From the quiet human in the corner
14 April 2017
One festgoer has loved this week, but picks holes in the way the festival runs
I think it’s pretty universal that everyone here agrees that NSDF is just incredible. From the shows to the workshops to the discussions, it is probably one of most enjoyable and eye-opening ways to exhaust yourself. What I’m trying to say is that NSDF is just an amazing experience. However, that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s perfect. Don’t get me wrong, this should not be seen to take anything away from or even be seen as a comment on all the hard work and talent that has been showcased across all arenas, it’s just simply that we’ve been invited to discuss issues and question ourselves; so surely we should hold the festival itself up to scrutiny too?
A little disclaimer before we continue: I am an exceptionally awkward and nervous person in new situations, especially if those situations include the hell of other people (everyone is lovely here, but other people are scary by definition in my brain). I am also a first timer to NSDF. These two things together are not exactly brilliant companions. So I fully accept and realise that my reactions and experiences this week are realistically inextricably linked to myself as a human, and therefore I would like to stress that I understand my experience is not universal nor am I positioning myself as some sort of weird deity here to cleanse your weary souls. This is just me nattering on about a few issues and questions that have wormed themselves in to my head this week.
Naturally, I came to the festival with some preconceptions which unfortunately led me straight into the bear trap of “disillusionment” in the first few days of the festival. The more I heard about the selected shows, the more I began to question the selection process itself. Again, I’d like to reiterate, this is not to take away from the incredible work that has been showcased but more to posit that the process is something that perhaps could benefit from being a little more transparent. I say this especially after hearing about people coming to the festival this year to scout out what they feel the selectors are looking for before working on a submission. Whether this is extremely clever or muddies the water of making art that you want to make vs. making art that your audience wants, I’m still not sure, but it only served to heighten my feelings surrounding the festival itself. I mean after all, if a festival is going to hold a talk on inclusivity, it would be really quite interesting to hear festival team members themselves talking about the issue in relation to the festival.
I fully admit that I built the festival up to be attended by even more people than it is, and so unfortunately upon seeing some crossover in casting and either selected shows coming from the same university or hearing that for members of several selected show teams this is their x number year at the festival, those teeny little whispers can easily creep in that the festival is potentially a bit of a member’s club. Having typed that out, I’m fully aware that realistically it isn’t and it’s just that those individuals are very talented creatives and performers. However, it still provides some food for thought in how to stop that previous conclusion being so easy to jump to. I say this especially as after a year here, I can’t help but feel like I now have a much better idea of what type of shows, from length to style, actually work as part of the festival. Logistically it is far harder to find time for a two hour show with an interval in scheduling, but then I wonder if maybe it would be worth NSDF looking at what guidance is given to those entering the festival so things are clear, but then would this infringe too much on creativity? Gah, Who knows? There are just too many questions.
The influx of new writing and devised pieces has been commented on numerous times throughout the festival, and it truly is very wonderful and exciting. Furthermore, if you have a larger amount of new writing submitted, there is obviously a higher chance that there will be more new writing that warrants a place at the festival. However, unfortunately it seems to me that by complete accident this has almost worked to devalue working with published texts, especially if they were written pre-2000. It’s a feeling that has carried on to some workshops and it’s very clear how some selectors feel about this, and that’s cool, everyone has their thing, but when you are hearing the same thing over and over again, it is difficult to remember that it is okay to feel differently. It’s a similar thing about tackling issues. Yes, of course we should be talking about all the shit going on in the world, but new writing and devising are not the only acceptable ways of doing this. Reworking a piece from the canon to explore a current issue, if done well, is no less legitimate or valuable than writing about it from scratch. Equally, writing and devising over an issue is wicked too, I just wish that it didn’t feel like the festival was starting to position itself on one side of the ring.
Another issue is that I feel NSDF has accidentally forgotten that the arts are made up of extreme introverts and extroverts (and all those in between), just like any other profession. The comments here and there to “Please feel free to come and talk to us” shows that NSDF’s heart is completely and utterly in the right place for which it really should be highly commended, but unfortunately it doesn’t completely help to conquer the problem. If it is mentally terrifying to approach people, being told that it’s cool to talk to Selectors, Visiting Artists etc. doesn’t actually make it that much easier to do so. I think in this area, it is little touches here and there that could really help, such as offering a sign-up sheet for quiz teams so those struggling to find team members have an easier and less daunting way to flag up that they want to get involved. This is again only exasperated by the fact that when companies have been repeatedly invited to the festival, they already may know selectors and artists from previous years so are obviously closer and more comfortable in the situation. This is no fault or criticism of those members, but it unfortunately adds a sprinkling more of difficulty to the less socially-confident festgoers. None of this is anyone’s fault or even a real criticism of the festival, it’s merely just trying to express that the festival potentially still has a bit of work to do to ensure that it really is inclusive, welcoming and comfortable for all.
This is especially true for universities that don’t offer theatre courses, as those simple words “this was for our degree show” just opens up a bunch of questions for someone unfamiliar with the process. Again, no theatre should be looked at against its origin as we saw in the discussion of No Human is Illegal, so it feels like this is a moot point. However, I’d still be curious to see what sort of stuff those universities without theatre departments would churn out if they had the resources and vice versa? Potentially there would be no change to what we’ve seen, so I have no idea really what the answer is. Once more, that is not to take away from those of shows here that fall into that category – it’s just about starting to think over how NSDF itself handles issues like these.
I think all I’m trying to get across is that it feels to me that NSDF may soon have to approach some fairly big questions about what it actually is and who it caters for. No doubt the festival will continue to grow and expand and change. Like anything worthwhile it should evolve and I say that without any negativity. Simply put, NSDF I think you might be growing up, and I’m excited to see where you’re headed, I just hope that these little crumbs of worry lurking in my brain won’t be here if I’m fortunate enough to be in the position to come along next year.
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