I don’t quite know why, but I’ve always had an image in my head of student theatre being a wacky world full of strange happenings and perpetual innovation. This could, I imagine, be down to the first few shows I saw at my first NSDF which were, as far as I can remember, truly unique (RashDash’s first forays into the wide world with Never Enough and Curious Directive’s Return to the Silence). It could also be down to the multiple university shows and companies cited in journals and textbooks which give an image of young people doing as much as they can to shift thinking in theatre. Most likely, however, the reason for this viewpoint is down to the pervasive opinion about student drama, which colours the sector as one of radicalism and pioneering thought.
Yet this doesn’t seem to be the case. Though there’s always likely to be something which is pretty ground-breaking in some way at every NSDF and in every season mounted by university companies, this is by no means the norm. Indeed, I get the feeling that many people don’t give a toss about trying to do something even remotely different. From my experience, many people just want to do ‘good plays well’ and don’t consider ways in which theatrical, cultural and political boundaries can be crossed. To all but a few, university becomes merely another step on the ladder to a career in the arts.
Marianne Elliott’s thoughts from a recent interview feel particularly pertinent:
Why bother putting everything into [a show] if you are not producing something that is really worth doing? Something that pushes you and pushes everyone else involved? If it is just another run-of-the-mill show, then what is the point?
To my mind, this isn’t a question which we, as young theatre makers, ask enough of ourselves. Though some of the “great” plays ask big, challenging questions, this on its own is not enough. Elliott has a knack of choosing good texts to direct, but always attempts to do something more; you’d be hard pushed to call any of her last few productions (Curious Incident, Port, War Horse) run-of-the-mill (for the National at least).
So why don’t more of us take this approach? Part of me suspects that a cynicism has clouded our collective judgement. We hear constant nagging about high unemployment and general lack of money, so that we’re conditioned into doing productions which look good on a CV and give us the so-called “tools” with which to tackle “the industry”. It also worries me that we don’t, as a collective community, see or read about enough theatre; we all, myself included, too frequently stay closeted within our own little communities and refuse to challenge ourselves with new ideas and forms so that all we know is the few productions we can see every year and the handful of texts we read at school. It’s not impossible to experience more styles and ideas so that we may articulate some kind of radicalism outside of our own context.
In a theatrical economy lubricated with the discourse of the free markets, we should be doing all we can to challenge notions of profitability and theatre for theatre’s sake so that we can be freed to create something which asks more of its audiences, not just in terms of content but also formally. At a time when a handful of house styles dominate our main stages in Britain and the successful plays are made predominantly, as Simon Stephens suggests, “to entertain [and] to uplift” it becomes the job of student theatre to find new models of working to create some kind of voice of dissent so that in the future we can continue to reinvent and radicalise, borrowing from other theatrical cultures other than our own text-centric one, thus lessening the possibility of theatre running into the same kind of trouble it is currently experiencing.
Though there are basic costs which student theatre has to cover, the fact that most student societies are underwritten and have financial cushions to fall back on should mean they’re in a position to do more things differently. Basically, I’m being purely selfish here by asking for more people to make the things I want to see, but I don’t think it’s too much to ask for there to be a university-originated production which does as much as Three Kingdoms did last year. Is it?