NSDF 2011

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.


8 thoughts on “NSDF 2011”

  1. The use of naturalism certainly was a theme of NSDF11 (unavoidable, I suspect, considering the number extant plays selected), and it felt like a year for set designers to flourish.

    But I’m not sure about this idea that NSDF is the place to bring risky, experimental shows necessarily. Shows selected for NSDF have to be made elsewhere first. they have to face a ‘real’ audience before NSDF selectors come along (and they see far more shows than they select, of course – unless you buy James Philips’ line that students chose the shows). So, actually, the show is made within the ‘confines of the industry’ before NSDF gets to see it and the Festival shows off the best of the shows made for that industry. Sometimes, the shows that succeed most within the industry, ‘the real world’ are those that don’t take risks, and can be at the top standard that NSDF selectors are looking for.

    Risk-free theatre is theatre made for audiences not theatre-makers, and maybe that’s not a bad thing – if it keeps theatre from becoming indulgent and self-centred. But then what is art if not self-expression? We ought to be making the risky theatre, and no doubt people are…maybe those shows aren’t at NSDF (for whatever reason), and maybe NSDF isn’t the place that risky theatre will appear. One of the things you have to always bear in mind when discussion which shows are at NSDF is the number of shows NOT at NSDF.

    I’d suggest that if you’re after risk, get to a Fringe Festival.

    Richard T. Watson

    1. I’m afraid I’d have to disagree. In previous year’s we’ve had extant plays which have taken risks and not played simply to naturalism (I point to Phaedra’s Love and By the Bog of Cats, which both presented naturalistic performances but chose to present those within a ‘theatrical’ setting). There have been a lot of risky shows this year and a lot in the past, so that shows NSDF is a perfect breeding ground for experimental work. Of course shows have to work towards budgets and targets before they go to Scarborough, but even then their audience will often be fairly guarunteed and, as was pointed out in a discussion, if it’s good people will see it. At Warwick, for example, Arturo Ui completely sold out two weeks before the run began, showing risky ways of looking at a show can pull big audiences.

      I also take issue with your argument that “risk-free theatre is theatre made for audiences not theatre-makers” because year on year theatre-goers look to be challenged; if a show is doing something new, a buzz will be created and many people will flock to see it (Enron, perhaps, is a good example). This of course creates another argument about what it and isn’t risky – one man’s experiment is another’s bread and butter – but you can’t say we don’t see risky theatre in the mainstream and at NSDF. Yes, we can’t be too self-centred, but is something is good and affects audiences then people will want to see it. That’s the bottom line. A production can’t do well if it’s terrible (well, unless it’s We Will Rock You), whether at NSDF or the National Theatre. Excellence does not have to be confined to risk-free decisions.

      Which takes me to your penultimate point about the shows NOT at NSDF. I know I’m biased, but I saw a production at Warwick this year which really should have been there last week and which took plenty of risks. It was an engaging and visceral production, which is why it’s difficult to see why it wasn’t there. But it does raise a point about why more risky shows didn’t get in – perhaps people found it hard to put across both new ideas and achieve excellence. It certainly raises more questions about the selection process.

      Hope this makes even a little bit of sense. I’m going off on one all over the place.

  2. Right, so let’s have a look at this word ‘risk’. Having read (not closely) your writing this year (my knowledge of the contents of NOFF is surprisingly limited for someone who spends hours per night putting the thing together), you seem to have got on a bit of a soapbox about risk-taking. Not saying it’s a bad thing. But how are you defining risk-taking theatre?
    I can agree about last year’s Phaedre’s Love being risky, because it made inventive and imaginative decisions with the text and took it away from its earlier context – but I’m not so sure about By The Bog Of Cats being risky. A strong, powerful performance, yes – but how are you defining risky? I’d almost say Amadeus was risky for asking us to sit through 3+ hours of it.

