REVIEW: A Play For The Living In A Time Of Extinction, York Theatre Royal. Sustainable tour concept ****; production ***; play **

Cycling and recycling: Sustainable theatre at York Theatre Royal in A Play For The Living In A Time Of Extinction, starring Stephanie Hutchinson, centre. All pictures: James Drury

THE opening of this “bold experiment in eco theatre-making” coincided with the publication of the State Of Nature 2023 report into the UK’s biodiversity.

The headline news? One sixth of our species is under threat of extinction. Meanwhile, in the latest state of the nation report, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak is turning the blue tide against green change: more oil fields, no 2030 deadline ojettisoning diesl and petrol cars. So much for leading the way at Cop26.

To top it all, a 16-year-old boy has been arrested on suspicion of causing criminal damage in connection with the felling of the 300-year-old Sycamore Gap tree – the landmark one from Robin Hood: Prince Of Thieves – at Hadrian’s Wall.

What a week to be staging the closing chapter of the groundbreaking zero-travel tour of American playwright Miranda Rose Hall’s “darkly humorous, life-affirming one-woman show” that confronts the world’s urgent ecological disaster.

It is billed as a “fiercely feminist off-grid production that is part ritual, part battle cry, in a moving exploration of what it means to be human in an era of man-made extinction”.

That tells only half the story because the concept behind the tour, mounted by Headlong and partners York Theatre Royal and the London Barbican, turns out to be more impactful than Hall’s 80-minute diatribe.

Since opening at the Barbican, the play has travelled with an original creative template by director Katie Mitchell and black-and-white design palette by Moi Tran, but neither materials, nor people have been sent to Coventry, Plymouth, Newcastle, Newcastle-under-Lyme and Prescot.

Stephanie Hutchinson: Playing a dramaturg forced into performing on stage in the absence of her company’s actors, then putting all her research into a plea for saving animals and humans from extinction

Instead, each venue has provided its own director and performer, in York’s case, Theatre Royal resident artist Mingyu Lin and Leeds actress Stephanie Hutchinson.

Stephanie delivers a monologue, but she is not alone on the boards. A sound engineer and lighting technician sit to either side and eight cyclists fill the stage, the whir of their steady, rhythmical, kinetic pedal power being turned into electricity for the sound and lighting by a mechanism to delight any scientists in the audience.

Recycling is as important as the cycling: only existing theatre stock – props and the microphone – can be used, along with clothing from charity shops; the bicycles being lent by Recycle York.

A typical main-house production uses 60,000 watts per performance for lighting, 10,000 for sound. A Play For The Living’s cyclists generated the necessary amount here; far, far less wattage in total.

All this is uplifting, and food for thought, a potential blueprint for eco-theatre touring, in the vein of Coldplay making their Music Of The Spheres world tour “as sustainable and low carbon as possible”.

All power to the sustainable concept, but Hall’s play is under-powered by comparison: bleak and apocalyptic, as to be expected in this age of the Sixth Extinction, but the “dark humour” is strained, with unnecessary swearing, and the doomsday scenario runs contrary to the claim of being life-affirming.

Apparently, the best we can seek is a “good death”, in a messianic finale that would not have been out of place delivered from a church pulpit, topped off by the York Theatre Royal Choir’s hymnal finale, delivered in funereal black, re-emphasising that message. Brecht & Weill would have loved it.

Saddling up to spark electricty: the cyclists from the cycling city of York doing their bit for “eco-theatre making”

Stephanie had talked in advance of being determined not to be preachy, but Hall’s tone ended up being exactly that. Rather than delivering a TED talk, “in a story like this, we need to care,” said Ming in her interview.

True, but we need to do more than care, amid so much dead talk. We need to act. Faced by footage of animal after animal facing extinction, it had the depressing, deadening air of futility. Not the intention surely, but where was the battle cry, the rallying call, rather than that hallelujah chorus of an incoming “good death”?

Lists can have an emotional impact – listen to Steve Earle’s mining disaster memorial It’s About Blood for proof – but the emotional elements of A Play For The Living are botched. The explanation of why Stephanie’s character, Zero Emissions Theatre Company dramaturg Naomi, is forced into being on stage for one night in an impromptu performance, after her fellow company founders are called away to a tragic emergency, is too around-the-houses.

