Student Drama Societies

Dan Hutton: It’s only dawned on me fairly recently that there is something extremely arbitrary about the systems of various university drama scenes. We all turn up as Freshers, work out as quickly as we can how the system works, and then get subsumed into it without really thinking whether or not this is the best way of doing things. NSDF seems like the perfect place to discuss how our processes of selection work and whether or not there is room for improvement. Does this way of working produce the best possible theatre? Is it fair? What is the role of a student drama society?

At Warwick, the main selection process is for the Warwick Arts Centre studio, which is given to students six times a year. Whoever wants to produce something goes through the respective society (new writing, published plays or devised & adapted) and puts together a complete team and pack outlining their plans for the show. All these packs then present to a panel of randomly selected individuals (who aren’t on the execs of the societies) who then ask questions and eventually decide what goes through. On a smaller scale, each society also has its own selection process which ordinarily sees the exec choosing what goes through to get the cash.

This is an extremely simplified version of what happens, but as you can tell it’s a pretty convoluted process fraught with complications and problems. Are the processes any more straightforward at Cambridge and Bristol?

Hannah Greenstreet: Although I have dabbled in drama at university (including appearing as Knight 1 in a version of The Mysteries which turned out to be funded by the Christian Union!), I would define myself more as a critic than a theatre maker. Hence, to me and I think to a lot of others who aren’t completely enmeshed in the drama ‘scene’, the system for deciding which plays go on can seem pretty arcane and bureaucratic.

I think Cambridge is a little different from other universities because of the sheer proliferation of different societies, some connected to the different colleges and some functioning across the whole university. The drama scene is huge and immensely varied – one week near the end of term had something like fourteen different plays on and every week there tend to be at least four plays on, two at the ADC Theatre and two at the smaller, L-shaped Corpus Playroom. Although these are the main venues (and the ones that are the most competitive to stage plays in), there are also many other venues around Cambridge, from the black box of Pembroke New Cellars to the brutalist brickwork of St Chad’s Octagon.

Applications to stage drama in the ADC and the Corpus Playroom are managed by the Cambridge University Amateur Dramatic Society. The process tends to be shaken up by different committees, elected once a year, but generally involve a paper application, outlining, among other things, directorial vision and potential budget, as well as various rounds of interviews. The panel that decides which productions get to use the theatres and which get the all important funding is made up of the President, the committee and the staff of the theatre.

There are a whole other load of other processes for the college drama societies’ venues and funding. These really vary in terms of resources and seriousness. In some ways, the diversity is very good because it means that, if you put your mind to it, you can probably put on some theatre somewhere. However, all the different processes can be confusing and time consuming and, in practice, there tends to be a demarcation between productions at the more ‘professional’ looking ADC and at the multi-purpose theatres/sports halls/conference venues.

So, that’s the Cambridge theatre ‘scene’ in a nutshell. How about at Bristol?

George Meredith: I would say that the process in Bristol is more straightforward, but not necessarily better for being so. Student drama in Bristol is divided into around seven or so societies, the main two being Dramsoc and Spotlights, and then various other performance specific groups such as musical, opera, comedy etc. The selection process is all managed internally via organized proposals which occur in the months approaching a booked theatre slot. Anyone in the society can propose a play, and, having formed a basic production team, outline the merits and financial projections of their chosen piece. The society as a whole is made aware of the time and location of these proposals via email, and are invited to come and vote on which production they would like to be put on. What could be more democratic than that?

The trouble is that selection is based largely on those who are free/can be bothered to turn up, and obviously not everyone can come to every proposal (as a first year, I’ve only ever been to one). Also, rather than what I perceive as a fairly impartial selection process in Warwick and Cambridge, Bristol leaves room for rather selfish voting. ‘What play am I most likely to get a part in?’ is my first thought – Top Girls is not gonna get my vote. Furthermore, in the days leading up to proposals I am often approached by people asking me to come and support their play, which gives the selection process an awkward playground atmosphere: who has more friends?

