“I was walking along and I suddenly thought to myself- is this happiness?”
I think it was the moment we were pulled up in a fairylight-draped chariot in the rain, sofas screwed on and a bear head at the helm, with the sound of X-factor entrance music blaring, that I realised just what a ridiculous and incredible thing the National Student Drama Festival is.
Most students have never heard of NSDF. For those of us lucky enough to have been, it feels a little like falling down the rabbit hole.
NSDF is a week where students from all around the country perform selected shows to a group of visiting artists, judges and audience members. It’s a week of theatre, conversation, drinking and exhaustion. It’s a week of the unexpected, except that you can expect to be knackered by the end of it. It is, I reckon, one of the best and most thought-provoking weeks of the year.
At this year’s festival, I was working as Deputy Editor for Noises Off, the magazine that publishes a print edition daily and more frequent content online, responding to the shows, events and discussions.
Having been in Scarborough for the past however many years, the new setting in Hull gave the week something fresh. It also gave us an office right next to the bar.
This festival mentally pushes you to question choices, both theatrical and moral, with tricky conversations generally prompted by Chris Thorpe’s expert chairing of discussions. It makes you ask things you’d never considered before, like: “Should we have to out transgender actors?” or “Is it our place to say this?” or in our case, “Can we publish the word ‘cunt’ or is it okay anyway because it’s written as an anagram?”
The technicians and management team throughout the week are astonishing. With little sleep, they build and organise multiple venues, hundreds of people and very heavy equipment. This year’s tech team even found time to indulge our childish humour with increasingly extravagant Technician Impossibles, from making us a Hullywood sign with built-in hammocks to a life-size version of Chris Thorpe made of flapjack, and from a pixelated painting projected on the side of a building to the glorious chariot that took us to the closing ceremony.
There’s a list longer than the amount of bacon rolls we ate (a lot) of people I didn’t get to talk to, or wish I’d spent more time with. But I also met a bunch of exciting new people, had conversations I’d never have anticipated, cried at very bizarre times and saw shows I hope I’ll never forget.
One of those was Celebration. I’ve known Ben Kulvichit, one of the two cast members of Emergency Chorus, for several years. We first met through Twitter, he’s been to visit me at University and I once encouraged him to buy an octopus. Because he knew me before the festival, I was asked to take part in a section of his and Clara Potter-Sweet’s show, Celebration. They asked me to prepare a three minute speech about myself, “right now”, to be honest, and to perform it while they did a costume change.
Half an hour before the show I was told that an elderly resident in a care home, who I work with on my University placement, and who I’ve come to really care for, had died. He was called Dennis.
I didn’t want to mess anything up for Ben and Clara and there wasn’t time to get a replacement so I went in to the show ready to do my bit. In the rush of finishing a deadline and heading to the show, the reality of his death hadn’t really caught up with me. When the cue came to get up onstage, I stood, script in hand. The audience couldn’t have been in a jollier mood, from this mental, joyous, buffooningly beautiful show.
And then I decided to talk about Dennis.
I explained about my placement. I said there was this song we did, that Dennis always enjoyed. He could never quite keep up with it, or sing it exactly in tune, but he always really went for it. So I wondered if, instead of doing the speech I’d prepared, we could maybe sing that song together.
I broke down crying about thirty seconds in but we did it, and not just that, we did it in a bloody round. And then everyone cheered. I can only imagine how thrilled he’d be if he knew so many people were cheering for him.
That evening, and throughout the rest of the festival, strangers kept coming up to me to give me a hug. I’m so grateful this show gave me a chance to celebrate him. And now, hopefully, a bunch of other people will remember him too, even if just when they hear that song again, sometime in the future.
All of the fourteen shows had moments/ideas/concepts worthy of note and discussion. The paper and the idea of a live writer in Feat.Theatre’s Say It Loud. The helium heartbreak and the three and the a half seconds in Sad Little Man. The awareness of self and laughter at the wrong places in Caitlin McEwan’s Thick Skin. David Callanan’s tech in Theatre 42’s Nothing Is Coming, The Pixels Are Huge. The ensemble’s raw honesty in Leyton Sixth Form College’s No Human Is Illegal. The growth of the music and the genius sexist-joke tap dance in O Collective’s he she they.