We are here to care about extinction all around us, not a human accident. Likewise, we are not here to judge Naomi’s acting skills – or Stephanie being an actor playing someone who is not a natural actor, although she does just fine in that elaborately structured transition.

Later, Naomi talks of her dog disappearing, but again it is not the same as a creature’s extinction, so why include it here?

You will often hear that a play should not be expected to come up with answers, but what is the purpose of this one?  To encourage more responsible behaviour through its sustainable touring model, definitely, but where was the positivity that mankind can and will work together to save the planet and its endangered inhabitants, from the Little Brown Bat to the Kingfisher? Its absence spoke volumes. Maybe we really are all doomed as Private Frazer forecast in Dad’s Army.

The end.

Performances: 2.30pm and 7.30pm tomorrow (30/9/2023). Box office: 01904 623568 or

When cycling meets recycling in York Theatre Royal sustainable show A Play For The Living In A Time Of Extinction

Pedal power: Cyclists at York Theatre Royal with the mechanism that turns their kinetic energy into electricity for the lighting and sound in A Play For The Living In A Time Of Extinction. Picture: James Drury

A PLAY For The Living In A Time Of Extinction is a darkly humorous, life-affirming one-woman show, written by American playwright Miranda Rose Hall and powered at each performance by cyclists.

Undertaking a “life-changing journey to confront the urgent ecological disaster unfolding around us”, this fiercely feminist off-grid production is part ritual, part battle cry in a moving exploration of what it means to be human in an era of man-made extinction.

Billed as a “bold experiment in eco theatre-making” on a groundbreaking zero-travel tour, Hall’s witty, ambitious 80-minute play has toured across the country under Headlong’s banner while the people and materials involved have not. 

After London, Coventry, Plymouth, Newcastle, Newcastle-under-Lyme and Prescot, the last stop is York Theatre Royal, where resident artist Mingyu Lin follows up co-directing the 100-strong company in the Theatre Royal’s summer community production of Sovereign by directing a cast of only one, Leeds actress Stephanie Hutchinson, in the role of Naomi from tonight to Saturday.

Stephanie will not be alone, however. Not only will she be accompanied by the York Theatre Royal Choir, last heard in Sovereign at King’s Manor, but also by eight cyclists, pedalling on specially adapted bikes that will power the lighting and sound.

“What’s been done is to find a way to be both sustainable and tour,” says Ming. “The concept of the play never changes but the talent working on it changes at each venue. Cyclists are recruited at each venue to power the show. The only thing that’s moved physically is the technology which transforms kinetic energy into electricity – and that all comes in one big box.”

In keeping with York’s status as a cycling city, more than 50 people have applied to be volunteer cyclists, including community cast members from Sovereign, members of York Theatre Royal’s Access All Areas Youth Theatre strand and participants celebrating International Day of Older People. Consequently, a different set of cyclists will saddle up at each of the five performances, with a maximum of eight putting in a shift each show, by comparison with a maximum of four elsewhere.

Coinciding with the start of rehearsals, York Theatre Royal has begun an environmental campaign encouraging staff and community members to pledge to do better for the environment in a manner that they choose.

“We are definitely at a turning point,” says Stephanie Hutchinson, who plays Naomi in A Play For The Living In A Time Of Extinction at York Theatre Royal. Picture: James Drury

This includes an opportunity for all to share their pledges with the chance to be featured in the digital programme for A Play For The Living. Pledges can be made on social media with the hashtag #IPledgeWithYTR or through a display in the York Theatre Royal foyer. 

Sharing learning from Europe and Katie Mitchell, director of a version of the play in Switzerland, Headlong’s innovative touring model is the first of its kind in Great Britain. The Barbican, in London, played host to the beginning of this journey, since when a blueprint of the show has been brought to life by a different team of theatre makers in each venue as part of an international experiment in reimagining theatre in a climate crisis.  

“There’s been a little bit of serendipity for me to be directing the York leg,” says former University of York Eng. Lit student Ming. “When I was working on programming for Headlong, when I was still living in London, during the pandemic we were looking at plays to put on after Covid, and I came across A Play For The Living because it was on the Susan Smith Blackburn Prize shortlist, an international playwriting prize with UK funding,” she recalls.

