Spaced out

16 April 2019

Joseph Winer on the venues of NSDF, past and present

How often do we get to sit together as a community of theatre-goers and talk about the work that we see, the issues that we’re facing and what we can do together to make some sort of progress?

But discussions, by nature of the term, should be a two-way conversation, and a big part of enabling this is the architecture of the space. Back when the festival was in Scarborough, the discussions took place in the Stephen Joseph Theatre, a purpose-built in-the-round performance space. In-the-round spaces started to become popular in the latter half of the twentieth century, with an aim to create more intimate, open performance spaces. Not only did it bring spectators closer to the performers, but it also allowed them to see other spectators across the space. The idea of the circular space somewhat removes hierarchy, compared to an end-on setup which puts a power emphasis on whoever is at the front.

What does the space of City Hall do to that feeling of openness that the discussions are supposed to encourage? Before we’ve even got into the room, we’re blocked by a security gate. For the first discussion, the room was set up like a conference space. There was a stage at the front. The panel were sat behind a table. Chris Thorpe facilitated the conversation, also from the front. If someone spoke from the other side, I couldn't always see who I was listening to.

At one point during the discussion, a participant said they felt confronted by an answer. But perhaps the content of the answer was not what provoked a feeling of confrontation. Perhaps there's something about the structure of the space, the hierarchy that's created with an end-on setup, that means an audience can't help but feel confronted at times by the panel of seniors that are looking down at them.

And this makes me think more widely about the way we occupy spaces at the festival in general. Back in Scarborough, it felt like we were bringing a bit of a buzz to the quiet seaside. The bar stayed open super late. People lost themselves on the beach at midnight. It felt like stepping half a century back in time. There was something strangely exciting about bringing work that felt radical, political and edgy to a town that felt so outdated.

Here in Leicester, we’ve taken over the Curve. It felt bizarre on Saturday night as the two audiences temporarily occupied the foyer. A mix of Curve and NSDF spectators. The Curve’s current programme includes an adaptation of a 1990s novel, a Sondheim musical, and a children’s show. We’ve burst through the doors with shows about identity, sex work, saving the world from environmental disaster, with forms including clowning, interactive, and gig-theatre. The Noffice has taken over the mezzanine, a space which is always open for public access. And actually, despite its slightly alienating conference-esque setup, it feels like an act of protest in claiming an open space for our daily discussions. Many of us are angry at authority right now. We’re frustrated by the ways theatre buildings programme their work. Maybe taking up these spaces is, itself, an act of change.

@noffmag / [email protected]

Image credit: Beatrice Debney