The ones that got away

The ones that got away

25 March 2018

Florence Bell unpicks the selection process for NSDF

The cynical narrative: £98 is too much money for a one-in-a-hundred (literally) shot at paying more money to take your show to another city and doing it all over again.

The optimistic narrative: £98 is a reasonable amount of money for an hour-long feedback session with an industry professional and the chance to take your show to a festival with a lot of exciting, insightful and collaborative people who are interested in watching and talking about your work.

One (anonymous) show-enterer puts it differently: “I’ve seen all these shows at a really good standard that didn’t get through. And it felt a bit like: what else do we need to do to get selected? The whole thing feels a bit unfair. It seems to depend on whether your play resonates with your selector enough for them to put it through.”

In deference to the selectors, the process of NSDF selection will always be subjective. It’s the only way it can work. You can’t temporarily nullify your own tastes in order to “objectively” assess a show. And that’s part of the beauty of the eclectic range of shows that NSDF ends up with every year. Sometimes it does feel as if there’s a specific type of show of NSDF goes for: never Shakespeare, usually new writing or devised, one act, no interval. But, however hard you try and be cynical about it, it still feels as if the most likely reason these shows are selected is because they’re more often than not genuinely excellent.

Ed Madden, director of Lemons…, which received huge acclaim at NSDF ‘15 and has gone on to have three hit Edinburgh runs, understandably feels more positive about the festival: “There were shows that I wasn’t involved with as a student which were submitted for NSDF and weren’t on at the festival which I think were incredible shows. I wouldn’t for a second say that every brilliant student show gets to NSDF. I think the best show I saw at Warwick was submitted to NSDF and didn’t go to the festival…I’m not well-placed to talk about whether or not it’s fair because I just don’t know. I guess I should say that if you didn’t get your show into NSDF then that doesn’t mean it wasn’t great, and if you do get your show in, it doesn’t mean that you should get complacent.”

Does he wish the other show he entered – a production of Hedda Gabler – had got through? Was it not NSDF-y enough? “I don’t know that I would characterise it like: Hedda wasn’t an NSDF-y show. Lemons was a new thing and Hedda was a student production of a play that everyone knows and loads of people have done.”

Ali Pidsley, co-founder of Barrel Organ, concurs: there is no such thing as an NSDF-y shows. NSDF-y shows are good shows. “What I always found really great when I was at the festival as a student was there being a real range and a real variety of work and, you know, being able to learn from other artists and other students who are making work in a different way to you, or making different sorts of work.”

There’s a narrative that surrounds both Madden and Pidsley, as part of a generation of theatre-makers that have come out of the University of Warwick. Lemons… and Barrel Organ are part of a success story that includes Breach Theatre and also, the slightly newer addition to the club, Emergency Chorus. All students/recent students making extraordinary theatre, all from Warwick. In a 2015 Guardian thinkpiece on the three shows from these Warwick companies running concurrently at the Edinburgh Fringe, critic Andrew Haydon half-jokingly asked: “You start to wonder what they’re putting in the water there.” Madden laughs at this. “It never feels weird from the inside. At Warwick, really, we were making that work for one another. I guess it’s important to say that by the time we got to NSDF, and since, it’s become clear that the Warwick narrative is a false narrative, because there are brilliant people coming out of lots of universities.”

The NSDF selection process is anything but clear. I get the sense that Pidsley, now a selector, views the process as a way of identifying promise. “It’s not always about finding these brilliant finished products of shows. It’s about potential.”

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