This is a rather harsh appraisal of the system, and I’m sure many of the voters are not as cynically minded and just want to see the society producing the best theatre it possibly can. But it’s certainly not perfect.

It seems none of these processes are ideal, but how else could it be done?

DH: George, you say it seems better at Warwick, but it’s certainly the case that people will vote for what they’d most like to be involved in or the shows which they’d be confident auditioning for. Seeing as many of the directors and producers end up running the societies and can’t vote on the main panel, most productions err on “actors theatre”, for better or for worse.

I’ve always felt that, in an ideal world, the shows would be selected not by students (who will all have vested interests of some sort and various allegiances to other members) but by external professionals. This would no doubt be completely unsustainable and impossible to organise, but it may be worth starting there and working backwards.

I guess it comes down to what we think student theatre should do. Should it constantly be trying to create interesting, boundary-pushing, shit-yourself-with-excitement theatre? Should it be trying to, in a Benthamite Utopian kind of way, please as many people as possible? Or is its purpose simply to provide opportunities and skills for the “real world”? These aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive, but they certainly need different processes of selection.

Basically, I find it tragic that at the age of twenty we’re already forced into a cynical, commercially-driven, highly bureaucratic system to make theatre.

HG: I agree with you Dan. Some kind of selection process involving industry professionals (rather like NSDF?!) would be good but also probably unsustainable. There is no perfect system. Whatever system you have will have some kind of arbitrary agenda, even if it is not explicit about it. Student theatre should be about a range of both of boundary pushing and crowd pleasing theatre. The ADC is often (sometimes unfairly) criticised for picking commercially ‘safe’ shows. But sometimes what seem to be the most crowd pleasing shows in terms of programming are also the most artistically interesting: I recently saw amazing productions of Ivanov and Three Sisters, played on alternate nights in the bowels of the technical workings of the ADC, seating the audience on the stage, behind the safety curtain. But you could see that as conservative programming, because it devoted two weeks to Chekhov instead of more experimental pieces. However, the advantage of having a range of different venues means that there will always be places willing to take the risk and stage something more experimental or site specific.

GM: You make a really good point Hannah. Programming choices are framed by the need to get people into the theatre and so the conservative is more popular as a safe bet. Not that conservative programming is necessarily bad. It’s just that university offers a comparatively safe environment in which to take a few risks and get things wrong, and selection should really try and capitalize on this in some way.

Perhaps we should develop on these points and try to formulate a more specific breakdown of what it is we want from a theatre selection process. Perhaps we could work backwards from your ideal situation Dan, with the involvement of industry professionals (although I am dubious whether an external set of agendas would be preferable to internal agendas, which are at least rooted in the vague interests of the society). How would this panel approach selecting shows? What should they objectively be looking for?

DH: It’s difficult to answer that question without at least getting something wrong or finding difficulties. Perhaps it’s best to start with what isn’t the right thing to look for. Those choosing which shows go on shouldn’t be picking the people with the most experience or the people they have spoken to most about the submission. They shouldn’t be looking for the most financially viable or commercially sound (considering SUs will normally foot the bill if something goes drastically wrong). And picking the show they will get a part in is plain wrong.

I think, really, it comes down to two questions which each member on a deciding committee should be asking. Do you find the proposed production interesting? Would you want to see this show? If the answer to those two questions is ‘yes’ then I guess we’re getting somewhere.

As I said earlier, this question ultimately comes down to ones of what we think student theatre is for. Is it to support and nurture the individual so that he or she may have a leg-up to a career in theatre? Or should it be about supporting and nurturing collectives and groups of people so that exciting, innovative productions and collaborations may be created, adding to the theatrical ecosystem and forcing us to ask bigger questions of ourselves both as artists and citizens? Our feelings about these questions are reflected in the way in which university theatre societies and companies choose what to produce, and it’s not good enough to simply accept the status quo. NSDF seems like the perfect platform to discuss practical questions like this and as we’ve begun to consider here, we can all learn from each other. What seems like a dull and purely pragmatic discussion at first actually ends up over time having a far-reaching and real-world effect on the kind of theatre we create.

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