge, which basically invites an international guest, and they work with local dancers for 16 hours. They work for four evenings or something. And then they put on a performance, which is usually maybe like five minutes. But that doesn’t change, the performance platform changed, but they actually still get to work for 16 hours only. So I also wonder, what kind of a development is this and whether there can be more steps taken to understand what the street dance scene is interested in. And what will help them develop.
AF: And Sze, do you have any trends that you’d like to bring up?
SW: Well, there were a couple of things for me this year. I think they’re not entirely new. It’s not that they haven’t happened before. But there was a focus on dance and technology or maybe it’s better to say dance and science that I noticed this year. So we did speak about Bulareyaung’s 0 and 1 which was featured as part of a programme at the Esplanade, help me, it was called…
GC: That Which Cannot Be Divided.
SW: That Which Cannot Be Divided. Yeah, talking about prime numbers. And I believe there was a series of programmes, so the Esplanade had one and the NUS Centre For the Arts also had a series of programming, which was around the announcement that there’s going to be an international day of mathematics. And this year was the first year that that happened. So there were the double-bill that Bulareyaung and Albert Tiong presented, there was a whole series of things presented at Centre For the Arts. But there was also, separately from that, speaking of science, I attended a very interesting workshop that was part of the Asian Dramaturgs’ Network by the Taiwanese choreographer Su Wen-Chi. Yeah Germaine you were there too.
SW: And she was talking about this very special residency that she went on that is created for artists at CERN, which is the Nuclear Research Laboratories, it’s in Switzerland I think? Yeah. And it was really a process for her of getting to understand the way scientists think, maybe not how to do the scientific research since she wasn’t there to do that, but to observe it as an artist. And I think it really changed the way she was working and what she was interested in. And we had a lot of very interesting exercises about how she was approaching, making work and physicality and space, and at the end of it, also a very rich discussion, and it’s really stayed with me. I think it might have been (Lim) How Ngean, who mentioned that it seems that she’s created an entirely different dramaturgy. It’s like a dramaturgy of science, which is very different from the way we’re used to looking at performance or creating or developing the concept for performance. So that was really fascinating.
Another technological-ish point to mention was that in connection with the Forsythe performances that were being presented at the Esplanade, the Dance Nucleus also brought in one of Forsythe’s ex-company members, Nik Haffner, who worked with him for many years on what Forsythe calls the “Improvisation Technologies”, which is a system that he worked on for immense number of years, looking at different ways to use the physiognomy of the body, but also the geometry of the body to create different movements. And there was a workshop week, as well as talks on that. And that, for me actually connected very much to the performance of Pichet’s that I was talking about, because when I saw what Pichet was doing with his dancer, Jed, I really looked at it and said, Oh, my God, Pichet Klunchun has created an Improvisation Technology for an Asian classical dance form. He’s gone into an analysis of how the body is used and how space is used, and really notated it systematically and created a set of tools which really offers a very different way to approach moving, that a classically trained body, not a Forsythe Improvisation-trained body, can work and create something very interesting.
AF: And that makes a good segue to what I – I don’t see it as a trend but an initiative by P7:1SMA and their collaborators, which also includes myself. It’s for RE:IMAGINE Malay Dance that was a showing as part of Got To Move at Wisma Geylang Serai. And I felt that it was a wonderful experience in trying– what P7:1SMA did was to try to bring other kindred choreographers to reimagine Malay dance. It’s not as advanced as what Pichet would have done, but it provided space for us to question, critique and also present in a way which is not how it’s presented traditionally and I thought that was interesting, and especially since the kindred choreographers were of a particular generation – well, I was the oldest amongst the rest – but it was a wonderful experience in trying to have conversations which we rarely have with other people within the community.
And what’s important was also trying to bring this conversation to a larger community, which are people who are not necessarily practitioners of the form. And I think it was interesting, because, I felt that – it was not for the first time – but I felt that it was necessary for people who are non-practitioners of the form to listen to the practitioners and see whether there were – in a way to show that there is a sense of inclusivity of a form that can sometimes be quite exclusive. Yeah, so I thought there was a good initiative and I hope it’ll become a trend for 2020. That said, this is something that, for a lot of traditional scenes, we see progressively that they’re opening up and trying to have this conversation with people outside their form.
SW: And when you say people outside the flow, I’m just curious, Amin, the people who were there when you talk about non-practitioners, was it mainly what we would call a Malay community who are not practitioners, or were there also dancers from other disciplines there?
AF: They were dancers and practitioners from other disciplines – theatremakers and dancers from the contemporary scene.
SW: And not necessarily Malay?
AF: Not necessarily Malay. That was wonderful because we were having this discussion in English as well. But people who were present were also some veterans as well, and they saw for themselves what we were trying to do. I felt that it was a necessary platform for this kind of conversations, especially from a younger generation of practitioners, who adore the form, but would like to see it– to have conversations, to have a critical conversations about the form. Okay, I think it was quite a vibrant conversation about our top picks for dance in 2019. And we hope for 2020 to be even more vibrant and as exciting. Yeah, I think that’s all from us.
SW: Thanks for the chat!
AF: Yes. Thank you very much to ArtsEquator as well for inviting us to have this conversation. All right, and see you guys in 2020!
SW: Happy Holidays.
For the 2019 end-of-year theatre podcast, click here.