1. The Theatre
I see a lot of theatre. I mean a lot. I make a lot of theatre too. I've been doing that for a long time. It genuinely freaks me out a bit to say it – but the chances are, if you're an undergraduate student reading this – I've been doing it since before you were born. And I'm not really into lists. I know that's self-defeating, because this blog is in the form of a list. But hear me out. If I had to make a list of the top five shows I've seen in any given year since I started working with NSDF – not that anyone should do this, because why would you ever do that, really, but if I had to – in any given year, two, maybe three of the top five shows I've seen would be shows I'd seen at NSDF. And sometimes some of the top five in any given year are by artists I first saw at NSDF when they were students.
I'm not going to bullshit you – student theatre isn't often well resourced. Sometimes it has rough edges it doesn't mean to be rough. Sometimes it hasn't had the dedicated time to be as polished as it could be. But sometimes none of those things matter. Or they're not true. Or there's a performance or a piece of writing or a lighting state or a design idea that's streets ahead of anything I've seen in the full-time theatre world. And sometimes there's a transformative, perfect coming together of energy, of something truly unhinged, or inspired or just so driven by talent, or that breaks the rules so beautifully because it doesn't even know there are rules there to be broken yet, and I love it, and I learn something new. And so could you.
2. The Workshops
There's a reason I write. There's a whole load of reasons really. But I'd say a good percentage of those reasons are due to a writing workshop I attended at NSDF when I was a student. I didn't go because I wanted to be a writer. I went because I was curious. And rather than teaching me to be a writer, what it did was open up new ways I could understand the purpose of writing. Nothing magic, just a perspective I hadn't seen before. So that's reason 2 – the workshops. I could go on about the breadth of practitioners who attend the festival, and I probably should. I should probably go on about the latest sound design software, or the thought-flow of iambic pentameter, or queer performance art, or how to get your new musical up and running, or experimental text. But I don't know what you're into – to tell the truth I didn't know what I was into – the point being I took the opportunity NSDF gave me to try something, and I surprised myself. I'm still not sure I'm good at the thing I do, or whether I'll ever be where I want to be with it, but at that stage, there was nowhere better I could have had the chance to try it out, in a supportive environment, with people who were in the same boat as me. It clicked. You might find whatever your click is. With so many practitioners and workshops throughout the week, there's a lot of opportunity to try.
3. Your Peers
But those people. The practitioners, up there in section 2. They're not the most important people you'll meet at the festival. Your peers are. Yeah, yeah, yeah this could be 'it's the festival participants that make the festival' speech, but hear me out. Those of us who are already there – we're already making theatre, and we're probably doing it all wrong. The ones who are really going to make theatre, that's you and your peer group. You've got longer left to do it than we have and we've already made a lot of mistakes you can observe and maybe not repeat. Those people around you – who might hopefully be very different to you, because this has to be about finding fellow travellers in unexpected places rather than comforting versions of yourself – those people are the generation you're going to make theatre with, or watch theatre with, or break theatre with, or finally make theatre useful with. And it's not about spotting future stars. Yeah there are some people here who'll go on to get lucky – so what? - it's about finding people who are just goddamn interested and interesting. Who don't agree. Who don't necessarily want to answer the big questions but gather around them with some like-minded friends and say – what if this has no answer, but we find a new and interesting way not to answer it? You might find your version of those people here. You might make friends for life.
I mean, in my experience, nobody, however long they've been doing this, really knows anything. So I might well be wrong on this one – but what if I'm right?
4. The Conversation
We talk about work at NSDF. We get together and we talk about it. Those big group discussions we have every day where you can ask the companies about their work, their decisions, their choices and why the hell they did that – they're great. Believe me I've been to quite a few, and I'm always bowled over by the passion in the room. But they're just the start of it. This is an incredible opportunity to find out what you think, to test out what you think you think. And even more to listen to what other people think, bang it against what you thought you thought, and for everyone involved to end up with their mind in a slightly different shape because of it. It's also an incredible opportunity to ask how theatre can speak to the world outside the theatre – to what's important now, what's concerning us or enthusing us, to ask our society and our environment and our psychologies and our politics if there isn't a different way of doing things. And you can do this on your own, in a structured group, through smaller groups that spin off the larger groups, through social media and through Noises Off, a space guided by some of the most open minds in writing-about-theatre that ever gather together in one place – including yours.
Did you ever see that old first-generation arcade game, Asteroids? Hang on. Let me find you some gameplay footage.
Here you go
Conversations at NSDF can be like that. Except without the shooting, or the ability to suddenly pop up in a random part of the screen by hitting the hyperspace button. And also, in Asteroids, the asteroids get smaller after you shoot them, which ideas don't because you're not really trying to shoot ideas, you're more sticking them together or expanding them, or discovering new asteroids that were obscured by the old asteroids and mining them for minerals you haven't even discovered yet. Unlike the arcade game where you can't do that.
OK so most analogies don't stand up to close analysis. But apart from that, it's like playing a kind of ideas-based Asteroids, for a week. Except by communicating with each other.
5. The Experience
I guess reason number 5 is a combination of the first 4 reasons. Which mathematically should make it number 10. All these things can add up to a brilliant experience. And that's true. It can be a life changing week.
There's another dimension to it though. Because I'm aware some of the people reading this will be going – that sounds pretty intense. And it can be, if that's what you want. But I wouldn't want anyone reading this to think it all has to be disco lights and talking till your jaw aches. You can have the experience at NSDF that suits you, and we'll do our best to make sure you're supported in that.
We're always trying to listen to what people need, to learn from what they tell us, and to provide as many ways and spaces as possible for the widest range of people with the widest range of needs to access the festival, and contribute to it, and make it what it is. To be the thing it's made of – you. So come along.