“On the short list were five plays and we really wanted a play by a female writer with a strong theme. All at Headlong decided they liked this one, and we had a meeting on Zoom with the writer, Miranda Rose Hall, who was very, very passionate about the risk of extinction and climate change, and you can really feel that in the play.

“We got an email from Katie Mitchell, who’d directed a smaller-scale production with two cyclists, and we decided we wanted the ethos of the production to reflect the ethos and energy of the play by having more cyclists.”

Ming knew she would be moving to York Theatre Royal as resident artist by the time the tour was put in place. “One of the reasons I wanted to leave London is that I really want plays to come out of London, and  I thought you could have local directors and actors for each tour venue, but also not spend loads of money on the set, with only the mechanism for converting pedal power into electricity and a LED neon flex lighting system going from venue to venue,” she says.

“Working from an original design and black-and-grey colour palette by Moi Tran, each theatre must provide the staging, the microphones, the bicycles and the cyclists, and the theatre is not allowed to use anything new. Everything has to be from the Theatre Royal’s existing stock or charity shops for costumes. The Recycle York shop is lending us the bikes.”

Reflecting on the tour’s zero-travel policy, Ming says: “It really makes you aware of the cost of touring theatre in terms of sustainability and the use of electricity in your artistic vision, but I think those challenges turn into opportunities. Too much freedom can make you lazy.”

Leeds actress Stephanie Hutchinson

Stephanie Hutchinson will be performing in a one-woman show for the first time. “The amount you have to learn is crazy,” she says. “I had to find a sense of what the play is about, and there’s a video by the writer, explaining the show and why she wanted to write it, that’s been really useful.

“I would say that rehearsals have been interesting and challenging but very positive and working with Ming has been nothing but positive. It’s a different experience because I’ve never done a monologue before, especially as it’s one this long and it’s just me speaking on stage.”

Stephanie’s character Naomi is “part of a theatre company that has made a play especially for you, those living through extinction, but the actors have not shown up yet. In the meantime, Naomi has a plan.”

“I keep thinking throughout, ‘I really want to get the audience thinking and talking about extinction’,” says Stephanie. “Naomi is asked if she’s read The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History, a book by Elizabeth Kolbert [the Pulitzer Prize-winning author, university visiting fellow and environmental journalist for the New Yorker], because we’re going through the Sixth Extinction right now” …

…“We’re losing creatures at a quicker rate now than in the days of the dinosaurs,” points out Ming.

Hall’s play posits that “the difference between death and extinction is this: death is to cease to exist. Extinction is to extinguish. I think of death as individual. Extinction is collective”.

“We are definitely at a turning point,” says Stephanie. “Naomi is thinking, ‘we need to do something on this, a play, but she’s a dramaturg, not an actor, but when the actors who’d normally be doing it have an emergency, she has to go on stage. So it’s set up as a sort of improvised ‘gotta make a show’.”

Ming says: “It’s interesting for an actor to be playing someone who’s not an actor and wouldn’t normally be on stage, so that’s been fun.”

“It shouldn’t be preachy, and Naomi isn’t going to be preachy, but maybe provoke conversations,” says Stephanie. Picture: James Drury

Stephanie says: “I like how it’s educational, with Naomi learning as well as the audience, taking it in as if she’s learning it for the first time as she tells you all these facts.”

As Ming puts it, the playwright has created a story and character with emotional stakes at play, “not a TED talk”. “It stays engaging because there are parts that are so personal, so it to-and-fros  between Naomi’s story and the wider story,” says Stephanie.

“In a story like this, you need to care,” says Ming. “The stakes must be there from almost the top of a play, and that’s something that really works with this play, where you get to care about it and you invest in the conceit of the dramaturg telling it.”

Stephanie adds: “I find it easier to express that in the moments when Naomi is feeling vulnerable, and you can definitely play with the emotion there.”

Last question: why should we see A Play For The Living in this time of extinction? “I don’t think a  pedal-powered production on this scale has been done before, and a tour of this type has never been done,” says Ming.

“It’s definitely life affirming because, yes, ‘extinction’ is in the title, but so is ‘living’ and the sustenance of life is worth fighting for.”