(I didn’t fall asleep in a single one.)
Noises Off was an amazing thing to be a part of this year. Editor Richard Tzanov’s sarcasm and awful taste in music were a joy to work with. Designer Nick Kay is a dream, photographers Aenne Pallasca and Giulia Delprato extremely talented, and our writers are fantastic. We wrote when lots of other people had gone to bed, didn’t get much sunlight in the NOFFice and went a little bit mad attempting to learn the dance to Doin’ it Right.
Some of my favourite pieces from the week were:
Lily James’ Celebration review and Tinder date.
Florence Bell’s reflection on the week.
Phoebe Graham’s beautiful piece on he she they.
Eve Allin proving an old boy wrong.
Nathan Dunn’s simple request.
And of course, the week wouldn’t quite have been the same without Miriam Schechter’s poetic response to bad reviews.
The week felt more political than previous festivals I’ve experienced. With two plays about the refugee crisis, and various others alluding to political events, much discussion centred around rights, responsibilities and care. When the topic of content warnings were raised for Sad Little Man, discussion was heated. A lot of people in the audience have had personal experiences here. It is easy to forget the reality of people’s lives when you’re talking about everything hypothetically, or theatrically.
But there was also something about the festival that made it feel distant from reality. When the refugee camp in Dunkirk caught fire it took a long time for the news to spread, and the bombing in Afghanistan seemed a million miles away. For a festival attempting to be so fiercely current and political, the busy schedule almost didn’t allow for the really real world to seep through. People talk about the Edinburgh bubble. I didn’t realise it was a thing here too.
Someone said it takes a year to really feel at home at NSDF. The same people tend to come back, so returning means you’ll certainly have a ready-built base of friends, and it gives you time to work up confidence to chat to VAs at lunch, to ask questions at discussions, or to write what you really think in the magazine.
I hope anyone who went for the first time this year wants to come back. It’s an incredibly special thing to be a part of. I’m very grateful to have fallen into this rabbit hole.
(Title quote credit goes to best speech of the closing ceremony, Pavel Drábek.)Kate Wyver | Deputy Editor Noises Off | 2017
Camden People's Theatre Award
For the last three years, CPT has worked in partnership with the National Student Drama Festival to bring the most adventurous new NSDF shows to London. We haven’t made a big noise about it - but loud trumpets have been blown about the shows in question, and rightly so. In 2014, the partnership brought Barrel Organ’s debut show Nothing to CPT. Many of you will know what a splash that show, and that company – now CPT associate artists – went on to make. (Look out for their new show at CPT this autumn…) The following year, we gave NSDF graduate Walrus Theatre’s 140-character dystopia Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons its debut London run, and that show became one of the big indie theatre hits of the decade so far.
Last autumn, Footprint Theatre’s extraordinary Daniel journeyed from the NSDF to Camden, and now we’re braced for that company to make just such great waves in the world. This has, in short, been a really fruitful collaboration – allowing CPT to develop supportive new relationships with some of the country’s most exciting new artists, and enabling NSDF to offer a prominent week-long London run to the most innovative and engaged work at its festival.
This year, we’re going more public with the relationship – and the opportunity. When NSDF opens in Hull this week, there will be a new award on offer to the participating artists and companies: the Camden People’s Theatre Award. On offer is just what Barrel Organ, Walrus and Footprint have (hopefully) enjoyed in previous years: a run at CPT in the autumn, a foot in the door of professional theatre, a chance to develop a relationship with a venue that exists to invest in creative young artists.
Over the NSDF week, myself, festival supremo Michael Brazier and the great Chris Thorpe (amazing artist, long-time NSDF selector and CPT board member) will discuss the best candidates for the opportunity, then – instead of doing so post-festival – select the appropriate artist or company before the event’s closing weekend. And so the CPT/NSDF partnership ceases to be a below-the-radar opportunity, and starts its new life as an out-and-proud award.
