Although the shows selected for the National Student Drama Festival are picked based on “excellence” alone, and not through quota-filling or thematic cohesiveness, a narrative of argument seems to seep into debates concerning the festival year after year. This year, as 700 directors, actors, producers, designers and critics of the future descended on Scarborough to watch 13 student productions between Saturday 9th and Friday 15th April, two topics seemed to find themselves as the focus of many discussions; naturalism and the ethics of criticism.
Both questions became evident during the discussion of the first production of the festival, Nottingham University’s production of Dennis Kelly’s Orphans. A fiercely dark and beautifully written script was realised in a hyper-real set with hyper-real performances, and in a discussion the following day two points stood out. Many commented on the chosen naturalism of the production, suggesting the performance style was akin to that used on television, while another focussed on the director’s lack of attention to detail.
It became clear throughout the week that this particular acting style was synonymous to all four of Nottingham’s productions (Orphans, This Wide Night, Bluebird and After the End), and when company members were questioned about this the reply suggested that Nottingham’s lack of theatre course meant no one had any form of toolbox to refer to except TV and film. While this seems like a feeble excuse, however, and it sounds like Nottingham is becoming the brunt of my criticism, it must be acknowledged that theirs were not the only companies unwilling to take risks.
Jonathan Carr’s production of Line did not much more than present an energetic and enthusiastic take on a script which has a multitude of possibilities in performance, and Edinburgh University’s Amadeus felt, during static moments, to be merely going through the motions. All of the aforementioned productions presented some extraordinary performances and clear creative visions, but none pushed the boat out by doing something completely new with their chosen text.
The remaining seven productions all did something new, and although none were perfect, each did something to warrant the suggestion that they took ‘risks’. Stop, Look, Listen, a student written piece penned by Elizabeth Gaubert, told the story of a road accident through monologues and clever use of positioning on stage to represent different characters, and What Do You Want From Me? used physical theatre to show an incredibly honest portrayal of the realities of relationships. Leeds University proved that naturalistic acting and surrealism could be intertwined in Dealer’s Choice, while Nikki Moss’ take on the versatile Pornography made some impressive decisions in staging, even if it didn’t in how it chose to structure Stephens’ play. Neither of Warwick University Drama Society’s productions were perfect, but Five Kinds of Silence was brave in its physical staging of a radio play and The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui did things to Brecht’s text which I never thought possible. The most exciting production of the festival, Jason and Medea, brought together elements of theatre, music and dance in an ingenious take on an old myth which got the heart racing.
I’m not saying it’s absolutely necessary to take risks to create good theatre – indeed, the first six productions mentioned were probably the most professional on show during the week – but pointing out that at a student drama festival it is more refreshing to see companies pushing boundaries rather than playing it safe. NSDF is a relatively safe environment, which provides structured feedback and heated discussion, and is perhaps one of the last places young practitioners are genuinely free to do what they wish and try new things before the demands of the industry force them to make compromises. The fact that the riskier productions weren’t necessarily enjoyed by all is commendable. If theatre isn’t able to inspire debate, then what is it for? We must be progressive in our mission to provoke responses from audiences. Naturalism alone isn’t enough any more.
The other strand of argument, that of the way in which students review and assess other students, was hinted at throughout the week but brought up on explicitly in the final discussion. One fest-goer argued that the comments about clocks, windows and ladders were in danger of “nit-picking”, and that people were looking to find faults with a production rather than strengths. It is a debate which was being had throughout the week in smaller circles but which didn’t come to light until the final day. Richard Beecham, however, hit the nail on the head by bringing up Blake’s “holiness of minute particulars” and arguing that directors must consider details if they are to have any chance of representing a singular vision. It is in the details that a production fails or succeeds. Had Mark Rylance’s performance in Jerusalem not been so perfectly nuanced and had Bunny Christie not been so thorough in her creation of set for The White Guard, neither production would have received the praise they did. In order to create a fully believable or comprehensible world, a play must acknowledge and understand the importance smaller aspects have in the creation of a bigger picture. They are some of the easiest problems to solve yet have the biggest repercussions.
It is not wrong to nit-pick and be critical. At the National Student Drama Festival, the fest-going population sees every show, meaning individual shows don’t have to rely on ticket sales and a dialogue is created with audiences. It is one of the few arenas in which this will happen, and creative teams must learn from the criticism they are given in order to progress. As a student body, we cannot sit complaining about people being too critical; the theatre industry is in danger of being negated, and the next generation must be willing to fight its corner. It is possible to both celebrate the healthy state of student theatre while being honest with one another about what does and doesn’t work. What NSDF ’11 taught us, however, is that taking risks must be encouraged and supported, even if those ideas may not always come to fruition.