For Stephanie, “it’s something new, something I’ve never come across before. It shouldn’t be preachy, and Naomi isn’t going to be preachy, but maybe provoke conversations,” she says. “She won’t have the answers, but we’re all going through this, and we must all go through it together.”

A Play For The Living In A Time Of Extinction  runs on pedal power at York Theatre Royal from tonight (27/9/2023) until Saturday, 7.30pm plus 2.30pm Saturday matinee. Box office: 01904 623568 or 

Copyright of The Press, York

Cyclists needed to power Stephanie Hutchinson’s performance in climate crisis play at York Theatre Royal in September

Stephanie Hutchinson: Leeds actress will play Naomi in A Play For The Living In A Time Of Extinction at York Theatre Royal

CYCLISTS are needed to power radical new theatre show A Play For The Living In A Time Of Extinction at York Theatre Royal next month.

Miranda Rose Hall’s darkly humorous, life-affirming play uses energy generated by on-stage cyclists, who will ride specially adapted bicycles to power all the electricity required for lighting and sound.

Consequently, the Theatre Royal is seeking volunteers to saddle up to be part of this innovative production, co-produced with Headlong and the Barbican, London. Eight cyclists are needed for each 80-minute performance, outnumbering the solo performer by eight to one.

Anyone keen to be involved can find out more at The deadline for signing up is Monday, September 11.

Running in York from September 27 to 30, Miranda Rose Hall’s play heads out on a life-changing journey to confront the urgent ecological disaster unfolding around us. Part ritual, part battle cry, this “fiercely feminist off-grid” one-woman show offers a moving evaluation of what it means to be human in an era of man-made extinction.

Sharing learning from Europe and Katie Mitchell too, Headlong’s innovative touring model explores the idea of a play touring, but the people involved not doing so, in the first project of its kind in the UK.

The Barbican hosted the beginning of this journey and now each city on the tour will follow a blueprint for the show, brought to life by a different team of theatre makers at each venue as part of a ground-breaking international experiment in reimagining theatre in a climate crisis.

The York leg’s director, Mingyu Lin, resident artist at York Theatre Royal, says: “York is the final stop for this ground-breaking concept of sustainable touring and I’m so excited to be directing our own version of this ambitiously eco-conscious and witty show, which will be made (and powered!) by York talent.”

The role of Naomi will be played in York by Stephanie Hutchinson, from Leeds, who studied performing arts at Salford University. She previously appeared on the Theatre Royal stage in Green Hammerton company Badapple Theatre’s haunted dance hall comedy, Elephant Rock, in May 2022.

Her further theatre credits include Shake The City (Jermyn Street Theatre), Wind In The Willows Library Theatre, Manchester), Mugabeland (Come As You Arts North West) and The Haunted Man (Kindred Theatre) and she has had television roles in Emmerdale, Without Sin and Coronation Street too.

A Play For The Living In A Time Of Extinction, York Theatre Royal, September 27 to 30, 7.30pm and 2.30pm Saturday matinee. Box office: 01904 623568 or

Haunted happenings: Stephanie Hutchinson in Badapple Theatre Company’s Elephant Rock at York Theatre Royal in May last year

In Focus: A Play For The Living In A Time of Extinction director Mingyu Lin

DIRECTOR Mingyu Lin could be excused for feeling a little lonely as she prepares to bring an innovative show to the stage of York Theatre Royal. She has moved from rehearsing a community company of 100 for Sovereign to A Play For The Living In A Time Of Extinction with a cast of only one.

While cast numbers may be small, the idea and thoughts behind the project are big, not least the idea of generating power for the production using bicycles on a zero-travel tour. Or as the pre-show publicity puts it: “a bold experiment in eco theatre-making” that sees the play tour across the country while the people and materials do not.

York is the final stop, where Theatre Royal resident artist Ming, a regular director of Channel 4 soap opera Hollyoaks, has been involved with the project from the start. She was working as a creative associate at Headlong when “the play passed my desk”, and she recalls that she and the rest of the team loved it.

