Hold for applause

10 April 2020

There are no awards at this year's NSDF, and there shouldn't be at any other, says Jack Ellis

There are no awards at NSDF this year. Of course there aren’t, there aren’t any shows for us all to watch, so obviously the panel of judges can’t give awards out.

I think it should stay that way. The lack of awards, not the no shows thing.

The awards ceremony, held on the last night of the festival, is supposed to be a celebration of the hard work that so many people have put into the shows that are selected for the festival. It is a chance to recognise the great acting and directing and writing and technical design of these shows. It’s just never felt that way for me.

The point of NSDF to me is in the collaboration and conversation that it creates. I’ve long maintained (for the last two years) that nothing will make you want to be a better theatre-maker than the festival, for two major reasons:

1) You will probably see one of the best pieces of theatre you will ever see, and it will give you something to aspire towards, something to hold your own work up against as the feelings you want to create with your show.

2) You will almost certainly see a piece of theatre that you think is absolutely awful, that you don’t get, that makes you question how it got to the festival, and it will give you something to beat. Importantly it will also give you things that you know you should not do.

These are both very good things. Conversation is critical to making good theatre, and you and anyone you talk to will probably disagree on your responses to points 1 and 2. You’ll discuss it in forums and at the cafe of whatever theatre your next workshop’s in (or on Facebook Live or Zoom), and come out of it with a more rounded view of what good theatre is and what it should be. Getting a show selected to go to NSDF feels like the award in and of itself; the idea that your piece of theatre is interesting and thought-provoking enough to be on a national stage and (hopefully) inspire a bunch of people to either aspire to the heights it creates or try to do better than it.

An awards ceremony then comes across as putting a full stop to those conversations. To declare a show as being ‘the best’ in a category, when no show is at the festival because it is ‘the best’ at any one thing, seems to miss the point. Someone will always feel missed out, there’ll always be a ‘but what about’ hanging over any set of awards, and while that does create and further conversation of its own it’s not the kind of conversation NSDF is about.

It leaves a sour note at the end of what is always an incredible, celebratory week where a couple hundred of the brightest, most enthusiastic student theatre-makers in the country get to exchange ideas among each other and among people who’ve been making theatre for a living, and I’m firmly in the camp that once NSDF returns next year bigger and better than ever before, the awards can keep their social distance (had to make at least one Covid reference, didn’t I).

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Photograph: Beatrice Debney