Festival Company: embedded critic

17 April 2019

Emma Rogerson's morning with the Festival Company

Disclaimer: it’s not really possible for me to be even remotely objective about the NSDF Festival Company. As an embedded critic, I couldn’t watch the rehearsal or consider the process or think about the concept of making theatre in a week without being reminded of how formative short summer schools I did as a child were to me as an adult, or being a really little kid having a finite Sunday afternoon with my cousin to recreate scenes from The Lion King to show our parents before we went home.

Obviously, this is a much more professional affair. But what they do share is a simplicity, and an authenticity – to make theatre for the pure sake of it, for the love of it, and for the desire to connect and collaborate with other young, brilliant theatre makers. On a Tuesday morning on the mezzanine level of the Curve, 90 or so actors are being led in a warm up, and I’m struck by how deliberately and carefully the week has been constructed and facilitated. This morning, the warm up incorporates vocal exercises – each day, the focus is on a different aspect of actor training, and today, voices project and echo off the curves of the theatre. I’m watching the company and I’m struck by how engaged they look; how energetic they are at 9:20 in the morning, how jealous I am of this.

Peter Bradley, the director of the NSDF company, puts this down to a sense of “generosity” which runs through the company at every level. We chat while the actors warm up, and he fills me in on the brevity of the process and the willingness of everyone within the company to contribute with no expectation or entitlement. The scripts were written yesterday, with no brief or theme, only imagination as the starting point. There are 15 short plays, each ranging from 12-50 lines long, with deliberate attempts to evenly distribute the lines between all the actors involved. The directors were then introduced to “birth” the plays with the actors. A phrase Peter uses that resonates with me is describing the process as “cascading levels of kindness”.

The warm up finishes and the Company splits into their respective groups. The sense of kindness, of generosity is extended to me as I flicker in between groups, awkwardly asking to watch rehearsals and being welcomed in without question. Even in the context of simple, short pieces, it is clear how engaging, interesting and well-structured the narratives are. They are capable of depth and weight, and everyone in the team engages with the text fully. The conversations between actors and directors bounce, backwards and forwards, gaining in momentum and force as each of them work with each other. The performances are rich and diverse – Peter calls it a “giant sweetshop” of styles and stories.

Another phrase that resonates with me – Peter describes the set-up of the Company, of combining strangers with different experiences and skill sets a “weapon”, and I’m immediately unable to separate this Company from how it fits into the rest of the festival. Over the week, creative power has shifted from Peter and the rest of the selectors that are working at NSDF to all the young Company artists themselves. That shift of power and autonomy has really important implications for the democracy of the festival, and also the social power in these large scale arts community projects. And it’s popular too – the event has gained both momentum and people as the week’s progressed. It demonstrates the necessity of process alongside product. That we, as theatre-makers, appreciate the opportunity to reflect on our practice in a “really practical concrete breeding ground for new stuff” (Peter) alongside absorbing and presenting pre-established work.

We didn’t get time to see all the pieces rehearsed today, but that’s alright, because tomorrow the work will carry on. And I think that encapsulates the spirit of what the Company does. It provides a starting point for new connections and ideas, regardless of where people geographically or ideologically come from. And it’ll carry on – last year, the Company focused on showcasing actors engaging in extracts from 4.48 Psychosis. This year, writers and directors are being engaged in the process. Next year? There’s a possibility of expansion, of engaging an embedded critic to work with the company all week. Ultimately, the selectors will gather at the end of the week to see what could be improved and how the Company can evolve going forward. What they’ve achieved so far is admirable – engaging writers, directors and actors from around the country to create work in a week is something entirely wonderful and unique – even the National Youth Theatre is only a platform for actors, and one that blatantly neglects the contributions and voices of emerging writers and directors. I don’t think the generosity of spirit and kindness created in this environment will be confined to this week. I don't know where it will lead, but it feels like an open door.

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Photo credit: Beatrice Debney