Prove me wrong

12 April 2017

Ghee Bowman asks why students are afraid of the classics


So why is there no Shakespeare at this Fest? Why no sets, no makeup? Why no modern classics? Why nothing that was written before 2010? Why nothing over 80 minutes long, or with an interval? Do today’s students not produce any drama except for new works or devised works or works they saw at Edinburgh a few years ago? Are they so carried away with the themes of today’s world (gender, refugees, mental illness) that they can’t engage with anything older? Do they have no sense of history?

Or does the issue lurk within the processes of the festival itself? Maybe the selectors hate Shakespeare. Or there’s an unconscious bias. Towards writers and devisers.

Or maybe that’s what young people do for their GCSE Drama and their A level theatre studies, so it’s all they *can* do.

Or maybe not.

Actually, we all know that university drama includes a lot of older texts, modern classics, translations, musicals... all kinds of everything. That academics love them, and that students love them too.

In fact, previous festivals have been far more mixed. I remember a lovely version of Guys and Dolls that Exeter university, and a forgotten play by Goethe, with armour, swords and a flying crew of six. Not to mention Gilbert and Sullivan in Scarborough. And, more recently, Medea, Brecht’s Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui and Amadeus, with wigs, orchestra, the works.

Students can do this stuff, no question.

But what difference does it make? In my opinion, the benefits of doing this stuff are huge. Apart from the sheer fun of large casts, big sets and epic theatre, they offer a whole new set of skills for technicians, actors and directors. Getting to grips with iambic pentameter, for example. Exploring makeup for a Japanese Noh play. Sourcing a shedload of chairs for Ionesco. Building a real, proper, naturalistic set for Hedda Gabler. Singing songs by Rogers and Hammerstein or Sondheim. Getting to grips with something that really stretches your cast and crew.

And if you can’t try these things out at university, then where can you? Here you have the possibility of as many cast and crew members as you want: that doesn’t apply outside. You’ll get great support from academic and non-academic staff. And if your theatre is half as good as the Don Roy, you’ll be laughing.

And of course, that’s also what so much of the professional theatre is still like. Not just the West End, but regional theatre too. It’s like there are two parallel training pathways out there. You train at a drama school and you go on to do Shakespeare, Pinter and Lloyd-Webber, or you study at a university and your career is in Fringe, devising and wacky stuff. Like Chris Thorpe said at Tuesday’s discussion about Hidden ‘my mum would enjoy it – so maybe the NSDF is not the ideal audience for this show’. Two theatres, not alike in dignity.

So what would it take to encourage students to move away from the new to the old? Taking my cue from Sunday’s discussion on integrated casting, maybe we need a quota system. Each fest should include 5 or 6 devised shows, 2 or 3 pieces written by current students, 1 modern classic, one Shakespeare or equivalent, and one musical. With two slots reserved for really FAR OUT WACKY STUFF  you’ve never seen before (like Pixels).

Or maybe not.

I guess what I’m advocating here is a balanced diet. In an average week you eat fourteen meals, not including breakfast. Which is about the same number as shows at your average Fest.[1] So rather than inventing new recipes for all of them, how about one Sunday roast, one portion of populist fish ‘n’ chips, a couple of classic pasta recipes. And a sandwich - a good old cheese and pickle sandwich. After all, we’re not all vegetarians at the festival.

The Selectors tell us that they select simply on merit, that there are no quotas or unconscious bias, which rings true given that one of their number is a Professor of Shakespeareotics. Which tells you that the issue lies with the plays that are submitted. Simply not diverse enough.

Does that reflect what happens in your university? Tell me I’m wrong, please, current students.  Even better, prove me wrong next year.

I’ll leave the last word to somebody who really knows what they’re talking about when it comes to Shakespeare: festival selector Alexandra Spencer-Jones. She gives this advice to students wishing to bring Shakespeare to the NSDF: it’s a challenge, it won’t be easy. But try it. Don’t discard the text, but DO go for real originality, do something different with that text. Try something old next year.

[1] Thanks to Lily James for the metaphor 


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