    Thing is, NSDF isn’t a producing theatre; you don’t make a show for NSDF, but NSDF might select a show you’ve made elsewhere. And the selectors aren’t necessarily looking for experimentalism (though if they find it and like it, we could still get it, cf. Angel).
    I think I’d rather see NSDF as a forum rather than a breeding ground. It gives us chance to see and discuss (some of) what’s going on in student theatre – but it doesn’t create that new theatre nor does it cater for a specific type of theatre. We can see dance pieces alongside plays of the 1940s and reworkings of Greek myth.

    There could be any number of reasons the show you saw didn’t get in (first off, was it even entered?), and I always think it’s slightly pointless discussing that after the event. If the selectors’ criterion is simply excellence, then you can’t tailor a performance to suit that, you just have to be good (however you measure that). And a show can be good without taking risks.

    Oh, and ‘A production can’t do well if it’s terrible’…? Depending on your definition of terrible, there plenty that defy that statement, not just WWRY.

    Richard T. Watson

    1. You’re right, Richard, I am using the term “risk” a little loosely and I’m perhaps loading my arguments a little in order to provoke a response. That said, however, I do think the best pieces of theatre at least employ a little risk, and by that I mean doing something which wasn’t expected. Of course everything is risky to an extent, and everything is safe to an extent (the very nature of presenting a play in a theatre is safe), but some seem a little more keen to push the boundaries and try new things. Again, this isn’t absolutely necessary to create good theatre, but in a student environment looking to the future surely causing debate is a good thing?

      Again, you’re right to dismiss a discussion of a non-NSDF play post-festival, but it was enetered and was excellent in all its attributes. But anyway, that’s by-the-by.

      And going back to my definition of ‘terrible’, I’d say perhaps not from a subjective view but objective one. At least WWRY has high production values and relatively good performances. If a play has a poorly constructed set and is dreadfully performed, it’s unlikely to get an audience (although I’m sure you’ll be able to point out ones which have done).


  3. Hi Dan,

    Interesting piece. Thanks. Sounds like it was a great festival. I think I would argue for a distinction between being critical and ‘nit-picking’ (the latter suggests a slightly malicious intent – which I would venture to associate with partisanship – whereas the former can very much involve an attention to detail).

    The bigger thought I wanted to share engages with the way you seem to equate risk with non-naturalism, and safe with naturalism. If naturalism means bringing an audience/spectator closer to real life, then it very much isn’t associated with literal acting/directing (which I think you’re writing about) and can be at the forefront of artistic risk. I think of Katie Mitchell’s Small Hours here – as a recent theatrical, naturalistic but experimental production. We often use ‘naturalism’ to denote a form of ‘standing and speaking’ theatre-making – but the more we continue to do this, the less we think of new ways of giving an audience the impression that they are closer to real life. If you’ll allow the detour into cinema, the Dogme95 collective seem to me to be a very clear example of naturalism and artistic risk. There’s also a lot of lazy, turgid and cliched anti-naturalistic work out there.

    Thanks again for the piece and your reviews – which I look forward to perusing in full.

    1. It was a great festival – the most intellectually stimulating I’ve been to. I agree with what you say about the difference between ‘nit-picking’ and being critical, but in nine out of ten of the cases when detail was discussed, it was certainly the latter. I don’t think people went out to put shows down just for the sake of it; everyone genuinely wished that each show would be superb, and if it wasn’t we have to find ways of justifying ourselves.

      This word “risk” is getting me in a bit of a sticky situation now. I perhaps haven’t fully thought through my argument and my definition of the term. I would, however, argue with your point that theatre audiences should be given the impression “that they are closer to real life”. Theatre is different from film and TV in that it offers a different, more representational outlet and can afford to be more of a ‘show’ in the way it presents itself. I don’t deny that naturalism and artistic risk can go hand in hand – the examples you offer prove this – but feel that theatre, in such screen-based world, should be striving to give us more than other mediums can.

      Thanks for reading and commenting,

      1. Dan,

        You seem to misunderstand me – I must not have been clear, forgive me. I gave the phrase ‘giving an audience the impression that they are closer to real life’ as a definition of naturalism – I definitely did not mean to imply that this is what theatre ‘should’ be doing.


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