I like to imagine the recipient holding the imaginary trophy aloft in a cloud of ticker tape, dousing their collaborators in bubbly and thanking their mum in a tearful acceptance speech. We certainly thank the NSDF for bringing us such terrific artists over the last three years, and – in this new award era – look forward to welcoming many more.
Brian Logan | Artistic Director | Camden People's Theatre
Shows & Stats
Amongst the 97 shows who have entered so far, there is an incredible number of new pieces….46 new plays plus a devised clown show, a new comedy show and one new musical.
Shows about; gender and what is to be a woman with dance and live music, a warring family set in a night club with a house band; two young women working as secretaries for Hitler; life long best friends who will always need each other; lonliness in old age, people suffering from agoraphobia, alcoholism and transphobia; a daughter leaving behind a mother who is bipolar; what it is to be female in the modern world and a man’s addiction to the internet.
How do we choose the shows at the festival? Well, put simply we choose the shows which we think are the best we’ve seen - whatever the subject, whatever the genre or however difficult they might be to restage at the festival.
What is so fascinating at the end of the Selection Day; is the list of selected shows looks like we‘ve programmed a range of work to maintain variety and scale at the festival. We haven’t. The list could well end up being 12 shows; all with two actors and a chair. Or all plays from the 1990’s…and potentially given their popularity; only plays by Philip Ridley and Simon Stephens!
As it is, the past four festivals we’ve had (prepare for stats)…19 new plays, 3 new musicals, 1 adaptation, 17 published plays and 6 book musicals.
There are 24 shopping days to Christmas and 78 days to go to the last day we can see a show…17th February. Selection Day is 19th February.
Please keep the entries coming and remember, whatever it is and however short - we’d love to see it - a dance piece, a new play, an opera, a new musical or a play by Simon Stephens (or Philip Ridley).
And if you have friends who are making work and don’t know about us, please point them in our direction.
We love brave, new, original, political, social and shows that are pure fun. Enter your show here
Follow us on twitter @nsdfest for the latest news and the shows we are seeing.
Michael Brazier 1 December 2016
Lessons I learnt from NSDF:
- Calamity is a shared experience.
- Chris Thorpe should run international peace relation talks.
- What CMS means.
- The password to the NSDF taxi account.
- Cock jokes never get old.
I had the privilege of being up in Scarborough working as a Deputy Editor on the magazine for National Student Drama Festival. The Festival is a collection of 12 plays from universities all over the country. The week was packed. Both professional and up-and-coming theatre makers attended discussions, approached controversial subjects and collided in endless queues at a very busy bar. There was little sleep, lots of writing and many lessons learnt.
- Sensitivity is appreciated.
- I should listen to Wu Tang Clan.
- Crew for Calais need volunteers.
- You should get a mentor.
- Eating your lunch in a discussion about your play makes people think you don’t care.
On the last day when we’d finished all the copy for the print issues, I went to a workshop and found myself in a room with Chris Thorpe, 40 other students and three hours to make something. We made a show that will never be replicated and only half remembered. No one will have a complete view of it because we were all part it. There was a rough ground plan and some basic structural rules but essentially we hadn’t a clue. There was lying on the laps of total strangers, running and joining a whirlwind, whispering other people’s secrets into a storm of words.
I think that can be the best of theatre. It’s the community, the willingness to jump into something with a blindfold on, the freedom to not be afraid- of making a fool of yourself, of doing something wrong, of being excluded, and equally the openness to not exclude- that gives theatre the potential to create wonderful things.
- The secret to running a good theatre is running a good bar.
- Two of this year’s visiting artists are married and met at NSDF 15 years ago.
- Everyone should read ‘Do No Harm’ by Henry Marsh.
- A lot of Universities have never heard of the Festival.
- All good writers steal.
