14 April 2019
Sam Ross traces Rotterdam and A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing back to their student-run source
Approaching the Nottingham New Theatre (NNT), what may first strike you is how the building’s structure stands independently from the rest of the buildings on campus. “The building we’re so proud to call home wasn’t created until the 1960s,” the current president of NNT, Miguel Barrulas, explains to me, “Back then, it used to be part of the Archaeology and Classics building, but became its own free-standing building in 2012.” This structural independence is also reflected in its status as the only student-run – and student-owned – theatre in England.
Walk inside the NNT in the run-up to a production, and you feel a buzz of activity about the place. The theatre boasts an 86-seat auditorium for its main shows, as well as two rehearsal rooms that double up as alternative performance venues. Alongside these, the building also includes extensive technical and prop storage facilities, and an on-site workshop for set construction. These capabilities allow the theatre to stage more than 30 different shows over the course of a year.
“The production teams are given complete creative freedom,” notes Barrulas, “which we believe fosters an environment that promotes risk-taking, boundary pushing and excellence. Add to this the specialist support of a 17 strong committee which assist with everything from set building, technical design, publicity, and welfare, to ensure that the production team’s vision is realised as successfully as possible and you've got the recipe for success.”
“I think we are so lucky to have the resources that we have!” remarks Andrew Houghton, the director of the NSDF-bound production of Jon Brittain's Rotterdam, “I have so many friends at other universities which do not have a building or even a designated space which exists solely for theatre and performances.”
Houghton became enthralled by Brittain’s comedy celebrating transsexuality and queer voices almost immediately. “I started reading the script and after the first scene I registered my interest for the performance rights online before even continuing with the rest. I only ever wanted to direct a piece I was entirely passionate about, and as a gay man I knew I wanted to stage something with strong LGBT+ representation. To stumble across a play like this which is witty whilst heartfelt, and gives a voice to important struggles without ever feeling like a lecture, it felt like an opportunity too good to pass up – and I made the decision to propose the play mere days before the deadline!”
For Houghton, the NNT committee were “a phenomenal aid” in helping him to stage Rotterdam: “The committee work so hard to support each production team and the whole reason I felt comfortable enough to direct my first large-scale production was because I knew that there would always be somebody around who knew the answers I didn't, or could at least point me in the right direction.”
“I feel like we’re uniquely autonomous as a collective of people,” reflects director Amy Crighton, “and having this responsibility for a society as well as an entire building gives a sense of camaraderie, so everyone has a big love and loyalty for the society and all the people in it. It’s like a mini-community.”
With regards to her production of A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing – a staging of Eimear McBride’s haunting debut novel about a young woman’s upbringing in rural Ireland – the support of the theatre’s committee was equally vital and valuable. “I have no idea what other theatre would let me tip a tonne of rubber crumb over their floor so that was a very supportive move by the NNT!”
Because there’s no theatre degree at the University of Nottingham, the NNT provides invaluable experience for students interested in working in the industry. “It’s helped me work out what exactly I want to do as a career and has given me a platform to experiment and explore this,” comments Crighton.
“Perhaps the most unforeseen [thing] is that it opened my eyes to careers in theatre beyond acting,” explains Barrulas, “I may very well waste my Natural Science Masters by setting out to pursue a theatre management career which is mad and would not have happened prior to the NNT.”
At the heart of it all, the NNT has left a significant impact on those who are involved: “Being a part of NNT was such a core element of my university experience,” Houghton affirms, “It provided me with my closest friends and a network of people who came from different backgrounds and different levels of theatrical experience. From each other we are able to learn so much.”
In Crighton’s words, “It has given me a supportive network, arguably a family, of people who I hope I will keep as close friends for the rest of my life and will be collaborators in future work. The NNT has honestly been invaluable and I can’t express that enough.”
Photo credit: George Westaway