In twenty years' time

15 April 2019

Grace Patrick reflects on the opening ceremony

Last night, Guest Director James Phillips said something that stuck in my mind. In introducing NSDF and its contributors, he announced to us all that “these are the people you’ll be working with in twenty years’ time”. In a room full of creators and actors and writers, there’s something very comforting about knowing that there’s a community waiting. The arts are so lonely. A large proportion of people work primarily on a freelance basis, and that can be both isolating and pressurized. The toll on the mental health of creators is profound, but also often avoidable.

With this in mind, there are few things more important that cultivating some sense of togetherness. At the same time, in the formation of this community it can be hard to prevent it from becoming insular. It’s wonderful that this circle exists, but is it a community people would actually want to be a part of? It’s dominated by white, first language English university students, and we have to think about the consequences of that. By standing up at the National Student Drama Festival and identifying this room as a finite community, the word “student” stands out. Every show here comes from a university and the vast majority of participants are current students or recent university graduates. This is the main theatre festival for under 25s, but where’s the space for all the under 25s who aren’t pursuing higher education? Where’s the way in?

I talked to Alan Lane about this problem: he’s the artistic director for Slung Low, a theatre company whose work is built around community outreach and widening engagement. He pointed out to me that the problem perhaps isn’t with Guest Director James Phillip’s words, because they’re true. Many of us will work together in twenty years, but we can avoid working with only the people here. In both my opinion and Alan’s, the issue is less that this is a tangible, if temporary, community, and more that we need to constantly be looking for ways to open it up.

It’s often easy to blame what’s right in front of us, but the problem begins far before NSDF. To change the makeup of the theatre scene in twenty years’ time, it has to start much smaller and more directly than this. Yes, the community here at NSDF is limited, and that’s clearly something to work on, but it’s unproductive to blame it entirely for its own composition. In other words, NSDF is as much a symptom as a cause.

Talking to Alan was galvanising, and definitely expanded my own thinking around this subject. I believe that we need to make and cultivate this community because if theatre is going to survive and thrive, community is paramount. However, the process of opening up that community is equally important, because we need that mix of voices and we need to invite in everyone. If we aren’t at least trying to do that, then really what’s the point? Who is this really for? Naturally that’s going be hard, and perhaps we’re not even going to fully succeed. But surely we have to try, not just because it could be beneficial but because it is absolutely, unavoidably necessary.

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Image credit: Beatrice Debney