It was tougher than I expected to encourage people to come and write for Noises Off in between the massively busy schedule of workshops, shows, discussions and Bowie nights, and those who spoke up in discussions seemed hesitant to put their words on the page. But there were a few incredibly important articles written by students brave enough to share something deeper than an opinion or review. Two articles stood out for me. The first was Lily James and the feeling of intimidation that is hard to escape at the Festival. The second was this a piece of new writing about child pornography. The way the writer- who decided to post anonymously- described watching Daniel was as if it opened an old wound, but in a way that let it heal a little.
- A man once fell in love with a pigeon.
- If you talk to strangers at train stations you will learn new things.
- You should follow your instincts.
- If you care about something you should jump into it.
- It is hard but not impossible to fight against someone who wants to make a bingo hall.
In his opening speech at the closing ceremony, the day after the Brussels attacks, James Phillips said this on what he’d learnt over the week:
‘That groups of young people are prepared to gather together to try and imagine the unimaginable. That imagination is what saves us. That even when guns are firing and the bombs are going off, young people will come together and say as one there’s nothing we can’t imagine, nothing we can’t talk about, that we can connect, that imagination can skim a stone across an ocean.’
- It is never too late to change the direction of your career.
- When listening to the cast of Kiss Me, Kate doing their tech rehearsal whilst trying to lay up two issues you will be extremely grateful for your headphones.
- Everyone makes mistakes.
- You should celebrate small triumphs.
- Fear can push you in the very best way.
Stephanie Street, co-founder of Act for Change, gives out a few of the awards at the closing ceremony. Her three year old daughter, Asha, has been at the Festival all week as Steph has seen shows, taken part in discussions and been part of the judging panel. As Steph is speaking about the powerful female directors at the Festival, Asha reaches up for her from the front row. Calmly, Steph reaches down and picks up her daughter. She continues to speak, beginning to give out the awards. Asha then decides she wants to peer over the edge of the stage and Prasanna Puwanarajah, another judge, comes to kneel beside her to make sure she doesn’t topple over. Administrator and all round organisational-goddess Sarah Georgeson hands over Asha’s headphones and Steph puts them on her. Asha goes for a jog around the stage. Steph continues, talking in turn to Asha and to the two hundred people in front of her.
This is working motherhood. This is showing it can work. This is showing how a little help from a lot of people can make a world of difference. This is showing that women don’t have to be limited by a vagina and uterus, that actually women can do it all. This is maybe the most important lesson of all.
Kate Wyver 30th November 2016
In response to the very sad news that brilliant theatre director Howard Davies had passed, playwright Simon Stephens wrote on twitter;
Fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck. Howard Davies?!? Oh fuck off today. And this year and all of it.
(It’s a given his tweet had a brilliant rhythm…)
The first play I saw directed by Howard Davies was C P Taylor’s Good. It had transferred to the Aldwych Theatre from the Warehouse (now the Donmar) that Howard Davies ran for 5 years. It is one of my favourite plays - about how an essentially good person, whose life is in a state of flux, gets caught up with rise of the Nazi’s because he wrote a book about euthanasia. Susceptible to flattery, he agrees to advise on how to achieve the FInal Solution. Atrocities behind closed walls.
The utterly unedifying USA Presidential campaign is almost over. Donald J Trump, ever the builder, the hard hat of hair, the pouter of petulance wants to be POTUS. And his first idea was to build a wall.
Perhaps coincidently reflecting this unpleasant year…that Simon so eloquently told to fuck off…we had a number of plays at this year’s festival about the worst of human behaviour. Dahmer - a murderer and a cannibal. Daniel – a teenage collector of indecent images of children. Police brutality in The Beanfield and political expediency separating siblings for 25 years in Over There. Separated by a wall. The Berlin one.
Modupe Salu’s appeal and protest against racism in I Can’t Breathe had perhaps the most affect on the audience. I am so grateful to MD. She brought her one person play to a festival she had never been to before – and took on the big ask of performing the fifteen minute play four times in a day…indulging me, as I thought this shuddering exclamation mark of a performance should be seen by the whole festival audience as quickly as possible. A judder at the end of the week.