A Zoom meeting was set up with the writer Miranda Rose Hall, who lives in America, and Katie Mitchell, director of a version of the play in Switzerland, to discuss how a play about sustainability could itself be sustainable. Pedal power, involving a team of cyclists generating electricity during the performance , was a big part of the answer.

“I’m passionate about touring theatre and Headlong tours outside London, so we knew we had to tour the play,” says Ming. “And if you have a play that looks at climate change, I’m against a play made in London going around the north telling us how to live our lives.

“What the tour does is use local talent and it doesn’t have all the things that are damaging where you spend lots of energy and resources when you move people from place to place, which you don’t actually need to do because where you’re moving to has got those things already.

“What’s been done is find a way to be both sustainable and tour. The concept of the play never changes but the talent working on it changes at each venue. Cyclists are recruited at each venue to power the show. The only thing that’s moved physically is the technology that transforms kinetic energy into electricity – and that all comes in one big box.”

When Headlong was planning the tour, Ming knew she was joining York Theatre Royal as a resident artist, so she snapped up the chance to direct the production. “I knew I really wanted the people of York to see it,” she says.

“I knew York would love it in a theatre that’s absolutely unique and gorgeous. The play and
the concept fits really well within the theatre and York itself is a cycling city.”

Ming needed to find an actor within commutable distance of York to play Naomi, the character in the one-woman play. That turned out to be Leeds-based Stephanie Hutchinson.

“With one-person shows it’s difficult to maintain the energy and the engagement. You are really banking on performance charisma. We had to look for a very strong performer and there are a lot of them in the area,” says Ming. “I hope that even if we don’t work with them now, we will work with them very shortly because those we saw were of a high calibre.”

Theatre was “always the dream” for Ming. “Growing up in Singapore, I was interested in stories and storytelling. I loved reading and in the world of literature everything is new writing,” she says. “I worked as a stage manager there during the holidays. When I started doing A-level drama, I realised theatre is a great way of telling stories.”

MIngyu LIn, front right, with fellow Sovereign directors Juliet Forster and John R Wilkinson, front left, writer Mike Kenny and central character Henry VIII at King’s Manor, York

She studied English Literature at the University of York, then trained as a director at the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama in London. She now directs for stage and screen, as well as being a founder member of the BESEA (British East and Southeast Asian) advocacy group BEATS (Better Ethnic Access To Services).

Ming also is a [play] reader for Edinburgh’s Traverse Theatre and the Brentwood Prize. “As a stage director, what I’m really passionate about is advocacy. I want to affect society change
with the work we do,” she says.

“I’m part of an advocacy group that campaigns for more South East Asian representation on stage, backstage, on screen and behind the camera. The genres I’m interested in
primarily are new writing and adaptation,” says Ming.

“One reason I was drawn to A Play For The Living was because it deals with an urgent issue,
something important, and features a wonderful way to get communities involved with the cycling. There’s also a volunteer choir involved.”

York Theatre Royal’s summertime large-scale production of Sovereign, staged outdoors at King’s Manor with a 100-strong community company led by two professional actors, was “great” for Ming because “I’m very, very, very up for working with the community. That’s very important. You can make change doing that,” she says.

Directing Sovereign – with co-directors Juliette Forster and John R Wilkinson – was definitely a challenge but, putting it in perspective, Ming refers to the scale of directing for television with a crew of 50 and cast of 20.

Not the most stressful artistically perhaps, but certainly in terms of the logistics and keeping on schedule. “There was a lot of joy in the uniqueness of a community production like Sovereign. It was a challenge because most of the performers had never been in that situation before,” she says.

“With rehearsals, they were learning new things and you were going on a journey with them, and that’s quite fun. There was a huge treasure trove of learning for me, especially working with Juliet [Forster, the Theatre Royal’s creative director], who has done so many large-scale community productions. That was really helpful, working with other directors.

“One thing I loved about coming here was that I knew there were other directors in the artistic planning team and you get to work together.”

She is now part of that community, as she and her husband, who comes from York, have
moved to the city.

Ming directing Hollyoaks coincided with the arrival of the first South East Asian family in a television soap: a continuing TV drama that reaches a younger audience than most theatre shows. “So you’re not preaching to the same audience as in the theatre. You’re widening your reach. The show also covers a lot of important storylines, which is what drew me to it,” she says.