Power surge

15 April 2019

Marina Johnson investigates power dynamics at NSDF (in three parts)

Can you make work free from power dynamics? Do we want to?

Much theatre and performance in the UK is shaped by key figures of power. The old school hierarchy of creative importance in the rehearsal room: writer, director, designers, cast – in that order – dominates the work created across NSDF 19. A tiny microcosm of the state of UK theatre as a whole. 

At its toxic extreme writers are untouchable deities whose words cannot be questioned, a director's job is to bring the writers aims to live, designers make that world real and actors simply inhabit it. There are plenty of people who believe this is the best way to work.

Let's talk about that.

We in theatre want to make work in an open and welcoming way. However, there is a misconception that making a show is many people slaving together to recreate one person's vision. Sometimes this myth is so strong people believe that a good show cannot have democratic values. This is an incorrect paradox. In fact many shows benefit enormously by being a collaboration between all involved.

Key to this is the role of the director. Who does the director have a responsibility to beyond their own vision: the writer? the committee that selected them? the fee paying audience? When you hand the reins to one individual, who has the ability to give you a job - even in a small student show – that is a power. The way such a power is used, is often the source for gossip. At what point does working with artists repeatedly, become nepotism?

That power and the effect it has on the people around you does not disappear after casting. The aim of a show is to make the director happy, and that might mean not questioning their choices and bending to their whims.


Leaving the Nest: power dynamics in bringing a show to the festival

You could have got this far thinking: we have such a good working relationship our rehearsal room is free from all these struggles. Congratulations! I really hope that is true for everyone on your team. Your show has moved into the wider dramatic community, and with that comes an ideology, institutions and expectations. It may be the first time you realise that you can ask for something, and 20 people will need to jump to make it happen.

Things that may have worked at home now carry different contexts. For example – you are now working within a festival with people who do not know you and Tech and Management Teams. You are one of the chosen few to take part in the festival. We are all both paying to be here and here to learn. This can cause a tension when in order to allow people to learn and make mistakes – things can move slowly. To some slow progress can be alarming.

We are theatrical people – we get excited – we exaggerate – we catastrophize, but when you are in a position of power, things you may have felt were personality quirks can have a real effect on the people around you. I have a story about a previous NSDF, with one particular director who reduced me to an anxiety attack because of his management style resulted in him wielding his power in a hurtful way.

At the end of the day what we make is important, we all really care about it, from the people who built your venue to the team who managed your audience. But also, this is a theatre festival – and nobody is going to die. Always remember to be considerate to those that jump to make things happen, and never let confidence tread into entitlement.


Being part of the system: taking part in the factory of art

If your show has made it to NSDF. You are part of the capital S System. Your show is part of a festival that has been running since 1956, that has produced a lot of famous alumni. You have been given a seal of approval by an institution of quality in your field. You have joined an old-boys club. NSDF shows ride on a prestigious reputation. They go on to fringe and get published by Samuel French by the next year. This is what your show has joined, this is a power and influence you now wield.

One of the reasons I love NSDF is, at its core, it is trying to usurp the power dynamics inherent in the dramatic community. Those of gatekeeping, expense of access and accessibility to a wider more diverse audience. For me over the years, artists and strangers have become friends and colleagues. NSDF is working as the phenomenal networking and educational tool that it is.

It is also a tool that you need a paid ticket to access, so there is a limit to the effectiveness of attracting a diverse crowd. It's time to use that newly found power and influence to put pressure on or make changes you want to see in the world. Perhaps, show that NSDF is important and worth supporting, whilst also continually challenging NSDF to grow change and improve year on year, by tackling their own challenges as an institution.

@noffmag[email protected]

Photo credit: Beatrice Debney