You can see I Can’t Breathe at Camden People’s Theatre this week - info here :
At the festival we talk about all the shows. These daily discussions are so important. Audiences have the opportunity to ask companies about their work and why they make their choices…and companies have the opportunity to air their thoughts and consider feedback - which they can take or leave as they see fit. And the conversations continue in corridors, in corners and in the bar. We also have social and political discussions and we will up the ante next year. We all need to discuss much more. Not just within the safe walls of home. Opportunity for all needs to be at the top of the list.
Michael Brazier November 8 2016
Being a part of NSDF, in various guises, has really shaped a large chunk of my life. Coming to the Festival in 2014 as a performer (with Shotgun Theatre’s Spring Awakening), as a member of the Management Team in 2015, as Festival Coordinator in 2016 and now, in my new role as Administrator, has given me a privileged insight into how this remarkable organisation operates, what it does for people, and why it matters. Coming to NSDF changed my life - and I’d be a ferocious advocate for it even if I wasn’t paid to be - although … thanks for that too Michael. Let me elaborate:
Studying drama as an undergraduate, I was exposed to wonderful teachers and practitioners, but the work that we made never quite did it for me. Joining Shotgun Theatre, and coming to lead the company was something of a lifeline, but it was attending NSDF with the company to perform Spring Awakening in 2014 that revitalised me, and reminded me why I chose to make performance, rather than be a lawyer or something. Performing our work for audiences of near-total strangers was a marked departure from the ultra-supportive university crowd; here, our choices were interrogated with a constructively critical eye and an intellectual rigour by peers and practitioners alike. Simultaneously, we got to see the foremost work being made by people our age from around the country, we got to talk about the work and about wider issues in the arts. If my enthusiasm for theatre had been flagging, NSDF14 reinvigorated me and made me remember that what we do is valuable, is important and is worth doing, even if it often feels like you’re wading through shit to do it.
In 2015, with one eye on my final university performances/dissertation, and the other fixed firmly on the question of WhatTheFuckAmIGonnaDoWhenILeave? I returned to Scarborough for NSDF15. The idea was to get professional experience in producing and events management that might help me get a job post-Uni. NSDF provided bountiful experience - producing the late night events like the Quiz and the Open Mic night, liaising with Visiting Artists and assisting them delivering workshops, and helping the companies arriving at the Festival. I made friends for life at NSDF15; I first ran into loads of people that are now doing exciting things working in theatre and performance at the Festival - shoutouts to John King, Alice Boulton Breeze, Toby Hanton, Chantal Moynihan to name but four gr8 ppl. The workshops I sat in on there have continued to shape my career - I’ve used techniques learned in Lucy Ellinson’s solo performance workshop when rehearsing my own pieces, and every time that I’ve applied for a job since 2015, I’ve looked at my notes from Donna Munday’s How to Get Your First Job in Arts Producing, which she ran for Management Team members.
I looked at those notes when applying for the Coordinator role in 2016, when Michael offered me my first paid role in producing. Sitting in the office with Sarah and Michael, I got hands-on experience organising the leviathan that is the National Student Drama Festival. If we wanted to indulge the maritime metaphor (appropriate given NSDF’s penchant for Northern port towns), I might also say that hunting the elusive whales that are artists who don’t reply to their emails taught me the importance of planning early, making contingency plans and accepting that even the best laid plans might need altering at a moment’s notice. Nurturing a workshop programme, that offered something for everybody, from a few question marks on paper into corporeality, and then making sure that it got delivered (with the assistance of the gorgeously and sublimely talented Christabel Holmes) was a responsibility. I remembered how the various workshops that I and my pals had gone to had redefined our knowledge of what’s possible in theatre, and refined our skills. ‘GET GOOD WORKSHOPS FOR THE PEOPLE’ I thought. And we did. We welcomed familiar faces back to Scarbados, and brought new people in, including Bridget Aphrodite and Laura Keefe of My Beautiful Black Dog fame, who not only gave a great workshop, but joined our curated panel of practitioners talking about the crucially important question of HOW WE TAKE CARE OF OUR MENTAL HEALTH WHEN OUR LIVES AS ARTISTS AND MAKERS AND FACILITATORS CAN BE SO PRECARIOUS.
NSDF matters because it brings together intelligent, talented, passionate young people, reminding us of what unites us and how we can use that power, that drive, that ambition to transform our culture. The list of NSDF alumni is long. I know, without a shadow of a doubt, that plenty of the people that I’ve met in the last few years will be shaping the arts in this increasingly divided country for a long time to come. To paraphrase Whitney Houston, I believe that young people are our future and NSDF if about meeting other young people who will shape our future - culturally, politically and socially.
What will NSDF17 bring? I don’t know yet. There’ll be some great shows, some thought provoking, if angst ridden discussions, there will be a quiz and maybe a late night cabaret too. We are diversifying, and getting better at that every day, and, in the office, we’re talking about some great, exciting, urgently contemporary makers and doers to invite to lead workshops. We’re in Hull next year too, and that’s exciting. Our venue changes, our line up changes, but what remains is a burning desire to ask questions, and an urgent need to create, watch and discuss art. Come be a part of that: you won’t regret it.
Joseph Schofield November 2 2016
Ironic. I was starting to write this, just as so many people began swiping and tapping and putting opinion to digital paper, on the surprising news about Emma Rice departing the Globe.
We tend not to offer up opinion from this organisation on another organisation - what they do is their business - but it is noticeable, the number of comments and articles asking if this would have happened to a male director?
Innovative, trailblazing and full of imagination with a populist appeal…and the first female Globe AD.
Chief Executive Neil Constable had said the position had been ‘a widely sought-after role’ but the could ‘think of no one better placed to take on the Globe’.
In 2014, figures were published showing artistic directors working across the 179 theatre organisations in Arts Council England’s national portfolio were 37% female and 63% were male.
And there I was - as the news broke - counting up at how many women writers and directors were involved in the show entries we’ve had so far. And then the twitter feeding had a frenzy.
Just looking at published plays and new plays entered so far; there are 24 female writers credited and 25 directors are women including a couple of co-directors. You have to take into account some shows are devised and scripted by a company of creatives but even so - out of the 74 shows we have in the diary, that is a clear imbalance.
At the festival, Footprint from Sheffield (and producers of Daniel), were led by three women; Director Elin Schofield, Tilly Reith (Dramaturg/Writer) and Yasmin Williams (Producer.) The epic Kiss Me Kate was directed by Kate Barton and Over There by Josie Davies, who cast Bryony Davies (pictured above) as one of the male twins in the play. After our discussion on gender blind and integrated casting in 2015; a clever and wholly believable gender blind decision this year. Ten of the productions had either a female director or producer. The other female directors were Modupe Salu directing herself in I Can't Breathe, Jenny Walser directed Cock and Annie Petricca Lear (Dahmer), Ella Tebay (The Faithless Healer) and Rachel Angeli (West) were all co-directors.
So we are ending up with more of a balance at the festival. But, of course, it is not only about a male to female ratio.
This organisation faces a huge on going challenge; to genuinely appeal and attract a properly reflective and much more diverse audience to the festival. I think that the offer of bursaries will help. And we are so grateful to have the ability to do that. But we need to...and you who enter shows and who are interested in what we do, need to join the conversation and take on the challenge too.
Right at the planning stage, directors and producers have to ask themselves the question; will the work we make have a truly integrated and reflective company? Look at the parts your are casting - why cannot some (many) male roles be played by women. Or, to use just one example, Emma Rice made choices. She cast Helena as Helenus - a gay man - in A Midsummer Nights Dream and cast white and BAME actors across the whole show regardless of the relationships in the script.
We need a different equation.
The alternative is; the same stories + done the same way + the same people = the same old.
Michael Brazier October 26 2016